A/N: Stand By Me arc equals massive ship tease, so I blame that.

Also, this is another story that mutated on me again. I should be a scientist when I grow up, make a bunch of monster lab-rats.

Warnings and disclaimer: Some Bullet/Aoi, set in the bad future which means I probably messed up on a bunch of details, sorry about that in advance. I own nothing.

Aoi digs through her purse hastily in an attempt to locate her keys, but it's too dark to see anything and eventually gives up. With a flick of her wrist, a familiar jumble of keys and ID cards lands in the palm of her hand. She closes her eyes and takes several deep breaths before unlocking the door.

The apartment is relatively unchanged since her visit with Shiho several months ago. The moonlight shows that there's more dust, perhaps, and a spare cobweb or two, but otherwise everything is the same. She used the front door out of habit – Minamoto had always told them not to use their powers too much under normal conditions. Besides, it's risky enough that she's teleported long-distance once, but teleporting again in the immediate vicinity would definitely have attracted attention that she doesn't want or need right now.

Aoi reminds herself that she's short for time and heads to the living room.

There are no signs of their brief struggle from their meeting with Kaoru now. B.A.B.E.L. was good at cleaning up, at least. The couch has been shoved into place, the cracked glass coffee table taken away and replaced. Even the dresser and lamp are back where they belong, fitted snugly in a corner of the room.

On top of the dresser is a picture placed in a wooden frame, next to a music box. Aoi hesitates between them, torn, before picking up the picture. It's light and small, and if she takes it out of the casing she can keep it in her wallet with the picture of her brother and parents. Besides, there won't be any use for music where she's going.

"I was wondering when you would show up."

Aoi whirls around, hand raised, ready to warp. She doesn't change her stance even when she recognizes the speaker.

"Bullet? What – what are you doing here? You should be – I thought you were –" Her mind gropes around, trying to figure out what she must have missed. Bullet should have been with her in her room, invisible, guarding her as per policy. She'd made a point to leave as soon as possible so he wouldn't have time to figure out what she was planning or to follow her, or get B.A.B.E.L. to chase after her. She hadn't actually talked to him then, no, but she'd assumed he was there anyway.

Bullet has his hands raised, standing in front of the door to the patio. He nods at the little square in her left hand, seeming not to notice her confusion. "I figured that would be what you would come for. You are more sentimental than Shiho-dono."

Aoi can tell from his tone that he's complimenting her, but it doesn't mean much. Cautiously, she shifts the weight on her heel. His hands may be away from his gun and he's at a pretty awkward angle from her, but Aoi knows what he's capable of. More importantly, if he hits her with one of those suppressant bullets, she's in trouble. "I don't have time to talk."

"I'm not planning on getting in your way, and that solves a few of your problems, I think. The only security they placed on you was me."

Aoi glares at him suspiciously. "How do I know you're not lying?"

Bullet shrugs. "You don't, but I've got no reason to."

On this, he's got a point. If he was expecting her, then Bullet must know by now that she can use her powers to their full extent and jump five cities away at the nearest provocation. She lowers her hand. "Well, okay. Why did you know I was here, then?"

"It was long in coming," Bullet says, lowering his own hands in turn. "Once Shiho-dono failed to return, I knew it was a matter of time. My only problem was figuring out exactly when you would try to escape. After I discovered the message in your room, I knew you would reach your conclusion within the week."

She knows what he's talking about – that damn disc Hyoubu sent her that she knew she should have sent into the nearest wall if she hadn't known B.A.B.E.L. would eventually find it. Her solution had been to leave it on the floor in a DVD box in the hope that no one would think to look in the most suspicious place, which had sadly, for the most part, worked.

"You and your stupid precautions," Aoi mutters.

"They're kind of my job," Bullet points out. "Not that it really means much anymore." He leans against the armrest of the couch with his hands in his coat pockets, then eyes the space between her earlobe and shoulder. "By the way, how did you remove your limiter?"

She's not sure she likes how they're straying from the main topic, but decides to go with it. "I hacked the main system."

Bullet is impressed. "Without psychometry?"

"I'm a computer science major. I don't need psychometry for this sort of thing." Well, okay, so Shiho could probably have done it better and with fewer close-calls, but she'd managed and that has to count for something. It's not like she really needs the limiter at this point, anyway, for all the good it does her, if Minamoto is no longer the sole person with the authority to release it. B.A.B.E.L.'s policies have changed a lot since Kaoru left, and Shiho going after her has only made it worse.

Bullet says nothing, just stays at the couch and keeps looking at her expectantly. Aoi fidgets a bit, glances at her wristwatch. "So, what, aren't you going to ask what I'm going to do now?"

"No," he says. "I'm already aware of your decision."

"And what's that?"

"You will leave," Bullet states calmly, "to join the other Espers. Kaoru-dono and Shiho-dono already deserted prior to this, and if it wasn't for your family, you would have left sooner – with them, perhaps. Kaoru-dono offered to procure their safety in the message she sent you –"

Aoi bristles. Mentioning her family and Kaoru in the same sentence is risky, even for Bullet, who is quickly making what has been nearly a two years of pain and headaches for her into a stupidly easy choice. She knows she shouldn't let it bother her as much as it does, but she's stressed from planning and B.A.B.E.L. putting her under house arrest, and she can't help herself. "I guess I'm just that simple-minded, then."

Bullet notices the bitterness in her tone. "You're limited with what you can choose, that's all."

"And for what?" she snaps, forgetting that she's supposed to be cool and collected for the moment because she shouldn't even be talking with him now anyway, stomping over so that she's standing directly in front of him. Bullet flinches a little at her anger. "Kaoru left with Mio, and Shiho went after them months ago. You wouldn't even talk to me because B.A.B.E.L. would have thought we were planning a conspiracy or something stupid. Minamoto-han went to Comerica and hasn't been back since. Yuuki's not sure what to do because I'm still here, and Mama –" She stops, but he knows what she doesn't say: and Mama can't see Papa ever again.

There's an unpleasant lull in the conversation, where both of them realize that she's just barely managed not to jumpstart an argument which would probably land both of them in B.A.B.E.L. custody.

"It's not just your father," Bullet says quietly. He's grown tense, not meeting her eyes. The hands shoved in his pockets have clenched.

Aoi sighs and readjusts the glasses that have slipped down the bridge of her nose in an attempt to compose herself. "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry." She's just being an insensitive idiot, saying something like this to Bullet. He's probably lonelier than she's ever been; it's not his fault he can handle a topic that she can't. "It feels like lately all I've been doing is looking back at the past. I thought that maybe this would help me move on, stop regretting decisions that can't be changed."

"And has it?"

"Who knows?" Aoi retorts. "I was all set to leave before you threw my schedule out of whack. The one thing I'm sure of –" she looks down at the picture in her hand, "– is that I'm going to stick with whatever happens. I'm not running away anymore." Aoi says it aloud to make it solid, to try and form an anchor in her mind. In a way, this is part of the reason why she came back to the apartment.

Bullet nods and visibly relaxes. Aoi is glad that he understands her. He really has been there for her, if she thinks about it – not as long as Kaoru and Shiho have, or even Minamoto, but he's been with her for years nonetheless, helping her as best he can. It's a feeling she discovers she's missed over the last year.

Aoi looks at her watch again. "Now that we've established how and why I'm here, what about you?"

He doesn't pause. "I will go with you."

This stops her short, her eyes flying up to meet his. "No. You can't."

"It's why I came here," Bullet says. "And while you can certainly silence me now that you're no longer restrained, I don't think you will." He says this last sentence with a surprising amount of conviction.

"No, but – you – this isn't a light decision, you heard me just now. If you come with me, you're not going back."

"The same applies to you. If anything, I should be stopping you, if I wasn't already aware that that would be a bad idea."

This can't be right. He's supposed to be her enemy now, not her ally. There's no doubt in her mind that Kaoru and the other Espers will accept Bullet if she brings him, not only because he's a well-known fighter in his own right but also because Kaoru will take in any Esper. Bullet's history, in this case, is just an added bonus. The problem is that Aoi knows just what Bullet's done to get to where he stands now at B.A.B.E.L., and coming with her will negate everything he's spent so many years of his life working for. B.A.B.E.L. also still has many espers working for it, despite the society's increasing discrimination of them and attempts by Kaoru and Hyoubu to convert them to their cause. If he comes with her, Bullet is ruining his life.

"Look," Aoi starts, but Bullet cuts across her.

"Aoi-dono, this is my choice, one that every esper will at some point have to make. I am picking your side because you are there, and because I swore to protect you and the rest of The Children. I refuse to become a burden to you, and I also refuse to fight you. This is my decision."

The way he says this makes Aoi look at him more carefully. "I guess this means you understand you support open declaration of war, right?" Because that's what this is, in the end. She is the last hope B.A.B.E.L. has that there is still time for peace, and the last reassurance for civilians across the world that the situation isn't as bad as it really is. Her desertion will set everything off, end negotiations and lead to thousands of deaths, and she'll probably regret everything all over again despite assurances by herself and others that she's doing the right thing.

That she isn't running away, even though in reality she is no matter how much she tries to convince herself she isn't.

Bullet meets her gaze, and there's something in his eyes that makes Aoi think he's aware of everything – her reasoning, her cowardice.

She's forgotten what it's like to have people know you too well.

"Yes," Bullet says, "I do."

She knows there's nothing she can say to counter this, so she holds out her hand to him instead. The serious expression on his face changes to a confused one as he stares at her open palm. "Huh?"

Aoi resists the urge to snort. "You're coming with me, aren't you? We're late enough as it is, so I'm going to teleport directly. It'll be easier if I've got hold of you, since our destination is a couple hundred miles away." This is, in fact, an understatement. Hyoubu had insisted they meet on the other end of the country, and while this isn't really an issue for her, Bullet has only teleported with her very rarely. More importantly, B.A.B.E.L. will sense her use of such an enormous amount of power and send out envoys to capture her immediately. They will be protected if they're with Hyoubu, but missing the target, however minutely, will result in their imprisonment.

It's Hyoubu's idea of testing her, she knows. It also pisses her off, and as soon as they're out of danger she plans to give him a piece of her mind. However much it's for Kaoru, there are better strategies for this and she knows he can come up with them.

Bullet actually looks nervous now, tiny beads of sweat forming on the bride of his nose, and Aoi feels a stir of pity for him. "Don't worry, I know the coordinates. All you've got to do is try not to be sick and keep an eye out for ambushes when we land. Just…just trust me, okay?" Her tongue hesitates over the words, which she feels is more of an assurance for herself then for Bullet. They don't need to trust each other, and part of her feels like they shouldn't – but she wants to, wants someone she can rely on for this path which she can't predict.

Bullet relaxes a bit, sensing the awkwardness but also the invitation which she placed in her words. "Yes," he says again, with even more determination than he did the first time. "I do."

Whatever hell they're about to experience, at least they're in it together now.

He takes Aoi's hand, she twitches her fingers, and they're gone.

They land right in the place Hyoubu described in his video; a dark warehouse, long abandoned after the Espers began assaulting Normals. Aoi knows this is the right one, because she felt something brush against the molecules holding them together through the fourth dimension before falling back to let them pass. She's felt it before, back when she used to work freely for B.A.B.E.L., and she's unlikely to forget a presence like Hyoubu's easily.

At the time, she'd had to force The Children through with Kaoru helping her. Now, she has permission and enters by showing her strength. Perhaps Hyoubu admires the irony.

Aoi turns over on the ground, looking for Bullet. It's hard to tell because of how well he blends in with the shadows, but he's a few feet away. She can see him wincing as he gets up, checking his holster for damage. She knows there isn't since she just transported it, but she doesn't get a chance to say anything before her thoughts are interrupted.

"You've got nerve to be late," someone says from out of the darkness. Aoi squints, but sees nothing.

"Yeah, we've got better things to do than stay out here all night. I don't like the cold," another voice adds.

"Personally, I don't feel like risking my neck for people who can't even keep their appointments," calls a third.

Aoi grits her teeth and brushes herself off. Hyoubu bringing minions with him was expected, but it's still an obstacle she would rather not have, for the particular reason that Hyoubu doesn't need them, the smug bastard.

Apparently Hyoubu catches this last part in her thoughts, since she hears him chuckle. "Very true, Goddess. On the other hand, it never hurts to be safe than sorry."

"I don't think you're really one to be preaching about safety, to be honest. And would'ya mind showing your face? I like to see who I'm talking to."

"I suppose it is common courtesy," Hyoubu says absently. There's a click, and suddenly there are humans littered all around the walls where previously there was nothing but air. Hyoubu is in the middle of close-knit group on the far side of the room, sitting nonchalantly on a cart. The espers around him are all looking at Aoi suspiciously.

Aoi can practically hear Bullet's hackles being raised behind her. An immediate confrontation won't help any of them, so she gestures at him to stand back. It's a signal they created from their younger years, when Tim was still around and they acted together as Shadows of the Children. Bullet doesn't 'protect' her – they've already established that she is definitely someone who can take care of herself – but he's got her back, and she can teleport him to the coast of the Americas with her limiter removed if she needs to get him out of danger. He seems surprised to see her use it, but his gun stays untouched nonetheless.

Even this slight exchange, however, doesn't escape the Major's eye. "I see you brought a friend with you, Goddess. An interesting choice – I thought you would come alone."

Aoi doesn't bother trying not to snort this time. "It shouldn't matter to you, since you'll be getting a bunch of new espers joining you soon anyway. I'm only the instigator."

"Really, your self-deprecation is undeserved, I think," Hyoubu says. "And I know he's competent. After all, we've met before."

Aoi wonders if he truly means it or if he's only saying it to try to be polite.

Hyoubu leans back and locks his fingers together, happily ignoring all the tension in the room. "Getting back to the point of our little meeting, do you accept the terms of our offer?"

Some of the espers stir at this, and Aoi can feel at least ten pairs of eyes all turn on her. Hyoubu already knows her decision, of that she's sure, so the only reason he would have to try and play this up would be to have her say it aloud to make a commitment. It's one thing to agree to a list of terms in private; with eyewitnesses, he's making sure she doesn't betray them if something goes wrong.

Not that she would, at this point. Kaoru and Shiho are who she's doing this for.

Isn't she?

For a second she hesitates and wants to go back to B.A.B.E.L., to warm meals and beds and a roof over her head. But then she catches Bullet's eye and remembers what else awaits her there – whispers, interrogations, and the underlying loneliness that's always clenching in her stomach no matter how much she reminds herself that she has her mother and brother to think of – so she straightens up and throws her shoulders back, looks past the unfamiliar faces, and meets Hyoubu's trademark smirk.

"I want to see the Queen," she says.

A/N: I wondered – what exactly happened in the bad future timeline that made everything different? Supposedly, the characters are the same and their backstory is also unchanged. Why does the future end up in war when The Children are trying not to make it that way?

My theory is that the bad future timeline's The Children were less focused on the future and couldn't move on from the past in a variety of ways, which was why things got as bad as they did. Kaoru couldn't let go of the injustices done to her, The Children, and other espers. Shiho couldn't get past her hatred of humans in general, which was why she sided with Kaoru, the only person who treated her kindly. Finally, Aoi couldn't stop looking back and wanting to go back to the good times, when things weren't so serious and they were kids who didn't have to take responsibility for their actions. Ultimately, this one difference in their way of thinking is what will cause the timeline to split.

I'm not sure I really like this one, honestly. It feels like I had an idea, ran with it, and then lost it. Con crit would be awesome.