Title: Paradigm
Author name: Ruaki
Category: Adventure/Romance, BlazBlue
Keywords: Ragna, Hazama, AU
Spoilers: Let's just say through Continuum Shift just to be safe.
Summary
: She knew that removing Terumi's favorite failsafe was guaranteed to cause a critical system failure.

Notes: In case you missed it, this story is AU. Canon is Jayoku'd to the sky with a big smile. Though one could more accurately call the story an "alternate timeline," I've taken a few liberties in a number of areas, especially concerning a few things that were revealed in Phase 0.

The story features mainly a pairing of Hazama & Ragna. There's some other minor ones in there too, but that's the big one.

If any of the above just made your face resemble a piece of Cubist art, then I invite you to read one of the many other fanfics available for this series.

For any of you still present and willing, please enjoy the show.

Disclaimer: If I owned it, Ishiwatari Badguy-sama would be doing a lot more than just music for this series. So obviously I don't.

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1. the mediocrity sought out by everyone

"Ragna! Hey! Ragnaaaaaaaaa...!"

He groaned, squeezing his eyes tightly shut, and burrowed further down into his blazer while doing his damnedest to ignore the sound of his name. Maybe she wouldn't find his latest napping spot...

A shadow blocked the meager warmth of the autumn sun. "Hey, you bum." A foot prodded him in the side; he did his best to pay it no mind.

Of course she would find him. It looked like another spot was compromised. Was she part bloodhound or something? He was running out of places to escape to (he was definitely escaping and not hiding). What's a guy to do when he just wanted to take a quick nap between filing this and scribing that?

"Raguuuu~naaaaaaa..." Fingers pinched at his cheeks, a favorite past-time of hers. "Wake up, handsome~" A faint whiff of perfume tickled his senses as his assailant leaned close and the pinches became more insistent.

His brow twitched, but that was all he was going to give her.

With a long-suffering sigh, his cheeks were mercifully released as he sensed her straightening and turning around. "I'm very sorry, sir," she suddenly addressed someone in a professional tone, "the sergeant typically doesn't display such insubordinate behav—"

Ragna was on his feet like a shot, barely missing the low arch which partially covered his hideaway. With astounding agility he managed to snap upright, crisply saluting and hoping he didn't look as rumpled as he knew he did.

Makoto Nanaya, resplendent in her black officer's uniform, smirked at him. "At ease, soldier."

He blinked, slowly looking around, and then scowled. They were alone. Shoving his hands into the pockets of his blazer, he dropped the full force of his scowl on her. "That wasn't funny."

"Ha!" she scoffed, putting her hands on her hips as her squirrel tail twitched behind her. "Serves you right, ditching me like that yesterday."

Ragna winced. "Oh yeah... I forgot."

"How can you forget?" She stared at him incredulously before reaching out to stab a finger at the insignia on his lapel. "You got promoted! We can't just not celebrate something like that!"

He clapped his hands together in front of his face in a placating gesture, smiling wryly. "Right, right. I'm sorry."

"Good. You can make it up to me right now since you're not doing anything important."

Ragna begged to differ—avoiding tedious clerical work was definitely important. But going by the fierce, determined expression on Makoto's face, this was a fight he wasn't going to win. She'd wrestle him into submission if need be; though small in stature, Lieutenant Makoto Nanaya was one of the beast-men and her physical strength was beyond the match of most humans. The cute face, rounded ears, and fluffy tail went perfectly with her playful personality, but Ragna had sparred with her enough to know that they also disguised a nosebleed-giving forward jab and a concussion-dealing suplex. With that prowess, Makoto would've better served with the Ars Magi, but Ragna suspected politics played a great deal in her departmental assignment. Beast-men were not held in high regard.

"Lemme guess—two parfaits instead of one, huh?"

"Bingo~" She flashed him a V-sign.

"Shouldn't you be treating me since I'm the one that got promoted?"

Makoto's ears flicked innocently. "Don't be silly." And with that, she latched onto his arm, pulling him along. "To the mess hall!"

Though he outwardly protested, Ragna supposed he really didn't mind too much. He didn't have much in the way of friends, though quite a bit of that was by his own making. His off-putting appearance coupled with the permanent frown etched into his face generally kept all but the most brazen of folk from approaching him for casual conversation. And if Makoto could be described as anything, 'brazen' would be the most accurate. He had only been with Intel for a year before she whirled into his life, breaking into his routine and ingratiating herself into his personal affairs. "Guarding the handsome loner," she had said. For Ragna, who had a hard time letting anyone past his natural wall and who had spent much of his remembered life with only a talking cat for company, Makoto came as a bit of a culture shock. But she was so sincere and enthusiastic that soon his attempts to deter her became half-hearted, before he finally just allowed her to do whatever she wanted.

Maybe because Makoto experienced prejudice due to her race, but she wasn't off-put by either his appearance or brusque manner. Ragna knew people had a hard time meeting his eyes; the heterochromia might not have a big deal on its own, but the right pupil was deformed—like a cat's slit—and he knew the difference between his eyes created a rather disconcerting gaze. But when Makoto had first run into him—quite literally—she wasn't afraid to look him full in the face during her apology. Afterwards, she always made it a point to greet him... then it was invitations to lunch... and then just sticking around if they had ever crossed paths. She became his first friend somewhat against his will, simply through dogged persistence and endless patience.

As much as he outwardly complained, he had missed her. As a commissioned officer, she was sent on far more assignments than a NCO like him. She had only recently returned from a mission that had lasted for nearly two months, while he had sat on his thumbs at the barracks, running errands or shuffling paperwork, with no hyperactive chaos to break the tedium.

Ragna knew he was good at what he did, but it seemed as if his superiors never wanted to give him a chance. They would either dismiss his efforts to volunteer or push menial tasks to keep him busy when an opportunity came to prove his worth. He had been stationed here longer than Makoto, but she had already jumped ranks to Lieutenant and it wasn't necessarily because she was better than him. Ragna was simply never given any opportunities for promotion despite his years of service.

So the recent promotion came as a surprise and he had spent much of the ceremony thinking it was some practical joke until Captain Sakamoto pinned the sergeant's ranking bars onto his lapel. He was at the top of the non-commissioned officers now, able to work with Ars Magi field officers as an advisor. However, while he had been promoted, the routine still stayed the same.

Ostentatiously, rank meant little in the Intelligence Department, but only commissioned officers had access to the information banks NOL meticulously maintained. He was so close to rising to the next level, but without a chance to prove his worth, being a commissioned officer—and gaining access to the information he sought—still remained a pipe dream.

"Seems pretty empty today," Makoto said as Ragna pushed open the doors to the mess hall.

"It's three in the afternoon. Most people are working."

"Like you?"

"Catching z's can be pretty challenging," Ragna said without missing a beat.

"Just promoted and already slacking off." Makoto clucked her tongue, bee-lining straight for the dessert display.

Ragna trailed after her. "I'd do shit if I had shit to do."

Makoto shot him a sympathetic expression. It had been a whirlwind of activity for her since she was assigned to the base while he struggled for work. She had even abused her authority to recommended Ragna for assignments on a number of occasions, but it seemed as NOL was determined to ignore Ragna's existence. "Ragna—"

He shook his head, reaching past her to snag a plastic-sealed bowl of fruit. "If I'm paying, you better get what you want by the time I get to the checkout." His smirk was wicked as he walked off.

Makoto yelped, diving at the freezer which held a sundry of frozen treats.

She could move fast, Ragna gave her that. He had barely sauntered up to the checkout before Makoto was at his side, dropping two of the Super Jumbo Chestnut Parfait Surprise cups onto the counter with shining, adoring eyes. "Did you know you're awesome? Because you are."

"Anything for you," he laughed, swiping the fruit and ice cream under the red eye of the large apparatus at the checkout point. The ars inside clicked and flickered, registering the item and value, and then requested payment with a stream of letters across a monitor beside the main body of the device.

Makoto snatched up her parfaits as Ragna paid, humming to herself as she found an empty bit of table, watching a vid screen flash the news at her. Captioning scrolled across the bottom of the silent screen about the commemoration of something or another.

"Oh!" she exclaimed around a mouthful of dairy, nuts, and chocolate as she realized what the commemoration was for.

"What's up?" Ragna asked as he approached, sliding into a hard plastic chair across from her.

"It's Jin."

"Hm?" Ragna craned his neck to follow Makoto's gaze toward the vid screen behind him. "Isn't that the Hero of Ikaruga?"

The Hero of Ikaruga was giving some sort of statement, prim in a decorated blue uniform. His face was dispassionate as he spoke, and without the volume Ragna got the impression that the Hero was mouthing platitudes straight from the script and with the same lack of emotion. A quick glance at the captions scrawling on the screen confirmed the by-the-numbers speech. The girl beside the Hero, just as primly dressed, seemed to exude the warmth that he lacked.

"Yup, Jin Kisaragi." Makoto smiled, nostalgic. "Well, Major Jin Kisaragi now. I went to school with him and his secretary."

Ragna watched the screen for a few more moments before turning his attention back to his food and the problem of getting it out of its Super-Sealed-For-Freshness packaging. "He doesn't look like a guy that socializes well."

Makoto burst out laughing. "Yeah, sounds like someone else I know." Her grin was impish.

"Har, har." With a judicious application of teeth, Ragna managed to peel back the seal with a pop. The smell of fresh fruit was cloying.

"Nah, like that someone else I know, Jin's not that bad once you get to know him. And he's pretty hot, you gotta admit." Makoto sighed, stirring her parfait around in its cup. "Tsubaki, Jin, and I used to go to this ice cream parlour all the time after student council meetings." She smirked briefly. "Well, more like Tsubaki would make Jin go and I'd make him pay..." Trailing off, she glanced down at her parfait, muddy from the stirring. "The parfaits were so good there..."

Ragna watched Makoto's forlorn expression grow as she remembered her friends, now so far away. Silently, he pierced a bright red strawberry with his fork and plopped it right into Makoto's ice cream, startling her out of her reverie. She shot him a cheery grin but it was a bit forced. "I'm fine."

"It's okay to miss them," he scolded her and she puffed her cheeks out, picking up the dripping strawberry with her fingers and throwing it in her mouth.

"I know, duh. I just haven't seen them in ages except on the newscasts." Makoto slowly chewed as if considering the loneliness of the situation before she began chewing with renewed vigor. "Tsubaki and I still write," she continued after swallowing, "but it's not the same."

"Right."

"Er, not that I'm not happy you're my friend or anything!" she quickly added.

"Yeah, who else are you gonna trick into treating you to all-you-can-eat parfaits?" But Ragna grinned.

"Damn right! You're my sugar daddy!" Makoto loaded a scoop of ice cream onto a spoon and took careful aim at Ragna. "Look alive, soldier! Bombs away!" Bending the silverware back, she fired the dairy missile.

With a started oath, Ragna dropped low in his chair and the ice cream sailed over his head, where it splattered against the black mantle of a very surprised young cadet standing a few feet behind him.

Makoto was torn between horrified and amused. She laughed nervously. "Eheh... whoops."

A glob of ice cream oozed to the floor, leaving a creamy brown trail of milk and sugar on the cadet's pressed uniform.

With a neutral expression, Ragna handed the casualty of war some napkins from a container on the table. "Sorry about that, kid."

The cadet looked disoriented before his arm snapped into a salute, the napkins smacking into his face. "Sergeant, you have been requested to report immediately to Captain Sakamoto's office."

Ragna blinked at the cadet's abrupt formality. "Come again?"

"Sergeant, you have been requested to repo—"

"I got that much," Ragna cut him off. Frowning, he exchanged a look with Makoto, but she just flashed him a thumbs up. He caught her train of thought: there was probably a mission for him.

But Ragna was a bit more pessimistic. This reeked of a reprimand, though he couldn't think of anything he had done lately that warranted special attention from the Captain. Getting caught playing hooky usually landed him a dock in pay and menial chores typically reserved for the privates.

"Sir," the cadet continued, and Ragna wished the kid would do something about those napkins, like maybe applying them to that nasty stain on his uniform. "I will escort you—"

"No." Ragna stood up. "I know where his office is."

The cadet wanted to protest, but one glare from Ragna clamped the kid's mouth shut. Ragna dropped his hard gaze down to the ice cream smear decorating the cadet's chest. "Shouldn't you do something about that?"

Sensing Ragna's growing antagonism, Makoto jumped up and quickly circled the table to step between them. "Hey, sweetie, let me help you with that. I know how to get chocolate stains out, no prob," she said, shooting the cadet a winsome smile before meeting Ragna's glare with a silent warning to back off from intimidating the kid.

Ragna rolled his eyes but complied. Makoto had a type and this cadet was it. He saluted at Makoto. "Permission to leave, Lieutenant?"

"No." Reaching out, she jerked at his collar with a stern primness.

"What are you—"

"Ragna, you should at least try to look professional."

Sighing, he lifted his chin as she fixed the knot of his necktie and straightened his blazer. The burning stare he aimed at the cadet from the corner of his eyes was sufficient enough to intimidate the kid into silence forever about Makoto's mothering treatment.

She dusted imaginary lint off Ragna shoulders and nodded in satisfaction. "There."

He saluted again. "Thank you, Lieutenant Nanaya."

"Don't mock me or I'll make you run laps."

"Sir, yes sir, Lieutenant Nanaya."

She made a face at him. "Dismissed. Now get out of here before I hurt you."

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox

Truth be told, Ragna wasn't in much of a hurry to see Sakamoto. Makoto may have had a good feeling about this, but intuition was screaming at him and Jubei had always told him that intuition should never be ignored. So the ornate double doors to Sakamoto's office were not a welcome sight as he reached the end of a long, empty hallway. Orders rarely came direct from the captain, especially to a non-commissioned officer.

Ragna stared at the intricate carvings of angel and birds adorning the door for a good two minutes before he raised a hand to knock. There really was no point delaying the inevitable. The knock sounded pitiful against the heavy wood, but the doors swung open moments later, revealing the hirsute Captain Sakamoto.

Ragna stood at attention, heels snapping together, and saluted. "Sir."

"Ah, Sergeant," greeted Sakamoto. "Where's Private Rutherford?"

Ragna assumed that was the baby-faced cadet with the ice cream stain. "Lieutenant Nanaya requested him for an errand, sir," came the crisp reply.

"Oh." Sakamoto took a moment to absorb that, his bushy brows creasing at the brisk manner Ragna always adopted when dealing with his superiors. "Well, all right then, come in, come in." Sakamoto stepped aside, ushering him in. "But you're not in trouble, Sergeant, so please relax."

Ragna stepped inside, but despite Sakamoto's assurance, the tension refused to leave his frame. He felt wound up too tight, and despite the spacious interior of the office, claustrophobia pressed down on his chest. It was an inexplicable reaction to unseen danger, a feral instinct preparing him for fight-or-flight. Scowling at himself, Ragna took a deep breath and looked around to give himself time to gather his composure.

He had only been to Sakamoto's office a few times and it looked almost like any other office on the base. This office simply had a greater number of filing cabinets, vid screens, and communication ars. Light from the afternoon sun streamed lazily through a large window, reflecting off a gleaming line of kinetic balls clicking back and forth on Sakamoto's desk, idly attended to by a man in a hat unknown to Ragna. Ragna paused, suddenly wary, the nervous tension again screwing into his body. The fight-or-flight instinct gripped him so intensely that he could feel the Grimoire in his arm sparking to life.

Ragna gripped his arm as Sakamoto's hand pressed into the small of his back, urging him forward. The young man let himself be herded, but each step picked at the shell capping the primal instinct of survival. He was only a few feet from the desk and the stranger before his legs just froze to a halt, the fingers of his right arm flexing in an feral desire to rip apart the threat. He dug his fingers even more tightly into the Grimoire masquerading as his limb, confused but wary.

Logically, Ragna knew he had no reason to feel this way. The man seemed so unassuming that it was easy to overlook him. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it was almost as if one was forced to ignore him by some outside command. The stranger had not even acknowledged Ragna's presence. A quick assessment of the man's uniform—impeccable, sleek, black, with a distinctly non-regulation hat—marked him as an officer within NOL's Intelligence; certainly not a threat which would illicit such a reaction from Ragna's sixth sense. Ragna shifted as casually as possible to clasp his hands behind his back, firmly gripping his right with the left, and took several discreet breaths as his master had taught him. The primal violence inside him struggled before it calmed into a warning growl, and then faded into the darkness.

Sakamoto sat down in the leather chair behind the desk with a loud creak, jerking Ragna's attention toward him. A thick hand gestured to the stranger. "Sergeant Ragna, this is Captain Hazama of the 8th Company, Intelligence Division."

Ragna managed a salute, pleased that he could look directly at the other man without waking the beast. Hazama's acknowledgment was a vague, unassuming smile before returning to the clacking kinetic toy on Sakamoto's desk. "No surname, Sergeant?" Hazama asked, voice smooth with urbane civility and courtesy.

The scowl came out before Ragna could stop it. No surname meant no blood-ties. Ragna wasn't sure if he was being mocked. That smile had seemed good-natured, but there was something unnatural about it. "No... sir."

Hazama seemed to catch the sullen vibe and another smile was flashed Ragna's way. "Ah, well, it's the same for me, Sergeant."

Sakamoto nodded. "In fact, Captain Hazama is one of our most decorated officers in Intel, despite a relatively short career."

"Ahahaha, you're flattering me," Hazama replied, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment.

Sakamoto's brows swiveled toward Ragna. "Which is why it's very important he is escorted safely to Oogetsu."

"Sir?" Ragna could see where this was going though he couldn't understand why.

Hazama scratched his cheek with a sheepish expression. The way it came so easily to Hazama's face spoke volumes of how much he used it. "Ah... you see, I'm not very good at the fighting thing..."

Ragna raised a brow. He could find that believable as the Intelligence Department wasn't known for nor heavily trained in combat skills. Hazama certainly seemed the cowardly type, more used to desk work than spilling blood. But the reaction Ragna had initially experienced was more appropriate for a dangerous predator than some housebroken pet.

Sakamoto leaned back, his short stature nearly disappearing behind the plane of his desktop. "The Captain uncovered a number of incredibly sensitive documents from several terrorist blocks—remnants of the Ikaruga Rebellion—and they must be delivered to Intel in Oogetsu. Unfortunately, the factions know we have the documents and there have already been several attempts to retrieve them. A two-man operation will have a better chance of getting to Oogetsu undetected than a larger unit."

Something didn't sound right. "May I ask why an escort wasn't requested from the Ars Armagus units?"

Sakamoto and Hazama exchanged a look.

"This... is an internal matter," Hazama replied delicately, spreading his hands in a helpless gesture. "The orders are coming from above. I'm sure you understand that we'll require full nondisclosure for this mission."

"You're currently the ranking soldier on base with combat qualifications and no previous commitment," Sakamoto added. "I have the utmost confidence that you'll complete this mission successfully and deliver Captain Hazama to Oogetsu's HQ, else I would not have recommended you."

Ragna glanced between the two captains, from the way Sakamoto's hair conveniently hid his face from scrutiny to the vaguely pleasant and wholly unnatural smile Hazama seemed to permanently wear.

Did he really have a choice? He was a soldier, rank and file. If nothing else, this could be the opportunity to finally prove his muster. "Understood, sir."

The corners of Sakamoto's moustache lifted, pleased, and he clapped his hands together. "Good, good. Prove to the Captain here what our Company is capable of."

"Sir, yes sir."

Hazama straightened and Ragna's impression was of the man unfolding—uncoiling—and he was struck by how impossibly long Hazama seemed. Ragna wasn't much taller than him, but Hazama's limbs looked stretched, though they didn't have the gangly lack of grace common to lanky figures. In fact, Hazama moved with sinuous ease to stand before Ragna, again offering that vague, unnatural smile from beneath the shadow of his hat. Standing this close to him, Ragna's breath hitched, the need to kill or hide once more scratching at the back of his head.

The Captain held out his right hand. The nails were manicured, though the strip of leather wrapped around his palm was worn smooth and shiny. "My life is in your hands, Sergeant. Please, take good care of me."

Ragna's right hand spasmed; he clasped his hands behind his back again, ignored Hazama's proffered hand, and bowed his head respectfully instead. "Sir, yes sir."

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox

"You have a mission!" Makoto all but shouted and Ragna winced, reaching up to pull her back down onto the sofa.

"No need to let the world know," he said, glaring at the stares they were receiving.

They were seated in the common room of the NCO barracks, and with several hours left before curfew, the place was seeing a bit of traffic. Makoto's elated reaction to his news drew the attention of quite a few, which Ragna felt somewhat defeated the purpose of a "secret" escort mission. But Ragna's glare was more than enough to convince the curious that perhaps what they were discussing wasn't so interesting after all.

Her smile was wide though and she bounced in her seat beside him on the couch. "So what is it?"

Ragna spread his hands, smiling slightly. "Operating under an ND." Sakamoto had stressed the importance of nondisclosure several times during his briefing.

"Awwww." She wrinkled her nose. "Not even a little bit?"

"Just that I'm wondering why you weren't chosen instead."

"Oh." Makoto clasped her hands together. "I received another assignment this morning. I actually wanted to tell you earlier but then you were called away..."

Ragna frowned. She received another one so soon? She had only gotten back a couple days before. "That explains why you were insistent about 'celebrating' my promotion. Must be pretty hard being a commissioned officer."

"Well... " She smiled. "At least this time you don't have to be the stay-at-home hubby keeping the house tidy and the bed warm."

"Yeah." Ragna leaned back, propping his feet up on the table before their sofa.

"When do you leave?"

"Before sunrise. We'll be hitching a ride with the Air Corps."

"Oh, really? You know what that means." Makoto leapt to her feet, punching a fist into the air. "We need to celebrate your first mission assignment! Right now!"

Ragna snorted. "You're not scamming more parfaits off me."

"What?" Her eyes were round and shining with innocence. "It's not like I got to enjoy my other two—I was too busy finding out Private Stain had the personality of a doormat."

Ragna rolled his eyes. "No."

"Pfft, fine." She turned her back to him and he narrowly avoided being whipped by her tail. "Hmmm... I've got some uh... contraband I was saving for an emergency and I'd say you not putting out definitely is one." The look she flashed over her shoulder was mischievous.

"... I'm going to regret this."

Much later Ragna found himself on the rooftop of the NCO barracks with Makoto and a small bottle of plum wine, gazing at the night sky above.

Makoto tossed back a tiny saucerful of alcohol with a loud sigh of satisfaction. "It's going to be a while before we can do this again."

"You think your assignment's gonna be another long one?"

"Not really." She smirked at him. "But you'll probably start to get more responsibility since you'll blow them away with your performance on this one."

Ragna groaned, leaning back on his hands, drink untouched beside him. He didn't want to start his first assignment with a hangover. "You're way too optimistic for me."

"It helps keep me looking young." She lifted the small bottle of plum wine, shaking it at him. "I mean, look at you, Mr. Grumpy Face. You already have a frown wrinkle." She tapped him right between the brows with the side of the bottle.

He snorted, ducking away from the warmed glass. "That's a 'concentration line.' It shows what a deep, thoughtful person I am."

Makoto burst out laughing. "Do you try that line on all the cute girls? Does it work?"

"Sometimes," Ragna said blandly.

"Oh man, Ragna... I really missed you." She refilled her saucer with a smile, but the cast of the lights from the compound below tinted her face with a wistful glow. "All my Academy friends really changed after they entered active service, so it's nice to come back to someone who is the same as you remember."

"So you didn't change at all?"

"Well, I probably did... just a little." Makoto put the china to her lips, sipping thoughtfully. "But I guess since I was stuck in basic training for Intel, I didn't have to deal with the war like they did. Or maybe they had to grow up because they had so much more responsibility than me." She set down her drink with a sigh. "I don't know. It's not the same any more. We have secrets from each other now. We lie to each other about how we're doing, how happy or sad we really are...

"But I'm glad I met you, Ragna." She touched his fingers, squeezing them. "It's sad I can't keep the life I had at the Academy, but I'm glad that what I have now is just as great."

Ragna was silent. He wanted to brush off Makoto's sentimentality with some flippant remark to cover his own embarrassment, but the words stuck in his throat at the heartache lining her eyes. Shifting his hand in Makoto's grip, he squeezed her fingers back.

After a long moment, Makoto squirmed out of his hold and dashed at her eyes with the back of her hand before flashing him a shaky grin. "Huh? What's this? No 'I'm glad I met you too, Makoto?' You're so cold."

"What? Of course I'm glad." Embarrassed, he snatched up his saucer and downed its contents.

Makoto's smile grew. "Are you really? Really really?"

Ragna quickly busied himself with pouring another drink and mumbled a reply.

Ears pricking, Makoto leaned forward, poking her face near his. "Did you say something, Ragnaaa~?"

He glowered at her. "I said you're my first friend."

"D'awwww!" She pinched his cheeks. "You're so precious!"

"Nnghh," Ragna replied.

Laughing, she flattened her palms, cradling his face gently. "Now promise me you won't do anything stupid on your mission."

"Who do you think I am?"

"That's why I'm asking."

Ragna rolled his eyes, but he smiled faintly. "I promise."

"Good. And promise me that..." She hesitated, biting her lip. "Promise me that you'll come back, okay?"

"Why wouldn't I?" he asked, frowning.

"Just promise."

"Okay, okay, I promise," he said, humoring her. "Come hell or high water, I'll return to you, my precious Lieutenant Nanaya."

She pinched his cheeks again, pulling on them. "What did I tell you about mocking me?"

He winced. "Nghrh?" he said.

"Good boy." She released him with a pat. "Now enough with all this depressing stuff. We still have over half a bottle of booze left and the night is still young!" She held out her saucer to him. "Fill me up!"

Yes, Ragna decided. He was really going to regret this in the morning. But the light of Makoto's bright smile as they drank under the empty sky would be a pleasant memory for someone who had nearly no memories at all, so he knew it'd be worth it.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox

Her father and the Professor were deep in discussion. They had forgotten she was there, a diminutive girl with large eyes and pigtails sitting on the window seat. Normally if they argued, they'd do it out of earshot, but both were especially agitated today. The argument had started the moment the Professor had entered the sitting room, cutting past the usual greeting and courtesies. Their voices had started low, but the discussion grew more heated, and it wasn't too long before she could hear the exchange from across the room.

Her father seemed calm as usual, but she could hear the tight restraint in his deep voice. "For mankind to attempt to alter the immutable is among the most grievous of transgressions, Professor."

The Professor, in marked contrast, was impassioned, cheeks flushed with emotion, brows drawn low over angry eyes. "Imagine the good that can be done!" His voice rose with fervor. "Ignoring the benefits simply because of obscure abstracts such as 'world order' and 'divine truth' is even more a sin!"

"How much of this, Professor, is for mankind and how much of it is for your own desires?" Her father's question was barbed, slicing through the Professor's zeal, to directly address the heart of the matter.

She caught the flash of anguish cross the Professor's face. It reminded her of the pain that haunted his smile and laughter, his polite "as you wish, little princess" response to her demands to join her for tea, and the silence that surrounded him as he would sit beside her father watching the quiet dawn of the world after the nuclear holocaust. Silently sighing, she looked away, staring out at the beautiful field of red roses extending into forever outside the window.

"My sister won't be the only one saved," the Professor responded softly, emotion draining from him. She glanced back, biting her lip at his clenched fists. "Many died because of the choices of a few. Where is the justice, the divine truth, in that?"

The lack of sympathy on her father's face was apparent, and although her heart yearned for the Professor's happiness, she knew her father was right.

The Professor turned his back, his face pinched with weariness. "I came here hoping you'd assist me, old friend. That you'd see how much good could come from this. But I suppose it was too much to expect a vampire to understand human compassion."

"Misled compassion leads to folly, as can grief. That is the story of mankind I have long witnessed. You must let go—"

"I will not let the world rip her away from me like this," the Professor whispered, voice so low that she almost missed his words. That quiet anger frightened her more than any loud outburst—how far was the Professor willing to fall to save that which he most loved? "Good-bye, old friend. I will treasure the moments we once shared."

She slid off her seat as the Professor hurried to the door, anxiety welling within her chest. Her father remained silent as she chased after the Professor. He couldn't leave, not without her permission! That went against all propriety and she thought she had trained him better than that. She tried to convince herself that she was merely angry, but the cool, logical part of her admitted her anger stemmed truly from fear.

His long strides were taking him further down the hallway and in desperation she called out to him. "Professor!" He didn't seem to hear and she called again, louder, dignity be damned. "Professor Terumi!"

He slowed, then stopped and turned, radiating a faint aura of guilt. She realized he had ignored her call; when she caught up to him, her anger was palpable.

The Professor kneeled down to her eye-level. "I'm sorry, little princess, I can't stay."

She wanted to berate him, maybe hit him. But her irritation softened at the lonely look in his green eyes. Sighing quietly, she folded her arms over her chest and settled on a lesser scolding. "But surely you have enough manners to properly give your leave?"

His smile was tempered by his sorrow, and a hand came to barely rest on the top of her head. He was always so obliging toward her, and she knew it was because she reminded him of what he had lost. She hated it as much as she loved it. "Farewell, Rachel." The smile faded. "I don't think I'll see you again."

She knew he wouldn't return to the chateau. It was apparent in her father's face at the Professor's good-bye. The Professor had chosen a path that her father would not follow and she, the heir, could also not condone the Professor's choice.

Rachel, young as she was, understood both their positions. So she said and did nothing, only meeting the Professor's eyes with a slight nod of her head.

The Professor's hand stroked her hair once and, with that final gesture of affection, he was gone.

xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox

Ragna had trouble sleeping that night, haunted by nightmares of drowning in a deep, brilliant blue sea.


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Once again, thanks to kurumasha for betaing. Her polish is what makes my writing readable—you have no idea the magic she wields...

For anyone curious, my references for the theoretical physics and quantum mechanics applied to this story's plotline and how I feel BlazBlue handles its time paradoxes are judiciously lifted from two of Michio Kaku's books, Hyperspace and Parallel Worlds. Kaku's books are fascinating reads for any fan of science fiction.

My information on the Hierarchical Cities is a bit scarce, so I'm filling in the blanks.