For Want of Sanity, Pt. 3

Neither person spoke for several minutes after Gyokuro's departure. Tsukune, quiet as a mouse, stood staring at the door before dropping his clothes down in a pile, and bending down to pick up each article one by one and slide it haphazardly on, his expression blank. Akuha had collapsed without warning back into one of the chairs, her breathing shallow as if she had taken a club to the back of the skull. All fury and defiance siphoned out and evaporated.

Tsukune had barely finished getting dressed when a guard entered the room, uninvited, sent to escort them back to the docking bay where they could remain for the night. Both went along, docile as lambs, still too stunned to offer any protest. Not that it would have accomplished much. These grunts wouldn't have been privy to any information about this matter. Yet before they could even give much thought to any form of resistance, they found themselves back at the airship. By now the sun had gone, and dark engulfed the island.

The dock around the vessel had been cordoned off, and a small detachment of soldiers placed by the craft itself. They had certainly arrived with remarkable rapidity, mulled Tsukune.

Several others he recognized with them: Hayate, primarily, who was engaged in vehement conversation with one of the men, his expression astonished and his hand sliding along his brow as he listened and argued. Lanfen, too, was there, and was the first to notice the approaching boy and their leader. She gestured, making a noise of surprise, and Hayate and the others turned and received them.

The news of Akuha's demotion had traveled fast indeed, as they learned. The soldiers had only just arrived, ordered by Gyokuro within a minute of her exit from the chapel's chamber to stand guard until the ship's departure. Not one member of the crew was permitted to wander outside for any cause, even as some still pressed their curious faces against the windows of the gondola.

Hayate continued to ply a soldier for more specific answers, but, about the essentials everyone was now fully informed. They were not told exactly the circumstances that had led to the stripping of rank, but then, even Akuha's escort hadn't been told that, let alone anyone else.

In short order, there was nothing more to do but retire to the ship as instructed. Hayate volunteered to accompany his mistress to her chambers, and she did not object. As they walked through the lower corridors together, Tsukune could sense the man's burning desire to question her, to learn the whole story…But he refrained, as did any other now-captainless crewmember they passed, for her distress and anguish were palpable, and fear weighed their tongues.

On top of that, in the midst of his own attempts to calm himself and patch the wounds in his fortitude, Tsukune was suddenly left all alone. All crew except Hayate had gradually trickled away from their little train before they had even reached the elevator—including Lanfen, who remained to oversee preparations for their later takeoff (a job Tsukune knew Hayate might have handled, if not for more urgently pressing matters on his mind). And just like that, they were on the upper level, Akuha's room down the hall and to the right—into which she and Hayate vanished, without invitation, with barely an acknowledgement of his presence.

He stood there for a few moments, a touch offended, to his surprise, at the abandonment. He knew by now that Akuha had a tendency of shutting herself away when faced with a problem to which no solution seemed clear, but he would liked to have thought that by this point, they had been through enough together for his inclusion in her private sequester. Like Hayate.

Tsukune shuddered. Not to mention, it leaves me alone, now of all times. The lingering traces of Gyokuro still whispered about him in echoes. Her touch upon him. Her silken flesh. Her voice in his ear. Her inviting scent. Things which before had unwittingly charmed his attention, but now repulsed him by their very memory, swelling in the mechanical stillness of the ship. That's another meeting with an ayashi leader gone horribly wrong, he rued.

What to do now? He tried the handle on Akuha's door. Locked. And in her current state, he didn't think it wise to insist upon entry. Outrage, it appeared, had quickly been quelled by the reality of what had transpired, and just now she had looked as a hollow shell. Besides, if she had wanted his presence, she would have invited him in…right?

He pondered this as he made for the only other logical place he could think of: Hayate's room, where he had been permitted to lodge previously. A few stray Fairy Talers passed him on the way, each one, without hesitation, offering him a sharp salute. Perplexing, yet Tsukune hardly noticed, only giving the gestures the most meager consideration.

His destination was on the same level, but as he arrived and reached for the door, he stopped, his mind feverishly occupied, and his feet suddenly turned, deciding to carry him elsewhere. Before he realized it, in his distraction he had ridden the elevator back down to the lower decks, and now stood in front of another door off a side passage.

"Wait, this place…Where did I go?" He rubbed his brow, as he slowly recognized the spot. Opening the door confirmed that it was the old storage room, which he had not glimpsed in quite some time. Flicking on the lights, it became clear that Akuha had kept everything exactly as he remembered. There were the two beds, the drawn curtain between them, the sheets tossed and coverlets sprawled carelessly from the first night of use. The dresser, thrown ajar. Had anyone even been here since?

He stood by the headrest of the bed he and Moka had shared, where her head had last lain; placing a hand on the pillow, tracing its surface, heart leaping in his throat as he momentarily mistook a trick of the light for a gleaming strand of Moka's moon kissed mane.

He lost track of how long he stood there. How long before he sank to the mattress, numb throughout his body, even his wounded limbs, throat tight and fit to burst. Fighting back his heart's anguish with reason, forcing contemplation to offset it, trying not to drown in remorse. Moka was still alive, after all. The only difference now was the uncertainty about his next move. Now that Akuha was seemingly expelled from Fairy Tale, where did that leave them? Amid all this, too, a specific question nagged most persistently.

At length, there was a knock. Tsukune bolted up, the impression of his face left in the pillow, and glanced at the nearby clock. "A whole hour. Did I fall asleep?"

"Did you?" came Hayate's voice as he opened the door. "So, this is where you went. We've been looking for you for a while. Why didn't you wait outside?"

Tsukune blinked. "Oh. Sorry, I didn't realize I was supposed to. It seemed like you guys wanted to be alone. You've been looking for me, you said? Has something happened?"

"No, nothing yet. You had best come with me, though." Tsukune obliged, grabbing his crutch, half eager to leave the room which was now beginning to congeal with aching memory.

As they walked, Hayate explained further. "I managed to get most of the story from Miss Akuha, so I won't burden you with unpleasant questions. I'm truly sorry. I know how much Moka means to both of you. To have something your heart desires just within reach, so very near, and then to have it snatched away…." Here he pressed the button in the elevator. "It is a heavy thing. Still, I can't say something like 'Never would I have imagined such deception from Gyokuro Shuzen'. Not to speak ill of our commander—although I suppose she no longer stands as such—but this impending war seems to be her entire raison d'être, and if she decided that someone else was more suited to take Moka through the process," and here his voice intimated vehement disagreement, "it doesn't surprise me that she would go to such lengths."

"Yeah. In fact, it sounded as if she had made up her mind about this a while ago. That Miyabi," Tsukune growled, half to himself. "He knew, when we spoke. He must have. He was probably laughing the whole time, listening to my confident boasting of rescuing Moka, when he and Gyokuro had no intention of letting that happen."

"As you might have guessed," the other man continued, ignoring the mention of Miyabi, "Miss Akuha has been taking this rather…not well. Perhaps I'm overstepping in telling you this, but I believe that even if it was for Moka's sake, directly defying orders and the chain of command isn't something she's well-equipped for. She's never had to handle such a situation. So, even while trying to configure her next course of action once clear of this island, it's not proving easy; not with her sister once again snatched so cruelly from her grasp."

"And you want me to go in there and talk to her again, I suppose?" He said this grumpily. Why should he be looked to for comfort? It wasn't like he didn't share an equal measure of pain in this matter.

"Actually, it was she who requested you."

He said this just outside the entrance to Akuha's room, and, with Tsukune offering no reply, ushered him inside.

The woman was pacing back and forth briskly, tenderly nursing with a pack of ice the arm which Gyokuro had snared in a crushing vice. Upon sighting her new arrivals, she demanded: "Hey, who told you to leave? Hayate, where was he?"

Tsukune apologized again, but she waved him off distractedly. He could see right away the familiar crinkle in her forehead, the purse of her lips, the wild flames in her narrowed eyes which now transfixed him in their beams. "Sit," she commanded. He did, gingerly taking a place on the bed, though Hayate remained by the door. She didn't seem to mind, focused now on Tsukune, though she kept silent.

Eventually he hesitantly broke the ice. "…Do you think we should go find Gyokuro, try to talk to her? Or if we can sneak past the men outside, we could search for where they're keeping Moka—"

"No point to that. You heard her. Moka was never here." Of course, how could he have forgotten? "She's still with that shit stain Miyabi and our traitorous sister."

He knew there would be hard feelings towards Kahlua after this, but even so, he could not find it within his own heart to hold her accountable, and he said as much. "You once told me what sort of…upbringing you had, and it sounds like Kahlua had a similar experience, so—"

She cut him off, her voice monotone. "A—A similar experience…"

Tsukune suddenly felt Hayate's gaze ghost along the back of his neck, and, puzzled, but with a notion of warning, proceeded cautiously. "I—I'm just saying, I don't know if she's mentally able to disobey orders, from a higher officer or her mother. I wouldn't be too hard on her, is all," he concluded softly.

"Oho, really?" she scoffed.

"I'm just telling you what I've noticed, is all."

"Well, you do seem to be quite up to date on all things Kahlua, don't you."

"I…I'm sorry? I don't follow."

"The engagement! Imagine my shock at learning we're about to have that man in the family, and there you were, practically bored by the announcement. How did you know about it?"

"Oh, that…." Why hadn't he told her of his encounter with Miyabi? Even now, he balked at the thought. Perhaps he had simply wanted to forget what the man had said about Omote, about Akuha being his enemy: concerns that he shared, but had been trying to ignore, to suppress deep within.

Ultimately, he opted for the truth, but related only that Miyabi had approached him, and told him he had been keeping an eye on them, not without a fair share of taunting. "As she said, Gyokuro was having us watched the whole time, I guess," he said sourly, then anxiously glancing at Akuha to see her reaction; as he expected, she was not pleased.

"You spoke to Miyabi? And you just decided to keep this piece of information to yourself?! I could have confronted him myself, dragged him out of whatever stink hole he was slithering in! He wouldn't have been able to hide the truth from me, and I could've made him squeal about everything!"

"S-sorry, I didn't think—"

"No, you didn't. Damn it, even if you don't trust me, I expected you to inform me about any crucial developments regarding my sister!"

Indignant, Tsukune shot back: "Hold on a second. What about you? You knew that Fairy Tale had gone ahead and started using Moka for…whatever that synchronization thing is that Gyokuro mentioned! Which means you at least suspected they were behind her disappearance, too. When were you planning to share that with me?"

"It was not your concern," she said stiffly.

He was getting angry. "Really? So I don't suppose what she was being put through had anything to do with my recent Shinso fevers, either?" Akuha had no answer for that. "Even if the two were unrelated, anything regarding Moka's well-being is my concern, just as much as it is yours."

It was then that Hayate decided to interject himself between them, attempting to cool rising passions. "Alright, now. Let's not fight amongst ourselves. You've both kept things from each other, so you might as well call it even." He gave them a moment before he spoke again, during which Tsukune took a deep breath. "Miss Akuha. What we were talking about before. Do you still intend to go with this course of action?"

She scoffed, blowing a hair out of her face. "Obviously. There is nothing more to consider."

Tsukune couldn't help but notice a fidget that overtook her body as she said this. "What exactly are you guys talking about?" he asked. "What are we considering?"

"The reason Miss Akuha had me fetch you," Hayate said. "She plans to go after Moka herself, to search for wherever Division Two may be keeping her."

The words had barely fled his lips than "I'm coming" had formed on Tsukune's.

Akuha had finally taken a seat, as if to still herself, and laced her fingers together. "Technically, I have no…official authority to keep you as my prisoner anymore," she said, her voice strained. "I really don't care what you decide to do, whether tag along while I search for Moka, or stay here with Gyokuro. Not like you can be much help, in your current condition. But I thought you ought to know, at least. Now you can't complain I don't tell you anything."

"I'm coming," he repeated. "Call me your prisoner or not, whatever the hell you want. I doubt authority had much to do with you taking me on board in the first place. But I won't sit around while she's out there. These injuries will heal fast enough."

Hayate flickered a smile and ran a hand over the back of his neck. "There. See? I told you we could count on him."

"Wait, 'we'?" Tsukune looked to the man in confusion. "You mean, you're coming too, Hayate?"

"This comes as unexpected news?"

"Well, yeah—I mean, no, I guess not, it's just…Aren't you still a member of Fairy Tale?"

Akuha provided her own answer. "Yes, but he is my subordinate, first and foremost. I'm not going to give him up any more than I will my ship."

"She is correct," the man said, inclining his head slightly. "You know how long I've been serving her, Tsukune. I will continue to do so to the end, whichever path she decides to walk."

Once again, Tsukune couldn't feel displeasure at this added company. As 'close' as he and Akuha had become through their various circumstances, it might not fare well for either if they were the only two people on the entire craft. Which raised another point, come to think of it.

"Just one question, though. How are you gonna pull this off? As soon as we're gone, it won't be long before Gyokuro expects her ship back. You're…You're not planning on returning it, are you? That's what you meant."

"Bingo. She intends to have my crew dump me off somewhere and fly back to port. She'll probably split them up and reassign them to the other squads. Well, she's in for a rude surprise."

"But, what about them? Your crew, I mean. I doubt they'd be willing to risk Fairy Tale's wrath just to help a human and a former officer find her sister, and without them, can this ship even function properly?"

"I don't know if you've noticed, Tsukune," Hayate answered, "but many in our division, not just myself, are loyal to their captain above all else in Fairy Tale. Yes, even if she no longer officially holds that office. Think about it. Most of our time is spend on this vessel, going into battle together, far away from this island and Gyokuro Shuzen. Is it any wonder Miss Akuha commands the bulk of her men's loyalty? I suspect we don't have to overworry: many of them will follow her even now, to whatever end."

Akuha, in whom Tsukune expected to glimpse a flash of the old pride at this praise, merely looked distracted and troubled as before.

"Ok, that's comforting, I suppose," he went on, "but you said 'many'. What about those who are opposed to this plan?" He recalled a past conversation overheard among a few of the crew, expressing trepidation and dissatisfaction with their captain's behavior, during her initial mood over Moka's disappearance. "Or what if Gyokuro's goons out there tag along once we depart, to make sure you don't in fact try to pull some escape?"

She then looked at him with the most plain, simplistic expression possible, and said: "Oh, that's easy. Anyone who stands in my way, we kill them all."

This was not all together shocking, although it did take Tsukune a moment to digest. Indeed, at first consideration, he couldn't bring himself to launch a passionate protest; although, he did, a moment later, murmur out a weak "Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"I've expressed my own reservations about it," Hayate said, "but ultimately, we proceed according to my lady's plan."

So their discussion continued. At one point, Tsukune noticed an odd, prominent bulge beneath the fabric of Akuha's bed sheets. He called attention to it, and was only further mystified at the object she reached in and retrieved. Spherical in shape, a shade of silvery blue, divided in two by a narrow slit circumscribing the center; a ring of darkened lights was situated above this slit.

"Crap, that's right, I did put that there," she said, turning the curious artifact over in her palm.

"What is it?" asked Tsukune.

"An interesting little gadget, isn't it," Hayate quipped.

"Don't touch." Akuha's hand flashed out to slap away the top of Tsukune's. "I have no idea what it does, but it was made by an ayashi for ayashi. For all we know, direct contact with a human could trigger something."

Tsukune frowned. "Made by a…" Wait. No, surely it couldn't be. His throat constricted as realization dawned. "Akuha, tell me you didn't. Tell me that's not Gyokuro's delivery."

Even the normally reserved Hayate blanched at the suggestion. No doubt he was further horrified by Akuha's mischievous little smirk.

"Couldn't resist. What, should I have just handed over what she so desperately wanted? Leave myself with no leverage in case she pulled something? Which, I need not remind you, she did. I was planning to wait until Moka was back to hand over the real thing, but…Well, that didn't happen."

"Then what the hell did we hand over?"

"A fake, obviously. I'm not without my talents outside of combat. Gyokuro's got a very suitable facsimile, if I do say so myself."

"It can't fool her forever, though," Tsukune insisted. "You don't think the second she finds out you deceived her she'll—"

"What? Hm? She'll do what? What more can she possibly take from me now?"

"If I may ask," Hayate interjected, "how did you know the device's appearance, in order to replicate it? The case was locked and we did not possess the code."

"Oh but we did. It was spelled out clear as day on the note we handed to the old witch."

"…That would be the note Gyokuro instructed us not to read. Of course." Tsukune sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I guess those orders didn't carry that much weight with you."

"I didn't see the harm in peeking," she said in mock innocence. "Good thing I did, too. It was kind of surprising, how careless Gyokuro was with that information…But maybe she figured that even if I did know, there wasn't actually any harm I could do. Heh. How wrong she was there."

"Maybe not," said Tsukune. "We may have it, but we still don't know what it's for, or how to use it. Right now, we can't do anything, other than, I don't know, annoy her when she discovers the truth. I mean, come on, isn't this just the equivalent of pranking her, like we're little kids?"

Placing the metallic orb down on the table, any little trace of mirth fled from Akuha's face. Her tone grew serious, and she said: "Well, excuse me, for not currently being able to strike at her in a more substantial way. Yes, it's pathetic, that this is the best I can do. Is that what you want to hear? Let me have what victories are left to me, for fuck's sake."

Tsukune had no words to meet her frustrated dare; in fact he wasn't sure she expected any.

The hours waned further. Despite his brief shuteye earlier, he found himself unable to maintain constant attention to what Akuha was saying as the topic changed, more and more only catching bits and strands of sentences, until "…we leave at dawn" perked his ear. There was a concern of equal weight that could not go ignored.

After all, dawn was only a few hours from now, which left precious little time to find where his friends from the Newspaper Club were being held and spring them free.

"You want to what?" was Akuha's opinion on that. "Don't be an idiot. Any time we spend searching the prison complex for their cells is time we should be devoting to Moka. Besides, it's a labyrinth down there. And you don't know their location."

Of course, Tsukune wanted to find Moka as well. "But I'm not going to leave them here," he protested. "Not after I saw what Gyokuro had in store for them. I said it before, that I won't leave them to that fate. Especially with what we're planning! Once Gyokuro catches wind of it, which she obviously will before long, what do you think will happen to them? They'll be dead in a minute, because of my actions."

"Why would she kill them?" Akuha countered. "As long as you're out there with me, you represent a threat to her. Using your classmates as hostages will ensure sure you stay in line, is how she'll see it. But it would be foolish for her to kill them and lose her bargaining chips."

"I'm not going to take that risk! Look, she gave us until tomorrow evening to leave, right? We can use that time to locate Yukari and the others and then quickly steal away before anyone's the wiser."

"And I'm not going to take that risk. We have the freedom now, and the means, to go after Moka. If either of us were to be discovered trying to free prisoners—especially with my arm like this"—she scowled and pressed the ice harder against her limb—"we'd lose even that. No, it puts too much in jeopardy. I can't allow any sort of rescue mission."

"That's not good enough!" The others were startled as Tsukune's hand slammed against the bedpost; he winced at the recoil the impact sent rippling through his marred shoulder. "What, you think I'm going to assume anything about Gyokuro's behavior after all this?"

Akuha's voice began to rise again to match his. "I don't care what you assume. My decision is made!"

"And I don't give a damn about your decision! We're not leaving without them!"

"Yes, we are. Ugh, why do you have to be such a stubborn ass?! Why can't you see how an attempt like this could make any hope of achieving our goal go up in flames, before it's even begun?"

They were both shouting now, and already Tsukune was through with patience. "Well, you know, maybe if you hadn't barged in an attacked Gyokuro like a rabid animal, we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place! Ever think about that? Even if we do escape, we have no clue where to look for Moka, and now she may be gone for good!"

For this, she had no answer, and Tsukune was suddenly very aware of the potent hush that settled over the room. The full weight of his words only now caught pace with him, and he felt a warm embarrassment in his cheeks.

Before he could say anything more, she turned to her attendant and muttered: "Hayate, give us a minute."

"O-of course," he said, nodding, eyes flickering between the two, not truly wanting to depart and hoping they would not tear each other to shreds in his absence. "I'll see to it that we're prepared to launch at your word. Gyokuro's men will also need to be dealt with….Excuse me." And with that, he ducked out.

They did not speak to each other for a moment more, merely letting the air settle as they both tended to wounded appendages. Tsukune was the first to break the stillness, contrite and getting straight to it. "I know. If you hadn't come back when you did, Gyokuro and I probably would've….Well, I'm sorry for what I said. I'm grateful you stopped it from happening, only…." And here he paused, chewing his lip, heart nervous with the question. "Only, why did you?"

In truth, in ordering Hayate away, Akuha had been preparing to unleash a storm of verbal fury upon the boy over his comment. She did not expect to have to provide such an account. Even now, when she spoke, her voice trembled in tempered rage mingled with soft confusion. "W-why did I…what?"

"You know very well what. I'm just kinda…baffled. What did it matter to you if I slept with Gyokuro? I seem to recall you once telling me to 'go for it.' Again, don't get me wrong, I'm thankful you prevented it, but I don't understand why. Why you put everything that you have on the line, even Moka's safety, just for…for…."

As he went on, a notion was taking shape concurrently in his skull, and he realized he couldn't find the proper words to proceed.

Perhaps Akuha sensed the path he was treading, and in the recognition her eyes bugged out of her head. "You're overthinking it! Like I said before, it would've been wrong to indulge in such things a house of Alucard, especially an ayashi and a human—that would be sacrilege."

"You're one to talk. Anyway, Gyokuro didn't believe that was the reason, and quite frankly, neither do I."

"Believe it or don't, I don't care. What is with this interrogation, anyway? Am I on trial? I thought I was doing something nice, but apparently I have to have an ulterior motive. Who cares what the reason is? It's done! It was a moment of carelessness. I wasn't thinking. I don't care what she threatened you with, she could not simply have her way, taking yet again things that she has no right to!"

Amidst her rambling his final question had fully formed, preposterous though it seemed. But what would it mean? His mind dashed back, racing through his recent past, examining with piercing intent every event, overturning every stone. Searching for any whisper or hint that might now provide some much needed clarity. It would fly in the face of everything he thought he knew about the young woman, if true. She despised his kind. He was her prisoner, her enemy. She had only ever had eyes for Moka.

On her pause for breath he asked in forced, teasing jest: "You like me, don't you."

A long pause, before at last she grumbled: "Don't be a fucking idiot," though her cheeks were hot and her eyes diverted to the floor.

"That's not an answer—ah!"

Further speculation was abruptly stifled by a vicious shout that tore from Tsukune's throat, followed by heavy, panting gasps for air. The complete humiliation that further whitened Akuha's already pale cheeks was instantly wiped clean, and she jumped as the boy doubled over, attempted to stand, and crumpled as his legs gave way, one hand clutching the table, the other strangling the collar of his shirt.

In a moment, he half noticed her presence over him. Both knew, by now, what this portended. "Now?" she gasped. "Of all times, now?"

Tsukune could offer no response, flares and explosions already igniting his veins into a wild conflagration. He had been due for another episode of Shinso fever, and had expected it, but not this soon. His head pounded with the blows of a hammer, as if splitting flesh and bone, until all else was smothered by the maelstrom he had grown all too familiar with.

When next he opened his eyes during a momentary lull, the eye of the storm, he was no longer on the floor; he had been shifted over to the bed. Through the dim, filmy haze he could make out Akuha looming over his side. With this temporary reprieve, he gathered enough presence of mind for a quick utterance: "T-They're using Moka again—nng!—Are you still going to leave me in the dark about what her purpose is? Even now?" That was all he could manage before more titanic waves arced and peaked and crashed down in violent flood once more, sweeping him back into his tempest.

Shedding light on a mystery, however, was not Akuha's current concern. There was no time to waste. Awkward situation or not, she had to absolve him of the scorching flames. She had learned not to wait until the attack subsided to begin siphoning the youki-infested blood. She straddled his chest, a motion too much repeated to be embarrassing, undoing the top button on his shirt. The exposed flesh burned black, the jagged markings of the Shinso carving out a path along his prone body. She ghosted the lines with her fingertips, her own breath coming rapidly to match her heartbeats.

"Hurry," he rasped, anxious for the familiar puncture to provide respite. It was not long in coming, and he inhaled sharply as the white fangs made anchor in the base of his neck, just above the clavicle. Her lips wetted the searing skin, and while he continued to convulse and buck beneath her, she pressed against his shoulder and pinned him down firmly. The taste rushed over her tongue, a burst of flavorful ecstasy: human blood mingled with the taste of Shinso, dark and sweet in its course down her throat, inflaming her own passions. All troubles were momentarily quelled as she indulged in this delight, attacking her meal with an unprecedented voracity, driving her imagination wild with purely physical sensations.

Tsukune's concern flashed briefly to Moka, uttering a silent wish for her safety during this ordeal, before the sheer rapture overwhelmed all else. Every drop of toxic youki was funneled to that one tingling spot, rushing up from his fingertips, toes, and chest, leaving behind weary limbs and bones in its wake.

So greedily did Akuha sip, it seemed the pain was over barely after it had begun. Breath began to return steadily, the last echoes of the storm broiling in his chest, the spinning and dancing lights fading from his vision as his focus gradually gained strength. He blinked, flexed his toes, his fingers—A subdued yelp followed this, as did a dulcet, half-repressed laugh upon repeating the action. His hands had fallen on something soft, and pliable, and he continued to blink the haze away in order to determine its nature.

"Quit it!" came the voice, and very shortly, he could see Akuha above him, sitting up straight on his lap, biting her lip and swatting at his hands, which had found themselves on her waist. He mumbled a quick apology and let go. "There," she said, wiping her lips, now flushed a vibrant stain of red. "Good as new. Hey, hey! You awake? It's over." Upon seeing that he was still conscious, she let free a bitter laugh. "Of course that's our luck. Everything I've worked for goes to hell, and it just has to be then that they start her on another cycle. Rubbing it in my face."

Her tone grew darker and angrier as she spoke. Shifting abruptly on her seat, the motion elicited a sharp hiss from the boy. She frowned, and did it again. Poking against the back of her pants she felt a generous rise; she tilted her neck to glimpse the pitched tent, fighting to contain the eager erection straining to burst free. "As usual."

Chewing his underlip to suppress the sudden wave of want coursing through his body, Tsukune had half a mind to remove Akuha, and make that the end of it. But he did not. No, this time he lay still, watching, waiting, all at once frightfully unsure of his own desires and intentions. Each successive fever left his mind in a thick fog, and this was no different. Her gaze clouded over as she turned to face him, a ferocity billowing deep in those fiery lamps that did nothing to soothe the lust the Shinso blood had stirred in his lower belly.

Once again, Akuha's hand found its way to his shoulder, this time gliding along and slipping inside his shirt, thumb grazing against a familiar scar along his pectoral, just before pressing her damp palm squarely on solid muscle. A fang nicked her painted lip, and her glistening eyes blazed the color of her cheeks. Her voice came low, a harsh whisper wavering with sorely tested control. "Everything…Gyokuro has robbed me of everything…Within a single night, she just snaps her fingers, and dares….My position, my authority…Moka. She even thought she could have…No, I won't let her. Like hell she's going to take it all away!"

Like a woman possessed, she tore his shirt apart at the middle and put her fangs back to work on his chest, nipping and pricking until little dots of red freckled Tsukune's flesh.

No pain for him, either; her bites only invigorated him, each new mark feeding a new storm, each aggressive press of her mouth sweeping away any residual ache from his wounds. He tensed, air seizing in his throat, as she slid aside, reached back and slipped a hand inside his pants, deftly flicking them open before clutching his cock in her strong grip, her cool, silken palm an intense contrast to the heated flesh.

"Wait," he mumbled, anxiety's call echoing even as it was dragged away. "Are you sure?"

"Too much talking," she growled, placing her other hand over his mouth, one finger dipping just inside, brushing against his tongue. He moaned into the delicate gag as she went to work, her fist bobbing up and down along his shaft, thumb pushing against the silken head.

She needed this, he could tell. As did he. A realization that startled him. In the end, though, it wasn't just Akuha: Fairy Tale had now tried to take everything from him, too. Friends, home, control of his own body, love; and with the clock on a reunion with Moka reset to the very start, all his strength and spirit had evaporated, leaking forth as clearly as the blood Akuha had drawn. In a twisted way, his original captor was now the sole source of comfort left to him—if indeed it could be called that—and in the heat of the desperate moment he fully intended to submerge himself in the Lethean waters.

And so, he offered no further protests, merely giving the digit in his mouth an equally aggressive bite. A shout tore from the vampire as she withdrew, staring incredulously at the appendage before growling and smacking Tsukune across the face. An action followed by prompt descent of her lips to entrap his with a feral hunger. He could taste copper on her tongue as it forced entry into his mouth, and as a fang caught on his lip, more joined the mix. Breaths quickened, her hand catching on his sweat-slicked throat, his plunging down to return to her waist, clutching the white fabric of her undershirt that now stood as obstacle; and both of their cravings swelled, feeding off each other.

Not since the first night had Tsukune's passions swerved so far south, but no thoughts or sense of normalcy could stop them now. He devoured her lips with matching vigor, bare hips beginning to convulse with shallow thrusts up into her grip. A brief break in the kiss, and her shirt was gone, leaving snow-white flesh on full display. Lips crashed together again, his fingers returning to her sides, exploring to her smooth back even as she dragged her nails down his neck, over his clavicle, all the way to his stomach.

It wasn't long before their pants had joined the growing pile on the floor. By now Akuha's manual ministrations had Tsukune already seething for release. But she was far from finished. Mounting him once more, she slipped her underwear aside, plunging down until he was fully embedded in her hungry gash. No finesse here. They slammed together, grinding against each other, Tsukune's cock stabbing out wet squelches with each stroke. Any doubts had fled from them, replaced only with bestial urge, the sweltering heat of primal need that broiled the air around them.

Choked gasps and muttered "fucks" flew past Akuha's lips. Her spine arched, her head tossed back, already hazy vision obscured by night-black strands that matted to her feverish brow. She had been long absent this sensation, and now, for all her vehement denial, she counted herself fool for waiting; the only shadow cast over the event being the circumstances that had led to this coupling. Possessive hands anchored on his chest, clenching rippling muscle, wiping the light sheen forming between his pecs, tracing the scarred ridges cut into the skin, a couple of which she had put there herself. Violent markings. Her markings. The thought gave her an added thrill. All her desire for the human was crashing like floodwaters through the dam forth after ages of abstinence, and her sopping passage clamped violently around the invading cock. No finesse here. Just bucking hips, tightening coils, mingled juices, and hitched breaths elicited by the sheer force displayed. Neither held back, even Akuha, for all her inhuman strength, and Tsukune did not complain. No longer purely human himself, he absorbed her body's blows with voracious appetite, muscles drawn tight and firm – A sculpted hybrid.

With a newly inflamed strength, he sat up with Akuha. Though the poisonous fever had vanished, the vampiric blood remained, and now worked its influence on the boy's cravings, both the normal and the less so: on pure instinct, he lunged forward, latching his teeth onto the pale flesh of her shoulder. She gasped under the bite, although, his canines were yet mortal, and did not protrude nearly enough to pierce the skin, despite his apparent intention. An intention which shocked her, even as her pussy was pounded and stretched until most rational thought had been fucked away. But the shock quickly subsided, feeding further her rabid excitement.

"So, you want blood, do you?" she crooned breathily. "Very well, let me help." Yanking him away by the hair, she held her arm out before her and sank her teeth in the skin, drawing forth tiny twin pools of crimson, leaking and sliding down her arm. Immediately Tsukune suctioned his mouth to the wound, eyes shut tight, nostrils flared, throat smoothly gulping down each drop. Akuha couldn't restrain a laugh, interrupted by more ragged gasps elicited by his pillaging cock. Down flew her head, open, panting lips sliding across his neck and firm shoulder. Her guard down, her focus enraptured, she was unprepared to find herself flipped rudely on her back a moment later, pinned to the hot, damp sheets, Tsukune's hips a frantic blur as he sated his cresting passions in her lithe body. Every thrust buried him deeper, deeper still, their pelvises colliding with wet, smutty slaps; the air around them choking with the growing scent of their union, the heady musk of their sexes.

For him, animal instinct had taken full control. A trance initiated by the earlier fever and nourished by raw emotion until he could no longer see anything but the girl beneath him: his captor, his enemy, whose ankles now locked around his back and drew him further into her cunt. His mouth, still questing, found one of her breasts, gnawing the pale flesh, lips sealing around a nipple, suckling away, sending shivers rippling to her center, stealing her breath from parted pink lips.

He was close, he could feel it. The pressure in his belly surged, the knot winding tighter, his release churning in his tensing sack. Nails raked down his front: thin, precise fingers clawing at his throat and nipples. Hands used so often for killing, honed to perfection in their craft, working now to enhance his coming euphoria. Oh, so close, and he told her.

"W-wait," her hurried tone came back, "I'm almost th-ther-aahhh!" Her pitch crescendoed on the last word, and she came undone. Curving into an arch, breasts thrust into the sky, legs flung wide, ankles shaking in perfect rhythm with her hips; she spasmed and gushed around him, and in her ecstatic grip she tugged him to his own finish.

"Do it out-outside! No risking a-anything."

Her warning barely broke through what traces of awareness he had left, but it was enough. Out he slipped, shaft painted with her essence, and just in time. With hardly a touch or a stroke he erupted, firing off round after round indiscriminately. Too intense—The sensation was too intense. Overpowering. He could feel his eyes rolling back, his pulse pounding, blood boiling with its supernatural potency—

His world went dark; he collapsed against her, and drifted off.


It was a striking clatter that woke him; at least, he thought it was. Opening his eyes to equal darkness as he that had just known, he glanced around fruitlessly for its source, before coming to consider it part of the abrupt conclusion of his dream. A dream, which, already, was distancing itself from recollection. What was it, again? Moka had been there, he thought. Akuha, too. But beyond that…nothing.

Instead, he tried to let himself waken. There was no time for sleep now. In the process of clearing the haze, the immediate past did rush back to him. That's right. Calmed though he was, the blaze of blood and lust had joined he and Akuha together again, and he…With a blush, he realized he was in the same bed. Naked, apparently, if the chill on his flesh was any sign. He shifted, and rubbed against a distinct patch of damp on the mattress. That needed no time to wonder at, and his blush grew deeper.

His eyes were adjusting, and he could see the shadowed outlines of the room's furnishings. Where were his clothes, again? Probably on the floor, if the flashes of wild memory were accurate. He groaned: he didn't feel like moving, despite his self-admonishments. Who knew how long he had been out this time? And with their window of escape so near. He couldn't spot the clock from here; why had Akuha allowed him to sleep? Was she planning to wake him in time for their departure?

For that matter, the most pressing question now occurred to him: where was she? He had no company in the bed. N-not that I expected her to stay, he noted. Even so, her absence did not raise alarm. He and Moka had woken last time, alone, as well. Whatever it was they had just engaged in, whatever it ultimately meant, Akuha was not one to linger.

Now, c'mon, move. Get UP!

His attempts at self-motivation were failing, when his ears caught a subdued sound. A click. He paused, unsure of the noise. A moment later, his breathing silent in the dark—There it was again.

It came from the door. He looked over; the thin band of light from the hall outlined the frame. And it was widening. Ever so slightly, as if someone was hesitant to enter.

"Hello? Who's there?" he called out, though it came as a whisper.

His voice proved the trigger for what followed. Light leapt in as the door was flung wide, blinding the boy. In slipped a shadow. The mad rush of feet over the carpet. A whistle in the air. And suddenly Tsukune found himself under the edge of cruel, cold steel. He hadn't a moment to react, nor terror time to register; time seemed to halt as the shadow perched over his nude form, sword pressing deeper against his throat, the muscles in the arm gripping the blade tensing in preparation to slice. Still reeling from the brilliance dazzling his eyes, Tsukune could barely manage squinting, nor make out any features on the assailant. He was utterly frozen, breath stopped, mind blank.

In reality, it was just a second later when a muffled, but ghastly scream ripped from the figure's throat, before being cut abruptly short. He—for indeed it was a man's scream—lurched back, toppling down to the floor with a surprisingly delicate thump. Now the room's light was flicked on, and once Tsukune had adjusted to this added radiance, he yanked the sheets up over his body.

There, between two crewmembers, armed and leveling their weapons at the floor, Akuha stood, looming over the crumpled pile of black robes like a terrible demon; a great shadow seemed to seethe from her petite frame until it darkened all around her. Her arm hung outstretched, an odd posture until Tsukune noticed his would-be killer was missing his head, twitching in his death throes at the silent cut of the Jigen-tou.

"Looks like he was alone," she was saying to her men. "Alright, let's get going back to the hangar to secure the other two and make another sweep of levels one and two. If there are any more, we have to ensure they don't go after any critical systems." As she spoke, the floor gave a violent heave, rocking them off balance and almost dislodging Tsukune from his modesty. Akuha didn't seem fazed, however; steadying herself on the dresser, she glowered at her soldiers. "Go, now! I'll be down there in a second. Oh, and take this one. My room doesn't need a headless corpse as new decoration."

They stammered their obedience, seizing hold of the felled attacker, saluted, and hustled from the room.

"Get dressed," were the next words out of her mouth. She strode across the room, hunting for Tsukune's discarded clothes and flinging them to him haphazardly. "You need to be ready in case we're hit again. Can you walk? Gah, where's your damn crutch? Oh, right there."

"W-wait a minute. Stop. STOP!" His protests were stymied by the torn shirt tossed over his head. Tearing it off, he sputtered: "Where have you been? Who was that guy? What the hell is going on this time?"

"It was Gyokuro."

"It was—what? What was Gyokuro?"

"Everything, as it turns out." She said it without pause, almost with dull acceptance. "Those other two attackers I mentioned? We apprehended them, and they spilled their guts to us before, well, spilling the rest. They were her goons, the three of them, and any others who might have snuck aboard. If there are any. On that our informants were silent."

"You're saying she sent them to kill us?"

"I suppose after her fucking dragons failed to do the job, she felt more direct steps were needed. If you can call sending her assassins to stick us in the dead of night direct. It's fortunate I was up. He was a tengu, skilled in the killing arts. No ordinary ayashi."

Tsukune was beginning to feel somewhat dazed. "Her dragons…What? Did one of them tell you that? How could she be responsible for that?"

"Enemy Zero. I told you how she could reverse its pull. As vast as its range is for detection, so it is when she exerts her own youki. Considering how close we were to the island at the time, it's no wonder she was able to reach us. Its effects vary, as I told you, but those simple Graoullians were perfect for collaring. All she needed was a few pets to try and bring us down—Hey, don't just sit there, hurry up!"

He realized he was still naked, and made to remedy that. "She failed, though," he mumbled as he slipped on his shirt.

"Right. Which means she was probably plotting this from the moment we arrived. Can you believe it? Feeding us, humiliating me, all while thinking up the best way to stab me in the back."

"But, why would she do that? Why would she want you dead? It can't just be because you attacked her, since you say the dragons were her doing too. I just don't get it. She always spoke of you as her own daughter."

"And you believe Gyokuro would never kill her daughters?" she asked coldly.

By this time, Tsukune had dressed and followed Akuha out of the room, her stride slightly tempered as he tried to keep pace. "That said, I don't know what her damn reason was for this. But it doesn't matter now. Every moment we delay here keeps us in danger. We're taking off and putting this place to our rudder; then we can determine the next move."

A few steps more, and Akuha noticed that Tsukune had lagged behind. In fact, he had utterly stopped, and was staring ahead, alarm shining in his eyes. "Taking off? Wait, we're not in the air yet, are we? That heave from before—we're still on the island, right?!"

"Huh? No, I ordered them to depart as soon as we extracted the information. Fortunately all preparations had already been made. Cleaning up the rest of the guards on the dock was no hassle. Why, what's your problem?"

"I'll tell you my problem. My friends are still down there!"

"That again? Didn't we have this discussion before? Remember what I said? It. Is. A. Labyrinth. You don't even have any idea where they're being kept. We're not turning back, especially now that we've been seen fleeing, which Gyokuro will surely learn about if she hasn't already."

She had hardly finished explaining than Tsukune whisked past her, with surprising speed for his condition. "I don't care about that," he snarled, "I can't leave them behind!" He was zooming forward on his crutch now, fast as he could go, only one concern firmly stamped upon intention. It had not been so long since they left the ground, if the initial rumbling was any indication. He would race to the hangar, and try to force the airship back around to the docks. Or, if not, surely they were still close enough that he could make the leap—To hell with his injury!

By the time he reached the destination, however, Akuha still shouting behind him, it was clear that that ship had quite literally sailed. While the island still loomed in view from the rear panes, it was shrinking by the minute into the distance a few hundred yards away. Already it would have been impossible even for Akuha to open the hangar and cross the gap, let alone a hobbled human.

Another wound added to the mix, now. It had happened so fast. Mizore, Yukari, all of them, he had abandoned them. "She's going to kill them," he intoned, certain if not for his support he would have sunk to his knees. "Gyokuro has no reason to keep them alive, now that we've evaded her assassins and fled from her clutches."

"Don't be ridiculous. Nothing has changed." Akuha's voice echoed faintly, as if she were further than the two steps away where she stood. "You're still alive, as am I, which means you're still a threat to her. Well, maybe not a threat, but you can be a thorn in the side when you put your mind to it, a thing I'm certainly aware of. She won't kill them, I'm positive." She turned to the helmsman at the wheel to give him his orders. "Take us down to the clouds, they can cover our escape if we're followed. Speed, eighty-two knots, hard starboard tack."

"Aye, ma'am," he complied, and she patted his shoulder.

Her attempts at assurance, however, had the opposite effect on Tsukune; something snapped within him, and, bolting up, he whirled to face her and slammed his fist against one of the panels on the walls, bashing several buttons and switches at once. The screen flashed and changed its display, upon which Akuha, showing remarkable serenity, merely fiddled with the interface and set the screen back to its original state. This action, in all its simplicity, only drove Tsukune on more, and, possessed by rage, he grappled with the lapel of her coat, pulling her within an inch of his penetrating glare; she did not flinch, but met his eyes point blank. Nor did he falter at the grim clicking of bolts being slid back as the guards around them who were not occupied with operating the craft—and even these had stopped to stare—sped behind Tsukune and took aim at his back.

He had not forgotten they were not alone, he simply hadn't cared. Orders of "Step away from the captain, sir!" assailed his ears, yet he felt no fear. A touch of surprise, perhaps ('Sir?' What's that about?) but no fear. All the same, his spike of fury was fast eroding, leaving him deflated in the relative silence that waited upon his next movement.

"Stand down," Akuha commanded placidly. The men glanced amongst themselves nervously, then, receiving a further nod from her, broke formation and moved away.

Gingerly, she removed Tsukune's rigid grip. In truth, she thought, he looked pathetic. Beaten down, defeated, robbed of the buoyant light he always seemed to possess. Unfamiliar territory awaited her as she tried to assuage his rabid guilt. "Listen to me. You a choice before you. An impossible choice, if I know you at all. Your friends, or Moka. One or the other. We could not remain to retrieve the prisoners and hope to make a clean getaway and hunt for Moka. Now, I don't know if there's any part of you, however buried or muted, that recognizes this truth, but I need you to find it. Ultimately, I made the decision, and you didn't have to. Let that balm your guilt, if nothing else will. What's done is done, and we need to focus on the task ahead. And, if we do find ourselves back here in the future, when we're better equipped and Moka is at my side, if you wish to steal into the underground facility, and take any risks you might incur in tracking them down…I won't stop you."

The ship roared and rumbled, angling against the wind and turning back towards the island for a brief moment to begin its descent. As of yet their escape appeared unhindered, and it was the crew's intention to vanish before the dawn had fully broken. Motes of light simmered at horizon's edge, bands of saffron and violet heralding the newly-waking sun, though vast blankets of cloud below assured that only up here would the day bloom in full.

But Tsukune and Akuha barely noticed, the former gaping at the latter in desperate confusion. Grapple as he might, he could find no explanation for this. "How…? How are you keeping so calm about this? You? Moka's been snatched from you again, you've lost your position, everything you have, and been expelled from Fairy Tale by a mother who…well, look at where we are now! You're not—You shouldn't be this…together. How do you do it? You were just freaking out earlier."

"Tch, I had a momentary lapse in composure, that's all. But now, I know who my enemy is. I know the situation. I know who to kill. I like when things are nice and simple like that, don't you?"

She said it so casually, so plainly….This was not the same person slinking and sulking in her chambers after her sister's disappearance. This was more like the Akuha he had known, and feared. The stalwart, fearless warrior whose infamy had reached even his ears; who had outwitted him and Moka back in Yomotsu, had taken the Miao manor by storm. For the first time, truly, he found himself glad—eager, even—to ally with this erstwhile foe. Her shining confidence in the face of this crisis was refreshing. Inspiring.

Or it would be…if he wasn't strangled by chains stronger than any he had known under her watch. There was to be no consolation about Kurumu and the others, not from Akuha, not from himself. He had escaped, safe and intact, and left them behind, to the whims of an enemy who would now surely want revenge for his actions. No matter what Akuha said, this fact was unchangeable. What would he tell Ms. Ageha, or Tsurara? If only I'd gone after them during the night, instead of….No. No time for those thoughts. Blame could not be assigned to her, who now, in his silence, gave a quick nod and left to focus on the task at hand. Whether or not it should be assigned to him mattered little, for he heaped it heavy upon his shoulders anyway.

Closer and closer they drew to the cloud layer, until it seeped around the hull and enveloped them, their ship a drop in the vast ocean of grays and blues. Colors hued darker in time with their descent—storm clouds, these were, holding promise of rain for whatever land lay below. Although it was morning, vision from the gondola was limited to ashy wisps and mists, the pilot relying only on a westward heading to navigate.

"And for the record"—Akuha's voice suddenly in the boy's ear as she sidled up again beside him—"She's not my mother. Not before, and certainly not now that she's pulled this stunt."

"R-right, sorry. I guess she's not doing your relationship any favors."

A pause. Side by side at the window, they stared together into impenetrable obscurity, until at last she let out a huff and said, grimly: "Be that as it may, it seems one by one, my relations can't help but betray me." Her face was hidden behind curtains of black, and she did not turn an inch.

"You're talking about Kahlua again, aren't you?"

"So what if I am? I already know your opinion on this, so spare me. It doesn't change what she's done. Now, Gyokuro. Kokoa, too.

"Kokoa? When did she ever betray you?"

"Isn't it obvious? She decided to turn from the family and fight alongside you and your friends."

"But, so did Moka, and we've been squaring off with Fairy Tale long before Kokoa even came to Youkai Academy."

"Moka's upbringing was not solely with the Shuzen family. All her moving around left her naïve and unprepared to guard against—"

Here she stopped, but Tsukune had had enough dialogues with her to know where this was going. "Guard against what? Me?"

"Hmph. All of you. Getting in her head and corrupting her."

"That still the story you're telling yourself?" On this point, she chose to remain silent, and he sighed and sagged onto his crutch. "Some things will never change, I guess."

Regardless of his frustration, he was still genuinely surprised. To think back on it now, Akuha had never talked about her youngest sister in all the time he had been here; never even mentioned her, from what he could recall. At first, he had been curious what their relationship was. With Kahlua, he observed a respectful harmony of sorts. With Moka, well, that relationship was another story. But, the third sister?

Kokoa Shuzen. He remembered the first time he had met her. As bizarre an encounter as any he'd had with ayashi at school, and definitely reminiscent of his and Moka's introduction. Where might Kokoa be now? The last he'd seen her…Wow, before their departure for China and the Wong Family manor. Had it really be that long? Assuming nothing had disrupted the situation on their end, Kokoa was likely still to be….

Wait. Yes, that was it! How could he have forgotten?

His eyes lit up at the idea, his spirit briefly buoyed by a rising flame of hope. Even with this much time having passed, Kokoa might very well still be with Ruby, and surely they had rejoined Mikogami at the school….Perhaps Touhou Fuhai had made his way there as well! Did he dare wish? If Akuha would fly them to Youkai Academy, they could reconvene, amass their strength, have the resources to go after both Moka and his imprisoned friends at once. His original plan had been to find Touhou Fuhai anyway, so why not continue along that path?

Bubbling with enthusiasm, he related his thoughts to her.

"Are you kidding?" she scoffed dryly. "Sure, it's a sound idea, in theory, and might help Moka's retrieval go more smoothly, but what makes you think I'd set foot in a place where I'd be set upon by two of the three dark lords at the same time? I appreciate the vote of confidence, but I'm not quite strong enough to defend myself and my crew from that level of combined power. Or, could that be exactly what you were hoping for? Hm, I wonder…."

Tsukune was hot in denial. "Not even close. Are you kidding? I'm in this with you a hundred percent."

No answer as she discussed the matter internally. Then, aloud: "Well, assuming you're being straight with me, I'll take it under consideration. In the meantime, we're not changing course. I want at least a day's distance between us and Gyokuro, ideally more. So get comfortable, Tsukune; we're skybound for a while longer."

He hummed his assent, no less anxious, but finding, at least, the very bottom rung of hope to cling to. Who knew what condition he would find Kurumu and the others in when he returned as liberator? He could sense it now: he would be a mass of harrowed nerves for the duration of the flight.

The hours muddled by, miring the boy in a thick morass of anticipation and impatience. Outside, the sky remained invisible, peeking every so often from behind the endless cloud layers before mischievously scurrying off to hide again. Akuha had moved along to the adjacent navigation room, leaving Tsukune alone at the aft of the gondola, fidgeting and shuffling and trying to maintain some semblance of emotional equilibrium. Eventually, she departed the hangar for another sweep of the ship.

Ugh, this wait was torturous! Nerves were growing restless, buzzing. Nothing to see out there but the same old haze. He had to move about, in the meantime. Where to, then? To join Akuha? No, she was busy, and was eventually to return anyway.

Hayate? But he did not know where the man was. Akuha had mentioned something about a pressure relief valve in an engine car, but Tsukune had never been to that part of the ship. Well, he supposed he could at least look. Exploration could provide a welcome distraction, and if Hayate wasn't too preoccupied, perhaps they could chat for a while. Anything to take his mind off things.

His feet were in aching motion before he had even finished the thought. It would be a long hike, especially with his injuries, but he could manage.

The crew currently on duty hardly glanced his way as he walked by. As they had thus far been successful in their escape, the furious urgency of earlier had dissipated, but they couldn't relax just yet. Casual conversation passed among them, hushed murmurs and orders and laughs. Several met his eye and nodded respectfully, reminding him of the salutes he had received earlier. The peculiarity of the gestures now struck him. Why were they affording him such politeness? Addressing him as sir for that matter?

A shout rang from Navigation—then an earsplitting boom—

And Tsukune lost his footing, stumbling and crashing into the helmsman before he could inhale, slamming them both into the wheel where they crumpled atop each other.

The pain was not so great as he might have expected, though he couldn't say the same for the man who had cushioned his fall, taking a crutch to the throat in the process. He was out cold. Another pushed Tsukune aside to take his place. Everyone was shouting, those who had kept their balance now running about. Rising from his heap, Tsukune craned his neck to see most of them heading towards the windows where he had been before. Akuha only now returned, and, with a grim purpose clouding her usual pallor, dashed back to the radars and altimeters and radios of Navigation.

Tsukune joined her with all the grimacing haste he could muster, just as another blast echoed somewhere above. Stealing a glance over the heads of those gathered at the windows, he still saw nothing but clouds. "What the hell was that?" he demanded.

Akuha shot an impatient glare at her subordinates gathered around. "That's what I'm hoping to find out. Well?"

One officer, an older man with a doughy face and sweaty, distracted hands, gestured at a round screen, the bottom of which displayed several red dots flickering into view. "Three of them, looks like!" he shouted in a voice that was unnecessarily loud, even for the occasion. He pointed back out the rear window, where people still huddled. "The clouds are blocking 'em, whatever they are."

"Damage report?"

Another answered, running off something about frames and shear wires, most of which was foreign to Tsukune and of little interest.

"More dragons, you think, ma'am?" fretted the first.

"Doubtful. For one thing, they wouldn't show up on our equipment. Besides, only the greatest species would be able to hit us with such force, and who knows if their kind even remains in the world today? If Gyokuro had such a prize, she wouldn't waste them on this….No, she's not that redundant."

Gulps went around the room at the insinuation. The second man voiced the worries of all. "You're thinking the Commander is behind this, then?"

"Who else? She was responsible for the last attempt on our lives, and now that we've escaped, no doubt she's out for blood."

"Hold on a second," Tsukune interjected, commanding instant attention. "You're jumping to conclusions a bit fast, aren't you? I mean, it's been how long since we took off—half the day? We didn't encounter any trouble until now, which means we got away clean. We weren't followed. So how would anyone have known where we were by now? Surely even her range doesn't extend this far?"

Akuha had to ponder that one for a moment, although the time for words over action was quickly dissipating. "She could have put a tracker on us while we were grounded. Not on the hull; she'd know we would have spotted that. It would have to be somewhere on board, while her men were dicking around my vessel. In which case, it could be anywhere…Gah, it doesn't matter now! If it's another ship, we're already on their radar—Ancestors know how they could catch up to us. But we're sitting ducks as long as we're in the air, even with these clouds."

Another thunderous boom, and just outside the window, something streaked by like a dark lightning bolt, nearly grazing the car before vanishing beyond the veil. Whatever it was, they were out of time.

"Red alert, all hands to stations!" Her officers dispersed. To the replacement at the helm, as well as the man at the portside wheel and panels which adjusted the ship's altitude, she shouted orders to descend. "Take us down, full speed."

"B-but, ma'am, we'll lose the cloud cover—!"

"It's not doing us any good anyway. Go on! We'll be in better position once we're on the ground."

Watching the men, it did not surprise Tsukune in the least that there were no further objections. Her orders were absolute.

But no orders could alter the design of the airship: descent would not be quick.

Meantime, Tsukune needed a better vantage point. Those cluttered previously at the rear windows had fanned out, either to participate in the landing or to watch out of the side of the car, and he took up the vacancy in the back. The ship inclined, and he gripped the railing to steady himself. Fortunately, there appeared to be a brief lull in the assault from their pursuers. Perhaps they assumed their opening salvo had done the job…But then, it would only be a matter of time before they decided to investigate, to make certain. Any minute now, Tsukune mused, scanning the sky.

Already gloomy, even more natural light trickled from the ship as it broke free of the clouds, diving under the overcast canopy. What people inhabited the region miles below would definitely miss the sun today, he thought.

All was relatively still in the gondola, the only noise the rumble of the engines and the shuffling of the crew as they waited with baited breath. Jittered nerves seemed to infect the ship and excite the air, crackling like electricity.

With ghostly silence, their fears soon came to pass. Like a sea monster breaking through the waves it parted the veil, smooth, cold and elongate: the bow of an airship. Two more followed close on its flanks, filling Tsukune's vision as they emerged from the ethereal strata, each larger by far than the SSO1. Swarming around each, gliding with menacing intent, were flocks of dragons. The same breed as they had possessed, go figure.

"We have a problem!" he loudly announced. All eyes swung his way. Akuha urged on the helmsman and rushed to Tsukune's side.

This was, in fact, his first time observing vessels belonging, presumably, to other Fairy Tale squads. Not a great deal of variation among them – Some different insignia inscribed along the hull in greens and blacks and yellows…And decked out along the sides of their control cars with what appeared alarmingly like primed torpedo tubes.

Akuha swore, and began commanding the crew with her gaze locked on their pursuers. The pilot careened the craft a few degrees left just as the barrage resumed from the first ship, a missile flying past their starboard. Yet there were still other ships, and another missile impacted the hull once again, thundering above their heads.

"More speed, damn it! Two of them are still reloading. We only have a minute before we get hammered again. Full bore to port, now!"

"What, we're just running?!" Tsukune said. "Maybe you have more experience with these situations than me, so I say this with all due respect, but are you nuts? You expect us to just dodge everything until we hit the ground? We'll be blown to pieces before that happens. Look. One, two, three. Three! You think your guy there is good enough outmaneuver everything they throw at us?"

"We have no rear weapons," she snarled through her teeth, "and engaging in a frontal attack would be suicide. These must be new models—I've never seen them before. They have us outgunned, and we'll be shredded before we've even made a full turn-about. Our only option is to trust our smaller volume gives us greater maneuverability."

Her attention was required elsewhere again, and she left Tsukune amidst a gaggle of other Fairy Talers. "Only option, huh?" Not the way he saw it. On almost every side, every which way there was a member of the organization around him. One rapt, anxious ayashi after the next. This was a ship of monsters…Monsters…With ordinary human faces, weapons, and elaborately tailored, form-fitting uniforms. What was wrong with this picture? Knowing now, as he did, that this fell under Akuha's discretion, he couldn't help but flounder in grasping for an explanation. Given the situation, why the hell hadn't she long before now commanded them to change? His imagination was already off and sprinting like a ravenous wolf under the full moon. Among all these creatures, were there no flyers aside from Hayate? None who could sweep towards their pursuers, dive-bombing their own cars and taking out the crew within? None with the speed to evade the dragons and sufficient power to bombard their ships with demonic energy? What use were her troops to her in this state? She didn't even appear to be considering the option, even now, with the situation nearing the pinnacle of desperation.

If nothing was done in the new few moments, everything they were working for would go down in flaming wreckage – A prospect that planted a mad idea in his head. Would it work? Why shouldn't he try? No better opportunity to take advantage of the newfound respect the crew appeared to have afforded him. The absurdity of it all—he, a human of all people—would have to wait.

The only question was…would they listen? Would they see the logic in his words, even to the point of breaking protocol and taking the initiative? Defying their leader's standing orders?

He never had the chance to find out. The ship pitched further down, the man at the elevator wheel tossed like a piece of timber in a storm, and he could not recover fast enough. Their lead chaser fired, a silent shot rocketing toward them. At the last second, the helmsman had listed right by a fraction, but the missile still found its mark on the rear corner of the hangar with an explosive crack.

Already exiled, aboard a stolen ship attempting to flee their former master, now everyone was briefly deafened and shaken to their hearts by the impact. Though not powerful enough to annihilate the entire car, it sent them spinning; a gaping, smoking new hole had been ripped in their stern, like a piece of flesh torn away by the teeth of a predator.

At the moment, the only one near this breach was Tsukune, alone aft of Navigation. Even if he hadn't been clutching his crutch, he had no time or presence of mind to grab hold of something to anchor himself. Reeling from the blast's proximity, he felt his body lifted, heard someone shout his name, a rush of air, and the next thing he knew, he was opening his eyes to gaze upon the bottom of the damaged ship shrinking up into the sky, its hull pierced in several singed spots. Once again he had found himself swept clean of the ship, dust under a broom, and in heart-seizing freefall.

And once again, consuming terror. As he watched, the ship appeared to right itself, plunging on while the other craft nipped at its heels, hungry to finish off their wounded prey. He wondered if anyone had noticed his untimely exit. Hadn't he heard his name called?

At this point, it did not matter. Nothing for him to catch onto this time. Nor was Hayate anywhere to be seen. He's not coming. He hadn't even been with them during the attack.

What was that common saying, he wondered? Your whole life flashes before your eyes just before the end. Oddly enough, he experienced nothing of the sort. Any hope had been dashed, and with a strange, tacit resignation, he let his body turn over, to greet the hard earth rushing up to greet and embrace him.

But the wind pelted his face, and, his senses overwhelmed, his body shut down, and he knew no more.

To be continued…