AN: Many thanks to my two wonderful Betas Balticbard and Charmed131! These ladies are really amazing to work. Also Thanks to those that reviewed! I'll be getting back to each and everyone of you soon! I know I said I had come into some time (if you've read my newest fic you'll know what I'm talking about) but it seems that even that as been gobbled up! DX Nevertheless! I'll get back to you soon! So anyways...

Standard disclaimer still applies...

Chapter Eight

Shizuru's ruby eyes opened languidly, and instantly settled upon the form of her beloved laying next to her. Natsuki looked so serene, sleeping on her side, still clutching Shizuru's hand. It had been one month since Mai's Karaoke party after Shizuru's graduation ceremony. One month since Natsuki pleaded with her to stay. One month since Natsuki freely; willingly; passionately kissed her. Since that time, all things had been a bit awkward, surreal, but so promising for Shizuru. For a month she put off returning to Kyoto-she knew her parents would be disappointed, but they could wait-she just wanted to stay with Natsuki. She only ever wanted to stay with Natsuki.

Staring at Natsuki's soft lips, Shizuru knew she couldn't say 'no' to Natsuki's plea. Although she had only just promised herself to get over Natsuki, and to leave her alone, and put distance between them, her resolve crumbled under the inexperienced-heated-kiss. Just recalling the memory sent heat to Shizuru's cheeks and her belly as she gently scooted closer to the dozing princess.

Shizuru loved the warmth Natsuki generated from her body, from her heart, from her being. Placing a soft kiss on those pouty lips, Shizuru smiled at the sensation. She loved kissing Natsuki. It was far more pleasurable than her dreams, and she had dreamed a lot.

Placing multiple soft butterfly kisses on Natsuki's kissable lips, her chin, her cheeks, and jaw, Shizuru felt the heat in her core intensify. She wished they were at 'that' level in their fledgling relationship, but she was content with their slow pace. They were finally together. She finally got the girl of her dreams. She was finally happy, and it made all those years of watching and pining away at a distance worth it.

Slowly rousing from the kisses, Natsuki tightened her hold on Shizuru's clasped hand, as her arm snaked over the blonde's slender torso. Holding Shizuru tighter, Natsuki's brilliant green eyes greeted Shizuru's loving orbs slowly. "Hey," was the drowsy greeting as Natsuki nuzzled her treasured person's neck.

Natsuki was so lucky she was able to get Shizuru to see reason, and not leave her. Although she forgave Shizuru of the happenings during the Festival, she knew it wasn't enough to keep them together. They were growing distant. She had seen the signs immediately after Mashiro resurrected them. After everything that had happened, she just couldn't bear to have Shizuru leave her too. Rubbing up and down Shizuru's back, Natsuki gently kissed the blonde's neck as she tried to get closer to the older girl. "I love you, Shizuru."

It was almost six o'clock in the evening when Natsuki entered the Spartan apartment of the residence complex at Artemis. Natsuki sighed as she kicked her shoes off, and stepped up and into the little apartment. The raven haired woman literally dumped everything she was carrying onto the middle of the floor. She was that tired.

Natsuki's apartment was a standard one bedroom, one bathroom unit. Situated on the top floor of the seven story complex, the apartment was within walking distance to Artemis' main office buildings and labs. Originally meant to house all the workers for Artemis, most of the complex was empty due to the heavy screening of all the employees. The Artemis Foundation was a relatively small company with only a little over one hundred employees. Each employee was known by name, and was personally selected by Alyssa and Miyu. The chosen employees were good people that could be trusted by the young chairwoman, as even Miyu approved of them, and watched them closely. There was no possibility Schwartz could have infiltrated Artemis, as the company was widely unknown, and the employees' backgrounds were thoroughly checked and periodically screened. This complex proved to be the safest housing for the young mother and daughter; if only temporarily.

For the past three days Natsuki focused on work, never leaving Artemis Foundation's grounds. With the threat of Schwartz in Japan, it was Miyu that suggested Natsuki and Nina stay on the grounds in the apartment complex. With the advantages of their technology in blocking satellite tracking and aerial scans, Artemis Foundation was practically untraceable. Seen from above on satellite imaging and digital radar, the foundation would only look like dense mountains and thick forests preserved on the private property of Alyssa Searrs. Also with the surrounding area being a no fly zone, it was the ideal place to lay low.

Exhaling loudly, Natsuki was exhausted. She had spent the last three days organizing shopping for clothes, baby supplies, food, and the bare necessities they needed for the apartment through Arika and Irina. The two girls proved to be invaluable help as they acquired the needed items while Natsuki and Miyu watched Nina in Alyssa's office. Having politely refused living in Alyssa and Miyu's apartment with them on the floor above, Natsuki tiredly carried everything to her apartment herself.

Now whereas Natsuki was totally spent, Nina on the other hand was in a good mood, strapped to the front of the carrier, amber eyes looked up at her mother's tired expression. Rubbing her face on Natsuki's black cotton shirt, Nina's little fingers curled around the soft fabric. The little girl had missed her mommy. Spending the past three days with Aunty Miyu, while her mother would spend half the day with her, and the other half organizing their things, Nina relished the contact and steady beat of her mother's heart.

Natsuki unhooked the carrier, and held her little girl close smiling softly. Although she knew she could trust Nina in Miyu's care, Natsuki still worried about her daughter's safety. Granted no one could take Miyu by surprise, as the advance android proved to be the best in protection and offense, but Natsuki could never be too sure when it came to Nina's protection. This was Schwartz she was dealing with, and they proved to be more tenacious than even the First District.

The young mother collapsed on the standard couch that came with the room, resting her eyes as she leaned back into the plushy sofa. It was a new couch that Natsuki was reclining on; long and wide enough to sleep on. The couch is comfy and soft, but hell is the upholstery ugly! Who in their right mind would ever want a blue and yellow stripped sofa in the first place? What possessed Alyssa to even install the ugly thing in not only one apartment, but all the apartments in the resident complex?

Natsuki's mental rant was cut short as she felt her stomach growl. Looking down into Nina's inquisitive yellow-red eyes, Natsuki blushed at the intensity of her daughter's stare. Chuckling as the young mother lightly ruffled Nina's soft blue hair, she got up from the couch. "Oi, oi! I get it. I'm hungry, you're hungry. Let's go eat, ne?" It was strange to the young mother, but at the mention of food, the little girl resting on her chest smiled and cooed. It was almost as if the ten month old understood everything that her mother just said. Chuckling at the idea-which was probably true-Natsuki picked up a few of the bags filled with groceries and headed to the small kitchenette to prepare their meal.

Dinner was relatively uneventful for the mother and daughter. Nina was a good child, and a very clean eater, which made it easy for Natsuki to take care of her. Normally Nina would want to try and eat whatever her mother would be eating. Now that Nina had four baby teeth, Natsuki was willing to let her girl try. However after a small incident involving mashed potatoes and mayo last night, Nina was hesitant in eating her mommy's food for the moment, and just stuck to regular baby food and formula tonight. Sighing at her daughter's apparent lack of mayo appreciation, Natsuki finished eating her mayo saturated ramen, and put the dishes in the sink. She would clean up after Nina went to bed.

After giving Nina a quick bath, and tucking the girl into bed for the night, Natsuki began to put the various things she had acquired that day away. When Natsuki and Nina had left the Fuji Hotel three days ago, they left with only the clothes on their backs and the things in their car. Luckily they only had clothes in their room, and nothing important; but it was still a pain to have to organize Arika and Irina to go out and buy everything again. Smiling to herself smugly, the young mother was pretty sure that Sergey-if it really was Sergey-would be hard pressed to find any evidence to prove they were even in the hotel. After all she had learned to be a meticulous cleaner. Wiping down all her finger prints every morning and evening, and vacuuming all traces of hair to dispose of the evidence of her and Nina's existence, had become second nature to Natsuki. Of course it was not something she normally did, but it was something that she had to adapt and apply in her life. Ever since she began running from Schwartz, Natsuki just couldn't leave something as valuable as a strand of hair, or a smudged finger print, to be traced back to her. Luckily Nina's fingerprints were never on record, but she couldn't chance anyone finding a single follicle of her daughter's hair either.

Schwartz proved to be persistent in pursuing Natsuki and her daughter. It seemed that just when mother and child were getting settled in, someone from Schwartz would be stalking them, and they would have to flee.

After picking up the new clothes and dumping them into the closet washing machine, the scientist selected the appropriate settings and started the cycle. Watching the water fill and soak the newly purchased clothing, Natsuki added detergent and closed the lid.

Sighing to herself again, the navy haired woman moved back to the pile of goods and began to sort the items out. Soon all the items were put up and the only thing left sitting in the middle of the apartment floor was Natsuki, and a lone black box. The box looked more like a textured, plastic briefcase. Looking over her shoulder to the open bedroom door, the young mother was silent as she listened for her daughter. Content that her little girl was still sound asleep, Natsuki opened the two latches on the small briefcase. Inside housed a black hard coat anodize aluminum frame Sig Sauer P238, and twenty-three 9mm bullets. One bullet was missing.

Breathing heavy, Sifr clutched the cryogenic stasis pod closer to herself. Inside was the four month old Nina, completely suspended in the pod, as they issued their desperate escape from Schwartz's North American Branch Labs. Next to the crouching woman, Natsuki's hard emerald eyes seemed to glow in the dim orange lights of the lab. With the Sig Sauer P238 drawn, and straining to hear any movements in the surrounding orange haze, Natsuki tightened her grip on the firearm. They had to get out of Schwartz, even if it was the last thing either of them did. No matter what, they couldn't let their research, or their child, fall into Schwartz's treacherous hands.

Slow steps echoed in the empty lab as Sifr and Natsuki froze behind the long lab table. The sound of heels slowly walking across the linoleum seemed to drown out the blare of the fire alarm echoing throughout the complex as the person drew closer. Gulping, Sifr's lilac eyes bore into Natsuki's determined gems.

"Natsuki, darling... Please come out." Sergey cooed as he carefully walked around the debris of the damaged lab. Smoke swirled around his head, his eyes stung as he struggled to see around the dark lab. The sprinkler system had been cut off, and so the raging fire from the central computer room one level down was rapidly growing. All the research was lost, all the data gone! So he had to get the child no matter what, she was the culmination of decades of work and research. The epitome of everything Schwartz had worked for, the glorious future that only modern science and those two unique women were able to create. The child was the only healthy success in generations of trying to perfect and decode the Slavic Genes. He could not let them take her. Not even Natsuki.

"You know I would never harm you, Natsuki, or the child…" Sergey said urgently. The room was getting hotter; the fire closer. "You're both very, very important to Schwartz...and to me. Please, just come out..." Seeing the glint off of the bronze pod two tables down, Sergey's tight smile widened a bit; his target was in sight.

"If you come out, I promise we can work something out. I'll talk to Mr. Jonathan Smith, and I'm sure he'll forgive you for destroying his labs." Inching closer to the table, Sergey was pleased to see the bronze glow had not moved as he tried to quietly sneak up on the two scientists. "Although he was very disappointed you managed to destroy all the data you both gathered, I'm sure we can over look this little blunder, yeah?"

"You're both very intelligent women; surely we can all come to some sort of agreement..." Quickly jumping over the table, Sergey's Desert Eagle instantly locked on to the source of the glow...only to frown as blue eyes narrowed at the brass name plate. 'Lab 3B' was inscribed on the large brass plate that reflected the orange glow of the spinning alarm lights. He'd been tricked!

"I think not," Natsuki's gruff reply came from behind.

Whirling around quickly, Sergey ducked the fast kicked aimed at his head. Acting on instinct, he pulled the trigger. The loud shot fired in the dark room. He knew he had to cut his losses; one scientist was all he needed. He had only hoped he could have saved Natsuki. Expecting to see the Japanese researcher fall to the ground, Sergey's eyes widened in disbelief as the object of his affection quickly kicked the Desert Eagle out of his outstretched hand.

Sergey's blue eyes reflected the movements as if in slow motion, recording the way the gun flew out of his hand and clatter somewhere off to the side. Like molasses, he watched Natsuki's raised leg slowly return to her side as the lean arm leveled at his head. Although in reality only a few seconds had passed, to Sergey, he vividly saw the cold fury emanating from harsh glowing green eyes. He watched motionless as Natsuki's right hand tensed as she pulled the trigger. The spark from the hammer igniting the bullet flashed in the dim light, illuminating Natsuki's determined face. Sergey gasped as he felt the bullet impact between his eye brows. With cold eyes, Natsuki watched as the bullet enter and exit Sergey's skull.

She didn't expect to see so much blood and gray matter splatter across the room and cover the wall behind the man. It was disgusting. As the body fell to its knees, then topple over, Natsuki tore her eyes away from the scene. It made her sick, but it had to be done. It was either him or them; and she couldn't afford to lose either Sifr or Nina to Schwartz.

"Sifr, it's okay now! Come on, we've got to go!" Coughing as the smoke in the room intensified, Natsuki made her way over to the hiding place. Adrenaline coursed through her. Now that Sergey was dead, all major obstacles were cleared. Now they just had to get out alive and they were free.

"Sifr, we don't have time, the fire is getting closer!" Natsuki yelled as she reached the hiding spot. She had expected to see Sifr crouched behind the desk, as instructed, with the encased Nina. What she saw caused her heart to stop and her blood to freeze. Clutching the Sig, as her hands quaked at the sight, Natsuki's shoe stilled in the growing puddle of blood.

Shaking her head to dispel the tragic thoughts, Natsuki rubbed tired green eyes. The pain and loss she felt was still as acute and raw, as the moment it happened six months ago. Logically, she knew it wasn't her fault; she just couldn't convince her heart of that fact. Pushing Sifr out of her mind-as it was the only way she could stay sane-otherwise, she knew she would be incapacitated with sorrow and guilt. Natsuki couldn't let that happen. Not when Sifr died protecting Nina. Once everything was over though; once they were truly safe; then Natsuki would mourn for Sifr Fran. For the brilliant scientist that supported and befriended her. For the unconditional love she had for her. For being Nina's other parent. Until then though, Natsuki could not let herself cry for the woman, she had to be strong until then. For Nina's sake. For her own.

Lifting the compact pistol from the padded case, Natsuki stared at the familiar feel and weight of the light weapon. After losing her powers as a HiME, the raven haired girl felt uneasy and powerless. She missed the feel and confidence her ice pistols once gave her. So when Natsuki moved to America, her Aunt Yukari had helped her purchase the weapon, with the intent of self protection. She was a beautiful young girl in a foreign country after all. Staring at the gun sadly, Natsuki slipped the clip out from the gun, and began to disassemble it.

Aunt Yukari was like a surrogate mother that came later in her life, and Natsuki genuinely loved her. Over the past eight years, Natsuki did everything in her power to please the woman, although it wasn't hard to make Aunt Yukari happy. The woman loved Natsuki as her own daughter, and Natsuki reminded Aunt Yukari of her beloved sister Saeko.

Natsuki had learned so much about her mother from Aunt Yukari. She learned everything from odd habits and funny stories, to the dream that drove Kuga Saeko to work for the First District. It was like adding another dimension to the woman she once only knew as 'mother.' Natsuki learned about Kuga Saeko, the sister, and the scientist. It was amazing to the young raven haired girl, and it was the beginnings of an obsession to learn more about her mother. Thus Kuga Natsuki started on the path of science, specifically genetic engineering. Just like Kuga Saeko.

Although the aftermath of the HiME festival left Natsuki unsure of her mother's love for her (John Smith had said that her mother was going to sell Natsuki to them for research), after spending time with Aunt Yukari, Natsuki knew without a doubt that her mother loved her. John Smith was lying, and she never should have doubted her mother. However she did learn one important thing from John Smith that night years ago. It was a startling truth that Miyu later confirmed.

The thing Natsuki learned was that when the Searrs Foundation couldn't get her mother or her, they used the next best thing: her mother's DNA. With Kuga Saeko's blood, and after hundreds of attempts at genetic sequencing, the Searrs Foundation finally created a success. The first artificial HiME; Valkyrie No. 143: Alyssa Searrs, Kuga Natsuki's half sister.

Neither of the two half sisters, Alyssa nor Natsuki, knew of their blood relation until after the HiME festival. Miyu was the one that actually disclosed the information-as it was an attempt to comfort Alyssa-as the Searrs Foundation tried to dispose of the girl. That was the year that Shizuru vanished without a trace.

It was pretty crazy time for the young scientist. Natsuki had lost her most important person, but she gained a sister she never had. It wasn't a fair, or an even trade in Natsuki's opinion at the time, but she took what she got. It was all that she could do. Now eight years later, Natsuki was so grateful that she had Alyssa as her sister. She was thankful she had a loving family. But sometimes, on rare moments, Natsuki occasionally wondered what her life would be like, if the Kyoto woman never left her side.

Finished with clean and polishing the pistol, the young mother sighed sadly as her thoughts quickly turned to the ruby eyed woman that had haunted her for the past eight years of her life. To the present day, it still hurt Natsuki that things had turned out this way. It only became more painful for her at seeing Shizuru once again after all these years. "She looked good," the scientist smiled wistfully. "Prettier than I remembered. She's probably married now I bet. Shizuru had a ring after all." Although she grumbled to herself, Natsuki couldn't help the brief moment of regret over Shizuru and their lost future. She couldn't shake the feeling of guilt over Sifr and her lost life.

Shaking her head to dislodge the arrant thoughts, Natsuki's emerald eyes concentrated on reassembling the weapon. The young woman knew that there was no point in spending too much time on the past. She had to move forward. Loading the clip to the maximum of six bullets, and sliding the clip home, the young mother smiled at the secure 'click' she felt. Despite everything, it was a beautiful weapon. Securing the safety on the pistol, and tucking the weapon into her pocket, the young mother put the box away.

Smiling in satisfaction as everything was put into its place, and the entire apartment wiped down of fingerprints, tired emerald eyes glanced at the digital clock on her phone. It was close to nine o'clock, and Natsuki still hadn't taken a shower yet. Quickly checking up on her sleeping daughter in their room again, the raven haired scientist took a quick shower. Midway through rinsing herself off, her phone started vibrating on the bathroom's counter sink. Quickly rinsing off, Natsuki got out of the shower and picked up the phone. It was a text message from Alyssa.

Drying herself off as she opened the text message, green eyes read the one liner: "Please come to basement 1, room 17B at noon tomorrow. Love, Alyssa" Smiling at the text message, Natsuki prepared herself for bed. She didn't know why Alyssa wanted her to go to that location tomorrow at noon, but considering how she ditched the scheduled test unit launch that morning, she figured she owed it to her little sister to attend whatever meeting she had set up tomorrow. "I'll be there. Goodnight. Love, N." Sending the text message quickly, Natsuki pulled on her clothes for the night, and tip toed to bed.

Looking over the large beige tinted sunglasses, Nao's green eyes stared at the approaching tall woman. At five foot ten, with tanned skin and short azure colored hair, Laura Bianchi stood out among the short fair skinned Japanese travelers. Narita International Airport was busy as usual, but the rush didn't seem to affect Nao as she watched the tall European move to stand beside her table.

"She doesn't want to see you." was all Nao said as she pushed the large sunglasses back into place. "I told you it was pointless to come here."

"And I told you: Natsuki needs me." Laura replied in heavily accented Japanese. Over the years she had learned the language from Natsuki and Anh, but she had never quite mastered it. It was easier for her to speak in German or English. Luckily Natsuki easily became fluent in both over the past eight years of their acquaintance.

Scoffing as she rose (her height only came up to Laura's shoulder), Nao glared behind the shades as she tilted her head up to meet the tall woman's gaze. "From what I understand, you weren't there when she needed you most."

Seething in annoyance, the tanned woman clenched her fists. They have been over this countless times, and it only ever served to infuriate her further. "Don't talk as if you were there. Fact is that nobody knew of the shit Natsuki was getting into except herself and Sifr, and even they didn't realize it until it was too late! Sifr's dead now. Do you want them to get Natsuki too?" Spoken in a low tone as to not draw attention to them, Laura waited for a reply from the shorter woman. When none proved to be forthcoming, the tall engineer pivoted on her heel and began to walk away.

Frowning distastefully at the dark skinned woman, Nao bit her cheek as she walked after Laura. "Where do you think you're going dumb ass?"

"Obviously, to Natsuki." Laura said in crisp English.

"Well you're going the wrong way." Nao muttered as she began to walk back to her car. Although she didn't like the woman, she would put up with her for Natsuki's sake. Besides, the European had managed to draw Schwartz away from Natsuki (using a type of 'hologram' Laura related), so Nao reluctantly accepted the woman's help. From what Nao had gathered about Schwartz's Project Slavic/Slave, they would need all the help they could get to protect Natsuki and Nina.

Alyssa stood leaning on the guard rails, as she watched four of her employees set up the room below. MAID unit zero was a skeletal unit, humanoid, but far from the perfection that is Miyu Greer. It was most unfortunate that Joseph Greer had betrayed them and tried to kill Alyssa. For that he had to die. However he was truly a genius in robotic programming, as his skills attributed to the divine creation that is Miyu.

It was only Ten o'clock, but Alyssa's robin blue eyes eagerly shifted from the observation room's clock, to the door, then to MAID unit zero, code name: M0. It was the test unit, the first of its kind, and today it was to be brought online to show the sponsors that project MAID was the future. M0 was the product of five years of research and development. Today would be the first time any one got to see M0's performance in the physical realm. It was exciting and a once in a life time event. That was why Alyssa had been determined to cancel the launch yesterday, and reschedule for this afternoon. She wanted Natsuki and Miyu to be present. She wanted both her sister, and her most important person to be there, as her dream became a reality.

Nina could stay in the office for all Alyssa cared, as the little girl still refused to let the golden haired woman hold her. It was as if the child was slowly but surely taking everything away from her. First Natsuki-onee-chan was always busy with Nina, and now Miyu was always baby-sitting the little runt. Nina was spoiled, that was for sure. To Alyssa, it didn't matter that Nina was just a child; the kid should know better than to try monopolizing Miyu and Natsuki-onee-chan's time. Plotting multiple ways to get someone else to baby sit Nina, Alyssa did not notice Midori enter the observation room, until a stack of folders was slammed onto the desk. Quirking an eyebrow, Alyssa turned to the project director. "Was that really necessary Midori-sense?"

Grinning widely, Midori rubbed her nose with her thumb. She had intended to startle the girl, but Alyssa's annoyed expression was just as good. "Well...yes. Yes it was," nodding as if to prove that her actions were indeed necessary, Midori smiled as she approached Alyssa. "You were plotting again. That's not good, so I had to break you out of it."

"And how do you know I was plotting?" Amused more than annoyed now, Alyssa leaned her back against the guard rails, her arms were propped up along the thick red piping. "It's not like I have a sign flashing above my head or anything."

Chuckling, Midori stood next to the young blonde. Alyssa stood casually leaning back against the railing, facing the door, whereas Midori hunched over the rail and stared down into the launch pad. "Oi, if only you had a sign flashing above your head, it would make understanding you much easier!" The scientist received a glare for her efforts at being funny. She was the only one chuckling, and shrugging it off, lime green eyes stared at M0. "We only have twenty-three months to accomplish project MAID...we're not going to make the dead line. You know that right?"

There was a long silence between the two as neither one moved, too lost in their own thoughts. Turning her head slightly, Alyssa gazed at Midori's profile. The usual lighthearted redhead wore a somber expression. Alyssa knew the time limit would pose a problem. Even Miyu had calculated only a fifteen percent success rate for the project overall. It was depressing, but they still had a chance, so they continued to push the project forward. "What do you suggest?"

Intelligent green eyes locked onto Alyssa's blue orbs. Licking dry lips, Midori stood up straight with her hands still resting on the red pipe of the guard rail. "I propose contacting Laura Bianchi. She's a specialist in robotic programming and engineering. Lumen and Gal recommended her, and I've already had her checked out. Bianchi's track record is amazing. Natsuki knows her too, but I haven't spoken to your sister yet."

"Laura Bianchi? Yes, I think I remember meeting her a few times when I visited Natsuki-onee-chan in America. She seems nice." Alyssa spoke distractedly. She knew the name and the face. But she was sure her sister and the dark skinned woman had a sort of falling out a year ago. It had something to do with Bianchi taking a job in Germany and leaving Natsuki in America, but she couldn't be sure.

Midori's eyes brightened at Alyssa's compliment on the woman in question. She had heard many good, and great, things about the programming engineer from her fellow workers. She had even read the various journals and projects Laura Bianchi worked on. It was all very impressive, as she seemed to be a genius that may even surpass the late Joseph Greer. "She's one of the leading specialists in Europe right now. I think if we have either Gal, or Lumen, or heck even Natsuki, contact her, she might be interested in the project enough to drop research in Germany to assist us."

Frowning at the excitement she heard from Midori, Alyssa pouted. "No." was all she said as she frowned in thought. Yes, her sister and that woman definitely had a falling out last year. As far as she knew, they still were not on speaking terms.

"'No?'" Midori asked as she blinked at the shorter woman. The monosyllable answer was like a knee-jerk to the redhead's rapid thinking. Alyssa had refused without even batting an eyelash, and it stunned the project director greatly. "What do you mean 'no?'"

Sighing at the older woman's failure to comprehend, Alyssa shook her head. "No, don't have Gal or Lumen contact her. Don't even mention this to Natsuki-onee-chan. I'll talk to Laura Bianchi myself. But not yet." Pushing off the railing, Alyssa moved towards the sliding doors. The digital clock read: 10:32am, and Alyssa wanted to run the suggestion of having Laura Bianchi join their team by Miyu first. Pausing by the open door, the blonde woman looked back briefly at Midori still standing motionless. "I suppose your informants didn't tell you this, but Laura Bianchi and Onee-chan were once lovers. We need to proceed with caution." When she received no response, Alyssa stepped out of the room. The automatic doors swooshed shut behind her, leaving a speechless project director.

It was a bright sunny day, as Natsuki and Nina played in one of Artemis' many gardens. The little girl was having fun smelling the various flowers as her mother carried her around the grounds. Although the area was secluded, and secure in Artemis' compound, the young mother wore a hidden holster under the pressed lab coat. The coats' main purpose was to hide the firearm Natsuki carried, as it was for the safety and security of herself and her daughter. So even though it was another hot, end of summer day, Natsuki endured the extra layer of clothing as she was assured of their safety. Besides, once she entered the air conditioned building, wearing the white coat would not be a problem, as the other staff members were dressed similarly.

Natsuki set Nina down on the rim of the central fountain. The central fountain was by far the largest on the grounds, measuring twenty-feet in diameter, and reaching seven feet into the air, with multiple basins catching and dribbling and falling water. The fountain also acted as a large pond as various Koi lazily swam around the large pool. Made of polished stone, the rim of the fountain was two feet wide, and offered the perfect walkway for the ten month old girl.

Nina giggled as Natsuki held her hands to balance her. Smiling up at her mother, Nina playfully walked along the rim of the fountain with her mother's assistance. After walking a bit, Nina was tired, and sat down. Natsuki sat next to her daughter and rubbed Nina's back as the little girl noticed the fish in the artificial pond. Staring down at the hovering multicolored fish, Nina leaned over the edge to get a closer look. Feeling her mommy brace her, Nina eagerly slapped the water. She laughed as the fish darted away, but slowly returned. Amber eyes looked up from the pond to her mother's smiling face. "Huuuunnn!" the little girl excitedly exclaimed as she hugged her mother's thigh.

Natsuki chuckled at her daughter's antics, as the little girl rubbed her nose on her mom's thigh. Dressed in hip-hugging blue jeans, a black tank top, and lab coat, Natsuki cut a womanly figure. It only took a few months for the scientist to get back into shape after giving birth, as she was always an active person. However with all the stress and running from Schwartz, Natsuki was on the verge of being a bit underweight too. Still though, the young mother looked great. Natsuki felt great too, but that was only due to her little girl. Sometimes she would be overtaken by guilt and depression, but one look at her daughter would usually cheer Natsuki up. She had to live; she had to fight, not just for herself, but for everything Sifr sacrificed for too. For Nina; for her little girl's future. For the future and family she always wanted but never achieved.

Natsuki was broken out of her retrieve as her little girl gripped her lab coat and pulled herself up. Standing, Nina's dark blue overalls and pink T-shirt looked a little large and baggy on the small child, but it was cute nonetheless. Quirking a smile, Natsuki also stood and offer her hand to Nina to start walking around the fountain again.

Looking up at her mother and giving a big four toothed grin, Nina's little hand caught her mother's little finger and ring finger in a tight grasp. Mother and daughter began a slow walk along the rim, both enjoying the other's company in the peaceful garden. Only the constant hum of the cicadas and the mother and daughter's giggling permeated their surroundings. However, unbeknownst to them, they were being watched silently.

Standing by a large sprawling oak tree, Shizuru stood watch over the mother and daughter. They seemed lost in the light mood, and had yet to notice her presence. Although she had just arrived moments ago, upon seeing the giggling duo, Shizuru paused in her trek to the main office building. Straying from the paved path, the young business woman subconsciously walked closer to the mother and daughter, until she found herself a few yards away from the large fountain. Refusing to take cover behind the large tree, the woman from Kyoto cleared her throat. The noise caused Nina to turn her head in Shizuru's direction, looking over a tiny shoulder at the ruby eyed woman. Natsuki did not move.

Moving closer, Shizuru smiled sweetly at the little girl's confused expression. She was so cute. Just like her mother, they even had the same perplexed expression. Natsuki still made no move to turn around or acknowledge her. Feeling a bit hesitant at Natsuki's cold demeanor and seeing the little girl inch closer towards her mother, as if Nina was unsure of what to do, Shizuru spoke softly. "Ara,'s a nice day isn't?"

Hearing the familiar voice, Natsuki's shoulders relaxed as she released her grip on the concealed handgun. Finally turning slightly to face Shizuru, the young mother offered an apologetic smile. She chided herself for dropping her guard, but was so relieved that it was just Shizuru and not Sergey; Natsuki couldn't help but flash the dark blonde a small smile. "Uh...yeah, it is." Feeling Nina squeeze her fingers tightly, Natsuki smiled down at her little girl, and stroked back dark blue hair. "It's okay," she reassured her daughter. Feeling better instantly, Nina grinned as she reached her hand up to her mother. Understanding the universal body language, Natsuki picked up the child and held her in her arms.

Looking back at the business woman, Natsuki's sharp emerald eyes took in Shizuru's tailored business suit. The Kyoto woman wore black wide-legged pin-striped dress pants with a wide braided black belt. The long sleeved, creamy brown blouse was tucked-in, and a dark scarf was wrapped around Shizuru's neck. Black high heels, a small brown briefcase, and the large wedding ring finished off Natsuki's inspection of the woman before her. Turning her head left and right for a moment, Natsuki was curious why Shizuru was even there. Perhaps she has come for the meeting too? Shrugging, Natsuki took one step forward, and paused.

Natsuki had spent all morning devising what she would do, and how she would act around the former student council president. However at the moment of seeing said woman, all preconceived plans left Natsuki's mind. Embarrassed with herself for forgetting, and wasting all her efforts of that morning, the young mother turned away in a vain attempt to hide her blush. She decided if her brain wouldn't function at the moment, then distance would have to prevail.

Seeing the younger woman blush and turn away, heading towards the main office building, Shizuru called out in a panic. "Ara, Natsuki wait." She didn't want Natsuki to leave. Although she didn't know where they stood, and knew things would be awkward between them, she wanted to be professional. She promised herself she would.

When rusty-red eyes saw the woman in question pause mid stride, Shizuru began to tentatively approach. Nina's inquisitive amber eyes stared at the advancing Kyoto woman from her place nestled at the crook of Natsuki's neck. Giving the curious little girl a calm smile, Shizuru stop four feet away. She regretted not stopping the young mother almost five nights ago, and she could not bear watching Natsuki walk away again. Professional promises be damned. Shizuru knew she was setting herself to get hurt again she knew, but she couldn't stop the pleading of her heart.

Thus standing close, and yet not so, Shizuru focused her gaze on the little child, as it was only Nina that looked at her. Not quite knowing what to say, but knew she had to say something, Shizuru grimaced. "I'm happy Natsuki is doing alright."

Heaving a heavy sigh, Natsuki shoulders drooped. Shizuru's melodic voice was laced with concern and uncertainty. It was hard to stay mad at the woman. Especially after learning from Nao that Shizuru had not intentionally abandoned her, but was in a car accident and left in a coma. It was all muddled and confusing, and Natsuki was left with an awkward feeling of not knowing what to do anymore. On the one hand she felt guilt over Sifr, but on the other she couldn't deny she felt elated to see Shizuru again. So despite the pain and confusion she felt, Natsuki resolved to at least be friendly. She tried to rationalize that it was solely for Alyssa's project's sake, but deep down Natsuki knew she was lying to herself.

As the young mother turned to face the chestnut haired woman, Natsuki quirked a hesitant smile as Nina turned in her arm to face Shizuru too. "Look, Shizuru," feeling the need to get to the point and deal with the situation immediately, if only to reinforce the justification in her mind, Natsuki began the short version of the long speech she devised that morning. "I...uh...don't really know what went down between us, but its making this awkward." Seeing the woman before her remain motionless, Natsuki continued with eyes cast everywhere but at the blond. "Water under the bridge now. Can we just start anew? We'll be working together on Alyssa's project now...and I don't want anything to get in the way of the project's success." Mustering all her courage and steeling herself, Natsuki locked eyes with Shizuru. "This is Alyssa's dream, and I don't want to ruin it for her. So...can we just start over?"

Startled at the plea and the offer, but moved by the sincerity in clear green eyes, Shizuru hid her emotions well. She had in fact been very worried and hesitant around the scientist, and honestly, Shizuru wasn't sure what to do. Shizuru felt there were unresolved issues between them. But if Natsuki was willing to offer a peace treaty, she would accept. Shizuru had wanted to offer one herself, so she was relieved the woman before her did it first. For the sake of the project, she would force herself to be professional. They were now rational, reasonable adults, and as adults they would set aside their history and work together. Shizuru was determined that they would.

Staring into pleading emerald eyes, how could Shizuru refuse her? It was after all the very same thing she had wanted to do too. Thus inclining her head gracefully, Shizuru smiled a genuine small smile. She would play along. They would start over, and hopefully, they both could heal.

"My name is Fujino Shizuru. It will be my pleasure to make your acquaintance, and work with you, Kruger Natsuki-han." the business woman said as she professionally and politely bowed to the young woman slightly.

Exhaling her breath, Natsuki was unaware she was holding it until she found herself at the end of Shizuru's perfect smile. Nodding her head in a shallow bow due to Nina in her arms, Natsuki smiled too. "Same here, but just call me 'Natsuki.'" Suddenly she was glad she had been blunt and to the point.

"Only if you call me 'Shizuru.'" The chestnut haired woman replied with a grin. It was true, Shizuru was grinning. Trying to recall the last time she had ever smiled so widely, the young business woman could not remember, and chuckled lightly at herself. It really was a beautiful day.

AN: And so the cat's out of the bag! Nina is Sifr and Natsuki's daughter. When I had originally written this story, I had all the information jumbled as I plotted the current timeline with the events of the past alongside each other. The result was an information constipation of the worse kind! This was the reason for the long delay in the story's progression, as I was stuck trying to move forward, but then realizing that you as the reader didn't have all the information I wanted/needed you to have. lol. Experience aids all things, so expect the next chapter soon!