For Want of Sanity, Pt. 1

It was far too grand a home for someone as small as her.

She had always felt this way, and the same notion now occurred to her as she swayed on her toes atop the plateau, looking out over the embodiment of the wealth and opulence into which she had been born. The house loomed gigantic across the valley, rising from among its pine-clumped outcrop like a dark crown. The towers of polished limestone baked under the bright August sun, breaking its light to throw shadows down into the deep abyss below the causeway; the arched windows gaped black imposingly, and above the spires, as ever, the thin cloud of crows wisped, barking harshly with a cry that at this distance only rang faintly. They were the only living things in sight, as the steep slope of the causeway, and the entrance which it gave on—normally filled with the bustle of servants about their work, and the comings and goings of various guests who sought audience with her father—were completely vacant. Dry clumps of grass folded and crunched under her weight as she watched the birds swerve and careen along in the wind. She could feel a light gust break across her face, streaming through her hair, and she shut her eyes against airborne specks of dirt and the light, mingled scents of sunflowers and pink moss.

When they opened again, the scene had changed. She was on her feet, standing in gloom, a sheer wall of rock to her front and back, rising up. Light from the crack of sky poured feebly down into the valley between her former vantage point and the mansion. The change of scenery did not strike her as odd; indeed, she hardly noticed it had happened. Her mind felt like a blank slate, as barren and featureless as the rock face, focusing only on what was right in front of her eyes. And what this was, all of a sudden, was a gaping maw that had appeared in the bedrock. Her addled mind could not recall if it had been there a second ago, but this was trivial information. She wondered, however, dimly, about this new cavern, and what mystery it might hold; for, though she could not explain why, upon first sight, it had been as if she sensed something beyond the veil. A scratch, ever so delicate, at the base of her consciousness – a call luring her to put one foot forward after another.

"You should leave this place. It's dangerous."

When had that woman appeared before her, standing now between her and the black cave?

"It's dangerous," she repeated, her voice a whisper of air and wind. "It's not for children. Least of all you, sweetheart."

The girl blinked at the affection in the voice. Who was she? Her back was turned, her face hidden from the girl's view; only the frilly flow of a long dress and the curtain of pink hair were visible. But the voice was familiar, vaguely, and gentle, and it puzzled her. She had questions she wanted to ask, tried to ask, but she had no voice herself. She made to grab her throat, as if short of breath, and tried futilely to rub the words out. The wind sighed and moaned along the walls of the small valley, but all else was silent.

The woman turned, and the girl's breath this time did get stuck in her throat. There was no face. No, not entirely accurate; it was blurred, distorted, unrecognizable. The features were there—eyes, nose, lips—but lacking detail, as if viewing them through eyes gorged with water. And yet, everything else was clear enough. The woman spoke again, looking down at her:

"You don't belong here. Perhaps, someday, though I pray that day never comes, you will know…but not now. Please, go back to the manor." There was worry in the airy voice now, as well.

"What do you mean?" she wanted to ask. "Who are you? Is there something inside the cave? I've been exploring this way before, but I've never seen it here."

The words did not come, but she knew the woman heard her all the same. A swarm of bats funneled into the cave, rushing like tendrils of silent smoke into the shadows, and was gone. She could not explain why, but she had the brief impulse to call out to them to come back. "Anyway, I'm looking for someone," she said without words, once it became clear the richly clothed figure was not replying. "Have you seen her?"

As if on cue, the woman bent forward—had she always been this tall?—leaning until her face was just an inch away, a face which was suddenly visible, the surrounding haze shimmering into clarity. The girl's brows went up as instant recognition struck like a thunderbolt. "It's—It's you!" At last her voice was given form. Her eyes scanned the face thoroughly, searchingly, a child stumbling upon a wondrous treasure. But a few moments of examination gave light to the truth. "Wait. No…you're not – never mind. I thought you were someone else, sorry." The woman's face had altered out of recognition, but there was still something familiar about it. She realized, suddenly, that it was as if she were staring into a mirror.

"Who did you think I was, silly?" The voice was playful, and tender.

"I—I—"

"Well, I don't blame you. Because, I'm not here right now. It makes sense if you're confused."

"I…I really don't understand. My mind keeps screaming that I know you, but why do you look like….?"

A sad smile. "Like I said, I'm not really here."

"What does that mean? I can see you right in front of me!"

"I know. I'm sorry." The eyes met the ashen ground, her lids drooping. "I—I was scared. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do, but….Well"—she took a deep a breath and squared her shoulders, speaking with more sureness now—"Let's just see how it goes, ok? It's been so amazing to watch you come all this way, I mean it. I'm happy for you."

A lump caught in the girl's throat. "Th-thanks, I guess. I still don't fully understand, though. Can't you—huh!?"

In less than the blink of an eye, her companion had vanished, silently, into a stream of wind that whirled along the valley floor, then whispered up and away. In its wake drifted down a last speck of her voice, hushed and airy in warning, to reach the girl's ears. "Be careful. It's coming."

Before she could even move her lips to address the wind and the shadow, the warning was fulfilled. A loud roar jerked her attention back to the cavernous abyss, the rush of a dark gale blasting forth, striking her, tossing her hair and her clothes to and fro. And, following the storm wind, like the shockwave after the flash of a bomb, the choking pitch seethed from the cave, painting the valley walls with terrible shadows, surging around the girl in every direction until the sky was shielded from sight, the only thing visible to her an endless blackness where she now floated, paralyzed by invisible chains of chilling fear. She could not speak again, she could not smell, she could not hear or feel anything with the tips of her fingers. She could not move a muscle. Not even when the thing that had appeared in the distance, like a shadowy beast at the end of a dark tunnel, began bounding forward, a feral creature swelling in size as it neared second after second. Thought escaped her; only a single-minded awareness of her terror remained. Before she could take another breath, the monster was upon her, and as the last vestige of her sight was swallowed up, she braced herself, and felt the impact of the mighty charge break her into oblivion.

"Moka!"

Her eyes shot open at her name, and she came back to herself with an equally sudden and violent rush. She discovered she was lying on her back, on a soft mattress with an ornate chandelier swaying lazily overhead, her head molded against a comfortable pillow. She felt life stir along her body, down to her fingertips and toes, and she raised an arm and held it above her eyes, blocking the light and studying her shadowed hand. It was her own again, familiar, not the feathery soft, miniature hand of a child, but firm and strong, with evidence of hard battles etched in the lines in her palm. Indeed, her entire body had returned to its young adult state. She was back in the satin night gown she had been given.

It was a dream, then, she realized. A dream of time long past, a forgotten childhood and a lost home. Not a memory – more like a twisted reflection in broken glass. Everything, the house, the mysterious woman, that terrible darkness….She let her arm flop back down, but as it landed it made contact with something, knocking it away; a half second later, a light thud and a soft gasp brought her up to a sitting position. Kahlua was there, bending down to pick up the dropped cup whose vibrant red contents now bled across the pearl white rug.

Moka watched calmly, sniffed, then said: "Tomato juice? Was that for me?"

"Yeah. I figured you could use the extra energy. We're kind of short on blood down here, so this is probably the next best thing. I've heard you use this at school, so you're not constantly feeding from Tsukune."

"I see." She yawned, and stretched. "Sorry, I didn't realize you were there."

Kahlua rose and faced her sister. "Don't worry, I can get this out easily enough. Besides, I shouldn't have put it so close right after waking you."

Moka noticed that the fair bangs curtaining her brow hung free of her customary tiara. "You didn't wake me, I was already—" She left it unfinished. Ordinarily, she would have apologized more profusely, and insisted on helping clean the mess she made. This past month, however, or whatever accursed length of time had passed with her held as prisoner, had seen an erosion of such affable consideration for her sister.

"Well, did you have a nice nap, at least?"

Moka could sense what deeper meaning lay beneath the question. Have you recovered after the last ritual? They were, after all, quite draining, robbing her of any strength she might have otherwise put towards plans of escape, or at least resistance. It was this reality, in fact, that had prompted Kahlua to convince the other two Fairy Tale captains that Moka be allowed to abdicate her dark cell and the enchanted binding chains, and be given a cot in Kahlua's own quarters, to reside there for the remainder of the mission. No need to keep her locked away like a condemned prisoner, Kahlua had explained, not when the repeated rituals had reduced her vampiric power to alarmingly mortal levels. She would take the personal responsibility of guarding her younger sister, she had promised; and, if Moka did try to escape, then she would step in.

Moka was aware of this reasoning and intent. Still, at least the room was comfortable, and lavish – though perhaps excessively so. In all, though, definitely a welcome improvement from her last place of confinement. Not to mention, better yet, here she was not bound in those damnable chains day in and day out, like a cow for milking, let loose only for bodily necessities and when the time came to leave the vessel for synchronization at some site. This much had been Kahlua's doing, and for this, if nothing else, she could be thankful.

"It was…odd," she admitted slowly, still bemused, still with one foot in that deep, lightless valley. At Kahlua's questioning look, she clarified: "The dream I had. Of our old home. And I was a child again, I think."

Her sister smiled. "Is that so odd? It sounds like a nice dream to me. You were so adorable as a little girl, after all."

Moka's lips formed what could almost be interpreted as a pout. "Please. And no, that wasn't the odd part."

"What, then? Oh, was I in it? Or Kokoa, or Akuha?"

"No, none of you. Nobody, actually, except…." Here she hesitated, before dismissing her concerns and relating what had happened in the strange dream world. There was no harm in sharing. Giving it voice actually aided her, she quickly found, in wrapping her head around the mystery, clearing away the sleepy mist that lay as a thick residue within her mind. She told the story, briefly, but passing over that final moment of horror, and consuming darkness, ending instead with a description of the shape-shifting woman she had encountered. "I wasn't sure then," she said, "but now…I think it might have been Omote. My other half," she explained.

"Yes, I remember," said Kahlua calmly. Though in truth she had only met the outer personality Akasha had created once, she had not disliked her.

Moka was still focused intensely on unraveling the dream and its message. The spill on the carpet was completely forgotten. She put a thumb up to her mouth, and gnawed at it absently. "What could she have meant, though? She said she wasn't really there, that she had been scared…That she was happy for me. If she was trying to tell me something, I can't figure out what. It's been so long since I've even seen her. It used to be I just had to peek inside myself, almost like I was closing my eyes, and I could see her, talk to her. But since you brought me here, she's just vanished, somehow."

She suddenly felt the bed dip slightly where she was seated, as Kahlua took a seat next to her. Though Moka's tone was flat, and quite casual, Kahlua could sense the troubled anxiety in her words. For her, too, the stain of juice was now a thing of little concern. "When was the last time you saw her?" she asked, trying to be helpful.

"Back in Yomotsu, I think." Moka didn't notice the lovely color flee from Kahlua's cheeks at the mention of the place she now immediately associated with her forced affair with Tsukune. Any memory of that incident had remained, to her relief, almost entirely blurred and unclear; the hypnosis under which she had been placed had kept her mostly unconscious at the time, with only the barest trace of not-unpleasant flavor upon the back of her tongue taunting her with reminder of the deed. The dark, slender throat began to flush, and, coughing, she covered it with a white-gloved hand, now splattered scarlet with some of the spilled liquid. Fortunately, Moka did not seem to be drifting to the same place of memory, so Kahlua fought her own way free, letting her mouth dimple once more. "It's hard to remember now what we even talked about," Moka went on, tugging at a sleeve on her gown, "but after that time, well, I didn't really reach out to her for a while, and by the time I did, I couldn't find her anywhere. And unless you count this dream version as the real Omote, we've had no contact since."

Kahlua took this all in, willingly, and only when her sister had trailed off did she suggest her own ideas. "She said she was scared about something…Maybe that was a reflection of your own fear? Are you scared, Moka?"

"No," she said flatly. It was partially true. While she did dread the thunderous, earth-shattering trances they were forcing upon her, this agitation was something she could manage. As long as Tsukune remained safe and unharmed with Akuha, she did not feel true fear.

Kahlua was not convinced. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, if you are. To find yourself at odds with your family, to have such opposing goals, it can't be easy for anyone."

"All that means is I have to show you guys your place," she quipped. "Don't think that's enough to get me down."

"Well…what about the other you? Maybe it bothers her, and this dream was her way of trying to tell you that."

"No, I doubt it. She may seem like a softer version of me—and I guess, in a way, she is—but she's got her own fortitude…One I envy a bit," she confessed. "She is strong, so if all this Fairy Tale crap isn't enough to break me, it's not going to break her."

I don't want to break you, was Kahlua's silent, fervent reply. Best not to stray onto more emotional subjects. Instead, Moka continued, ruminating: "She also said she wasn't really there…Maybe that means she wasn't the real one? Ugh, I don't know. Why did she have to be so cryptic?"

"Dreams can be tricky to figure out," Kahlua noted, "and that's if they even mean anything at all."

"Yes, but this was much too specific. There's no way it was just some random jumble of thoughts."

There was a pause, as the dream's mystery held sway over the sisters, almost palpable, like a fog swirling around in the sterile air. Kahlua's eye fell askance on the clock by the bed; much as she would have liked to help Moka in her deciphering, she had other matters to take care of. She told her as much, and, receiving Moka's assurance that she was alright, leaned in, planted a light kiss on her furrowed brow, and rose, gathering the empty glass she had brought and making for the door.

With her hand on the knob, Moka spoke again. "It wasn't just Omote, either. I think…I mean, I thought at first, when I could see clearly, that she looked like…my mother."

The elder girl's back was facing her this time, so again Moka did not see the color momentarily flee from her face. The fear clutched coldly at her heart. If Moka had suddenly recalled Akasha's fate, and Akuha's role in it, there would be a whole new set of problems that could be lethal in this cramped space deep below the sea. "O-oh? I thought you mentioned you didn't remember her all that well." She tried to keep her voice as steady as possible.

"I don't," Moka admitted. "I mean, I can never form a perfect, solid picture of her in my head, even when I've had visions of her before, but…for a moment, it was like I was just so sure it was her. Her voice, the way she told me to go back to the house…Then, of course, she morphed into Omote, so I can't be certain of anything."

"I understand." Kahlua did not turn, but had to consciously stop gnawing on her lower lip, which suddenly felt the nick of her fang. Something else Moka said now piqued her curiosity. She weighed her next words carefully, in the way she had learned from Akuha. "You said this isn't the first time you've seen her in your dreams?"

Moka glanced up, brushing aside a stray lock of silver from her eyes. "What? Oh, well, not exactly." It was now occurring to her that perhaps she should not have raised that point, for the last time before now that she had had even the quickest, thumb-smudged image of her mother was, in fact, in Yomotsu, when she had collapsed quite suddenly in a stressful fit, and glimpsed an unknown, but disturbing scene. This episode, she was perfectly aware, had been in reaction to the uncontrollable, blood-searing rage she had felt towards the succubus Amane for her actions, not the least of which was, though she had been too unconscious to witness it, charming Kahlua into draining Tsukune in a decidedly non-vampiric manner. For the briefest of moments, she genuinely wondered if, even deep down, either of the two had derived any sort of pleasure from the act. Bah, but enough foolishness! she scolded herself. This was not the time. "N-never mind," she stumbled, and murmured: "Just not sure it was actually a dream…."

Letting the subject go, Kahlua went for the door again, relieved that for now, at least, there didn't look to be any problems. "Well, if you ever want to brainstorm or bounce ideas off someone, I'll be happy to help. Oh, and if you would like, I can bring you another glass," she offered at the sudden thought, holding it out in her hand. "You do need your energy, and this is as good a substitute as we can afford down here."

"No sake?" she cracked wryly, at which Kahlua lowered her gaze and peered flatly at her sister through the soft lashes.

"You have a couple of years yet for that, sweetie."

"You're kidding, right? I could certainly use it right about now. It's not like I haven't had it before, you know. And I think you owe me that much." Through her words, however, Kahlua just shook her head back and forth. Seeing she wasn't going to cave, Moka sighed. "Alright, alright, have it your way. Juice, fine, thanks."

Her sister smiled. "You got it. Don't be pouty. Back in a few."

"I'm not pouty," she growled, but again, Moka had been left to her solitude. Flopping back upon the mattress with a great sigh, her moon-kissed locks spilled out behind her head, bangs drifting over an eye to shield against the intense light of the chandelier. She flicked a glance over to her wrist, as if she were half-expecting to see a shackled looped tightly round the fair skin, but, with her new lodgings and Kahlua's assurances, that major irritant, at least, would be a thing of the past. As for the future, and the last remaining synchronizations she would be forced to undergo, however many or few were left, well, there was nothing for it at this point but to gather her strength and brace for the upcoming trials. If, at any time, she spotted a crack in the door through which she could slip, she would smash it wide open, and scour the ends of the earth to find Tsukune again; if not…she preferred not to consider the consequences of that road. For now, before it slipped fully through her fingers, like the sands of dreams often and hastily do, she needed to decode what that woman—whoever she was—had been trying to tell her.

"Where the hell are you, Omote?" she muttered, gazing down at the rosary at her breast. She did not suddenly expect an answer, and none was forthcoming. Her mood soured.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-

The trip back to Strega's gloomy shack was, to the relief of both Tsukune and Akuha, mercifully brief. Remembering the address, the pair had taken a bus—that much of Tsukune's letter to his parents was true—back to that neighbourhood. To his mild surprise, although they were not the only passengers aboard, Akuha did not make much of a fuss, even taking the aisle seat just an arm's length away from a dozing old man without remark, leaving Tsukune to the sheltered window seat.

As it was just under an hour's drive, Akuha could not help but sink into a quick nap; Tsukune noticed, and a few times half-expected, from the way her head drooped and rocked, for her to slide over onto his shoulder or lap again. But she never toppled, and the bus bumped along, and soon enough they reached their destination.

The place looked only slightly improved in the daytime. With the sun painted high overhead, the roof still showed moldy and decrepit in places, and the windows to the sides of the main entrance were still impenetrably black. As for Strega herself, whether or not she was pleased to see them again, or indeed, whether she viewed their return any differently than finding something unpleasant in her ear, was hard to gauge. She welcomed them in gruffly, their purchase already in hand, as if she had foreseen their imminent arrival. Payment had already been covered by Gyokuro, though the prospect of money didn't to do much in assuaging the old woman's mood. Tsukune's, at least, was buoyed by the notable absence of the monstrous wolves that had so unnerved him last time; if they were elsewhere on the grounds, awake and roaming, he did not want to know.

The item they received, whatever it was, must have been either delicate or dangerous, or both, for it was enclosed firmly in a small capsule. A bizarre device to the human's eyes, it practically beckoned him to activate it and reveal its hidden contents. Perhaps noticing Tsukune's curiosity, Akuha was the one to quickly swipe it from the witch's grasp. "I doubt Gyokuro would want us peeking," she explained sternly. "We're not going to mess this up. We take it to her, be done with it, and get Moka back."

He agreed, and so their transaction was concluded, and after a short walk out of town, mirroring how they had first entered this peaceful time of sanctuary all those weeks ago, they were greeted in a vast, isolated clearing by the now familiar airship, lying in wait like a great, slumbering beast, swathed in shadow. Even so, compared with other times he had seen it, Tsukune could feel no traces of ominous dread at what turns his path would take once he set foot on board that vessel. Even the dragons, floating as ever around the blimp-shaped structure, lazily flapping and diving with little apparent care for anything else, didn't faze him. His sole destiny now was clear, and it imbued him with an unexpected confidence.

It was, furthermore, a pleasant surprise to be greeted by Hayate as they hiked up the boarding ramp to the rear of the enormous gondola the crew had affectionately dubbed "the hangar;" the man appeared in the entryway decked in full Fairy Tale regalia, looking quite impressive and formal to Tsukune's eyes. A long month of absence had passed, but even so, Tsukune had already come to view Hayate as the only person on the ship around whom he could let his guard down and be entirely safe (although his comfort levels around Akuha had unconsciously swelled as well, over the past month). With a smiling nod to Tsukune, a sharp salute to his captain, and a brief word of welcome at their safe return, he dropped back behind Akuha as she strode forward, taking the lead as the trio, flanked for a few moments by a small detachment of her guard, entered the craft.

"So, any developments while we were gone?" she inquired.

"Well, you missed a lovely birthday party we had for Milly. I saved you both some leftover cake, but the mess hall has earned its name, unfortunately. We've been working round the clock to—"

"Not what I meant," she grumbled, though not unkindly. "Mission critical only, Hayate. Focus."

"Ah. As to that, no, it's been pretty quiet on all fronts. There have been a few reports from some of the other squads, nothing urgent, but…certain things are stirring in the wings…I can tell you about them later." His glance at Tsukune beside him made it clear he was hesitant to discuss these matters in the open, despite any fondness he had for the human. Akuha's grunt confirmed that she understood. Changing the subject, and his tone, he turned to Tsukune and asked, pleasantly: "So, what about you guys? How was your little extended vacation? It was your first time home in a while, yes?"

"Y-yeah," Tsukune said, "it was. It was…relaxing, honestly. The wait has been difficult, don't get me wrong, but it was nice to see my family again and spend some time with them. I'm grateful that Akuha let me convince her to have that, actually."

"Oh?" He sounded amused, turning to his superior's back. "Yes, that was a very generous gesture, Miss Akuha. And did you manage to have at least a teensy bit of a good time? A day, even?"

They had reached the lift at the rear end of the hangar, and as the two men entered after Akuha and situated themselves once more behind her, visible for a brief second was her customary scowl, and cheeks splashed with a touch of red. "Hmph. Can the chatter. We don't have time for trivial reminiscing, you two," she said, shortly. She ran a hand through her hair and sighed with something like relief. "I haven't taken an actual shower all month long, for this kid's sake. I want to go up to my room, turn the water on, and not have to worry about disintegrating."

Hayate grinned as they exited the elevator. "Come now, surely it couldn't have been all that bad an experience. I think staying at a human's house for a month sounds like an exciting experiment!"

Akuha threw him a narrow look over her shoulder. "Yes, I'm sure you would get a kick out of it."

"Well," Tsukune interjected, "whether or not you got any pleasure during our stay, Akuha, I want to thank you. It meant a lot to me, and like I said back then, I owe you. If there's anything you need, if I can do it for you, I will."

"I'll keep that in mind," she said abruptly, almost before he had finished his sentence. Her voice sounded strained. Then, quickly switching the subject: "Hayate, please alert all the other staff I am not to be disturbed for the next two hours. Oh, and of course, chart a course for the Floating Gardens. We got what Gyokuro wanted"—she held up the capsule that she had been personally carrying—"And like I told Tsukune, I don't want any funny business screwing up this retrieval."

Hayate's smile dampened at that, and he opened his mouth as if to speak, but thought against it, and nodded and agreed to her orders.

Within the next couple of minutes, then, things were as Akuha had wished: she had taken leave of the others outside her door, allowing Hayate to carry out his tasks before escorting Tsukune, presumably, back to his own room while she was recuperating—or wherever; she did not much concern herself with that. She entered, and took in the scene with deep appreciation; her eyes slid shut, and she inhaled strongly, letting her muscles fully and completely unwind. And then—a jingle, a patter, and she was thrown off her feet. Landing with a thud and a groan, she looked up to see the familiar, panting, tongue-wagging visage of her old canine friend.

"Earl Grey! What are you doing here!? Ah, wait, wait! No, off, get off me, boy. Come on, there you go. Up!" Groaning again, she rose, dusting herself off and lighting a hand on the dog's head. She was glad for the privacy, as she felt no qualms about letting her eyes sparkle and her lips spread in joy. She sank back to her knees and cradled the furry head. "What are you doing here?' she repeated. "I thought you were back in Qaidam." With Earl Grey getting on in years as he was, Akuha had recently made the decision that life aboard this hectic airship, spending so much time miles above ground, was too much for his constitution, and had, with regret, given him to stay with members of the Miao in the region. A wet tongue slithered out and dragged across her hand, and she wiped it off along his back. "Who brought you here, boy?"

The answer to that question would have to wait, she supposed, and come from elsewhere. Glad as she was, she had not forgotten her desire, so, ordering her well-trained companion to rest on the soft bench at the foot of the bed, she took her leave and undressed for the much craved shower.

Stripping free of her ill-washed clothes and stepping into her own bathroom was like loosening a ponderous chain around her body, and with the first burst of spray dousing her throat and breast, it crashed and clattered down to the floor.

Home at last, then. Well, sort of. This ship had become like a true home to Akuha over the past few years. She had come to intimately know practically every square inch, every nook, every obscene scrawl on the restrooms' walls. Not so much every crewmember, although, honestly, who had time? In truth, Hayate was the only one she had spent any prolonged period of time with…although there was certainly Tsukune now, as well. She could not recall the last time she had spent so many days together with someone. And a human? That had never happened. Could have never happened, she would have thought. What a bizarro world her life had become, she mused, that her closest companion in recent times would have been one of her sworn enemies.

Her mind revolved around the boy more, the water splashing upon her brow, spilling past soft lids and drawn mouth, down over creamy throat and pert breasts and flat stomach. By the time she sloshed out onto the mat a clean, dripping mass, she had spent a disturbing amount of time reflecting on their past month together, the moments they had shared, both casual, and those less so. Her stomach, moreover, felt looped and tugged in an uncomfortable knot; focusing all her mental discipline on trying to banish this sensation, before she knew it she was dry and dressed in a fresh evening gown, settling Earl Grey back on the floor with a comforting hand on his snout, and preparing for a brief, rejuvenating nap.

A gentle knock at the door threatened to interrupt this marvelous plan. Already lying down, Akuha craned her neck off her pillow and said, crossly: "I thought I made it clear I didn't want to be disturbed for the next"—her eyes drifted towards the clock—"hour. Go away." The knock came again, rather, and if the calm raps were intended to mollify this would-be intruder's superior, it wasn't working. "Are you deaf?" she said, louder now. "I said beat it. Didn't Hayate inform you guys?"

At that, the door slowly creaked ajar, and the man himself peeked his head through, smiling. His tone was hushed, but pleasant. "He did indeed. Sorry, Miss Akuha, but I just had it in my head that I should swing by with those reports now, so you could be done with them and take the rest of the night off. But if you truly prefer, I can wait and return later."

Had it been anyone else who had so boldly stuck his face into her room without invitation, with her in such a casual state, they both knew, he would have walked away with several injuries of varying severity. As it were, she merely propped herself up on her elbows, holding for a moment the stern frown aimed at her subordinate, before sighing and motioning him forward in surrender. "Fine, fine. Yes, that's a good idea. What is it, then? No serious trouble, you said?"

He closed the door behind him. "I was telling the truth. There's no news to get alarmed about. Like I said, things were pretty quiet while you were gone. It's more…There's been some strange activity from some corners of Fairy Tale. The captain of the fourth division informed me of it when she was here—"

"Routier? That brat was on my ship?" Her exasperated interruption, almost reaching a whine, wasn't actually born out of any dislike of the horned girl; only the inconvenience of now having to make sure none of her subordinates had been haphazardly sawed to bits during one of Routier's 'playtimes.' "Please tell me she didn't leave me with half a crew."

"Not this time, thankfully," Hayate confirmed cheerfully, standing before the bed, eschewing the plethora of seats. "Although, I did have to quickly reassign one of the custodial staff she was close to drooling over….Never mind that, though."

"And you? Did she give you any trouble?"

The man found it an amusing question. Perhaps, had he not been with Akuha Shuzen all these years—grown used to handling himself and keeping a purposeful poise around people of that disposition and temper—he would have approached a meeting with Routier, his responsibility in his lady's absence, with nerves as abuzz as her chainsaw. "Not at all," was all he said, simply. It was merely a matter of conjuring up subtle ways to encourage the young captain to make her visit as short as possible.

"Good. There's a first time for everything, I guess. Alright, what did she say?"

The news was, though indeed not urgent, curiosity piquing. Hayate related how their esteemed guest had let slip (thanks to a well-placed bit of vodka in the small captain's preferred glass of milk) details of the movements of other squads within the organization. Five and seven, in particular: their leaders, the taciturn Lester Reilly and the slippery Lagunov, both men with whom Akuha had worked briefly before on different occasions, had been spotted by Routier's spies, with some of their crew. Curious movements, she had told Hayate for him to relay to Akuha (everyone in Fairy Tale knew the long time servant acted as her proxy when she was absent). For whatever reason, they seemed to be globetrotting quite frequently as of late, acting on whatever impulses or for whatever purpose they thought appropriate, even though it was understood among the division leaders that now was the time to lay low, and wait for the next stage of the plan to begin, so as not to jeopardize it with any stupid independent actions.

Darker news, still: the captain of Squad One, long suffering a debilitating condition, had at last, it appeared, succumbed to his illness. Akuha was grimacing in blatant distaste before Hayate had finished the sentence. She knew what it meant. She had liked the man well enough; he was a pleasant fellow, but more than that, she was always grateful that he was the one in charge of that squad. Dealing with him was infinitely preferable to the alternative, his direct subordinate, Miyabi, who now, as expected, had been swiftly promoted with little fanfare or ceremony. That undisciplined, opportunistic worm; she wouldn't be surprised if he had had a hand in his captain's passing, and she said as much.

"Whether that is the case or not," said Hayate, "since his promotion almost a month ago, he's gone pretty quiet. Not much activity from his division, by all accounts. Routier heard from Lady Gyokuro that he's been making visits to the last holdouts in the ayashi world, to try to bring them to our cause."

"Hmph. Him, a diplomat? There's a catastrophe waiting to happen. What a waste of time. Come to think of it, has he even tried locating Kahlua? You would think such a valuable member of his division missing would be a top priority."

"That I do not know."

"Well, maybe it's for the best. I've seen how he eyes her sometimes, watching her like a lustful monkey. Kahlua is ten thousand times out of his league. He should try to find a mate in the sewers, where he belongs. Though the rest of the rats might be offended by the stench."

"Strong words," Hayate mused. "I won't say I'm fond of the man myself, Miss Akuha—"

A sharp wave of the hand cut him off. "Hayate, I've told you. You don't have to bother with the 'Miss' when there's no one around. Honestly, it can get a little irritating sometimes. You've known me long enough for it not to always be necessary."

"Apologies. Force of habit. In any event, that about covers my report."

She thanked him, and it was understood that the meeting was concluded. No command needed. Hayate turned to leave, but stopped shortly on his heel. Something had caught his eye on the small nightstand near the bed. What he took at first to be a gleaming, antique flintlock, he soon realized was a rather lovely old dagger, sitting all alone where Akuha had placed it after removing it from her pocket earlier, with gemstones of various quality ensconced in the wolf's head scabbard.

"What's this here?" He didn't want to pick it up without her permission, merely letting his fingertip ghost over it. What he did not expect was the visible mortification in his mistress' eyes and cheeks when he turned to her. That was a face she did not often make. "This is Qing, isn't it? Ceremonial. I've seen ones like it in pawn shops before."

"I-it's nothing," came the mumble and the averted gaze. "Just a birthday gift from Tsukune."

Ah, so that was it? He could have some fun with this. "My, my, what a thoughtful young man! He must care a great deal about you. And you him, to keep this so close to you," he hummed, a lilt in his voice. "You must agree, with how red you're going."

Akuha threw a defiant look back at him. "I'm not—what? How absurd. Don't get cheeky with me, Hayate! Don't forget your place here."

He practically sang. "Terribly sorry. Yes, you're right, I lost my head. I wonder, maybe you're showing signs of a fever? Do you want me to call Tsukune and have him take a look?"

A pillow between the teeth answered him, and as he caught it sliding off his face, he could hardly contain his laughter. Akuha, meanwhile, looked horrified, her throwing arm remaining hanging over the sheets. Her voice was strained with incredulity. "You are…so, so lucky I've known you so long, and still need you around!" Even so, his words reminded her of the times that she had presided dutifully over Tsukune's own incandescent fevers…In fact, if her estimation was correct, he should be due for another fairly soon.

"Indeed, who would maintain your ship and crew while you were gone if you got rid of me?" His jovial tone was beginning to drive her nuts. "Speaking of which, I noticed you didn't ask me earlier for a full rundown of all our stores."

"You're right. Did I need to?"

"Like you said, you know me," he smiled.

"I do."

They let the words hang in the air for a moment, before he said: "Although, I suppose if not me, you could always have Tsukune manage things around here. Then you would have even more time to spend together—"

"Alright, alright, enough! I get it, very funny! Don't think I won't demote you." There was warning in her voice and wild energy in her eyes. "It was a present, that's all. Moka told him, so he just picked it up to be polite. No need to look deeper than that." It was a lie, but she couldn't bring herself to relate the accurate version of events.

Nevertheless, Hayate was not buying it. He turned the replica over in his hand, examining it with curiosity and, his fingers brushing over the sapphires, appreciation. "Interesting. I don't know, this doesn't seem like a mere obligation to me."

Akuha did not offer a retort to that, but instead flopped back and knocked a wheeze out of her pillow. Hayate put the glimmering gift back on the stand, and walked over to the bedside, kneeling down to the young woman's eye level and threading his fingers through the dog's soft mane. "I'm sorry, I'm teasing you. Couldn't help myself. It's not every day I see you like this, after all."

She rolled her head over this time, the shadows under her eyes signaling her growing readiness to sink further into the mattress. "What do you mean, 'like this'?" she asked warily. Here he was again, fussing over her.

"It's been a while, is all. I have to confess, it might not have been my responsibility or even my place, exactly, but I was glad to see you find some measure of happiness in that old house, with all your little friends, given what you had been through before your arrival, and what was expected of you by Lord Miao. I know it's probably silly of me to reminisce like that, and you were a child then, without all the burdens of the world upon you, but once you came to Fairy Tale, and embarked on this long journey—before that, even, ever since….Well, I don't know, it just seems to me that the carefree spirit of the little mischief maker I used to have to wrangle in for supper has gotten lost somewhere along the way."

The head rolled back, and eyes gazed incuriously at the ceiling. "Is it that strange? Like you said, I was a child then. No one stays the same. Everyone has to face their destiny eventually, especially when it's thrust on you so"—she stopped abruptly. When Hayate peered over, her eyes had widened, tugged open as if by unseen phantoms, and she quickly shut them and squinted the ghosts away. The next thing she felt was the warm hand on top of hers. Though no longer a frequent gesture between the two, she did not feel like pulling away.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you. But you're right. You're not a child. I know that all too well. My only point was, when it comes to Tsukune…I've simply noticed something in you that I haven't had the privilege of seeing in ages."

"What?"

He smiled, but did not say, merely patting her hand. Indeed, it was no longer a frequent gesture; it had been a long time since he had sat by a young girl's bedside in that grand mansion, whether she had any interest in his presence or not. She had been sent to his master's abode by her father, like no more than a common slave. Perhaps, then, that was why…."No matter. If you tell me I am totally off base about you and Tsukune, I'll believe you, and let it be. Sound good? Now, you look about ready to pass out. How about taking a good rest before we land?"

"Maybe I will. Oh, wait, I almost forgot. I have to get in touch with Gyokuro," she said, suddenly lifting herself, only to be stopped by Hayate's hand on her shoulder, and gently guided back down.

"Don't worry. I already took care of it. Like I said, feel free to take the rest of the night off. Everything is under control. We will arrive in just a few hours, so tomorrow you will be fresh and rested. You want to be at your best when you welcome your sisters back, don't you?"

"Yes, that," she mumbled distantly. "You know, now that you bring it up, I've been wondering for a while now. Why is it Gyokuro's been keeping Kahlua's location secret as well?"

"Honestly, I've never been one to guess at what spins around in you Shuzen's minds."

Akuha appeared deaf to his light remark. Her ruminations were beginning to shove back the creeping tides of sleep. "And the more that I have thought about it, the more it seems inescapable that Gyokuro might somehow be involved in all this. Think about it. She said she knew where Moka and Kahlua were, and that she could sense they were unharmed. But what kind of guarantee was that, especially after we learned the mission would take a month? She couldn't take a risk like that, not with Moka. And now, if Tsukune's violent seizures are any indication, she is already being put through the next phase, ahead of schedule." Hayate raised a brow at the mention of seizures, but did not question her, as she continued. "If they're back in Fairy Tale custody, that means whoever took them…I have to imagine they were after a ransom…which Gyokuro could either have paid, or completely ignored and retrieved them by force, and is now keeping Moka as part of some asinine 'test' of my abilities. Which I passed, by the way," she said with some satisfaction.

Hayate's mouth was set in a grim line. "Those are some pretty severe accusations."

But again, Akuha ignored his comment and continued: "Even setting that aside, like I said there is still the issue of Kahlua. She is still Miyabi's officer, so why hasn't she been returned to her own division? You would think Gyokuro would have done that by now." She let out a ragged groan of frustration. "Who knows? Maybe I'm completely off track."

"I think you're worrying too much," Hayate offered. "Let the matter rest for now. Tomorrow will come soon enough, and I'm sure Lady Gyokuro will tell you anything you ask." Convincing her of the rationality of the idea, his eyes took another swipe at Tsukune's present, and he chuckled. "Still, I knew you could survive the month with Tsukune. Actually, I'm more surprised that you agreed to it in the first place."

"I-it was a whim, alright!" she spouted. "He begged me, and I decided to oblige him. Besides, you have no idea how irritating it was to have to fill each bath with herbs and clean it out afterwards."

Hayate tisked, then nodded appreciatively. "At least you got a small birthday celebration out of it, including this nice little trinket. And on that subject"—at this he patted his leg, drawing Earl Grey's attention and affectionate tongue on his knuckles—"Don't think I forgot your birthday either."

"So, it was you? I thought so."

"I figured it had been a while since you had seen him, so I made a quick pit stop to pick him up."

A rare smile pulled at her mouth, and she was about to say something, but it instantly evaporated at the sudden heave the entire room seemed to give, rocking both occupants and nearly throwing Akuha out of bed; a harsh blaring soon followed. A few seconds later, with Akuha having leapt like lightning from her bed, another knock urgently banged at the door as Hayate reached for the handle.

Tsukune stumbled into the room as soon as he was able, panting, as the ship—for it was evident now that the rocking was hardly limited to one room—shook again. "What's going on?" he shouted over the noise. "I was on my way over when the alarm went off!"

"It's an attack," Akuha flung back as she bounded past him, grabbing her cloak from the closet and throwing it on, her fatigue instantly evaporated. "Some welcome home party. Hayate!"

"Right!" The man dashed after her, and, after a moment of confused hesitation, Tsukune rushed after both of them.

"Attack!?" he called out desperately. "How? Who would even dare to attack this ship head on? Especially so close to your headquarters?"

"Someone very, very foolish, clearly. We'll find out who the unlucky scum is when we get to the bridge," she said.

The bridge, when they arrived, turned out to be just as chaotic as the corridors and emergency stairs they had zoomed through. Officers shouted orders across to each other, racing back and forth to the control panels, and the wide front window, trying desperately to get a look at their enemy (one of the disadvantages to the protection the armored gondola offered: it prevented a panoramic view, increasing their reliance on radar). Red warning lights accompanied the siren in here, and the combined racket was quite overwhelming. Tsukune had to fight to keep his footing as the ship shook again, though it hardly seemed to even stumble the two vampires racing ahead of him. "Ugh, I know, Akuha makes sense, but how the hell is Hayate able to manage?"

Akuha ignored the wheel, where the poor pilot was assailed by the shouts and commands as he tried to stand firm, keeping his white knuckles glued to the wheel, trying to maintain some semblance of a steady course as directions were thrown his way; surprisingly, she didn't even attend to the navigation efforts. For her, instead, was the small elevator to the room's side, the exterior of its shaft ascending briefly before disappearing into the ceiling.

"Wait, where are we going?" Tsukune demanded as he was squished inside by the contingent of guards Akuha had silently summoned to join them. Among them he recognized the young woman Lanfen, Hayate's often worry-prone associate; he could detect the anxiety in her firmly set countenance, though beneath the verdant green eyes gleamed with a steely resolve.

"Up," Akuha said simply. "We can't see what we're fighting, and whatever it is, it's zipping all over the radar. This lift will take us outside for a front row view."

Indeed it did, as Tsukune was about to see. The elevator opened upon a walkway, at the end of which was a ladder that led up to a hatch. "Are you sure this is a good idea? We don't know what we're up against," he said.

Until this moment, Akuha had been a woman in motion, not breaking her stride for a second from the time they had left her chambers; even on the elevator, she seemed to eschew stillness, like a generator humming with energy. Now, however, she paused and turned to face Tsukune with a surprisingly easy smirk, considering the situation. "What, scared?"

"D-don't be ridiculous," he shook his head. Anxious, yes—this was only his second time about to face an enemy on top of a moving aircraft miles above the ground, and he didn't relish it any more than the first—but even so, it wasn't like he could admit to that with all these soldiers present. Especially not when he was presumably stronger than the majority of them at this point. "I just want to make sure you don't do anything reckless!"

To this, Akuha had no response but a pointed stare, and Hayate a smile of his own.

"They're attacking my ship," she growled after a moment. "It will be the last thing they ever do. That's not reckless. It's a promise."

Then, she was up the ladder in the blink of an eye, and Tsukune had no choice but to follow. The others trailed behind them, rifles strapped over their shoulders.

Tsukune emerged atop the ship's hull, and immediately fought to establish his balance, not an easy task against the harsh, buffeting winds that assaulted his face and eyes and flooded his lungs, like waves of a stormy sea. Once his feet were set, and his breathing steadied, he was able to join his gaze upon the source of the chaos.

"Well, they don't look so lazy now," was his first private thought.

To all sides of the craft they swarmed, outlined against the sun like small black clouds, their chilling shrieks a sharp contrast to their imposing forms. From one of the dragons' mouths burst a fireball, exploding against the ship's side with a concussive force, and this time knocking everyone off balance, though they held their ground.

"What the—! What's gotten into them?" Hayate exclaimed over the tumult.

"Your dragons!" Tsukune said. "I thought they were there to protect the ship!"

Akuha glowered ahead at the winged serpents. "Yes, it's standard procedure. Every crew is assigned a pack for their vessel. They do come in handy sometimes, but—Damn it, this has never happened before. Alright, listen up!"—this, to everyone—"They haven't pierced the envelope yet, but it's only a matter of time before they bring us down. No mercy, I want them stopped. Dead or alive."

The soldiers nodded, and took aim, opening fire; even when the rounds hit their targets, Tsukune could see they did comparatively little damage against the dragons' tough scales. Then again, with Akuha and Hayate now bursting ahead, the former's hands primed in Jigen-tou position, perhaps the troops were just there for support. "Wait!" Tsukune cried, sprinting to join them, "What do you want me to do?"

"Don't really have time for detailed instructions here!" Akuha called back. "You can fight, can't you?"

Sure, he could, but…Humans and ayashi goons were one thing, but dragons? They were impossibly fast, zipping and dodging every which way, and surely just as strong! How was he to fight creatures like this?

Akuha clearly didn't have such reservations. Up she flew, charging headlong at one of the oncoming beasts, who, spotting her, dove in for a quick kill of what looked like easy prey. It did not even attempt to swerve aside as they closed on each other, instead stretching its hungry jaws with its several rows of teeth primed like blades; wider they spread, wider still—then they split apart at the seams, and the severed cranium went spinning off into the ether in one direction, its bloody tongue in another. The monster's carcass bounced clumsily along the top of the ship, right to the edge and off into the empty void, plummeting thousands of feet below until it was eventually out of sight.

The soldiers were disciplined enough not to cease their attack—and surely, thought Tsukune, they had likely seen such feats from their leader before. As had he, but it was still terrifying to see such a magnificent creature slaughtered so easily by so small an individual. He gulped, and absently wondered if they would later descend to the surface to clean up the bodies before any humans stumbled upon them.

Not that the slain dragon's companions would go down without a fight. Animals though they were, they were not stupid, and knew enough from the demonstration to keep away from their former master, instead snarling savagely with roars that quaked the skies and split the clouds, unleashing a swirling inferno upon their enemy; Tsukune shielded his eyes against the incandescent glare, and felt the burning heat lap at his flesh.

The storm lasted for some moments, but when the flames and smoke had cleared at last, there was no charred, crisp corpse where the dragons had focused their fury. To Tsukune's amazement, there stood Akuha, back to him, cloak fluttering in the wind, looking completely unscathed; in that moment, the power he felt exuding from her was overwhelming, and she seemed to loom over them all like a gigantic shadow. Even the troops had taken a temporary pause in awe. His ears were just sharp enough to catch her near whisper. "Is that it?" And then she erupted. Up she soared, leaping after the rogue dragons, challenging their supremacy of the sky. Even so, they held back, always just out of Akuha's reach.

Lanfen and the others had resumed firing, though their attacks seemed too ineffectual to draw any of the dragons' attention. But at least they're doing something, Tsukune thought ruefully. All he could do, his feet blocks of lead, was stand behind Akuha, eyes at her back, envious of her fearlessness and dominance. When it came to real matters of life and death, with these creatures threatening to send them raining down to their doom, would he end up a mere observer to her warrior? The thought of drawing upon his Shinso blood, in light of what he had been suffering this past month, was too daunting, and hamstringed him of a serious potential weapon.

Still, for all of that, the vampire still seethed with mounting frustration, swearing as she missed her evasive targets again and again. "I think you showed your hand too quickly, Miss Akuha," Hayate called over the deafening clamor. "They won't be coming within spitting distance of you, not if they can help it!"

To which she sneered over her shoulder: "Well, perhaps someone could do something about that?"

Hayate smiled and nodded. "Of course, I thought you would never ask."

Tsukune, meanwhile, had heard none of this exchange; all he saw, a moment later, was the tongue burst from Hayate's mouth, and then, to his alarm, extend far beyond the normal range of what anybody's tongue should be capable of. One meter. Two. Three. A dozen. It sped through the air like a flying snake, and before the nearest dragon even noticed, had wrapped itself several times around the scaly neck. Then, gripping the base of his own tongue, Hayate yanked. The beast did not come instantly crashing down upon the ship, but Hayate's strength was apparently enough to draw it within striking distance for Akuha. For strike she did, and the neck was severed from the body, bouncing almost comically off the ship's hull, leaving Hayate's tongue loose and whipping wildly in the wind; he retracted it in the blink of an eye.

And then it was out again, this time catching around another dragon's leg. As he began to reel in his catch, though, one of the others, wise to the trick, swooped down, streaking like a missile just above the ship towards the exposed appendage, opening its mouth to snap it at the center—and right into Akuha's path. Ignoring the dragon Hayate had trapped, she plowed through the interloper, bursting out the other side with not a mark on her. Hayate, meantime, was not about to let his catch go to waste: the tongue extended a bit further, and, the tip forming a sharp point, suddenly plunged into the dragon's breast, eliciting an agonizing death cry that almost made Tsukune feel sorry for the beast, as he fought through a brief bout of nausea. A moment later, and the dragon was released. Another corpse for the earth.

A third time, too, Hayate ensnared one of the winged serpents, making ready to pierce it again. And another dragon dove in from behind to stop him, this time however aiming straight at the man himself. Tsukune watched the scene as if in slow motion. His heart froze as he noticed that Akuha was still going after another target, and was too far to get back in time; Hayate didn't even seem to notice the imminent danger. Tsukune called out his name, but the din was too terrible for anyone to hear. It would be too late for Akuha or any of the others to act!

Whether or not that realization was the trigger, all Tsukune knew was that a moment later his legs had sprung like a trap, and he was bolting towards the kind hearted retainer, his speed still near supernatural levels thanks to his previous training.

He tackled Hayate, hard, with a grunt, and sent both of them slamming and skidding along the ground: Tsukune felt a sharp pain on his right shoulder as they tumbled.

"That was close, huh?" Hayate wheezed under him, seeing what had happened as he caught his breath. "Thanks for that. I should pay more attention to my back."

They quickly untangled and got back to their feet. "I'm just glad I could help," Tsukune admitted. "That's, err, some…tongue you got there."

Hayate cocked his head, then gave a short bark of amusement. "That's right, you've never seen me in action before. Well, it's like I told you—Oh, you're bleeding!"

Tsukune glanced down, and sure enough, one of the beast's claws had brushed ever so lightly—but still deep enough to cut—against his shoulder, and through the torn fabric of his shirt he could see the dark blood seeping out. "No big deal," he said firmly, "it's shallow enough, all things considered."

Hayate wasn't convinced, and was about to say more when Akuha finally came dropping down next to them. Her eyes flared with that same intensity as before; he did not often see it from her, even in battle.

"What happened?" she demanded urgently.

"Oh, you know, got careless," Hayate replied casually. Then, soberly: "Tsukune saved me in the nick of time, but he's wounded. The claws got him. We need to end this fast, so he can get medical attention."

"Really," the boy insisted, "it's not that—"

"I see," Akuha interrupted. "Are you alright?"

For a minute, then, there was silence—As much as roaring gales, the groaning of the ship, the booming blasts of fire and the shrieks of dragons could be called silence. Hayate, strangely, did not reply, but merely turned to Tsukune. Impatient, Akuha said "Well?" at which Tsukune looked and saw she was staring expectantly, not at Hayate, but at himself. "Me? O-oh, yeah, I'm fine. I'm just…well, I'm glad I was able to do something."

"What are you talking about? I thought you said you could fight. Weren't you training with Moka for a while?" He didn't have an answer for that. "Well, no matter," she went on, waving a dismissive hand. "We can handle this on our own." Then, stepping forward, she caught Tsukune off guard when she placed a hand under his chin, and, with an examining gaze, turned his head this way and that. Seemingly satisfied, her eyes moved to his shoulder, and, far more gently than he would have expected, her thin fingers brushed over the shredded fabric, pressing against the wound. Tsukune grimaced at the touch, and she quickly withdrew, her tongue flickering delicately over her lips. "Good, I'm glad," she muttered. "And good job, watching my servant's back." His cheeks flushing, Tsukune turned aside, only to notice Lanfen, still providing her own cover fire from her position, throwing quick, nervous glances in their direction.

Before he could even take another breath, however, their foes, not ones to hold back while a conversation was carried on, let the flames crackle around their tongues, and unleashed hellfire once more, hoping to catch the trio off guard. This time, Tsukune suddenly found himself the one roughly removed from the blast, with Hayate yanking him back by the collar. Akuha again stood at ground zero, and again when the flames were swept away, she emerged uncharred, masked with a cold glare.

So they whittled away at the dragons' numbers; whatever the cause behind their violent revolt, Tsukune half wished there was a way to subdue the animals without killing them; but that seemed impossible, given their strength and ferocity, and all that was left to Akuha was to dispose of her vicious retinue. He wondered, briefly, as another flew a bit too close to her swiping hands, if it pained her at all to do so. The thought was quickly shattered as a dragon came snapping angrily straight for him; with no time to wait for any aid, he jumped, on instinct, to the side, and, recollection of his training with Moka flashing through his mind, swung his leg out. His foot cracked against the beast's skull, though, as he had not drawn upon much of his ghoulish power, it was only enough to divert its path to the side, trailed a moment later by Hayate's flashing tongue, which promptly coiled around and plunged into its throat. As for Tsukune, he had felt an immediate stabbing pain in his leg upon impact, and, landing, it seemed to fold beneath him like paper, and he sank to one knee, wincing.

Akuha noticed, and found herself keeping one eye on his position as she continued her battle. Fortunately, there were only a couple of dragons left now, the last of which was dispatched by Lanfen, proving the troop was not completely useless, catching it in the eye with a few rounds. The monster shrieked in agony, landed, opened its mouth to incinerate anything it could, and swallowed gunfire from the rest, collapsing in a heap aboard the now blackened, but still intact, envelope of the ship.

At last, everyone could take a breath of relief; the soldiers lowered their weapons, Akuha's small form relaxed, Hayate licked his lips to savor the morsels he had extracted from the beasts, and Tsukune tenderly experimented putting some weight on his left leg, though it still wobbled delicately beneath him. He cursed. Dragons they might have been, but, even after all his training, all it took was one hit to render his entire leg near crippled.

A sudden feral roar shocked them, and a shout of "There's one more!" rang out. Indeed, one final straggler, hiding and lying in wait below the ship, out of sight while the battle raged, now ranged above them, furious and bellowing and frothing flames at the mouth.

It all happened too fast. Suddenly the fireball's blast exploded nearby with a resounding crack, and Tsukune felt his body lifted and violently thrown aside like a broken doll. For a brief instant, he distantly heard a voice like Hayate's give a wild shout of "Lanfen!" and saw the girl flying over the other side of ship, before his senses were completely overwhelmed by a stifling roar.

If asked, he would have claimed it felt like an eternity before he was jolted back to himself. In reality, it was but a few seconds. His spinning stupor was rudely broken at another sudden rip of pain, this time in his left arm. The haze cleared just enough from his eyes for him to watch as he slid roughly down the reinforced film of the ship's side, the skin of his fingers being scoured away as he regained enough presence of mind to desperately grasp for a stop to his fall. His heart raced dangerously as just the opposite happened, and he was suddenly snatching at air, but then, before he could even call out, the wind was brutally hammered out of him by a heavy blow to the gut. Opening his eyes, his vision swam; he could taste a rich copper on his tongue; and though, for the moment, he was no longer falling, already he was beginning to slip from whatever perch had ended his plunge. Fighting with sweat soaked hands to gain a temporary hold, he craned his aching neck and blinked several times until he could see.

Above him, the gentle curve of the hull arched, heaped in shadows from the sun, clouds tinged with saffron and soot black drifting by as the airship hummed along. The vision might have been beautiful if he wasn't fighting the urge to vomit. The piercing light in his peripheral wasn't helping. Looking down, he realized it was one of the ship's lighting rods that had broken his fall, and to which he now precariously clung. His legs dangled helplessly, and his arm hurt too much to help him pull them up and mount the rod.

"Don't look down," he told himself, "don't look down. No good will come from looking down." But it was unavoidable. His eyes had already drifted over the edge of the rod, taking in the sweeping view of earth thousands of feet below. It seemed to grow closer as he stared, and his stomach lurched again. He could barely catch his breath: the fierce winds filled his lungs each time he opened his mouth, their harsh roar assaulted his ears like beats of a drum. He tore his eyes away from the ground, casting about wildly for any way to clamber back up the ship to a safe position, before his ever slackening grip made that concern irrelevant. But the search was fruitless; the hull loomed smooth and ominous before his eyes, with no ledges or platforms for him to scramble up along the way.

Again he cursed, a wheezing sound from his lips. "No use…Damn, I—I can't get back. A-Akuha!" he tried to shout, though there was no way anyone atop the ship would hear the pitiful sound. "I'm gonna die," he faltered out after a moment, being suckered into another peek at the vast ground. "Damn it! How pathetic. After everything we went through, was I really unable to do anything in the end? I couldn't save Moka, couldn't stop Fairy Tale, couldn't make our dream come true. I couldn't even make it through this fight without breaking an arm and a leg," he chuckled morbidly, for he was quite sure they were, or, at the very least, injured. Said arm was weakening more by the second, each successive throb like a hammer-stroke to the bone. He was slipping, inch by inch, from the rod, kicking and flailing his good leg desperately to gain some kind of footing. Then the ship drifted sharply to the left, and his grip was broken, and down he plunged.

"Tsukune!"

As the sky above zoomed away, he distantly heard, through the ringing of his ears, the mighty gales, and his banging heart, the voice calling his name. A man's voice, it sounded like; turning his gaze down across his body, he saw an odd shape whisking through the air along the ship's flank. The image quickly cleared as it drew near.

It was Hayate, wings outstretched ("Wings? When did he get wings?" Tsukune thought absently), a look of unshaken determination etched across his features, which, in that moment, suddenly did not look so youthful. Also suddenly clear were the odd shapes both above and below Hayate: perched steadily with her knees against his back was Akuha, clinging to her servant's shoulders and riding him like some kind of giant bat; below, Lanfen, gripped tightly within his arms. Her eyes were shut, her hair fluttering chaotically under the force of the wind.

"So he caught her after all," Tsukune mused through his panic. "Hayate must be awfully strong to fly so easy shouldering two people, and now he's—wait, how is he planning to carry—Oh, OH, there it is!" His question was answered as Hayate's tongue wrapped round him and squeezed tightly, pinning his arms to his side, eliciting a wince. With a few flaps of the thin, leathery wings, Hayate ascended with his cargo, Tsukune dangling below as if suspended from a helicopter rope. He might have found it comical, if the situation was less grave, and he didn't still hover dangerously between life and death, his body feeling like it was being punched again and again. He ventured a glance up at his rescuer; his eyes were still somewhat foggy, that he knew, but that didn't explain this new puzzling sight. "Where are his legs?" he wondered, for all he could see was the man's torso soaring through the air, cut off at the waist, from which protruded like a wagging digit—"Oh, god, is that his spine!?"

Suddenly very sick, Tsukune fought to stay conscious, shutting his eyes tight and gulping deep breaths, until after what felt like far too long he was unraveled gently back on the ship's hull. And then he passed out.

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He woke sometime later to the smell of disinfectant and a revived, but thankfully dulled, ache at multiple points on his body. His left leg was shut tight in a cast, his arm on the same side bandaged; his opposite shoulder—he peeked under the collar of the gown he seemed to have been given—was wrapped up as well. A light rustle drew his gaze to the side, where he saw someone in a bed just like his. It looked for all the world like a hospital bed, and as the occupant shifted he saw it was Lanfen, restlessly fidgeting, but not nearly as mummified as he felt. The side of her tensed face did, however, sport some large white coverings of its own, under which Tsukune could just make out some fairly nasty burn scars: the memories were quickly returning to him, and she had been closer to the blast that had thrown both of them overboard.

"H-hey," he croaked out, and wetted his throat before trying again. "Hey. Lanfen, isn't it? Are you alright? Where are we?"

But she was asleep, after all, so he did not call her again.

"She'll be fine, it's not critical," a voice said from the other side of his bed, and Tsukune jerked his head—a bit too sharply, and he cringed—to see Akuha sitting stilly atop a stool, knee hiked up, resting her chin on it. Her expression was unreadable, and when he looked at her she went on: "She got pretty badly scorched though, along her cheek and a good part of her back. But nothing threatening. I know Hayate will be pleased about that."

Tsukune glanced at the resting girl again. "Hayate…He dove right after her, didn't he? They must be very close."

Akuha merely cocked her head. "I don't exactly concern myself with such things. He speaks of her as a close friend and colleague, and that's all I know. But, he can do as he pleases…as long as it doesn't interfere with our work."

"Oh. So, where am I?"

"Medical bay, of course. We don't have private rooms here, so we had to pair the three of you up." She gestured behind her, and Tsukune saw that there was another Fairy Taler out cold on another bed beside him.

"Feels like my body was in a trainwreck," he groaned. "I must look terrible."

"No more than usual."

The boy rolled his eyes. He remained quite still, hoping to ease the throbbing, though he allowed his good hand to move to rub his temple. "Seriously. That was…that was unexpected. What a day. One minute we're leaving my house, the next I'm hanging by my fingertips outside an airship and falling out of the sky."

"Yes, and I still don't know what happened," Akuha said darkly.

"You mean, why your dragons suddenly turned on us?"

"Yeah…I sent a cleanup crew down to the places on the surface where they fell, to retrieve the remains. If we examine them later, maybe that can give us some kind of clue."

"You don't even have the slightest idea?"

"I told you I don't. There was no sign. Every division with an airship has a flock of dragons, or at least some type of winged monster, patrolling the ship, for those targets that are too small for our missiles to hit. Always have. There has never been an instance of the things going rogue that I can recall. It will probably take a full investigation to figure it out. But in the end, that doesn't matter as much. What's important is that they were a threat, and they were exterminated. That's all I'm interested in right now."

"I suppose you have a point." He glanced around, noticing they were the only two conscious people in the room. "Where is Hayate, by the way? I wanted to thank him."

"He was here with her before," Akuha said, gesturing at Lanfen. "He'll probably be back before long. You're fortunate he was there. As good as I am, even I couldn't have caught you like that."

"You're saying you would've wanted to?" Tsukune retorted. It was meant as a payback tease for the jab she had taken, but the vampire was not amused. "I suppose," she said gruffly. "It would've been annoying to add yet another body to the recon team's list."

Tsukune said nothing, but leaned back again on his pillow. Very comfortable, he thought, considering that Fairy Tale was essentially a military organization not known for coddling. "I am glad he was there, though, honestly," he said after a minute. "Except…" He paused, this memory, too, coming back to him; of watching Hayate take down several of the winged demons, of swinging helplessly through the air below him. "Well, what is he? That tongue, and…ugh, that was his spine, wasn't it."

"You've probably never heard of them before," she said plainly. "He is a manananggal."

Tsukune blinked, and tried to form the word with his mouth. "Mana…manana…manga…I'm sorry, I have no idea what that is."

"Told you."

"What is a…you know, that?"

"What do you need to know besides that it's just another ayashi?" she replied. "A sort of vampire—though not quite like us," she was quick to add, with not a little bit of pride. "Like cousins, you could say. Distant from the main line."

"Main line? Just how many types of you guys are there, anyway?"

"I just told you we're not the same," she grunted. "They're more like…lesser vampires. Like others, not descended from Alucard. Weaker, not fit to be called true vampires. As you saw, they can fly, though they have to separate their torso from their body to do so, which leaves them vulnerable, and they can extend their tongues to great lengths to use as a weapon—although, usually, this is to suck the hearts of fetuses out of pregnant women."

At that Tsukune felt a revived rush of sick bile welling up in his throat. "That's terrible! Are you—are you telling me that Hayate….?"

"Hm? Oh, no, not him. Not that I'd mind, but he swears up and down he has no interest in feeding that way, never has. He's actually a bit of an outlier among his kind. That's probably why there's no love lost between them."

Tsukune tried to imagine for a moment the perpetually smiling, tranquil Hayate, seemingly always at ease with the whole world, having bad blood with anyone. Not that he suspected Akuha was lying, but still, it was difficult. Then again, he admitted, I don't exactly know him very well. All he said, however, was: "What do you mean?"

"His home was on a small island in the Philippines—that's their native region—with his clan. But, for whatever reason, he wasn't like the rest of them. And not only in his habits. His kind are usually hermaphrodites, you see."

"And he's not?"

"Have you ever seen him as a woman? No. Nobody knows why he turned out like he did, not him, not the clan he was born to. But, you can probably understand that they were disgusted by him, and saw him as an abomination. That's why they sold him when he was a child to the Miao family, who took him in as a servant."

"So that's how he got there," Tsukune muttered. "How horrible, to be turned into an outcast like that, thrown aside by your own family."

So lost in thought did he become, dwelling on this, that it took him a minute to realize Akuha wasn't saying anything. When he looked back up, she, too, had a distant expression on her pale features, the brow above the deep red eyes drawn with faint lines. And it struck him what he had said. "Oh, sorry. I didn't mean…I forgot that—"

"Think nothing of it. It's in the past. My father had his reasons, and what's done is done." Yes, a little voice whispered to her, but if not for that, then you wouldn't—she crushed the thought violently into nothingness. "Forget it."

"Alright. Yeah, I can't say I'm anxious to meet those people. If they did that to one of their own, I can only imagine how they feel about humans." He glanced at her. "Then again…." Before she could respond, he felt his throat catch, and he coughed hard a few times. "Drink," he growled out afterwards, "please, need water."

A minute later and Akuha had filled a cup from the sink and brought it to him. It rushed past his lips, cool and refreshing, and as always with that minty tang of the herbs that he had grown somewhat used to before spending a month back in the human world. Now, it tasted as foreign to him as it had his first day aboard the ship.

"Thanks," he said when he was done, and placed it aside. A light moan from his sleeping roommate drew his concern. "You sure she's going to be alright?" he asked. Akuha nodded. "Really," he went on, "I'm glad it turned out that Hayate can fly. And that he could carry us even as, well, I guess you could say half a man. Actually"—here he paused, another image returning, and his curiosity gnashing teeth at another matter—"What were you doing there, on his back?"

"Huh? What are you talking about?"

"I saw you, riding on top of him like he was some aerial mount. I'm sure I did."

"What of it?" she retorted, sidling absently away from him, down to the foot of the bed.

"I mean, you didn't need to be there," he said sheepishly, not wanting to sound ungrateful. "Hayate could have found me on his own. In fact, you being there just gave him extra weight to carry—not that you're heavy!"

At this, Akuha seemed slightly rattled. "What does it matter?" she started, gesturing insistently. "I just wanted to make sure—Besides, Moka would have been upset if—Gah! Why do you have to make a huge case out of it?"

"I'm not," he replied gently. "It's just a question. But I'm sorry if I upset you."

She was silent for a moment, scowling with bright indignation and tapping the foot of the bed, then she quickly spun around and made for the door. She paused there, and he noticed her shoulders visibly tense, then droop as she exhaled, gathering herself. When she spoke again, her tone was subdued. "We'll be arriving at the Gardens very shortly. Obviously you will remain here; I can handle delivering a package and bringing Moka back myself."

"Whoa, hang on. Like hell I'm staying here," Tsukune shot back, surprised at his sudden vehemence, as was Akuha, visibly bewildered. "Sorry," he laughed nervously. "Just the thought of staying here doing nothing while you see this to the end isn't something I'm ok with. I'm coming with you."

"You have a fractured tibia and a strained forearm. Like hell you are," she echoed curtly.

"Get me crutches, then. I'll even take a wheelchair, if I have to. I'm going."

"Idiot," she sighed. "You're just going to make your injuries worse. And for what? You can't still possibly doubt me when it comes to Moka's safety. Haven't we been through this?"

"That's not it at all," he protested. "It's just…I want to be there when she comes back. We've been apart long enough, any longer than necessary is unacceptable."

Akuha scowled, but saw something in the boy's eyes that told her she would be unable to persuade him otherwise, short of actually chaining him down. And even that might not do the trick. "Suit yourself," she relented with a huff. "I'll bring you something in a few. For now, get what little rest you can. I'll be back."

She went for the door again. Before she reached it, Tsukune called out again, this time smiling: "Hey, Akuha. Thanks. For caring, I mean."

How long ago it now seemed, she wondered with some unease, where she would have thought nothing of slicing him in two for the mere suggestion of inserting himself amid a reunion between herself and Moka? Now, forget allowing it to happen, she wasn't even bothered by it—indeed, was willingly participating! And as she left the room, she tried to suppress the disturbing implications of this. After all, she told herself, she had accompanied Hayate when her presence served no purpose in rescuing Tsukune. Then again, as long as he was aboard this ship and was her hostage (hostage? she thought. Why was he even her hostage again? Oh, right, to leverage Moka's cooperation. That hadn't gone exactly as planned), it would be bad form to let any harm come to him. Right? Her breast an uncommonly violent tempest, she gave herself a couple of light slaps on the cheeks and put it out of her mind. They had work to do.

Back in the room, meanwhile, Tsukune was already getting prepared for the departure as best he could: in this case, merely rising on his bed, propping himself on his good arm ("good" being relative, as the unencased limb had still suffered a nasty dragon scratch at the shoulder), and gingerly sliding his legs over the side.

The silence was still thick in Akuha's wake. Even with the girl gone, Tsukune was half trying to make sense of her. She hadn't exactly answered his question, and it didn't help that it made his own heart thump a bit stronger than he was comfortable with.

"Wow," a light voice came suddenly from his side. It seemed Lanfen had in fact been awake, and now was peering at her neighbour with her uncovered eye as she lay on her side, hair splayed across the pillow. "I don't think I've ever seen the captain get flustered like that."

"Y-you were up," Tsukune stammered simply, twisting his body round.

"Just for a minute," she hummed, and smiled. Tsukune had only seen her briefly before, but now, getting a good look at her, she was actually kind of cute; her harsh injuries did little to diminish that. She had a small, oval face, with fresh skin and a pensive mouth; her nose was slightly upturned, and her lashes were as dark as the rest of her mussed hair. The one eye visible to him had a glow of curiosity within.

"I don't think we've really been introduced before. I'm Tsukune."

"I know," she nodded. "You've been here long enough that I should at least know your name." She laughed, and it quickly morphed into a cough.

"Oh, sorry! You don't have to force yourself to talk. You should be resting. You got hurt pretty bad back there."

"I'll be alright," she assured him. "I'm Lanfen."

"Nice to meet you, Lanfen—officially, that is," he said.

"Likewise." With a groan, the young woman rolled onto her back, and scooted up so she was sitting opposite Tsukune, letting her bed cover rest at her feet. From this position he saw that her face wasn't all that had been charred. The whole right side of her body, practically—the bandages went down her smooth neck, vanishing beneath the collar of her gown, then snaking out from under her sleeve to cover her arm. Even her leg. She winced as she shifted, but made no complaint. "So," she began, looking him over, "looks like you didn't come out of that battle too well yourself."

"I guess not," he chuckled, trying to bend his arm. "Akuha told me there's a fracture in my leg. I suppose I'll feel it in a few minutes."

"You got knocked off the ship by the same blast as me," she said quietly. "I'll be honest, I thought I was a goner."

"Thank God Hayate can fly, huh?" he replied. At this, the eye was cast downward, and she looked despondent. "Hey, what's the matter?"

She sighed heavily. "Oh, nothing. In the end, I was completely useless back there."

Tsukune frowned, disagreeing. "That's not true! You were the only one of your squad that caught that dragon in the eye, weren't you?"

"Some achievement," she replied with a shake of her head; even that motion made her wince sharply and bring up her good hand to her neck. "Besides, I just got blown away, and Hayate had to save me, again."

"Again? Has this happened before?"

"Well, I meant "saved" more in a general sense," she said shyly. "With work especially. See, I'm…a bit of a screw up, honestly, and he's covered for me a bunch of times in the past." At that she went a bit pale with fright and gestured at him: "Oh, but please don't tell Captain Akuha I said that! At best I'd be dishonorably discharged, at worst…."

"I won't," he promised. "But, if you were so concerned about it, why did you guys stick to using guns? Maybe your ayashi powers could have been more effective against…." He trailed off as he noticed her give a light shake of her head. "Only division leaders and the second-in-commands are allowed to transform at will out of their human forms in any capacity," she said, as if reciting official policy. "The rest of us are forbidden from doing so unless ordered to by our captains."

"What? That sounds dumb. Why not?"

She shrugged. "I couldn't say. I just know that it's the protocol throughout the organization."

"I thought Fairy Tale was pretty loosely knit group."

"For the most part, but there are a few regulations that are passed down from the top that apply to all squads."

"Then, this rule is Gyokuro's doing, not Akuha's?"

"That's right. So unless the captain feels it's absolutely necessary, we're not to change. And, as you saw, it was clearly unnecessary." This, with a touch of amusement.

"I don't really understand it," he said, his brow furrowed. Nevertheless, he didn't pursue the matter. It wasn't like Lanfen could tell him anything more. He made a mental note to ask Gyokuro herself, if he remembered. The two didn't speak for another minute, but at last he blurted out: "Why do you say you're a screw up?"

She didn't answer right away, instead looking her burned arm and leg over. Tsukune could sense the sorrow in her expression as the disfiguration, no matter what she might say. "I'm what you might call—well, you could think of me as a 'second mate'," she informed him. "I work under Hayate, and he delegates certain responsibilities to me regarding the ship's care and upkeep. But I'm just so disorganized, and a bit of a scatterbrain," she said with a self-deprecating grin. "He ends up covering my ass on each one of my fumbles, when the last thing I want is to be a burden to him."

Tsukune nodded compassionately as he listened. When she trailed off, he paused for a moment, deep in consideration, remembering everything that had transpired that day. "I don't mean to pry," he said at last, "but—I can't help but wonder, I mean—are the two of you, like, together?"

The pretty eye went wide, and her ear was tipped with pink. "T-together!? You mean—no, but—well, it's—you see, it's not—f-fraternization wouldn't be—I work for him!"

"Sorry, sorry!" he cut her off, unable to suppress a laugh. "You don't have to explain. But I'm starting to see that you guys obviously mean something to each other. The last thing I heard before I took my fall was him screaming your name, and then he even made sure to catch you first—not that I mind!" he added, thinking of his own battle, almost at its end, to retrieve Moka from whatever unknown fate had ensnared her.

"Yeah, I heard him, too." She paused, glancing at Tsukune then averting her gaze at his earnest expression. "It's complicated," she said after a moment.

"Oh, do I understand complicated," he replied lightly. "This whole past two months or so of my life have been weirder than anything I imagined—even at Youkai Academy!"

"That makes sense, since you are a human." Of course she knew, Tsukune realized. Everyone on the ship did. Still, at least he detected no spite or malice in her voice or countenance when she said that, though a touch of closely kept fear was noticeable. "But, I'd say you've done pretty well with it so far, wouldn't you?"

He frowned, and looked up at the speckled ceiling, saying, after a pause: "I suppose, given the circumstances."

He could feel her stare on his face, as if she were examining him. Soon she said, matter-of-factly: "You know, I was wrong before, what I said. I have seen the captain behave that way before, when it comes to her sister, Lady Moka. She's extremely…high-strung on that subject, as I'm sure you know. Possessive, you might say. Gets flustered or pouty when people talk about her. It reminded me of that, just now, when she was here."

"W-what?" Tsukune asked, suddenly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation was taking.

Lanfen seemed to sense this, for she rolled her eye and ran a hand through her hair casually. "Nothing," she chuckled. "Say, speaking of romance, you and Lady Moka are an item, aren't you?"

This was a much easier topic for the boy. "Y-yeah," he babbled. "Although, that's kind of complicated in its own way. Still, she's probably what's helped keep me going, considering what's happened. I fight for her; everything I've been doing has been to return to her, really, and then make our dream come true. For ourselves, our friends, hopefully the world."

"Dream?" Lanfen sounded genuinely intrigued at the mention. "Would you tell me about it?"

"Simple. Nothing more than a world where humans and ayashi can live together in peace, without perpetual persecution, bloodshed and war."

"Oh," was all she replied, and again, Tsukune thought he detected that trace of nervousness. Both times, when the discussion had turned to humans. Was she afraid of them? He supposed it was possible; as his kind was afraid of monsters, so some of them might return the sentiment. Should he even ask? "You'll see, one day," he insisted, trying to sound comforting, then, when she said nothing, he thought it best to change the subject. "You know, I don't think you're a screw up at all."

She gave a light laugh and thanked him. "That's nice of you to say, but I can't agree."

"Why not?" he asked, somewhat forcefully. The wounds this brave soldier had suffered in a violent battle stared him bluntly in the face, and the fact that she was so down on herself ruffled him. "You're an officer, you said? I doubt they just hand out those jobs, which means you can't be as bad as you say. Obviously, they thought you were qualified for the position. You should have some faith in yourself."

Another bright smile met him, though she winced again from her facial burns. "You're very sweet. And different from what I expected of a human. I'm sure Lady Moka is a very lucky girl."

"I'm the lucky one," he said, laughing. "Besides, I meant what I said—you were actually able to wound one of those things. I don't think I hurt a single one of them, and this is what I get for my efforts." He held up his entombed arm with a wry smile playing at his mouth.

"Oh, now don't you start," she chided. At his perplexed look, she explained: "If not for you, Hayate would have been killed, probably eaten alive. You saved him—that's how your shoulder got hurt, isn't it?"

"Oh, right, I'd almost forgotten about that," he replied, slightly embarrassed. "Honestly, it happened so fast, I wasn't even thinking. All I saw was that monster flying straight at him, and I wasn't going to stand by and do nothing."

"Well, it was very heroic," she said, leaning towards him. "Don't think we didn't notice it. My comrades are no doubt grateful for what you did. I'm…very grateful." This last part, with a slight hitch in the throat.

A minute later and Akuha returned with a crutch for his leg—a busted up old thing that looked like it might tumble to pieces under Tsukune's weight. Nevertheless, he slid it under his arm and hobbled up. "You sure about this?" she said. "We're docking now, so this is your last chance to opt out."

That, however, was not in the cards, and he told her as much. So, with a word of farewell and well-wishes to Lanfen, who returned it with a tense-shouldered salute in her superior's presence, they were off. As they made for the door, Hayate finally returned, sweeping in and greeting them with a quick nod and pat on Tsukune's shoulder, and pacing over to Lanfen's bed. Neither spoke at first, and as Tsukune limped out of the room, the last thing he saw was Hayate reaching down and clutching her hand. Their faces were hidden from him.

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On the surface, much about the Gardens looked the same to Tsukune as during his first visit. The landing pads, the winding path, vanishing behind copses of trees, peeking out again some long ways ahead as it flowed into the distant, tiny courtyard; the compacted huddle of numerous slate-roofed buildings that gave the place the appearance of a city; the great steps that rose toward the heavens, up towards the stark, ominous mountains that seemed to both buffer and embrace the pallid central fortress, whose spire thrust up like a sword held in victory. Girdling the horizon, a belt of deep saffron and lilac provided a dim glow in the growing dark, as lights in the little city also began to twinkle through the windows.

There was also little change in the Fairy Talers going about their business, paying scant attention to the new arrivals as they descended from pad and docking bay, only some mindful enough to recognize Akuha and give her the proper greeting. They reserved curious askant stares for the wounded boy trailing the Shuzen assassin, forcing her to slow her usual brisk step. No outward change, anyway, but there was something off about the scene before them. It was faint, but he could sense it: the distant, echoing whisper of power, simmering in the air around them, choking it…A dark pulse, with cold shadow pumping through the roads running beneath their feet like blood through veins. Now that he looked closely, in fact, it was evident that the people around him felt something, too. Their movements showed sharp and tense, their eyes anxious; yet nobody acted significantly out of the ordinary; he wondered if they were even conscious of it. He, at least, was making a focused effort to beat back the nasty dregs of memory, swarming in his mind like rabid, furious bats, eager to remind him of the sudden thirst for blood and destruction being here last time had awoken in him. That was the last thing he needed, especially with another Shinso-sparked seizure lurking, hidden, at some point in the future.

Meantime, his eyes fell on the silver-colored case Akuha had carried from the ship, wherein was stored the capsule they had waited a whole month to deliver to Gyokuro. Tsukune's fears hadn't abated, and it certainly looked like it could be a weapon. It was nothing he hadn't suspected all along, even while going along with it, but now, on the very cusp…His mind swirled with possibilities. Moka's retrieval was top priority, but then…could he manage some way to steal back the package once she was secured on board? There was little chance it would be easy. And what about Akuha? She would surely try to stop him, maybe even turn him over to Gyokuro…or would she? And even if he could take Moka and flee with the potential weapon, what would they do with it? The case was sealed by a ten digit code, it appeared, one that Akuha or Gyokuro had chosen. Cracking it might be impossible. Perhaps leave it with Touhou Fuhai…the Headmaster….?

Don't lose focus! he scolded himself. First step, Moka. Everything else will come after that. It's no use worrying. You're not some genius who can come up with a crafty plan on the spot.

He took a deep breath as they arrived in the courtyard, still trying to adjust to his crutch. Ahead the steps loomed, the darkness more palpable here, and as he mounted the first one he felt his heart sink at the prospect of climbing the whole flight in his condition. It had been challenging enough while healthy! Already his arm was beginning to ache, not used to holding the crutch.

Akuha had noticed. "Told you it wouldn't be easy."

"Shut up, I'll manage," he growled, cursing and shouting at himself internally to pool all his strength and move forward, one leg in front of the other.

"Don't make me laugh. Look at you! You're like Frankenstein on that thing."

"You mean the monster?"

Then she, primly: "Around here, that's what we call his creator. But that's not my point. You're not going to make it up there." Her eyes narrowed, assessing the situation, flitting between the wounded boy and the fortress overhead. Her decision was reached quickly, and, shuffling back down towards his level, she turned away and squatted before him, placing the package on the ground, gesturing with her hands held out behind her. "Alright, hop on."

Tsukune wasn't quite sure what to make of this. "Err, you can't be serious. I practically have a foot on you, Akuha, and I'm guessing a good number of pounds."

"I may not be Kahlua," she scoffed, "but I can carry one measly human, at least. Come on. Remember, I lifted much heavier things when I was younger than this. Oh, but you'll have to carry that, ok?"

Ordinarily, Tsukune might have objected more, but now, so close as they were, every second they were out here left him with a sickness in his throat. And Akuha seemed resolute…So, laying his crutch flat along her palms, he stepped between her arms, picked up the case at her side with one hand, grabbed onto a narrow shoulder with the other, and met her grunt with his own as she stood, slightly hunched but hoisting him as easily as a vampire babe, and pulling the crutch flush against his behind. His chin hovered above her head, and the scent of her hair played at his nose. His weight did little to check her speed, and up they went, keeping in view the fortress, rising cold and smooth, its towers and spires crowned by the vast, ever gathering dark.

To be continued…