Here I go posting WIP again, against my better judgment. I started this fic three years ago. I finished this first part quite quickly. I even managed to have it betaed by the fantastic zeldadragon. Part two took almost half a year to write. And I've been stuck on part three ever since. So I've decided, to hell with it, I'll post. Maybe it'll help with inspiration for part three. No promises, though.

Both parts of this fic so far do have their own plots, but I'd planned to resolve the overarching plot in part 3, and I haven't written that yet. So these two chapters each do stand as their own stories.





Every time Kai led his adopted daughters up the long staircase to the grave Saya slept in, he found a fresh rose before the entrance of the tomb. Those fresh roses were the only sign that Haji was still around somewhere.

Kai hadn't ever seen Saya's Chevalier in person after the collapse of the New York Opera house. At one point, he'd thought he'd heard familiar cello music during a street festival in the town at the foot of the hill, but by the time Kai had reached a spot where he'd have been able to see the musician, only a disappointed crowd remained. So the roses were a pleasant reassurance for all that they weren't meant for him.

Kai was glad Haji had survived. After all that time spent caring for Saya - protecting her and everyone around her - he deserved better than to die trapped in a collapsing building. It wouldn't hurt for Haji to show his face once in a while, though. Kai needed all the help he could get in raising Saya's (and his own, for that matter) nieces.

Saya had wanted for them to grow up as human as possible. So far it was working out. They needed periodic blood transfusions, but thankfully Julia was on hand for that. Apart from that minor irregularity, they went to school and played with each other and their friends like the regular happy eight-year-olds they should be. And they were just as much of a handful.

The brats in question were gleefully skipping down the stairs leading from the gravesite, playing tag. It'd been raining just shortly before, so the steps were extremely slippery. "Girls," he called out, "watch where you're going. You fall down here, you could break a leg or worse."

The girls didn't like his warnings. "Kaaaaaai," they moaned in unison, but they did stop running around long enough for him to catch up. "You're no fun today," Elisa said.

"We were just playing." That was Irene, coming to her sister's defense.

Kai picked up Irene, intending to talk to her face-to-face where she couldn't run away. She was getting heavy for such a little kid. And she squirmed, too. "Kai, put me down!" she ordered.

"How many times have I told you to call me 'dad'?" Kai mock-scolded her, then set her down. He went down on one knee and put a hand on a shoulder for each girl. "You can play all you want. Just be careful, okay?"

The girls both nodded. Then Irene shot forward, tapped Kai on the chest and shouted "Tag, you're it!" The girls stormed off down the stairs again, giggling all the while.

"Why you little…" Kai growled. He tried to sound threatening, but he was smiling himself. They were growing up pretty well, if he did say so himself. "I'm coming to get you!" he shouted, and set off after the Irene and Elisa.

The steps really were slippery. It was a miracle the girls could run on them as well as they did. Kai had to slow down several times to catch his balance. That worked twice. The third time, his foot slipped in a puddle and he went down.

Kai thrust out his hand to catch himself, but it hit the edge of a step. It hurt his hand quite badly, but it did nothing to stop his fall. Instead he went tumbling all the way down the hill. He felt the first time his head hit a sharp rock. He felt the second time, too. Somewhere in there he guessed he broke something. And then his head hit stone for the third time. After that, Kai knew nothing for several blessed minutes.

Elisa and Irene both screamed as Kai rolled further and further down the long stone stairs. He didn't stop until he'd reached the bottom. His head landed in a puddle that quickly became red. When they both reached him (going slower and more carefully now, but still as quickly as they dared), his eyes were closed and he wasn't moving at all.

"Kai?" Irene asked. "Kai, are you okay?"

"We're sorry we ran away," Elisa added anxiously. "You're not hurt bad, are you?" Kai didn't answer. He was bruised and bloody all over, and one arm stuck out at a very weird angle. It was clear that he was hurt bad, whatever they might wish.

"He's very pale," Irene said to her sister after wiping some of the dirt out of Kai's face. "You're almost that pale when it's time for our blood transfusions."

Elisa looked Kai over too, gently brushing a little more dirt away. Irene was right. Kai iwas/i very pale. That wasn't right. "You look that pale too, then," she said, just to say something. Then Elisa had an idea. "You think he needs a transfusion?"

Irene tried again to get Kai to respond. No luck. "We'll have to take him to Doctor Julia. Maybe she can help." She very carefully touched Kai's face again. "But he won't wake up, and we can't carry him that far." Irene had tears in her eyes. She was pretty close to panicking.

Elisa stayed cool, though. She had an idea already. "Maybe we can give one to him?"

Irene sniffed and shook her head. "Don't be silly. We haven't got any blood or any needles."

Elisa held up her arm. They'd both had a transfusion just yesterday. "We've got blood. Everyone's got blood. And we don't need needles." This was all really simple. Doctor Julia had even explained it, hadn't she? "They use needles for transfusion so the good things that are in the blood can get to your own blood quicker. They can do it with food and vitamins too, remember? But if you eat it, the good things will get to your blood too, it just takes a little longer.

Irene frowned. "I don't think it works like that," she said hesitantly. "Otherwise there'd also be blood pills or something."

"Kai makes those rare steaks sometimes, too," Elisa was on to something, and not about to give up. Not if it could help Kai. "I think it's worth a try, anyway."

Kai had been carrying a backpack with their lunches. It had included a bottle of beer for him. This bottle was now in shards, and some of them had spilled from the backpack after the fall. Elisa picked up the largest one and cut it across her underarm. At first, nothing seemed to happen, but when she pushed at the cut, a lot of blood came out.

"Oops, it's a little messy," she said, cupping her hand under her elbow to catch the flowing blood and not spill any more on her dress or on Kai. "Irene, you open his mouth," she said, and when Irene had reluctantly done so, she let her blood dribble onto Kai's tongue.

Kai's eyes sprang open. Elisa was about to crow to her sister about being right, but then something weird happened, causing both Irene and Elisa to scream again. Kai started twitching all over. More than twitching, even. It looked like some sort of strange jumping, almost. He twitched so hard he hit his head against the rock again, five times or so. Then he lay still.

"Kai?" Elisa asked again. He still didn't respond. But now there was movement. His chest was going up and down, very slowly. "He's breathing. It worked!"

"He's still pale, though." Irene wasn't convinced. "And he's still not awake."

"You're right." Elisa considered her options. Her cut had healed, and she didn't think she should give too much blood. She needed some herself, after all. But Irene was here as well, wasn't she? Elisa held the bloody shard of glass out to Irene. "Maybe we should give him some more. Here, you do it, too."

Before Irene could take the shard, a bandaged hand reached down and plucked it out of Elisa's hand. Then the shard was thrown far away into the bushes.

"That was very foolish," the owner of the bandaged hand said sternly. Elisa and Irene looked up at him, seeing a tall, thin, pale and very shabby man. He looked down at them with as much distaste as they felt at seeing the state of him. He didn't say another word, but instead picked Kai up like he was still a baby (that was quite impressive; Kai was almost as tall as the stranger and probably heavier) and walked off.

"Hey!" Elisa and Irene shouted together, and they ran ahead to block the stranger's path. "Where are you taking Kai?" Irene demanded.

"Julia." The stranger didn't take too much notice of the twin obstructions in his path. He simply stepped past them and continued on. That one word was all the answer Irene got. It was enough, however.

"You're taking him to Doctor Julia? Are you just going to leave us here?"

That halted the stranger. "No," he said after an eternity of a few seconds. He turned around and looked at the both of them, still very coldly. "Follow me."

The girls were too scared of him to do anything else.

"Where are the girls?" was the first thing Kai asked. He'd opened his eyes in a hospital room, and as far as he remembered, he'd been chasing after Elisa and Irene, going back home from visiting Saya's resting place. Clearly something had happened. He needed to know the girls were okay.

"The girls are with David," Julia said as she stepped into his field of view. "They've had quite a scare, but they're fine. You-"

"Can I see them?" Kai didn't even wait for Julia to finish speaking.

Julia frowned. "Maybe later." She hesitated. "Kai, what do you remember?"

Kai thought back. "I was playing tag with the girls, and then I slipped…" And then it hit him. He lifted his arm to feel his head. He recalled the pain of it hitting rock several times. There weren't any bumps on it. And the arm he thought he remembered breaking now only had a needle in it for an IV.

Then he remembered something else. It had only been very brief. It was mostly pain, in his head, in his arm –actually all over his body - but there was also the sight of Elisa hanging over him with a bloody arm, and a sweet metallic taste in his mouth. "…oh." That warranted several expletives that Kai didn't utter. "Shit." And one that he did.

He'd turned Diva down for a reason, damn it. He didn't want to live forever, especially not if it meant turning into one of those grotesque creatures and obeying some maniac's every whim. More than that, though, he'd wanted to stay himself for Saya, to give her the normality she so desperately needed. And now with Diva's daughters, that went triple. Normality not just for Saya, but for the girls as well. And he'd put a stop to that normality because of his own clumsiness.

Julia nodded her commiseration. Then she looked away. "I couldn't stop the process anymore. The data we got from Riku offered some clues, but even if I could have put something together quickly enough, you were already too far gone by the time Haji got you here. I'm sorry."

"Haji?" Kai followed Julia's gaze. Sure enough, there was Haji. He didn't look much like himself either. If at all possible, he was even paler and thinner than he'd always been, and his normally fine clothing had been reduced to little more than rags. He didn't look at Kai.

"I'm sorry."

Kai had to think for several seconds before he could find something to say to that, and then, just when he was about to open his mouth to speak, the door to the room opened and Elisa and Irene stormed in. They were on Kai's bed and had their arms around his neck before Julia, Haji or David, who had followed the two of them into the room, could stop them.

"You're okay, you're okay, we're glad you're okay," went the litany while he hugged the both of them. It felt so good to have them in his arms again that the fact that he was far from okay was banished from his mind for a second.

"I'm glad E-veryone is okay," Kai caught himself just in time. He was mainly glad that Elisa was okay, but that wasn't the way things should be. The moment of happiness was gone again. Damn it. He frowned while the girls still had their faces pressed to his chest so they couldn't see it. They caught onto his mood, however, and misinterpreted it.

They let go of him and sat on the edge of his bed. They bowed their heads contritely. "We shouldn't have run like that," Irene said. "Doctor Julia and Mr. David and the scary man have been scolding us all week."

"And I know I shouldn't have given you blood," Elisa continued. She looked positively devastated. "Julia explained again about blood transfusions. I did something very wrong." She folded her hands and bowed her head like a little angel. "We're really, really sorry. Forgive us?"

A pair of blue angel eyes stared at him. How could he refuse a request like that? Kai stretched out his unrestrained arm and hugged Elisa to him. Belatedly, he also pulled in Irene. "How could I not forgive you?"

"Okay girls," Julia interrupted, "you got to see Kai for a minute so you know he's all right. Now come on and let him rest."

David nodded an apologetic greeting to Kai. "Elisa knew the second you'd woken up, and the both of them wouldn't stop begging until I brought them here." He spoke English, not Japanese, presumably so the girls wouldn't understand him. He switched now to the second language. "Time to leave, girls."

"I want to stay," Irene said.

"Oh, no," David said, lifting Irene off the bed with some effort and setting her on the floor. "The more you let Kai rest, the sooner he'll be up properly."

"I want to stay, too," Elise said when David approached her, and clung to Kai.

Kai pulled his arm tighter around her. He didn't want to let go, either. "Can't we let them stay a little longer?"

"No." Julia shooed Irene to the door and beckoned for Elisa to come, too. When Elisa didn't let go and Kai didn't show any signs of pushing her away, she gave Kai a long, level look.

Kai caught that, a similar look from David, and Haji's blank stare, and then realized what he was doing. He swallowed, then loosened his grip on Elisa and pushed her upright. He smiled. "I'll be fine, honey. I just need a little rest, okay?"

"Elisa, come on," Julia commanded. Elisa followed her reluctantly. Kai stared after Elisa until she'd left the room, and even then kept on looking at the door as if she might walk through it again at any moment.

"They both had a few earfuls about calling a doctor instead of trying anything by themselves." David said. "And we're lucky Haji interfered when he did or you might not be here at all. He said Irene was about to feed you her blood as well." When Kai didn't respond, David snapped his fingers in front if Kai's face. "Kai."

Kai blinked, then shook his head to clear it a little. "Yeah." He searched his memory for what David had just said. "That would have really surprised them, alright. Me turning into ash." Though at least it would have meant he'd died, almost of what he was apparently supposed to have died of -terminal clumsiness was still a valid cause of death. Then again, if that had happened he still wouldn't have been around to take care of Elisa and Irene, or be there when Saya woke up again. "I'm not sure which would have been better."

David approached Kai's bed to hit him on the back of the head. It didn't hurt. "Don't be an idiot. I thought you grew up better than that." He paced away again, back to his spot near the door and folded his arms. "You made a promise to Saya. This gives you a chance to fulfill that promise, more than you could have done. Think about it."

Clearly, David had different views on the matter, perhaps colored by his knowing Haji for so long. He was missing the point of 'not changing', though. It wasn't about growing old or not. If he was there as Elisa's Chevalier (he'd have to face up to the term at some point) when Saya woke up, she still wouldn't have the normality she needed. But Kai didn't have the words to explain that to David. "I suppose."

"You suppose right," David said, the old authority he used to carry coming through in his voice again. It suited him. Then his tone softened a little. "This shouldn't have happened," he allowed, "But..." And now his tone became commanding again, and he speared Kai with a glare. "If you want the girls to grow up normal, the best thing you can do is stick with them the way you have, at least for now." David turned so that same glare took Haji in as well. "And if you need help, Julia and I are here."

Haji didn't seem to respond to David's scorn, and Kai, still disagreeing with the basic premise (except for the part that included staying with Eli—the girls) didn't say anything but just looked away. David sighed. "Very well. I'll leave you to think that over." He left the room.


Julia declared Kai fit to go home the next day, to the joy of Elisa and Irene. From the haggard looks of both her and David, taking care of his two firebrands as well as their own daughter had taken its toll. They had to be happy, or at least relieved, to leave them back in his care.

Kai, for his part, was just as happy to have his daughters back. But that happiness soon faded right about the same time he realized that when Elisa had demanded a piggyback ride he'd picked her up without even thinking about it. And then he'd carried her like that all the way back home from the bus stop (not like she weighed anything, after all) despite Irene's demands that she be given a turn, because Elisa didn't want to come down.

He'd have to start second-guessing himself a lot more. If he kept this up, soon enough Irene would notice, and that would only encourage rivalry between the girls. And that was exactly what everyone involved in this wanted to avoid. Argh. Fair and even-handed, that was the watchword from now on.

He tried to make up for carrying Elisa the whole way by having Irene choose what he would cook for dinner that night; it could be as luxurious as she wanted as a celebration for his coming home. He didn't have much of an appetite, but Irene started squealing for tamagoyaki and Elisa joined in enthusiastically, so Kai lit the furnace and started cooking.

When he tasted the mix to see if it was properly seasoned, it didn't taste like anything, so he added more seasoning. When it still didn't have much taste, he added a bit more, but at that point it almost looked as if he had more seasoning than egg, so he shrugged and prepared it. The finished product still tasted bland to him. He loaded the girls' plates and set them on the table for them, then brought over the side dishes (nothing seemed to taste like it should today).

He wasn't hungry, so he left the girls to eat while he cleaned up the kitchen and started to prepare their lunch boxes for the next day.

"Kai, something's wrong with these eggs!" Elisa remarked loudly.

Kai caught himself before he broke another egg over the mixing bowl. "Those eggs are fine, Elisa. Just eat them, okay?" See? Fair and even-handed. He could do it.

He couldn't find any more cherry tomatoes in the refrigerator, so he went into the back storeroom to see if there was something else that would do as filler. Kai barely had his foot in the room when something gray, hairy, and much bigger than it should reasonably be shot out at him. Acting purely on reflex, he kicked at the thing. It flew up into the air, and he caught it. He had to hold on tight, because it wriggled, and it was pretty strong. For a rat. A big rat.

A big rat that bit. And hard.

Kai bit down on a curse and smashed the rat against the wall. That did nothing to stop it. In fact, it just started struggling harder, and it bit down into Kai's hand even further. Kai grabbed the rat with his other hand in an attempt to pry it loose.

For just a second, the rat let go. Then it bit down again. And Kai, still holding on tight with both hands, jerked one hand up and away. Something crunched, and his hand came, still holding the rat. But his other hand was also still holding part of the beast. And the floor as well as his shirt was instantly covered in blood.

Kai stood for a few instants, dazed. He couldn't believe his own eyes, for multiple reasons. For one, one couldn't simply pull a living creature in two like that. Not without exerting a great deal more strength than he had, at least. Two, rats usually weren't this aggressive or bloodthirsty, and since when did he have rats in his house, anyway? Third, and worst, the blood on the floor looked and smelled more appetizing than any of the food he'd prepared that evening.

If Kai'd had any food in him, he would have vomited. But he hadn't eaten in… days, actually, come to think of it, so all he did was gag and cough a few times. Then he took a deep breath (hadn't done that in a while either) and closed his eyes, trying to pull himself back together. He'd known about all this. He'd seen it happen to his little brother, he'd heard the lectures from Julia and David, and he knew Haji well enough too. He should have expected the lack of appetite and the need for blood as food. But somehow it hadn't gotten through yet. One more thing to upset the normality of his household.

He took off his bloodied shirt to mop up the worst of the blood from the floor, fighting the impulse to suck it right out of the fabric. He'd have to find a way to get past the girls and get a new one. And he'd have to get rid of this shirt without anyone noticing, too. He'd also have to clean up in here a lot better. But that could wait. First things first, and that meant getting clean himself, before the smell of blood drove him crazy.

He snuck through the narrow hallway that led past the kitchen to the living area upstairs and changed his clothes. He bundled the old set into a stray plastic bag and dropped the bag out of the window into the back yard. It fell next to the bin for burnable trash. Damn, he'd have to go outside to put it in properly.

This time when he walked past the kitchen entrance, he was greeted by a "Finally, there he is!" and Mao stepped in front of him. She held a bit of scrambled egg with a pair of chopsticks, and she shoved it in his face. "What are you feeding these kids?"

"Eggs, clearly," Kai answered. "And nice to see you, too, Mao. It's been a while." He took a good look at the egg under his nose. It did look a bit… un-egg-like, to be honest, and it smelled odd, too. He took a careful bite. It tasted like cardboard. "Still not enough soy sauce?"

"Not ienough/i?" Mao frowned, and let her hand drop. The bit of egg fell limply to the floor, and the chopsticks clattered as they followed. She put her other hand up on Kai's forehead. "You're still not okay, are you?"

"Kai's okay now, he came back from the hospital," Elisa piped in on that one.

"That's right, Elisa," Kai answered her, smiling at her. He shrugged at Mao, keeping the smile. "I just need to adjust to being on my feet again." No need to worry her needlessly with his own troubles.

Mao didn't seem to be taking his word for it. She didn't stop frowning, but she did nod. "I've heard that sometimes people's sense of smell or taste can change after they hit their heads. You might want to get that checked out." She picked up the plate of tamagoyaki and unceremoniously dumped the contents in the waste bin. "Because that was inedible by anyone's standards."

Kai groaned. It appeared, on top of everything else, that he'd have to learn how to cook again. That'd make Omoro even iless/i popular for the coming time. He was having trouble making ends meet for the restaurant as it was. "Fine," he said. "I'll start over." He pointed at Mao. "And this time, you get to taste the mix."

He set a clean mixing bowl on the counter and opened the refrigerator to get more eggs. "What brings you here, anyway?" As far as he'd known, Mao was away with Okamura in someplace hot and dry, tracking down remnants of Amshel's experiments and assisting local authorities in dealing with them. Julia's medicine to neutralize the drug that Cinq Flêches had distributed throughout the world had worked admirably, but there were still people even now, especially in the more remote parts of the globe, that underwent the transformation into wild Chiropterans. Luckily, most authorities now knew how to deal with them and damages were usually limited. Still, it kept Mao and Okamura busy enough. He hadn't expected to see her in Japan anytime soon.

"I heard you had a bad fall. I can't come visit a sick friend?" Mao set the dirty plate down in the sink. Her words were cheerful, but her tone sounded forced. She dropped the cheerfulness, too. "You made me worry again. Don't do that."

"Yes, ma'am." Kai closed the fridge door and put the eggs on the counter. Then he opened another cabinet to rummage for more seasonings.

Mao lowered her voice so it was barely audible. "And I came because it looks like there might be a Chiropteran attack here again soon."

Kai slammed the cabinet door so hard it bounced open again. "iWhat/i?" When Mao opened her mouth to answer, he held up a hand. "No, not where the girls can hear."

"Kai, are you angry?" Irene asked from the table. "You scared us!" Elisa accused him.

"I'm sorry, honey." Kai walked over to the table to ruffle Elisa's hair. Over her half-hearted protests he said, "I think Kid's Hour is about to start. Why don't the two of you go upstairs and watch it?" Kid's Hour was yet another in a long line of 'favorite' TV shows. Kai was losing track of exactly which ones had enchanted the girls, but this one had endured longer than most.

"But we're hungry!" they said in unison. The both of them looked tempted, though. Kai normally didn't let them get away from the table until the meal was finished, TV show or no. And if they did leave, they wouldn't get any more food that evening.

"Tell you what," Mao interrupted, also walking up to the table. "I don't think Kai's quite up to cooking yet," she stage-whispered to the girls. Then she continued at normal volume, "so why don't you girls go watch your TV show, and afterwards big sis Mao will take you all for pizza. How's that sound?"

The girls' faces brightened. Two hopeful stares were directed at Kai. "Can we?" Elisa asked.

Taking them to the pizza place after the TV show was finished would put them in bed far later than their normal bedtime. But who could refuse those big, pleading eyes? Also, he needed the time alone with Mao, so he could hardly refuse now. "Oh, all right. Go, the two of you." They ran off. That left Kai with Mao. He waited until he could hear the faint sounds of the TV coming from upstairs before he spoke again. "So. Impending Chiropteran attack."

"Yes." Mao sat down on the chair Irene had just vacated. She put her elbows on the table, her hands folded, and took a deep breath. "Now, keep in mind we're going by educated guesses and statistics here. Nothing has to happen." She waited for Kai to nod. She copied it. "Over the past few years, all Cinq Flêches products have been eliminated, and the people who were going to transform into Chiropterans in spite of Red Shield's vaccine, we'd expect to have done so already. But we're still seeing Chiropterans appearing, and the frequency isn't falling off anymore, not for two years now. The science people from Red Shield think the…" Mao frowned, trying to think of the right term. "…vector? Is that the word? They think the vector that causes the transformation is spreading in another way.

"They also noted that more Chiropteran attacks were likely to occur somewhere where there'd already been one. So they employed a few more epidemiologists to have a closer look at possible methods of spreading the infection."


"Initially, just after - well, you know – all these attacks were spread out pretty equally. They happened everywhere. But these more recent ones almost always happen in poor neighborhoods, or at least more rural ones. Places where there's more contact with animals, especially vermin."

"You think it's spreading through animals?"

"That's what the doctors think. From what I've seen, they've got a decent case. We have data from the US and from the EU. Almost every time before we got a report of a Chiropteran, the weeks before there was an increase in rabid animal attacks. Also, last year we dealt with an outbreak in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The place we went to was crawling with rats." Mao shuddered at the memory. "We couldn't deal with them all, not without burning a whole slum community down. But just a few weeks later, there were another two transformations there." She looked down at her hands. "In fact, there's been Chiropterans popping up in Rio ever since. Every few weeks. The longest respite they've had there is something like two months, I think. They're keeping it all very quiet, but from what I hear, Brazil is seriously considering the scorched earth option." Mao fell silent. Kai could see her swallow deeply, and open her mouth to say more, but nothing came out.

"And here we thought it was all over except for the cleaning up." Kai said when the silence became too much for him to bear. He pulled back another chair and sat himself down. "How wrong we were." Diva had left a greater heritage than just her daughters, and it wasn't a pleasant one.

"We're getting there." Mao rubbed her face. "We've got soldiers trained in handling them now, and we're developing some things that should make the process a little less violent. But it's been very slow going."

"So what clued you in to here?"

"Rats. The whole village down by the gravesite, and now the town here, too, has been reporting more and more rat infestations since the past week. There haven't been any Chiropteran attacks here since Saya came back, but… well…" Mao's implication was clear.

"Nothing happened to Saya," Kai said, with rock-solid certainty. But then, Saya wasn't the only one left whose blood could cause this, was she? And Elisa and Irene had been careless with theirs just a little over a week ago. He put his head in his hands. "It's all starting again."

"If nothing happened to Saya, then maybe it really is nothing." Mao took Kai's hand and squeezed it until he looked up again. "And even if it isn't, we caught it early and we'll have enough people here. You won't have to fight and the girls don't even have to know."

"Are you kidding me?" Kai felt the protective instincts well up inside him. "I can't just stand by and do nothing while at any second…"

"Are you in any condition to fight?" Mao interrupted him sharply. "You're ice-cold and white as a ghost. You can't protect your girls like that, either."

"Protect us from what?" Irene said. She and Elisa were peeking around the doorsill.

"The monsters in your bedroom closets," Mao answered without missing a beat, saving Kai an explanation. She softened her words with a wink and a smile.

"Aah, those aren't monsters at all," Elisa pouted. "They're just clothes."

Mao shook her head. "You haven't seen some of my wardrobe," she said. But that went over the girls' heads. They just frowned at her. "So, everyone ready for some pizza?" Both girls nodded enthusiastically. As it turned out, they had their jackets already in their hands.

Mao drove them to the pizzeria in her rental car. That made it as much again an outing for the girls as just going for pizza already was. Kai didn't have the money to keep a car, and with the girls living within - albeit long - walking distance from their primary school, they didn't need one. He spent most of the ride making sure Elisa and Irene stayed in their seats and didn't start experimenting with the seatbelt clasps. They made a party out of it in the back seat.

But the party didn't last long when they got there.

The servers greeted the girls cheerfully and familiarly, as if they were regulars here. When Kai asked one of the busboys about that, it turned out that David had brought the girls here three times in the past week. Nobody had told Kai. And now the girls had managed to wrangle another visit out of him. Well, if they'd told him they'd already been here three times this week, he wouldn't have allowed them to come again. Probably. He would certainly have put up more of a fight. Then again, Elisa ihad /iasked so sweetly…

Anyway, he'd have to have a long conversation with David about letting kids eat properly, and then he'd have to find some way of paying David and Julia back for the cost of feeding expensive pizzas to the bottomless pits that were his girls. Another thing that indicated that they really were related to Saya, alright.

Something already felt off to Kai when the attendant brought their drinks and a basket of bread. He couldn't place it, however, so he just kept watching and listening to Mao gently teasing Elisa and Irene and vice versa, occasionally adding his two cents in the girls' defense. Against Mao, even someone as quick as Elisa needed it. Then he caught something small and dark slipping along the wall from out of the corner of his eye. The ladies didn't seem to notice.

The bubble burst when their attendant came to tell them that there was a problem in the kitchen, and they were very sorry, but they couldn't prepare any pizza right now. Would they take coupons for a free meal? Kai handled the conversation, because Mao had just picked up her cell phone.

He looked behind the server at the door to the kitchen. It swung open at that point, and one of the other servers walked out. He tried to hide it, but he seemed somewhat panicked. The swinging door to the kitchen revealed a small dark shape flitting across the floor. A rat. Kai looked back at the attendant still waiting for a response. "We'll take the coupons, thanks." The other eaters had also gotten wind of the trouble, and a small exodus was starting. "Is everyone all right?"

The attendant shook her head, then ran over to help her colleague. Kai got out of the bench and picked up Elisa against her protests. She still wanted her pizza. "We can't, sweetie. We've gotta go now."

Mao snapped her cell phone shut. She'd been completely absorbed in the brief conversation. "We've got trouble."

"Yes, we do," Kai said, helping Elisa into her jacket. "Can you help Irene?"

Mao's eyebrows rose. "What, here too?" She grabbed Irene's coat and helped her in it.

Kai nodded, then looked straight in Mao's eyes. "Rodent infestation, apparently."

"Oh sh- …-oo." Mao bit her tongue just in time. "Let's get out of here." She opened her phone again, pushed a quick dial number and told whoever was at the other end that the pizzeria was infected, too. Then she led Irene back to the car and installed her in it. Kai did the same with Elisa. The two of them stayed outside of the car for a few seconds.

"So where did they tell you the trouble was?" Kai asked.

"The school. Apparently the janitor started to become violent this afternoon. Right now they've got a Chiropteran on their hands. Police have cordoned off the area and the army is on its way. I suppose it's some sort of luck we saw this coming. At least we've got lots of people here who have dealt with this before. I'm supposed to be coordinating at the scene." She checked around, then tossed Kai the car keys. "It's not far to the school. I'll run. You drive your kids out of here."

And go where? Kai wanted to ask the question, but Mao was already running. He clearly couldn't keep Elisa safe ihere/i. But those rats were at the Omoro too, even if Mao hadn't noticed them. So he couldn't just take the girls back there, either. He'd have to go in alone and make sure they were all gone before he let Elisa and Irene back in again. Until then, they'd have to find someplace else to stay. But it needed to be somewhere his girls could be protected. That left David and Julia. Even though he'd be trespassing even more on their hospitality, David was at least somewhat capable of protecting the girls, and he had access to resources to do even more.

David and Julia lived close to the hospital. Kai drove towards it, all the while trying to fend off complaints from the girls that they were still hungry. To make things worse, he couldn't get to the hospital because he met yet another police cordon when he was about a block away. Uh-oh. He took out his own cell phone and called David. Julia picked up. "Kai. This is Julia. Is everything okay with you?"

"Not really. I was on my way to your place with the girls. But there's police here. What's going on?"

Julia waited a little before replying. "It's probably better if you stayed away. We seem to be having some problems with rabid rats."

Kai closed his eyes. Rats were at the Omoro, where his girls lived; at the school, where they spent a great deal of their time; at the pizzeria, where they'd been four times this week; and now at the hospital, where they'd also spent a lot of time in the past several days. Two was a coincidence, three a pattern. What did that make four? "You mean like the one I had back home? Or the ones at the school?"

Julia wasn't quite that far yet. "At your place as well? Damn. We'll have to do something about that, too." She sighed, audibly. "Okay. Where are you? We'll get someone to let you through. Are the girls okay?"

Kai gave the name of the street he was in. "The girls are with me. They're fine for now." He forced a laugh. "Maybe a bit hungry."

Julia wasn't amused. She sounded worried. "It's not safe here, Kai."

"I know." If his hunch was right, it wouldn't be safe anywhere, not until these things were taken care of. And Kai could help with that. He certainly had more experience fighting chiropterans than any police officer.

When he got to the roadblock, a police officer asked to see his passport, then waved him through. Kai was pointed in the direction of one house that had a lot of cars parked around it, including David's. He added Mao's rental to the collection.

David was inside, surrounded by other people, mostly police officers. When Kai brought the girls in, David gave a few brief orders and the girls were taken from Kai's hands and whisked upstairs. When Kai wanted to follow them, David stopped him.

"The girls will be safe for now. But I have a few questions for you." He directed a glare at Kai. "What was this about rats at the Omoro?"

Kai recounted how he'd killed the rat, then followed it up with the not-yet-an-incident at the pizzeria. He made half a mention of taking children there too often, but it wasn't followed up. This wasn't the time. David heard his words and nodded along. Then Kai swallowed, and presented his theory. He whispered, not wanting to be overheard. "The rats are showing up everywhere the girls have been. I think they're following the scent."

David's eyes opened wide. Then he frowned. "It's a theory." He grabbed one of the people scurrying around, said a few words, and within seconds had a file in his hands. He leafed through it, reading a few lines here and there. At one page, he stoped and his eyebrows rose. He showed the page to Kai. "One with some good supporting evidence." The page was a list of rat infestations reported over the past week. They'd started near the gravesite, but then moved further and further first into the village and then into the larger town. Most of the rats had been reported in places where the girls visited regularly.

Kai frowned. "Then it's not going to be safe for them anywhere, is it?" He read some of the other pages in the report. These rats were a lot more aggressive than usual, attacking dogs and humans even when unprovoked. And from Mao's conclusions and the fact that someone, probably the janitor, at Elisa and Irene's school had been infected, it was pretty obvious they were carrying the 'vector' for transformation into chiropterans. Hell, maybe they had been transformed. That was something that Julia might be able to tell him. Kai's biology wasn't that great. Still, it was obvious running wasn't going to accomplish anything. He might as well help clean this mess up. It was partly his fault, after all. He looked up from the folder, at David. "I want to help." That seemed to be the only way to protect Elisa from most of this mess, after all.

David regarded him levelly for long seconds. Finally he nodded. "I'll see what I can do," he said, and gestured toward the stairs. "Now go confirm we're taking good care of your daughters."

Kai was halfway up the stairs and feeling grateful before it occurred to him to wonder if maybe David's final comment had been sarcastic. It wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility, but right now Kai didn't care. As long as Elisa was all right.

She was, and so was Irene. The both of them were in some other child's bedroom, surrounded by junior police officers. Someone had even thought to make them sandwiches. That hadn't stopped them worrying, however. As soon as Kai entered the room, the both of them practically jumped him. "Kai, what's going on? Why can't we go home?" they both asked, and Irene clamped onto his leg and said "I'm scared."

Kai freed his leg from Irene's arms, then went down on one knee. He pulled Elisa against him, and stroked Irene's hair. "You don't have to be scared." He gestured around the room. "There're all these officers to keep you safe." Kai heard one of those officers grumble something about 'bloody babysitting'. He ignored it for now. "There're a lot of loose animals around, and they might bite people. That's why everything's closed off. I'm going to help fix it, okay?" He forced a smile. He hadn't exactly been lying, but it was enough of a deviation from the truth that it hurt a little. But better that than involve Elisa and Irene even further in this.

The girls nodded. "Okay."

"That's good. Be polite, and I'll be back before you know it." Kai kissed Elisa's hair, ruffled Irene's, and got up. When he walked past the police officer who had grumbled earlier, Kai smiled at her and asked "Can I talk to you outside for a second, ma'am?"

The officer followed him out of the room. As soon as they were out of sight of the girls, Kai pulled the officer in closer. He did it quite gently, because a part of him deep inside felt terror at treating a policewoman like this. But a larger part really wanted to lay into the woman for denigrating the duty of protecting Elisa. And even his gentle pull seemed enough to unbalance the officer. "If anything happens to my girls, ma'am, babysitting duties will be the least of your worries. Please don't make me do anything I might regret." He kept his language polite, too, because that's what you did when speaking to the police.

The –again, gentle – shove he imparted as he let the officer go was enough to send her reeling against the wall, eyes wide with fright. "Understood, sir," she managed to stutter out.

Kai made a slight bow. "Then I'll leave my daughters in your care." He turned away and walked back downstairs, frowning. He hadn't done anything so violent to scare the officer that badly, had he? Anyway, she deserved it. And now Elisa would be well looked after. Irene, too.

Downstairs, David had drawn up his plans and the army had arrived. Kai was introduced to a Captain Okura, the commander of the squad Kai would be joining. The squad would go in to the school to 'take care' of the transformed human there.

The captain didn't look too happy about it. "You'll be in our way, Mr. Miyagusuku," he told Kai. "We've trained extensively for this, and we'll be shooting with live weapons. We don't want you getting in the line of fire and get hurt."

"I can take care of myself," Kai assured him. Training or no training, most likely this was the first time this young captain, who couldn't be much older than Kai, had faced a chiropteran. Japan, and especially Okinawa, had gotten off very lightly after Saya had fallen asleep again. But Kai had been fighting chiropterans since he was sixteen years old, and had often been doing it almost alone, with nothing but a single handgun between him and bloody death. Come to think of it, he'd left George Miyagusuku's semiautomatic back home, safely taken apart and locked away, hidden from all eyes. It was, after all, illegal to have a gun like that, but Kai hadn't been about to give it up. He might need it someday. And now that he did, he was still unarmed. He'd have to do something about that. He nodded to the captain. "Though if I could borrow a weapon, that would probably help."

Captain Okura shook his head resolutely. "Red Shield or not, we're not going to give out guns to civilians, sir. You're coming along as an observer, sir. We'll get you some proper body armor, and you'll stay at the back of our formation. It's only because my superiors insisted on it that I'm allowing this at all."

Kai raised an eyebrow at David, who shrugged. "It was the best I could do. Sorry." David had to have pulled some strings, all right, if he could ask favors from army high command. Or maybe it was the Red Shield clout that had built up over the years.

"Better than nothing, I guess," Kai answered. Then he turned back to the captain. "Lead the way, Captain."

The captain led him to a truck outside. On the way, they were joined by the rest of the soldiers coming out of a side room. When Kai glanced through the door, he saw Julia gathering her papers. So the soldiers had probably had a briefing on chiropterans. Truly a miracle of preparation, they were.

None of the soldiers were much inclined to speak. Kai was handed his bulletproof vest and helmet with facemask silently, and one soldier helped him strap them on, saying as little as possible. The rest of the brief drive went by in silence.

At the school, Mao greeted Kai's presence among the soldiers with surprise. "I thought you were going to take your girls home to keep them safe," she said after telling Captain Okura she didn't need to be introduced to the 'Red Shield observer'.

"It's not safe at home, either." Kai presented his theory again.

Mao listened, then frowned at him. "And you didn't tell me about this before, why?"

"Didn't have the time."

"Hmm," Mao huffed. "I suppose." Her frown didn't lift, however. "And they're sending you in there unarmed?"

Kai shook his head. "If you can pull more strings than David can, be my guest," he said. "But I'll manage somehow, I guess. I can always pick up a dropped gun. Wouldn't be the first time I did that, either. At least I'll be able to help."

"Running off into danger again. I thought you'd broken that habit," Mao said moodily. A rueful smile appeared on her face for an instant. Then the frown was back. She put a finger on his chest. "But you get back safe, you hear?" Kai nodded. Mao waved her hand. "Off you go, then. Good luck."

Kai rejoined Captain Okura, who was giving last-second instructions to his squad members. When he was finished, he made a flurry of gestures and most of the soldiers dispersed, moving to take their positions around the building. The captain remained, together with three other soldiers. All four of them ignored Kai.

After about a minute, signals had come in from all the soldiers that they were in position. The captain spoke into the microphone attached to his helmet. "Move in, now! Go, go, go!" He started sprinting toward the front door of the building immediately. His men followed, and so did Kai.

The soldiers sprinted through the school, quickly clearing the classrooms of any remaining rats. It appeared the janitor had done a pretty good job of getting rid of them before the transformation. But of the transformed janitor, there was, as yet, no sign.

From the direction they were moving in, Kai supposed that the plan was to converge at the school's gym, which also served as an assembly room. The captain believed in leading from the front. He was the first into most of the classrooms, with two of his men following. But the lack of larger prey than rats was also making the captain careless. Maybe he thought the chiropteran was in another part of the building.

Kai felt cut off. He had one soldier who stuck close with him, but that one wasn't talking, and he couldn't hear the radio signals the company was using to communicate, either. All he had were his eyes to follow the action. So he did, looking around furiously, trying to catch everything.

Kai saw the chiropteran before the soldiers did. They had just entered a classroom when the thing pounced from around a corner, moving so fast that the soldier's movements seemed glacial. He shouted a warning, then started running to intercept the beast.

He was slow, too. He needed more speed, right now. The armor around his chest restricted him, so he tore it off. And there was the speed he was looking for. Kai cried out another warning, then took a jump.

His momentum carried him into the chest of the chiropteran. He bounced off it. Hell, he'd gotten its attention. It roared, and struck out at him with one of its claws. He simply sidestepped it. The claw went into the wall behind Kai, gouging out chunks of brightly painted plaster.

Kai took a step forward, evading the other claw. If he didn't have a gun, his hands would have to do. He folded both his hands over each other, with just the thumbs sticking out. Then he jabbed his folded hands up into the stomach of the chiropteran. He followed it up with a kick aimed at its knee. That unbalanced it long enough for him to slip past it, away from the wall that restricted his movement. He'd have to get out of the corridor, too. It seemed awfully small all of a sudden.

Bullets tore into the chiropteran. It roared and turned to face the new distraction. Kai tore at the beast's arm to keep its attention focused on him. He was a little surprised by the long gashes his fingernails left, but didn't dwell on it long enough to delay another punch that snapped the chiropteran's head back farther than it looked like it should go.

"There's two of them!" he heard one of the soldiers shout. Kai looked around. Where? If there was more than one, he idefinitely/i needed more room to maneuver. He grabbed the arm of the chiropteran and pulled it into the corridor leading to the gym. That should have plenty of space.

It was actually sort of strange how easily this fight was going. Taking on even one chiropteran hand to hand wasn't something Kai had ever dreamed of doing, strong and nearly indestructible as they were. But this was going quite well, all things considered. He kept evading the beast's claws, drawing it ever closer to the gym. Then, just as he was in the door, one strike got through. The chiropteran's claws raked across Kai's chest. It hurt like hell, and he reacted without thinking. Instead of making a fist or employing fancy tactics, he struck at the creature's heart with an outstretched hand, as if his fingers were a blade.

He struck true. Before he realized it, his hand was in the chiropteran's chest, and he could feel its heartbeat. iNow/i Kai made a fist and pulled back whatever he had grabbed. It was just a tasty-looking bloody glob. Hah. He could win this fight. He whooped in triumph as the chiropteran roared in pain. He struck again, at its neck this time, and clawed out another bloody chunk. Then he grabbed the beast's head in one hand and its shoulder in the other. All it took was a quick twist and a sharp pull, and head and body were separated. It wasn't entirely unlike the way he'd killed that rat this afternoon.

The chiropteran's body still twitched a little, but it soon stopped and started to crystallize. It really was dead. Good. Now it wouldn't hurt his daughters anymore, or anyone else. Kai checked through the door to see if the soldiers were all okay. Some soldiers they were, to leave it to an unarmed civilian 'observer' to clean up the mess.

He was met by a hail of bullets. What the hell?

Kai brought up his arms to shield his face. That just left the bullets thudding into his torso. He shouted to let the soldiers know they were firing at the wrong guy, but it didn't seem to have any effect. They kept firing, forcing Kai back into the gym.

They didn't leave him any choice, did they? He flattened himself against the wall next to the door and grabbed the gun of the first soldier that came through the door. Kai tore the gun away from him, sending the soldier stumbling across the floor, further into the gym.

Kai tried to disassemble the gun, but it was an unfamiliar type and his fingers didn't seem to want to work for such a delicate task. The trigger assembly snapped when he tore at it, however, which did the job just as well. He relieved a second soldier of his weapon in a similar fashion, but by that time he was surrounded and hurting pretty badly from the bullets hitting him from all sides. He had to get out of here. But the corridors didn't leave him any room to move around, so if he wanted to escape through there, there wouldn't even be any room to evade bullets. He was stuck.

At that moment, the large gym window, starting six feet from the ground, shattered. Coming in through it was Haji, the cuts caused by the glass healing instantly. What was he doing here?

Haji shot forward, ignoring the bullets flying around. Some of the soldiers stopped firing because Haji was in their field of fire, and swore at him. He ignored them, too. He came straight at Kai, moving far faster than the soldiers had. Kai let him, because at least as long as Haji was close, there wouldn't be as many people shooting at him.

Then Haji did something unexpected. He iattacked./i Kai only just managed to block Haji's first claw-strike. He couldn't block the second, which came after Haji had somehow gotten behind him. The claw penetrated Kai's shoulder, and stayed there. It hurt more than the bullets did. Kai roared in pain, so loudly that he almost didn't hear Haji's words. He only heard them because Haji spoke directly in his ear. "Kai. Snap out of it."

Snap out of what? Why wouldn't Haji let go? Kai moved his other arm across his body to free himself of Haji's painful grasp. That's when he both got a look at his own hand iand/i realized what he was looking at. Another chiropteran claw.

Oh shit. He'd allowed himself to forget about all of this again, in the conversation with Mao and during subsequent events. But his body clearly hadn't forgotten, and in the heat of combat, he'd transformed. No wonder the soldiers were shooting at him. They had no idea he was a friend.

Kai let his arm drop, foregoing any further struggle. Thankfully, because of Haji's presence, the soldiers weren't firing. He closed his eyes. He didn't even know when he'd started the transformation, let alone knowing how to reverse it. He sank to the floor, wanting to crawl away into a corner and feeling himself get smaller. He'd been an idiot.

Another burst of pain from his shoulder, however, sent him raring up again. "Not here," Haji said into his ear. "They'll know you. Get out first."

Well, that was a nice idea. One Kai had even already considered. But it wasn't like he had any options in that regard, either. And the soldiers wouldn't hold off firing because of Haji indefinitely. When Kai turned around, he could see from Captain Okura's stance that he was arguing with someone over his radio. As soon as that was decided, they'd start shooting again, Haji or no.

Haji caught his hesitation, too, and chipped in with more good advice. "Wings. Use them."

Kai looked at the gym window that Haji had come through. It offered a tempting view of blue sky and freedom. But even if he idid/i have wings, Kai didn't know how to use them. On the other hand, he was stronger and faster now. Strong and fast enough to make a six, seven foot jump? It was worth a try, at least.

He walked away from the window, causing the soldiers to shout and scatter into a new formation. He took a run up and jumped. He cleared the windowsill effortlessly, even with Haji still hanging on. That put Kai in the school grounds, in full view of everyone. He couldn't transform here, but at least he had more room to move around. Time to try that flying again, then.

It took Kai several tries to get off the ground, but eventually he managed to sort of stay in the air. Haji clamped on tighter and gave instructions. He guided Kai to the grounds around Saya's resting place. There he indicated that Kai should set down, and finally let go to make his own descent.

Kai's landing was more of a crash, ending with him in a miserable heap. The fight and the flight and the pain had exhausted him, but he couldn't keep his eyes closed. Haji set down next to Kai, long bat wings folding away almost the instant he touched the ground. He helped Kai up, then half-carried him to a ramshackle hut surrounded by rose bushes.

Once inside, Kai sank to the floor again. Haji went to open a small refrigerator. He took out a transparent plastic bag containing a red liquid and tossed it to Kai. "You need this. Drink."

Kai caught the bag and bit down into it. Blood. He would have been disgusted at himself, but right now, the sensation of it flowing down his throat was too good for him to care. As soon as he finished it, Haji gave him another bag. Kai downed that, too. The pain was almost gone already, and he felt less tired.

Haji draped a blanket across his shoulders while he drank, but Kai didn't give it any attention. He was too focused on getting down the blood. He finished a third and fourth bag before he was rational again. Only then could he truly look at what he was drinking from. The bags were the same ones he'd seen hanging on the IV's for Elisa and Irene. He noticed something else, too. At some point, he had to have shifted back to his normal form, because the hands that held the bag were human again. That was really weird. He hadn't noticed feeling any different. He'd have to figure that out – just one more thing on the already substantial list. He looked up at Haji, sitting in a chair next to the refrigerator, and held up the empty bag. "Where did you get these?"

"Julia. She gave them to me yesterday."

"Oh." That made sense. Haji needed the blood, too. And David had scolded Haji for not coming to them for help. They might have forced Haji to accept this, even. "Sorry for drinking your supply." He bowed his head. "And thanks for the save, too."

Haji shook his head. "I don't need this much. Nor want it." He let a long silence fall. Before he finally spoke again, he averted his eyes. "I apologize."

Kai looked up and frowned. "What do you have to apologize for? It was my clumsiness that got us here." He leaned his head back against the wall and smiled ruefully. "Come to think of it, it was my clumsiness that got me like this, too."

"No." Haji shook his head. "I could have stopped Elisa. I let this happen."

Kai's head came back up so fast his neck hurt. "What? Why? You saw me fall?"

Haji shook his head again. "I heard the girls screaming. You had already fallen when I came."

"So why didn't you stop Elisa?" Kai asked.

"For Saya," Haji answered immediately. Well, there was a big surprise. But Haji continued. "She was happy with you. And she wanted the girls to grow up loved. You can give them that. I can't." He fell silent again.

Kai didn't really know what to say about that. He'd always tried to make sure the girls grew up well, and he'd kept the Omoro open because Saya would want to return there one day. And he'd found happiness in that, more at least than in racing around Okinawa on a motorcycle and getting kicked out of school. And certainly more than in hunting Chiropterans around the world. That fall would most likely have killed him without Elisa's intervention. Up until now, he had thought that would have been preferable, but would it really? He wouldn't have been able to take care of Elisa anymore if he was dead. He wouldn't have been able to see her grow up, and he wouldn't have been able to see Saya again, either. So, despite all the problems being made into a Chevalier had already caused and undoubtedly would cause, Kai couldn't find it in his heart to blame Haji.

He sighed, deliberately, and leaned back a little harder against the wall. "We're in a fine mess now, aren't we?"

"We can fix it," Haji said confidently. Then, after a brief pause, he continued with a lighter tone, "We have time."

Did Haji just make a joke? That seemed unlike him. But there was something about that statement that was off, anyway. Time should have lessened the number of Chiropteran infections, this one not included. Especially in areas that had been clean for a while, no re-infection should occur. But from what Mao had said this afternoon, if anything, more people were being infected again. Through the rats. But how had the rats gotten infected? Kai frowned. "You know, I wonder about that. With time, shouldn't there have been less people infected? So why aren't things fixed already?"

Haji blinked. He stared out blankly for quite a long time. Then he frowned as well. "I don't know. Maybe someone is still infecting people."

"Who?" Kai gestured toward Haji. "Presuming it wasn't you, on your way here." Haji looked at him sharply. Kai held up his hands. "Hey, just guessing. I mean, for years you were the only Chevalier unaccounted for."


Kai shook his head. "I didn't really think you were the one either. You must have come straight here as soon as you recovered, right?"

"No, I'm not the only Chevalier unaccounted for," Haji repeated. "Nathan is alive."

"What?" Kai shot to his feet. "Saya killed him!"

"He is alive. He dragged me out from under the rubble. He was badly hurt, but not as bad as I was. I didn't see him anymore after that. I don't know where he went."

"Damn him." Kai started pacing. That was all he needed. If Nathan was alive, then sooner or later he would be coming after Diva's daughters. In fact, it was a miracle he hadn't shown up already. "The mess just got messier."

"That it did," a woman said from the doorway of the cabin. Kai stopped and turned to face the newcomer.

Mao walked straight up to him and slapped him. "That's for not telling me," she said, then slapped him again. "That's for making my job even more difficult." She stopped, looked him over briefly, and then added a final slap. "And that's for the state of you now. Honestly. Get yourself fit to be seen." She handed him a packet of clothing. "I figured that that might have happened. Here. Put this on."

Kai looked down. There wasn't much left of his clothing; only a few tattered bits remained. He drew the blanket Haji had draped across his shoulders closed. "Sorry about that," he said. It hadn't even occurred to him yet to think about clothes, he'd been so preoccupied with other things. And it wasn't as if he was cold.

Mao shook her head, and with a sigh slumped down on the cot that served as a bed. She rubbed her temples. "You scared the shit out of me when you flew off carrying Haji. I thought we had an even bigger problem on our hands. Thank heavens I called David to warn him about it and he set me straight. Of course, that still left me to clean up the mess you left behind." She rolled her shoulders, then wiped her face with her hands. "And then I had to track you down to here." She glared at Haji. "You're not easy to find."

Haji remained unmoved by Mao's rebuke. "That was the idea," he said.

"Didn't want to be found, huh?" Mao asked him. "What good does that do?"

"Never mind that," Kai interrupted. "Is Elisa okay?" Haji clearly didn't want to talk about his own circumstances, and Kai really did want to know about his girls. Now that the worst was over, he wanted to get back to them. There was no knowing when Nathan might show up, after all.

Mao frowned, annoyed at the interruption. "Elisa and Irene are still fine. From what David said, the police officers got to deal with a few rats, but nothing they couldn't handle. Besides," she nodded at Haji, "he showed up halfway through and helped deal with them, before David told him where you'd gone."

"Can we go see them?"

Mao shrugged. "We'll have to walk back down the hill, but sure." She regarded him calmly. "We have a lot to talk about, after all."

Kai was already in the door. "Let's go, then."