Unknown Location

20XX

Sunday, Noon

The only word Yume had for the scene she was witnessing was "slaughter".

A slaughter the likes of which she had never seen, and never wanted to see again.

The bodies of countless soldiers were stacked in haphazard piles all over the barren ground. Blood soaked into the soil, oozing outward in large, rust-red puddles. Each and every corpse was cut or slashed wide open, and the faces of the soldiers were frozen in eternal terror. And right there, in front of the biggest pile of bodies, was Karasuba, completely unstained by gore or blood—save for her sword, which she flicked clean as Yume walked forward. "Hey, Yu-chan," Karasuba said, waving her free hand lightly. Her mouth was pulled into a venomous smile, showing canines. "Bit late, aren't you? I got bored waiting for you to come back."

Yume stared in Karasuba's direction. Not at Karasuba, but through Karasuba, as if the Black Sekirei wasn't standing next to a pile of dead soldiers with an upbeat little smile on her face. Instinctively, Yume drew the small body she held in her hands closer to her body, and a tear slid down her face. "...Why?"

"Humans aren't interesting, is why," Karasuba said, sheathing her sword and folding her arms. Her smile widened just a little bit, but it never stopped being mocking. "I know how you feel about them, but come on, Yu-chan! You can't seriously think that a bunch of weaklings like them would be worthy of any of us." Her eyes narrowed, and her expression twisted into a hateful frown. "Especially not after what Minaka and MBI did to us. How they molded and 'adjusted' us to be more 'acceptable' to humans." She looked at the body that Yume was holding in her arms, and sighed, sparing a moment to look down at something near her feet. "Why'd you bring 88 with you? 87's already worthless enough as it is."

Yume looked down to where Karasuba had glanced down, and saw a dirt-speckled girl that looked vaguely similar to Musubi facially, but with slightly longer hair.

"From what I see, Kaho-chan is fine," Yume whispered. "Musubi-chan will be, as well."

Karasuba's frown softened. "Yume, you shouldn't lie to yourself. 88's not breathing. She's done for."

Yume looked up, and met Karasuba's eyes for the first time during their entire conversation. Her eyes were narrowed, but her mouth was set in a determined frown, refusing to look away from Karasuba. "Not if I give her my core."

Karasuba stepped forward, drawing her sword so quickly that even Yume might have missed it, and pointed its tip at Musubi's lifeless body. The Black Sekirei's eyes were wide open and drilling holes into Yume's forehead. Behind Karasuba, Kaho gasped weakly, and her eyes went wide. "And if you think I'm going to let you do that, you have officially lost your fucking mind."

"We came here to save both Kaho-chan and Musubi-chan," Yume replied, matching Karasuba's anger with determination. "My life is worth sacrificing if it means that I can save Musubi-chan."

"Because you 'love' her, right!?" Karasuba shouted. "Don't be a fucking idiot, Yume! Quit playing at being mommy to her and use your goddamn brain! If you give her your core, you're dead! Does that kid really mean so much to you that you'd kill yourself for her?"

Yume's response was firm and unhesitating. "Yes. Because she can carry on my dream. Because she's got the heart to change things for us." She looked at all of the dead bodies again, though it made her stomach turn. "I don't know what our purpose is, any more than a human knows what theirs is. But I do know that we weren't born to kill and dominate those that are weaker than us. And if I can't find that answer, maybe someone else carrying my spirit can find it instead."

Yume's body began to glow softly with pink light, and though Karasuba moved to stab Musubi, she forcibly stopped herself from going through with it. If she did, there was a good chance that she would possibly injure or kill Yume in the process, especially since Yume's core was already starting to transfer into Musubi. With a snarl, Karasuba kept staring at Yume, though her anger was clearly warring with a deep, frustrated pain. Unperturbed by the conflict on Karasuba's face, Yume kept speaking. "I know you don't believe in my dream, but Musubi-chan does, and that's good enough for me." She smiled sadly. "I'm sorry, Karasuba. I know you wanted to settle things, but...I have to do this."

Slowly, Yume knelt down, cradling Musubi even closer to her body. The light grew in intensity, and her heartbeat began to slow down, just as Musubi's started to speed up. She felt a great weariness overtake her, but she managed to keep smiling, and even chuckled to herself as she became sleepier and sleepier. "Playing mommy...hmm, it would have been nice to have a daughter of my own."

Musubi's eyes shot open not long after Yume spoke. The young girl looked up at Yume with awe, and returned Yume's bright smile. "Yume-sama! You...saved me, Yume-sama."

"And Kaho-chan, too," Yume said, allowing her eyelids to droop halfway down. "But, Musubi, I...I have to go soon. And where I'm going, you won't be able to see me again. So I want you to make me a promise."

"Anything, Yume-sama!" Musubi replied, her voice bright and eager. "Just tell me what it is!"

Yume leaned down a little more and kissed Musubi on the forehead. "Remember my dream, and do your best to make sure it becomes real. That's all I ask."

Though it took a supreme effort for her weakened body, Musubi nodded. "I will, Yume-sama!"

With the last of her strength, Yume then looked up at Karasuba, still keeping a smile on her face. For a moment, the Black Sekirei struggled to speak, gritting her teeth. However, when at last Karasuba did say something, it came out as a raspy whisper, bitter, sad, and enraged. "Goodbye, Yume."

Yume's smile widened, but just the smallest hint of sadness touched it. Then, her eyes closed, and her head hung down, jerking slightly as if it had been on a cut string. Musubi continued to stare up into Yume's peaceful face before yawning and falling asleep. Karasuba stood over the two of them for several moments, then turned away and looked up into the cloudless blue sky. Not long after that, a few wet spots stained the ground near her feet. Then, she screamed, louder and longer than she ever had reason to in her life, and longer and louder than she would ever scream again. Instinctively, Kaho crawled over to Musubi and leaned against Yume's body, while Karasuba continued to scream and cry, an endless rage and sadness eating through the Black Sekirei's heart.

"YUME!"


~Petal 15: Roosting~


Shintou Teitou, Teitou Tower

2020

Tuesday, 2 PM

Musubi woke up from her dream with a sharp gasp, clutching at her heart. She could feel it drumming a wild beat against her chest, and it took several deep breaths before her pulse even started to slow down. Once she got it under control, Musubi looked around, and gasped at her surroundings. She was lying down in a pristine white room. Light streamed in from the windows nearby, flooding the entire room, and a medical curtain split it into two separate halves; by the look of it, she was on the side farther from the door. The look, smell, and temperature were a spot-on reminder of the adjustment facilities, which meant she was at a place affiliated with MBI.

Most importantly, though, she wasn't alone in the room. Minato was sitting in a chair across from her bed, fast asleep. Akitsu and Kazehana were sitting in chairs on either side of him, grabbing one arm each even as they slept. The sight gave Musubi a sudden urge to go and hug him herself, but she abstained, mostly because her legs felt terribly sore. "So we were taken by MBI somewhere," Musubi said. "But where?" She rubbed her forehead, and winced. Even with advanced healing, her arms hurt something fierce, probably thanks to Benitsubasa's last attack. She was still awestruck by the odd clarity of the dream she'd had, and even more surprised that she had experienced the entire thing from Yume's perspective with such certainty that it didn't feel like a dream. More like a memory...

Musubi gingerly scratched her head and frowned, trying to piece together all that she could remember on the bridge. Her memory seemed to blank out right after Minato and Tsukiumi saved her from falling, but she also realized that the moment before striking Benitsubasa's last punch was oddly fuzzy as well. While she puzzled that out, a groan came from the other side of the curtain, and a hand reached out, pulling it back. Musubi looked over to her right and saw Tsukiumi sitting up in another hospital bed, with her left arm wrapped in bandages and slight bags underneath her eyes. "So 'twas you I heard speaking just now," Tsukiumi grumbled, rubbing at her right eye with her right hand. "How wonderful to be awoken from such sweet dreaming by such an obnoxious voice."

"Good morning, Tsukiumi-san," Musubi responded, smiling. "Do you know where we are?"

Tsukiumi grunted, but spared a glance over to Minato and sighed. "Teitou Tower. Takami-san brought us here from the bridge." She then looked at Musubi with a small frown. "Doctor's orders say that you mustn't exert yourself over the next week. All of your muscles have been badly damaged by that fight with the Crimson Sekirei. They're mending, but any activity save for regular movement will likely cause them to tear open and keep you in convalescence even longer."

Musubi blinked. "The Crimson...oh, Benitsubasa-chan! What happened to her and Haihane-san?"

"Going by what Takami-san was saying, they were both brought in after us," Tsukiumi said. "Neither you nor I managed to terminate either of them, though it was a near thing. Pray they do not seek us out ere we recover. I imagine they are less than pleased about being defeated, and I may have said some...unkind things to the Indigo Sekirei when I blasted her off of the bridge."

"Well, fighting with Benitsubasa-chan was pretty fun," Musubi said. "I wouldn't mind doing it again, but it's like you said, she's probably still mad about it." She looked in Minato's direction again, and smiled a little bit at the sight of Akitsu and Kazehana using him as a pillow. She felt a momentary twinge in her chest, but it faded away in fairly short order. "I wasn't expecting Kazehana-san to join us, though. She seems really nice."

Musubi was expecting Tsukiumi to growl in annoyance, but instead the blonde Sekirei sighed. "I can admit that she was a boon whilst we were trying to fight. Had Kazehana not been there, Akitsu alone would have been hard-pressed to get Minato, Kuno, and Shigi to safety." She shifted in her bed, frowning in clear discomfort. "I still wish to speak with Minato about where we go from here, though. There are six of us with him now, and matters were already difficult with five."

Not long after she said that, Akitsu's eyes opened up, and she let go of Minato's arm. When she did, Minato stirred in his chair, then sniffed and yawned, slowly opening his eyes. After rubbing his face once or twice with his free hand, he focused on the other side of the room, and smiled broadly. "Musubi, Tsukiumi, you're up. How are you feeling?"

"The bindings make my arm feel a bit stiff, but fine otherwise," Tsukiumi said.

"I kind of feel like I was doing drills for the Oroshi and the Naruto at the same time for a whole day," Musubi said. "But I think I'll be OK."

Minato's smile only widened, but even Musubi could see a hint of guilt work its way into his expression. "Good. That's great."

Awkward silence followed after that for a few moments. Eventually, Minato dropped his smile and let out a quiet breath. "We all need to talk," he whispered.

Tsukiumi nodded, and for the first time all day, her mouth curled into an actual frown. Anger prickled at the back of Minato's brain, but the thoughts were accompanying it were definitely not his. Words like betraying my trust after you talked me into giving my life to you and I shall not permit that drunken wench to steal you from me floated into his mind. "Indeed, we do," she said, folding her arms.

Minato held up his free hand in an attempt to push out the emotions filtering into his mind and to make sure that Tsukiumi didn't cut him off. "Before we go into that, I need to say something else." He bit his lip, and seemed to shrink in on himself. "I don't regret helping Kuno-san and Shigi-san, but I didn't consider what that actually meant until yesterday. I didn't consider that I would be risking all of your lives to play hero until I saw both you and Musubi get hurt." He remembered how Musubi had been so still in his arms, and how Tsukiumi's face was so pale as she lay in the hospital bed hours before. "I'm sorry. I won't ever take a risk like that again without seriously consulting all of you and exploring all of my options."

Her Ashikabi's expression was just haunted enough to tell Tsukiumi that he hadn't had very pleasant dreams about the subject recently. Some of the bitterness she felt in regards to the entire matter faded; he may not have been physically hurt, but the emotional pain hew was feeling more than compensated for that. Before she could speak, though, Musubi interjected. "Minato-sama, you don't need to be so hard on yourself. You're not a bad person because you made one mistake. You were trying to do the right thing."

"That didn't make what I asked you all to do any less dangerous," Minato said. His shoulders sagged. "I know you all agreed to help me, but it's my responsibility to look out for you all as much as you look out for me. If I was doing my job properly, I never would have asked it of you all in the first place."

"Enow!" Tsukumi shouted. Minato jumped slightly, and Kazehana stirred into drowsy awakening by his sudden motion, rubbing at one eye. Without pause, Tsukiumi continued, speaking softly. "It is done, Minato. Yes, we were hurt. Yes, you made a dangerous and irresponsible decision. But there is no point in belaboring the point, as it were. It has passed. It is more important that you focus on what must be done going forth."

"Flasher-chan is right," Kazehana said, stifling a yawn and blinking in lethargic confusion. "I haven't the slightest idea what she's talking about, but if she's going to raise her voice to Darling like that, she most certainly has to be right." She gave Tsukiumi a frosted-over, narrowed-eyed smile that looked like it was about to shatter.

"If you think you can intimidate me, you've another thing coming, you slob," Tsukiumi retorted. The moment she said so, though, Kazehana's eyes narrowed even more, and Minato winced as a new stream of anger washed into his brain, accompanied by words like arrogant drunken wench and man-stealing panty-flashing brat. "Wounded or not, I'll not abide your insolence—"

Minato stood up, pressing a hand to the side of his head, and shouted, "Tsukiumi! Kazehana! Cut it out!" The force in his voice, and the fact that he called their names without honorifics, made them both stop instantly and look at him with blank stares. When they did this, the angry thoughts pressing in on Minato's mind stopped as well. His voice lowered slightly in volume as he shifted his stance to address all of them. "Now, listen up. I know that the fact that I'm one Ashikabi between all of you makes things complicated, but what's going on in this city is too crazy for all of you to be fighting over me." He took a deep breath. "You all may not like each other very much, and I don't expect that to change just because I said so. But from here on out, we work together to get through this, or we all lose. And I absolutely refuse to lose any of you. I don't have a 'favorite' between any of you. You are all important to me. You are like...all of you are like a second family to me, and I'm not going to lose you, damn it!"

Minato's Sekirei simply watched as he sank back into his chair and ran his hands through his hair. No one spoke after that, choosing instead to digest what he'd said with various degrees of thoughtfulness crossing their features. It was this silent scene that Takami walked in on not too long afterward. Minato looked up toward her as she came in, smiling in tired relief. Musubi blinked, and then smiled as well. "Oh, Takami-san! Hello!"

"Hello, Musubi," Takami replied, returning the smile briefly before focusing on Minato. "Son."

"Are you sure this is all right, Mom?" Minato replied. "I really don't want you to get into any more—"

Takami put up a hand, and Minato stopped protesting. "It's fine, Minato. That fight with Benitsubasa could have gone a lot worse for her, even with our technology, and I want to be sure that the treatments stick before I clear Musubi for release. She'll be able to go home with you today, but nothing strenuous for at least a week or she'll be even worse off."

Musubi looked completely dispirited by that remark, and looked down helplessly at her bare hands. Takami gave her a brief look, then continued speaking to Minato. "This might be a good thing, anyway. The next stage is going to start soon, and now that you can't go to school, you need to decide on how you're going forward from here."

Minato was about to ask his mother a question, but the moment she said "can't go to school", he immediately let it drop and stared at her. "What did you just say?"

Takami sighed. "Minaka's putting the city on internal lock-down now that the third stage of the plan is almost ready to start. Schools have been shut down and curfews are going to be enforced outside of sanctioned Sekirei Plan events. I don't know exactly why he didn't do it when the second stage started, but I think he wanted to attempt to ease people into the idea of the city being completely shut down before he actually did it for real."

She watched Minato's teeth grind against each other as a nasty expression worked across her son's face, but before she could speak, Minato let out an angry shout, stood up, and walked over to the nearby window, punching the wall. The sudden action made everyone flinch away from him, and after a few moments of heavy breathing, he took a single breath and let his hand slide down from the wall. He did not turn around to face anyone, staring out the window at the city bathed in daylight below them. "Damn it," he shouted. "Damn Minaka, damn Sekirei Plan, damn it all! I didn't ask for this shit! I just...I came here to do one damn thing, and now I can't do it!"

It was then that all of the Sekirei in the room except for Akitsu felt his wordless rage seeping into their heads, and a pain clutching at their chests. Immediately, Kazehana stood up and hugged Minato from behind, squeezing slightly harder than necessary to get his attention. When he felt the pressure, he flinched, then froze, realizing that Kazehana's hands were shaking slightly. "Darling," she said, "I know you're mad at the Game Master, but right now just being angry isn't going to make things better. I don't think it's fair to you, either, but for the moment you need to concentrate your efforts on getting through this."

For a moment, Minato seemed ready to squirm out of her grasp, but after a while, he stopped struggling and let out a soft, hissing breath. As his shoulders slumped, Akitsu came over to him and hugged him as well. Eventually, Tsukiumi and Musubi kicked aside their sheets and walked (or marched, in Tsukiumi's case) over to the group. Tsukiumi squeezed her arms between Akitsu and Kazehana, wrapping them around Minato's waist, while Musubi simply spread her arms around the others. Surrounded by all of them, Minato could feel the touches of fear in their hearts echoing in his head, and realized what exactly his anger was doing to them.

"Why do I feel this?" Minato said after a moment. "...this weird sensation of fear?"

"When you winged me last night, you finally opened up your bond with us," Kazehana said. "It would have eventually developed on its own, all the way, but my strength brought it to full bloom. Now you can feel our hearts just like we can feel yours. Our pain is your pain, our happiness is your happiness, and your joy is our joy."

Minato thought back to how his own body had seemed to ache in sympathy with Tsukiumi's injury last night, and nodded slowly, taking a few small breaths to lower his heart rate. The pain in his Sekirei's chests gradually stopped as his anger faded, tempered by the calm that he was forcing onto himself. "Guess I'll just have to learn how to keep my temper in check better." He managed a dry chuckle. "Now, could you guys ease up a bit? I think I feel my ribs creaking."

With great reluctance, all of Minato's Sekirei let him go, and Minato nodded at them with a warm smile. They felt his relief, and smiled back at him. He then turned back to Takami, and said, "Mom, I have a question. On the bridge, Benitsubasa-san said that she'd seen Musubi's fighting style somewhere before." Takami's back went stiffer than a rock, and while Minato noticed this, he didn't call attention to it, only taking it as confirmation of his suspicion. "More specifically, Benitsubasa-san said that 'a man' fought Karasuba-san using the same moves that Musubi did." He took a slight breath, then asked, "Dad challenged Karasuba-san to a fight, didn't he?"

Takami responded to that question by reaching into her coat and pulling out a pack of cigarettes. She flicked the bottom of the pack, and a cigarette popped up. She pulled it out of the box, put it into her mouth, and leaned against the wall near the door. Minato could see her entire body quiver for a moment before she forced it to relax. Then, after several moments of silence, she whispered, "Not exactly, but they did wind up fighting."

Except for Musubi, all of the Sekirei flinched, and gave Minato a wary gaze, unsure of his reaction. Musubi, completely missing the point, just blinked a few times before looking in Minato's direction too.

"When did this happen? Where is he now?" Minato asked. His voice was calm, strangely so, but authentically as well.

"I wasn't aware of any of this happening, because I was out of town just beforehand," Takami said. "I didn't find out until Minaka deigned to fill me in." Her expression soured again. "It happened last year. My understanding is that your father went straight to Teitou Tower and pretty much forced his way in to see Minaka, after he made sure you got home alright." She shifted the unlit cigarette around in her mouth, and folded her arms, trying not to let her hands clench and dig her nails into her arms. "Karasuba fought and beat him, and Minaka locked him up shortly after that. Minaka lets me speak to him on occasion, but I don't know where he's being held or what they're doing to him."

Minato just nodded, working his jaw slightly as he digested that information. "And you didn't tell me because you didn't want me to freak out and do something stupid to try and save him, right?"

Takami sighed. "That's part of it. The other problem is that as long as you or your sister didn't know about it, your father would be fine." She lowered her head, but Minato could see her trembling. "I don't know what Minaka will do if he finds out that I told you, but there's no more point in lying to you since you figured at least part of it out."

"I won't tell Yukari," Minato said. "Minaka won't be finding out from me that I know what he did to Dad. And I'm not going to do anything stupid by trying to free him." His expression remained clear and calm. The anger burning in his heart, just under the surface of his completely calm facade, was completely contained and focused. "Trust me on that."

Takami looked up at Minato, and the expression on her face was as inscrutable as his. She studied him for a moment longer, and finally allowed a smile to cross her face. He's grown up into a real man. Aloud, she said, "I will. As long as you make sure you take care of yourself and your Sekirei better. I can't keep pulling strings like this for you."

Minato couldn't think of a decent response to that, so he just nodded. Takami's smile faded, and she said, "I'll do my final examination of Musubi now, and then you all can go back to Izumo and get some rest. Lord knows you all could use it now."


Shintou Teitou, Izumo Inn

3:30 PM

Most of the quiet journey back to Izumo Inn was full of unpleasant reminders of the oncoming changes in the city. MBI soldiers no longer allowed Minato nor his Sekirei on the train, citing "security risks" as the primary reason. In fact, MBI's presence seemed even more escalated than it had been since the start of the second stage. There was a trooper on every corner of every street, and every one of them carried some kind of armament. They all regarded Minato and his Sekirei warily as they passed by, causing unease to churn in his heart.

At some point, Minato and his group passed by Shinteidai, and saw that it was completely shut down. Minato just stared blankly at the closed gates for a few moments, remembering how simple everything had seemed when he had first walked out of the campus. It was Tsukiumi that pulled him away, with a gentle touch and a murmuring of words in Minato's ears that the others didn't catch. Minato's response was simply to nod at her and reply in an equally quiet foot.

The moment Minato and the others set foot inside of the Inn and started taking off their shoes, Tsukiumi hung back, taking a deep breath, and cleared her throat. "Minato, I would have words with you in private," she said.

Minato put his shoes into the shelf near the door, then turned to Tsukiumi and nodded. "Sure. Meet me in the garden."

Kazehana and Akitsu shared a look, then gave Tsukiumi a sidelong glance. Tsukiumi noticed this, and scowled back at them in response.


As promised, Minato was sitting out in his usual spot in the backyard when Tsukiumi came out to the porch a few minutes afterward. His eyes were closed and he was breathing very quietly, but as soon as Tsukiumi closed the door, he stood up and walked over to her, stepping up onto the porch. Tsukiumi looked up into his face with a blush, and cleared her throat much like she had before. 'Tis now or never, Tsukiumi. Speak boldly.

"Minato," she said, "how do you feel about me?"

Immediately, Minato's face went red. "Well. Um..." He coughed once or twice, rubbing the back of his neck. His eyes darted from side to side as a million words came and left his mind. Eventually, though, he finally managed to say, "You're a friend, someone I can trust. And I really do like you. Maybe not the way that Musubi likes me, but I definitely like you."

Tsukiumi seemed lost for words at that, but eventually nodded. "And is this how you feel about the others as well?"

"Except for Kuu-chan, yes," Minato said. Tsukiumi blinked, her mouth twisting into a slightly puzzled frown, and Minato added, "Kuu-chan's like another little sister to me, just not as...overbearing as Yukari was. And like I said back at the hospital, I don't have a 'favorite' between all of you."

Tsukiumi folded her arms, but there was a lack of severity in her stance that let Minato know that she was seriously listening to his answer. "Then I shall ask this. Why do you constantly disregard me? Nothing I say is to your liking, and you have no care for my opinion."

Minato put a hand to his mouth and sighed. When he spoke again, he was clearly upset, but something in Tsukiumi's heart told her that it wasn't with her. "How do I put this... Tsukiumi-san, it's not that I don't care about your opinion. I just don't like it when you decide to pick fights or say things that could cause trouble with the others." He scratched at his neck, then turned away from her, looking up into the sky. "Akitsu-san hasn't really gotten used to being around people. I don't know what to say about Kazehana-san yet, Matsu-san is mature only when she wants to be, and both Musubi and Kuu-chan are still kind of immature."

Tsukiumi's expression softened from an angry frown into a puzzled one, and Minato looked directly at Tsukiumi again. "I'm hard on you because I know you can do better," he said. "I know that even if you're really hot-tempered, you're not a cruel person. So when I see you lash out at people, it frustrates me because I feel like you're not choosing to be as mature as I know you can be. That's really it." He cleared his throat. "Do you get where I'm coming from?"

After a moment, Tsukiumi nodded, her eyes oddly watery. Minato wondered if perhaps he'd overestimated just how willful she actually was, and reminded himself that while Tsukiumi was very much like Yukari, Yukari had her soft side—and her limits—too. However, before long, Tsukiumi seemed to realize that her confident facade had crumbled, and quickly turned away from Minato, hiding her raw emotions from his sight. "Very well then! If your intentions are as such, then I will accept your counsel from here on out." Knowing he would not see it, her lips pressed together as she fought to say the next words. "I...apologize...for behaving in a manner so unseemly that you would be ashamed of it." He heard her take a short breath before she turned to him, folding her arms tightly. Her brow was furrowed, and any wetness in her eyes was gone, but her voice was still soft. "I am most displeased that you did not say this to me earlier. I do not like being left with false impressions about matters like these. Least of all do I enjoy feeling doubt in whether or not I made a correct decision. I chose you as my Ashikabi because I trusted you. Pray do not make me question whether or not that was a sound choice."

She spoke sternly, but Minato could see that Tsukiumi was squirming as she spoke her last sentence; clearly she felt distasteful even as she said it. So, he smiled and squeezed her shoulder gently, rubbing it a little after he stopped. "I'll remember that. I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable."

The brief contact with him made Tsukiumi's skin flush again, but she soon regained control of herself with a quiet huff, and waited for him to raise his hand from her shoulder before she strode inside. Minato smiled in her direction, but then began to think about what she'd said, how she said she'd felt about how he spoke to her. Then, he rubbed his head, scratching his scalp, and sighed.

"Sometimes I really am a moron," he said to himself.


Izumo Inn

5 PM

Two hours after Minato and the others came back, Uzume walked into Izumo Inn. Her mind was already caught in a torrent of swirling emotions that she was trying very desperately to keep off of her face. When she'd woken up that morning and gone down for breakfast, she'd noticed that only Matsu and Kusano joined her, Miya, and Kagari for breakfast. As she'd been out and about that day, hunting for Kuno and Kazehana, she heard whisperings from other Sekirei and Ashikabi that she'd come across about "the new Ashikabi of the North", and how he had helped a Sekirei and an Ashikabi escape from the city. A quick check via her phone's internet on a few underground Sekirei forums confirmed the rumors, and revealed to Uzume that Kuno had escaped the city, and that Kazehana was probably allied with—or had been winged by—Minato, the very same "Ashikabi of the North" she'd heard so much about.

Upon finding out, she'd wandered the city in a kind of daze, only getting the presence of mind to thin of going back to Izumo after several hours of aimless wandering around. Thanks to Minato, she basically couldn't do anything about either of the two 'targets' she'd been assigned. She would have had enough difficulty defeating Kazehana before Kazehana had been winged (meaning that trying to beat Kazehana now was pretty much completely futile), and Kuno was too far gone as well. On the one hand, Uzume was more than happy that she hadn't been forced to hurt Kuno, and felt the same way to a lesser extent about Kazehana. On the other hand, Chiho's safety was going to be in more danger now than ever before, especially since Uzume's "employer" would keep pushing her to take Kazehana out of the game no matter what the cost was.

There was no way I'd actually break Izumo Inn's most sacred rule just to satisfy that sneering, hateful son of a bitch—at least, that was what Uzume had said to herself before Kuno's escape, to comfort herself and keep her faith strong. But upon hearing about Kuno's escape and Kazehana's winging, the realization that Chiho's safety was more important than playing fair crashed down on Uzume's head, crushing her under its weight. Since then, she'd felt her resolve to stay "honest" slowly slip away as the day had worn on. Now, she didn't know whether she wanted to march up to Kazehana and put a shawl through the Number 03's head in front of everyone else in the inn, or launch a sneak attack during bath time and then run off into the night.

She moaned and clutched her head. Just what the hell was she supposed to do now?

Her cellphone rang suddenly, interrupting her thoughts. Without looking at the caller ID, she flipped it open and turned back towards the front door. "Kakizaki, what do you want?"

"You're slacking, Number 10," came the reply. "You haven't yet eliminated either of the two remaining targets you were assigned."

"95 is out of the city now, and 03 was winged by the Ashikabi of the North. Don't you pay attention to the rumor sites?" Uzume replied, whispering as fiercely as she could. "You tell me how I'm supposed to get near either of them now without getting terminated!"

Kakizaki ignored the heat in Uzume's reply, and kept talking. "95 is out of your reach, yes, but not 03. Spare me your excuses and find a way to make it work. Don't forget that Miss Hidaka's life is depending on your performance."

Uzume hissed and nearly punched a nearby wall, but managed to restrain her temper just enough to stop herself. However, the rest of the words that came out of her mouth were nowhere near as restrained. "Didn't I already tell you that I know that already? Get off my ass about it! I'll figure it out, all right?" All of the anger drained out of her voice as she realized what she was doing. "Just...just stick to our deal. You do that and I'll get rid of 03 and whoever else you send me after."

"Mr. Higa expects results soon, Number 10," Kakizaki said. "Don't disappoint."

The line clicked twice, and Uzume hung up her phone, staring angrily at the ground. After a while, she looked over to the staircase, and went straight up, taking them two at a time with hard footfalls. She immediately went to her room, opened up the closet, and began to take out a giant collection of outfits—the maid clothes she'd loaned to Musubi and Akitsu, the wagtail and mouse suits that she'd given to Kusano, everything that she'd come across since meeting Chiho. With deliberate calm and patience, she folded and straightened each one before putting them down on the ground. Memories of each visit to the hospital flickered past her mind's eye as she did so, but she ignored them, trying to still the trembling in her hands in order to keep folding them properly.

Eventually, the memories began to give way to more recent ones—meeting Miya for the first time and finding a place to stay at Izumo Inn, meeting Kagari for the first time, seeing Kusano smile at her after putting on the wagtail outfit, seeing Minato practice with an eager Musubi under the shining sun...

She paused, wiped the corner of her eyes with the back of one hand, and kept folding.


Izumo Inn

6 PM

After an hour of folding clothes, Uzume stood at last. She looked down at the neat piles of clothing that she'd made on the ground in front of her, and allowed herself one last, tired smile before she got up and left her room. After taking the steps much more quietly than she had going up, she went to the drawers near the door, pulled out her walking sneakers, and slipped them on. Right as she put a hand on the doorknob, Minato's voice came through the air.

"Hey, Uzume-san, where are you headed off to?"

Uzume twitched, and turned to face the "Ashikabi of the North" with a fake, joking grin. He was standing at the mouth of the hallway that led further into the inn, wearing his gi. Even from the distance between them, Uzume could smell the sunshine and the rest of the outdoors on his clothing. A week ago, that would have made her smile, but now, it just made her heart break. "Well, some things came up. I'll be going for a little while, but I'll be back as soon as I can, OK?"

Minato nodded, but Uzume noted that there was a wary glint in his eyes. "Yeah, sure. Do you want me to tell Asama-san?"

Uzume shifted from foot to foot as subtly as she could manage under Minato's calculating gaze. "Please do. I'm...kind of in a rush, so I can't do it myself. Sorry."

"It's all right," Minato said. "If it wasn't important, you wouldn't be leaving so quickly." His expression was terribly difficult for Uzume to read. His mouth was drawn into a flat, thin line, but he didn't seem angry or agitated, just calm, observing her with his arms folded and his stance casual, open. "I won't hold you up any longer. Go on ahead and go, I'll tell Asama-san for you."

Uzume managed to eventually say "Thanks" without tripping over her knotted tongue. If Minato sensed her hesitation, he didn't say anything, and simply watched her turn away from him and open the front door. Before she walked out, though, he said, "Uzume."

Uzume kept her eyes forward, praying that he didn't see her hand tremble. "Yeah, Sahashi-chan?"

"Be careful out there. My mother told me that the next stage would be starting soon, and MBI's been way more serious about curfews and such since that thing that went on up north. Whatever your business is, we're still expecting you back here at Izumo in one piece when it's done, OK? It won't be the same without you."

Uzume didn't know how she managed to swallow the huge knot in her throat without crying. She looked back over her shoulder at Minato, and managed a smile, but she could tell that it was halfhearted at best. "Don't worry. I'll be fine. Just do me one favor, OK? Go up into my room and give your girls those outfits I folded up on the floor. I want them to have them while I'm gone. I'll get them back when I come back."

Then, she left, and closed the door behind her. The moment she did, she called her shawls out, wrapping them around her body and changing into the outfit of the Veiled Sekirei. She looked back at Izumo Inn one last time, then leaped onto the gate surrounding Izumo Inn, then onto the next roof from there.

Minato did not hear her, nor see her, but he knew that she would not be coming back any time soon, if ever. He watched the door for a few moments more, then turned away. Wordlessly, he climbed the stairs to Matsu's room and knocked on the wall, then pushed it open when she said, "Come in."

Matsu turned to her Ashikabi as soon as he stepped inside her room. The slight smile on her face and the welcome on her lips faded when she saw his stony expression. "Mina-tan, what's wrong?"

"Uzume-san's gone," he said. "I don't know why, and I don't know where." His eyes tightened, as did his fists. "She even left behind all those outfits she had in her closet 'for the girls'." Matsu blinked a few times, peering over her glasses at Minato as if he'd grown a second head. In response, he shook his head and sighed. "I'm worried about her, but I don't think I was going to talk her out of it. She was scared out of her mind, but she wasn't going to stop no matter what I said." His expression softened, but it looked more despondent than Matsu had ever seen Minato be before. "I want to know why, though. Something's not right. And I know I promised I wouldn't do anything stupid after what we just got through, but I can't...I don't want Uzume-san to suffer alone if I can help her."

Matsu made a quiet humming sound and straightened her glasses and her posture, fixing Minato with that calm, calculating look that let him know she meant business. "Well, I may have an idea or two about what the problem might be, Minato-sama," she said. "Do you want to hear my theories?"

Minato nodded, and Matsu turned back to her collection of monitors. With a few keystrokes, Uzume's Ashikabi profile was on the biggest screen. Matsu then said, "I've kept a copy of Uzume-san's file on my servers ever since we found out that she was the one that attacked Kuno and Shigi-san, and I did a little research to add to the information that MBI had on her. Right now, her Ashikabi, Chiho Hidaka, is a patient at Hiyamakai Hospital. Hidaka-san's suffering from a degenerative disease that's been destroying her motor functions for the last couple of years. So far, the damage has been limited to her legs and feet, but it's gradually spreading upward, and could completely paralyze her before it stops her heart." She moved her mouse to another file folder titled "Ashikabi Profiles" on a smaller screen in front of her and began looking through it for a specific file. "Right now, the doctors at Hiyamakai have her on an experimental treatment that is prolonging the damage, but it's not likely their treatment will actually do anything to stop it for good. It's also an expensive measure, about 10,000,000 yen a month, and Hidaka-san's been without substantial financial support for some time—her last living relative died not too long after the Sekirei Plan started."

"So then how has she been paying for it?" Minato asked.

Matsu found the file she was looking for and pulled it up on the big screen, replacing Uzume's profile with that of a fair-haired young man with a hard chin, narrow eyes, and a sullen scowl on his face. Minato immediately started, and said, "Isn't that one of the Ashikabi that you said could have winged Tsukiumi if I hadn't done it?"

"You remember him, then," Matsu said. "His name is Izumi Higa, the Ashikabi of the East, and his company, Higa Pharmaceuticals, owns Hiyamakai Hospital. They're also the last big rival that MBI has in this city insofar as biomedical services are concerned." Her frown deepened as she turned back to Minato again, and given the darkening look on his face, she knew that he knew where her train of thought was going. "I think that he has employed Uzume-san to terminate other Sekirei, in order to avoid risking any of his own Sekirei while undercutting as many of the Ashikabi as he can."

"And the moment she doesn't follow orders, Hidaka-san stops getting her treatment," Minato said, his voice dropping to a growl. "God damn it. If Uzume-san was attacking Kuno-san, then she must've been one of Higa's targets, and we have no idea who else he could be sending her after! We have to..." His voice trailed off, and he grimaced, shaking his head. "No. No, that's what got us in trouble last time. For now, I'll just tell Asama-san that Uzume-san had to go for a few days, and then...then we'll figure something out."

Matsu stood up and reached up with both hands to squeeze his shoulders, forcing him to look at her. "Minato-sama, you're only human, and you can't fix every problem you see in front of you without thinking about the consequences. That kind of behavior is why Musubi and Tsukiumi are both injured right now."

Minato pursed his lips together, then closed his eyes and clenched his fists. "I know that," he whispered. "But Uzume-san is our friend, more so than Kuno-san and Shigi-san were. She doesn't deserve this. She can't fix this by herself. There has to be something..."/

Without flinching, Matsu gripped him tighter, and her voice took on a cold, yet despairing edge that Minato had never imagined it could. "Let it go for now, Minato-sama. Please. Uzume-san is our friend, but we have our own position to consider. Remember—there aren't three great Ashikabi powers anymore. There are four, and you're one of them. Any moves you make are going to set off some big waves in the Plan, and could cause a lot more trouble than they could fix."

Being reminded of his new title and "importance" in the Sekirei Plan did nothing to appease Minato's frustration. He'd first found out about it from Matsu after talking with Tsukiumi—when he had gone upstairs to change into his gi and start doing meditation with Musubi, Akitsu, and Tsukiumi, Matsu had come out of her room to greet him with her tablet in hand, showing him the forum thread that documented the escape incident and the fight with the Disciplinary Squad. The Ashikabi visiting the forums named him "the Ashikabi of the North" as a result of his Sekirei's performance in the battle. Much of the meditation time he'd spent with his three Sekirei focused largely on trying to process this, and he had completely failed to do so. All it meant was more attention that he didn't want, more problems for him and his Sekirei down the road. He didn't give one whit about being famous among Ashikabi—all he wanted now was to find a way to get his Sekirei all through the Plan in one piece.

"I don't like this," he said at last. Through their empathetic bond, Matsu could feel the resentment toward his own actions growing larger, and let him go, knowing that he understood what she had said to him. "I never asked for this."

"It's true, you didn't," Matsu said. She straightened her glasses and continued to look up into her Ashikabi's eyes, and he looked back at her, his mouth drawn into a tight line that betrayed his frustration. "Minato-sama, choices have consequences. You're strong enough to deal with both of them. You just have to be patient, and remember that you're not alone." Her voice softened. "I'll try to keep tabs on Uzume-tan for the next week, OK? I won't be able to do much, but if it gets really bad, I'll let you know. For right now, just make sure that Muu-tan doesn't hurt herself too badly. I don't think that Takami-tan wouldn't be too happy if Muu-tan wound up back in the hospital so soon."

"I suppose not," Minato said after a moment. After another pause, he took a half-step towards Matsu, as if unsure about what he was going to do next, then shook his head and firmly swept her into a short hug. She squeaked slightly, but reveled in the warmth of his body until he let her go, and gave her a genuine smile. "Thanks...Matsu."

Before she could reply, he left the room.

As the wall closed behind him, Minato turned forward to see Homura come up the stairs, lost in thought. The gray-haired man was muttering something under his breath, and when he turned towards Minato, jumped for a moment, and flushed bright red. The sudden reaction, as well as the oddly feminine way that Homura held himself for a few moments afterward, made Minato raise an eyebrow in confusion.

In fact, Minato thought, it's more than just that. He knew that Homura had always been fairly androgynous, but looking at the other man now, Minato could swear that Homura's slim frame had grown even slimmer, particularly at the waist. Even the proportions of Homura's face and neck had changed slightly, and seemed much less masculine than before. After a moment, Minato shook off the odd observations and asked, "Is everything alright, Kagari-san?"

Homura shook his head and smiled, but it was too tight, too high strung, to be natural. "Yes!" he said, a little quickly. "Yes, everything's fine. I was just a bit surprised, is all. I didn't realize you were up here. I'm sorry if I startled you."

"Well, all right," Minato replied. "Excuse me, I've gotta get back to the girls downstairs. They're waiting on me for exercises and all..."

Homura stepped aside without another word, and Minato made for the stairs. Once Minato was out of earshot, though, Homura quickly reached up and loosened a few of the buttons on his shirt, then gripped his head for a moment, trying to purge the burning feeling in his heart, to stop the blush that Minato had caused in him. For a few brief moments, when they'd first made eye contact, Homura had almost wanted to pin Minato to the wall and shove his tongue down Minato's throat, propriety be damned. He had only been able to stop himself by sheer force of will, but knew that as his body changed more and more, he would lose even that ability.

"It's not supposed to be this way," Homura said to himself. "Damn it, I barely see him around as it is. Why did it have to be him? I'm not supposed to have...I can't. Just stop, damn you!"

When he was relatively more put together, Homura took a few deep breaths and walked straight to Matsu's wall, inadvertently wobbling a bit as he stepped, and knocked on it. This time, Matsu opened it herself, blinking in surprise when she saw him standing in front of her and wavering like he was about to collapse. Through his half-buttoned shirt, Matsu saw a peek of the bandages wrapped around his upper body, but could also see the clear swell of breasts beneath them, and the flushing not only of his face, but most of his skin. "It's gotten worse," she said, her brows furrowing as she glared at him. "Damn it, Homura, I told you that the moment you started showing symptoms, you had to stop being the Sekirei Guardian! If it's come this far, then I don't think drugs can—"

"It's not because of that!" Homura retorted. "It's because of him." He coughed, and instinctively clutched his chest. "I...it's him it's reacting to. It's Sahashi." He grit his teeth, trying not to break down too much more, but he knew he couldn't do it. "Every night, now...I see him in my dreams. I remember watching him work out with Musubi and Akitsu. I see him smiling at his Sekirei, and talking to them. I see him hugging them, and I wish he would look at me that way. I wish he would hold me, and smile at me, and make me smile. But I don't want him to look at me that way!" He fixed Matsu with a wide, panicked stare, and a slight heat haze began to rise from his body. "I don't like men, damn it! I'm a man! I don't want him, but...I...!"

Matsu bit her lip. She may not have understood exactly what Homura was going through, but she understood what he was trying to say. Something about Minato—be it personality, power as an Ashikabi, or something else—had struck a chord in Homura's heart, and now his body was responding to a subconscious desire that he had never been willing to face: the desire to have an Ashikabi of his own.

"I should have seen it earlier, Homura," she said aloud, hanging her head. "When this first started happening to you, I just thought your body was becoming unstable. But all this time, it must have been reacting to Minato-sama, trying to change you to please him. In fact, that was probably why it started becoming so unstable in the first place, and trying to fight it only made it worse." She raised her head again, noting that he was still agitated (though not enough so to make the haze around him magnify itself). Words that she wanted to say formed on the tip of her tongue, but she refrained, knowing that if she spoke them, Homura would deny them. "What are you going to do?"

"I'll go straight to Teitou Tower and die fighting if I have to," Homura replied, managing to straighten up despite the feverish appearance he had. "I'm not meant to have an Ashikabi, and even if I was, I don't want it to be him. It just can't be him."

"And why can't it be him?" Matsu asked. She internally winced at what she was going to say next, but she knew she had to say it, now. "What's wrong with Minato-sama? Homura, your body is doing this for a reason. You can't keep ignoring it, or you're going to die. And just because you don't think yourself worthy of an Ashikabi doesn't mean that you're right! You deserve to be happy too!"

Homura's hand lit up, and he raised it to slam it into the nearest wall. However, he stopped when he saw Matsu's shocked expression, and he raised his flaming, shaking hand to his face, staring at it blankly for several moments. Eventually, he closed his hand into a fist, and with a supreme effort, willed the flames to stop. Then, he turned away from Matsu, and his shoulders fell. "There is no happiness for any Sekirei if that sneering bastard Minaka is still alive. As long as he lives, the Sekirei Plan doesn't stop. As long as it doesn't stop, we all suffer. You're not stupid, Matsu. You know this already."

Matsu shook her head, whipping her pigtails around. "Then isn't that all the more reason to try and be with your Ashikabi? So that if, God forbid, you don't make it to the end, you can at least say you were able to find something that made you happy?" Tears began to pool at the corner of her eyes. "Homura, you're killing yourself over this. It's not fair to you and it's not fair to all those Sekirei you risked so much to save. How is it that they get to find their Ashikabi and you just have to sit and waste away?"

"Life isn't fair," Homura replied, without turning around. "I accepted that a long time ago. You should do the same."

Without saying anything else, he left, and Matsu felt the warmth from Minato's hug drain out of her body. There was no telling how long Homura's body would keep holding out if he remained in conflict with himself, let alone if he insisted on trying to fight. But it was clear that there was no talking him out of whatever he was planning to do, either.

Matsu stood in the silence for what seemed like an eternity before she turned back to her computers and sat down, taking control of a satellite to begin her search for Uzume. She would not forget Homura's pain, and she would do whatever she could either to ease it or to make him accept the truth.

However, she would be damned if she failed at one of the few favors her Ashikabi he directly asked of her.


Izumo Inn

6:30 PM

When Minato finally returned to the porch, he was pleasantly surprised when he saw Kazehana and Kusano sitting in front of a closed-eyed Akitsu, allowing the scrapped Sekirei to instruct them in the breathing exercise, while Musubi showed Tsukiumi how to hold her stance. Though Kazehana and Tsukiumi were doing just fine, Kusano kept fidgeting and wiggling, only stopping when Akitsu opened one eye to give her a pointed glance. Not too far from the door, Miya was standing and watching them practice without a word. Minato simply looked in her direction, returning her faint smile, before turning back to his Sekirei and watching them do what they were doing, waiting to see if his intervention was even necessary.

After a few minutes of this, Musubi turned to the porch, and beamed broadly at Minato when she saw him. "Oh, Minato! There you are!"

Minato waved back, allowing his smile to grow wider. "Hey, Musubi. Looks like you're doing a pretty good job with Tsukiumi-san there."

Tsukiumi scoffed and shook her head as she eased out of her stance. "'Tis child's play to use your arts, Minato. I am more intrigued by the matter of these breathing exercises, however. Musubi walked me through those as well, and I found their effect on my powers rather interesting." She smiled, and even blushed slightly. "It shall be an interesting challenge to see how my skills will grow with more training."

"You only think it's easy because you haven't had me running you hard yet," Minato replied, folding his arms. "Wait till you get to drills. You'll be singing a way different tune then." He then looked over to Akitsu. "Akitsu-san, how's it going with Kazehana-san and Kuu-chan?"

"Kuu will take more time to get used to it," Akitsu said, keeping her eyes shut. "Kazehana understands much better than the rest of us, though."

"Compared to the wind, one's breath isn't really very much air to control," Kazehana said, shrugging her shoulders. She gave Minato a sly wink and her usual pert smile. "I don't know if I want to learn any of those fancy moves Musubi used on the bridge, though. I feel pretty comfortable with what I can do already."

Minato stepped down from the porch, still smiling. "I only suggested this as a way for us all to spend time together anyway. I'm not making anyone do anything they don't want to." He looked them all over again, and felt a satisfied warmth coming through their mental link with him. It somewhat eased the cold knot in his stomach that he felt at the thought of Uzume, but only a little bit. "Anyway, let's pick up from where we left off, OK?"

All of his Sekirei nodded, and Minato chuckled to himself before he got back to the business of teaching them.


Izumo Inn

9 PM

After training, eating dinner, and bathing, Minato's earlier prediction turned out to be dead accurate. Musubi, Tsukiumi, and Kusano were all worn out from the exercises Minato had put them through, and were all asleep in their rooms, completely insensate. Akitsu and Kazehana were still awake, and had joined Minato out on the second floor balcony as he watched the stars under the semi-warm night sky, enjoying the occasional warm breeze that came through as they leaned against him and looked up to the sky. Kazehana had changed into a long-sleeved purple robe with pink flower patterns on it, and held a bottle of sake in hand and a few small wine cups. Every now and then, she'd pour out a little of the sake and down it delicately, as both Minato and Akitsu had indicated that they didn't want any of it. Akitsu was wearing a simple white nightgown, and Minato was in a short-sleeved shirt and plain black sweatpants.

The only real sticking point of the evening had been the fact that Uzume was clearly absent from the dinner table. When Miya asked why Uzume wasn't at the dinner table, Minato immediately passed on Uzume's message, doing his best to avoid looking distressed. Miya had accepted it readily enough, but Minato could tell that it had bothered her, and privately, he couldn't help but brood on Uzume's absence the whole night, even now, when he was supposed to be enjoying quality time with his newest Sekirei and the Sekirei that he didn't talk with very often.

It was this quiescent scene that Miya witnessed when she came out to the patio just around 9 PM. Rather than sit with Minato and the others, she simply stood at the door, seeing what few stars that could be seen through the city lights.

"Sahashi-san," Miya asked after a moment, "did she tell you what kind of business she had to attend to, exactly?"

Minato shook his head, but didn't look back to answer her. He could hear the hint of steel in her voice and was not quite up to seeing that terrifying expression on her face that could be called a smile. "I could make a guess or two, but I'm not sure."

Miya stepped out of the door frame entirely, and stood on Minato's right side, next to where Kazehana sat. "I find it odd that you didn't ask about it more, or ask her to tell me directly instead of leaving me a message."

"Darling knows better than to go digging into people's business too much these days," Kazehana replied, taking another sip of sake. "I think the bridge incident taught him a little bit too much about that sort of thing." She gave Miya a calm, easy glance, smiling as a faint blush came to her cheeks. "But, Miya, don't you think that's sort of a depressing subject to bring up?"

"I'm not the one that brought it up, though," Miya said, and a hint of her aura peeked through, causing Kazehana to flinch just a little bit, and look away with a sigh. "At any rate, Sahashi-san. I have another question for you, since Kazehana-san so indelicately reminded me of it. Do you fully understand what has happened as a result of last night's events?"

"My mother gave me an idea at the hospital," Minato said. "And Matsu told me...what the other Ashikabi have been saying about me." He kept staring up at the sky, kept his face neutral and unreadable. "'Ashikabi of the North', 'more dangerous than the East or the South'...I can't stay low-profile anymore with that reputation."

Akitsu frowned slightly as Minato shifted his weight. She could feel a slight tremor in his body that wasn't coming from the night air, and so could Kazehana.

"And if that's the case," he continued, "then I'm going to do whatever it takes to make it to the end of this stupid thing after all. I told everyone at the hospital that they were like a second family to me, and I meant it. I don't want to have to hurt other Sekirei and other Ashikabi, but I refuse to lose any of mine." He closed his eyes and sighed. He hated himself for saying that, but knew that it was the truth. It was selfish and ugly, but it was the truth. "And if somehow, I can stop the Sekirei Plan, or if I can help...anyone, I'll do it. I know what that could mean, but if everyone is willing to help me, I'll do everything I can to make sure that no one else is hurt."

Miya looked down at him after he finished speaking, and he looked up at her in reply. Neither of them spoke for a while, and then, Miya said, "You sounded very much like Takehito just now."

Minato blinked. "Really?"

Miya nodded. "At first, I think he was just happy to be part of the big discovery, part of something bigger than him. But after he saw some of the results of his work, he wanted to do everything he could to change it, to let the Sekirei live like real human beings." Then, for the first time that Minato could ever remember, Miya actually frowned as she spoke, though it was so soft that it was almost invisible. "He never got the chance, and died with so, so many regrets. Sometimes, when I go to his grave, I can imagine that he's just sitting there, staring up at the sky and wishing that he'd woken up to reality sooner." She turned away from Minato after saying that, and looked back upward, her hands folded primly in front of her. "Hearing you say that just reminded me of him. It makes me hope that you might be able to do what he couldn't, if you seriously intend to help as many Sekirei and Ashikabi as you can."

Minato stayed quiet for a while, allowing the night sounds of the city to fill the silence. Then, he said, "Really, it's Musubi's dream as much as it is mine, Asama-san. She wants all the Sekirei and all the Ashikabi to live happily once the game is over. The only way to do that is either to stop the game altogether or to win it so that she can do what she wants." Despite everything, he allowed himself an honest smile. "Yeah. It's a good dream. And I wanna help her see it through."

Miya let out a small laugh. "'Miya-san' is fine now, Sahashi-san."

Minato looked at her again, raising an eyebrow. "Huh?"

"You—and Musubi-san, to some extent—have 'inherited' Takehito's will," she said. "In my eyes, I think that means that we've grown beyond formalities, at least insofar as formalities directed toward me are concerned." Her smile widened just a little more. "In fact, if it's all right, I'd prefer to call you by your first name from now on...Minato-kun."

Minato nodded. "It's fine, Asama—er, Miya-san. I don't mind at all. Actually, I'm a little flattered."

Miya returned his nod, and Kazehana sighed in contentment as she snuggled deeper into Minato's side; the sake had caught up with her now and she was dozing off rapidly. Akitsu remained awake and alert, but had also pressed in closer to him, and by instinct he wrapped one arm each around their waists, allowing one hand each to rest in a Sekirei's lap, and closed his eyes, taking a small breath.

He didn't know what would come tomorrow. He didn't know if his father was alright. He didn't know if Kuno and Shigi were still running under this starry sky, or if Uzume was hunting down other Sekirei for Higa. He didn't know if Yukari and Shiina were staying quiet and safe at home.

Put bluntly, for all the things he had come to know during the Sekirei Plan, there were now so many things that he did not know.

In particular, whether or not he would make it to the end.

But what he did know was that his second family was here with him. It wasn't a perfect family—the fact that cheerful, taciturn, flirty, perverted, innocent, and tsundere personalities were all thrown into the mix pretty much ensured that—but it was a family nonetheless, and if nothing else he knew that they would be willing to stand by him.

So, on that beautiful starlit night, Minato Sahashi simply closed his eyes, melted into the embrace of two of his six Sekirei, and let all his worries and fears of what would come next fade away.

For now, there was only the now.


Author's Notes:

Well, this is it.

Part 1's done.

I took extra time on this because I really wanted things to come together. And by the time my initial deadline had come and gone, it wasn't up to par, so I pushed it further and further and further.

To be honest, I'm still a little unsure about how it turned out, even now, but I feel like by finishing the first part that I've actually managed to do something I hadn't done before as far as storytelling goes. Ideas for part 2 were already coming to me, but I had to sort of put them on hold so that I could focus on getting this done.

As far as what's coming next, well. I was hoping that I'd be up to Substitute School Second Semester by now, but the one chapter I have pre-written is in something of a rut, and I don't feel that confident about being able to either finish it up or to re-rail it. I think that this might actually be an appropriate time to do some one-shot works that I've been holding off on for a while, and then we'll see where things go from there.

But back on topic. For all of you that have read and enjoyed this story, I'm happy that I was able to satisfy your urges as readers. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and hope that this ending lived up to what drew you in in the first place. It is my hope that I can continue this story another time, another day, and hopefully keep that magic going strong.

In the meantime, take care, and be well. Goodbye for now.

~Zero-Sennin