Chapter One: And My Heart Will Fly (Habatake, My Heart)
Ever since I can remember, I've wished to be a bird. They're free to fly away whenever they choose. They aren't stuck on the ground like us. I would love to be able to lift off and fly away, and just leave everything behind me, but I could never fly... Because I'm too weighed down by my own heart.
Ayane stared down at the Invader Crystals that were scattered on the pavement around her feet and Miu's. It had been a long day, with three IPWs to deal with, and Ayane didn't feel as optimistic as she had that morning, just after the Gate Keepers had defeated Ghost Girl and beaten back the Invaders somewhat. Slowly, Ayane stooped and started carefully collecting the crystals into a bag for Reiji.
"Are-are you sure that's all of them, Ayane?" Miu asked, playing with the end of her hair and looking nervously around. She was breathing hard after their latest battle, since she'd done an almost record amount of jumping and hopping during the fight. "I mean, you know, that is this morning when those last few surprised us when we thought - well I thought we'd gotten them all - Ayane?"
"That's all this time," Ayane assured her, still picking up crystals. "Here," She tossed an extra empty sack to Miu. "Don't just stand there, start helping."
"Oh, right," Miu said, a smile of relief lighting up her whole face. "Sorry, Ayane, I forgot." She knelt near Ayane and started gently scooping up crystals. "You know, I still think it's really sad, even if Aegis is looking for a way to restore them. I just wish there was a better way, Ayane, if you know what I mean."
"I know," Ayane said softly. She paused in her work and looked at the crystals that were still scattered around on the ground. They seemed to blurr around the edges, and Ayane raised a hand up to her face to cover her eyes. I'm so tired... she thought.
"Ayane?" Miu asked after a moment. When she didn't get a response, she asked again, "Ayane? Are you okay?"
Ayane tried to respond, but the only thing that came out was a sudden burst of sobbing. Confused and angry at her emotions being on display, even to her closest friend, Ayane scrubbed at her tears with the hand over her eyes. She clenched her other hand around the neck of the bag she was still holding, and tried in vain to get a hold of herself.
"Aww, Ayane," Miu whispered, moving close to her friend and putting an arm around her shoulders. "It's okay. I feel like crying myself sometimes, too."
Ayane warred with herself for a moment longer, then decided it was all right to be a frightened and heartsick teenage girl. She let go of the bag of crystals and threw both arms around Miu's neck, still sobbing. Miu wrapped her arms around Ayane comfortingly and, for once, said nothing.
Later that same night, Ayane stood on the streetcorner next to Miu, waiting. They didn't have long to wait, however, as Reiji's black car soon pulled up and stopped. He rolled down the window and smiled at the two. "Hi, girls," he greeted them.
"Here," Ayane said quietly, handing her bag of Invader Crystals to Reiji. Next to her, Miu handed her bag in through the car window as well.
"Thanks. I know I can always count on you, Ayane," Reiji said with a small smile, holding out a thick wad of paper money towards her.
"Give it to Miu," Ayane told him, not reaching for the money. "I'm retiring."
"What? Ayane..." Miu said, turning to look at her friend with eyes filled with emotion. "Don't give up!"
"I'm not," Ayane said, looking from Miu to Reiji, his surprised face framed by the open car window. "I don't want to do this anymore. Well, good-bye and good luck to both of you. I hope you find a way to change them back." Turning abruptly away to hide her tears, Ayane ran away down the dark street, the light from the street lamps reflecting off of her long coat as it trailed out behind her.
"Ayane!" Miu called after her, but Ayane didn't slow her steps.
You can do it, Miu, Ayane thought, shaking her head to clear away her tears as she ran. You don't need me any more - and I don't need this stress.
The next day, Ayane was walking home from high school, her laptop folded closed and tucked under her arm, when someone stepped out into the middle of the sidewalk in front of her, totally blocking her path. Ayane looked up in annoyance, dragged out of her inner contemplation of what she had been studying that day.
It was Satoka.
"What do you mean you just quit?" Satoka shouted, balling her hands into fists.
"Retired," Ayane corrected her.
"Whatever - don't play word games here. You gave up, Ayane admit it!"
"I have every right not to be a Gate Keeper anymore!" Ayane replied, beginning to raise her own voice. Trying in vain to suppress her body's shaking, she went on, "You know as well as I do what it's like - every night. Night after night after night. I thought we'd finally won this time, but no. Why should I spend my whole life fighting Invaders? It doesn't seem to matter. They just keep coming!"
"It does matter," Satoka insisted, lowering her head and closing her eyes. To Ayane's surprise, she saw tears leaking out from under the taller girl's closed eyelids. "It matters because... if no one fights them, they'll just take over. Even if all we can do is - " Interrupting herself, Satoka opened her eyes again to glare fiercely down at Ayane. "You are a true Gate Keeper, Ayane. You must fight!"
Ayane stared at Satoka for a long moment before replying. "Sorry. I've decided its time to start looking out for myself, not the rest of the world anymore. No one even knows or cares what we do, anyway. So why should I have to care about them?" Brushing rudely past Satoka, Ayane continued walking, leaving the other girl behind her.
"You know why Gate Keepers can't ever become Invaders?" Satoka shouted after her. "It's because we can't be selfish! Sure, I make a lot of yen off of Invaders by being a Gate Keeper, but I'd toss it all off a cliff if it would mean no one on earth ever saw an Invader again! You're turning your back on the world because it causes you too much pain to think about - not because you don't care!"
Ayane turned around and looked at Satoka in shock. She opened her mouth to form a reply, but the taller Gate Keeper cut her off. "Well, I'd better go see what else I can find. Good hunting, Ayane. Or not. I guess it's up to you." Satoka picked up her sack of Invader Crystals from where she'd obviously left it lying on the ground against the wall of a nearby house while waiting for Ayane, slung it over her shoulder, and walked away, leaving Ayane alone with her thoughts.
The city... Ayane thought as she weaved her way through the tightly packed mass of pedestrians. It's so crowded. I never really connected it before, but there are so many people who depend on the Gate Keepers. So many...
Ayane stopped and looked up at the moon, remembering that night not long ago when she had first seen Miu sillhouetted against its soft light.
I guess that's what Satoka meant. I can't be selfish. These people depend on me to protect them - even if they don't know it. With the practiced ease of one who had grown up in Tokyo, Ayane went against the flow of the crowd to go look for Miu, soon easing into another stream of people that were heading in the same direction she was going now. We've got a job to do, she thought resolutely.
I've always wanted to be able to just fly away like a bird and leave everything behind me, but I've always thought I was too weighed down by my own heart. But maybe I've been too hard on myself. Still, I wish it were easier to fly...