"It's a secret," was what Hiro said when Yamato asked him why his skill was so much greater than any of the members of Yamato's own staff, forget the average civilians. The other civilians requited by JPs were also unusual. There was an explanation for some of them: Keita Wakui, Airi Ban and Jungo Torii had all been orphaned at various ages. Yamato knew the deaths of his parents in the defense of Japan had affected him, even though he hadn't spent much time with them before that and no longer remembered their faces. They must have worked hard and learned to fight for themselves instead of relying on the protection and patronage of others, in the same way Fumi's ambition had overcome her poverty.

Yamato put his head on his hands as he thought, white hair and pale skin making him appear ghostlike in the black uniform with dark gold trim of the head of JPs. It was a useful effect that reminded others of his spiritual power.

Yet Hiro's background seemed perfectly ordinary, aside from the fact that he had lived apart from his family for the past few years, sharing an apartment in Aoyama in order to attend a high school that seemed to be prestigious by the standards of these things. Was that a sign of ambition, something that had forced him to also become self-reliant?

It was one of his companions that had crashed the truck into Dubhe, so why had Yamato attributed the destruction of the septentrione to Hiro even before the buffoon opened his mouth and made it clear that there had been no plan behind the action, just reckless desperation?

There hadn't been any time to question Hiro further, not when it was almost time for the Megrez meeting, but why was he planning to let the civilian choose which team he would fight with, instead of assigning him to one of the two which needed a fourth member? Especially when the four-person Team Tokyo already had Makoto Sako to take charge? She was the head of the capital's division of JPs for good reason.

Even though he wanted to think that he had foreseen Hiro's importance, recognized a kindred spirit the instant he saw him, at first he had dismissed them as inconsequential… Yes? He'd wanted to imprison them in order to keep civilians from abusing the power of demon summoning (useless, in retrospect: the Nicaea summon app had spread like a computer virus). Yet, why not simply smash their cell phones? That was the policy Hiro had set for dealing with rogue tamers: Yamato hadn't given an official set of orders after JPs staff started ignoring his initial set of orders to eliminate them because it made sense, after all. Yes, they could get another cell phone, but the strong should and would survive: having strong demon tamers out in the civilian population meant that they could bear some of the burden of fighting demons and dealing with Megrez's buds. They should protect themselves if they wanted to be worthy of JP's protection.

Of the Hotsuin clan's sacrifices for the sake of this corrupt nation.

Why was Hiro so special? Why was Yamato pleased by Hiro's… not so much offer as statement that he would tutor Yamato in civilian things? Yes, Hiro must have superior taste… Yet why would he think that? He'd learned that just because someone was competent in one area didn't mean they weren't a complete fool in all others.

And yet… What was it that he sensed from Hiro? What was it he felt when he looked at him?

Yamato knew that if there was something about Hiro, he wasn't the only one who realized it. The administrator of Nicaea, who must be the fallen septentrione Alcor. Why had he made contact with Hiro? Floating in like that and displaying his inhuman power: had he intended to attract Hiro's interest? Did he want to use Hiro's strength the way he'd used the Hotsuin clan?

Yamato would never allow it, he knew, baring his teeth. Never. Hiro was the closest thing to an equal he had ever encountered: if Yamato hadn't been certain Hiro wasn't related to any of the four great summoner clans he might have assumed that was why Hiro already had such powerful demons instead of it being the fruit of his own effort. His own intelligence, equal to Yamato's own and not merely in a limited area, like Fumi Kanno. An excellent tool for research, but she had interest in little else. Yamato respected that: she had her own ambitions and refused to be used for that which did not advance her own interests.

Despite that, Yamato had never yearned to have her by his side, and if she left or was killed now it would be an inconvenience, no more. Why did he feel this attachment to Hiro, as though he was certain Hiro's strength was the equal of his own, as though they were brothers-in-arms?

Brothers-in-arms… Yes, he could see Hiro's skill on the battlefield personally. Assign Fumi to Otome's team, and place himself under Hiro's command? Of course, he could overrule Hiro's orders and regain control whenever he liked, he promised himself.

Was it his imagination or did Hiro look a little curious when he wasn't left out of the assignments, but instead placed as head of the Nagoya team, along with Otome and Makoto? Did he smile as though his question had been answered when Yamato listed himself among the members of the Nagoya team? Yamato was sure Hiro looked satisfied now, but was that just because his question had been answered or because he was looking forward to fighting alongside someone of Yamato's strength instead of having to carry the weight of the other members of his team?

Makoto and Daichi's reactions showed that the normal JPs and civilian reaction to Yamato placing himself under another's command was surprise. More proof that Hiro was special. Why wouldn't Yamato respect the power and strategic skill of someone as strong as Hiro? It was only right. Then again, both of them were products of the former world, the one that trampled on and suppressed the potential of the strong, so that explained it. Their contrast with Hiro was yet more proof that Hiro was a kindred spirit.

Among the cheers after the operation's success was confirmed, Yamato noticed that Hiro was looking at him specifically. This pleased him so much that he just smiled smugly instead of glaring at Airi Ban when he caught her staring at him. Whatever the civilian thought she was looking at… Ah, she was jealous that Hiro obviously saw Yamato as more worthy of his attention than she was. That explained it. The desire of the weak to force the strong to labor for their own benefit: she could recognize Hiro's potential, at least. Still, seeing the potential in others was one form of strength, and she had been quick to join JPs. As long as she didn't attempt to monopolize Hiro's time, he wouldn't take any steps to make it clear which of them was superior and thus more worthy of Hiro's company by putting her in her place.

When he heard knocking on his door after the operation, he found himself feeling pleased instead of annoyed, because now he had the hope that it might be Hiro instead of yet another incompetent JPs member with yet another useless report or request for Yamato's time.

He scowled when it was Fumi who opened the door, only for the expression to instantly be replaced by a smile when Hiro came in behind her.

Yamato didn't even notice Fumi's amusement. "What is it, Hiro?"

"Assigning me to a team: that's the first thing that didn't happen last time."

Last time? "What do you mean?" Yamato glanced at Fumi, who shrugged. Hiro had just asked her to come with him to see Yamato.

"Last time," Hiro repeated himself. "This has all happened before. All of us defeated Polaris and made him put the world back, after we agreed that was the better option and that we were going to change the previous world to make it more in line with your ideals," Hiro added, leaving out all the stuff about how he'd had to kick Yamato's ass first and saying 'your' ideals instead of 'our' ideals. This was Yamato, after all, so if he got the idea Daichi or Ronaldo had seduced Hiro away from him, he might start trying to kill them earlier than last time: that was only one reason Hiro hadn't said anything until now. "After the battle, I woke up at home, went to the entrance exam and aced it just like last time, Daichi introduced me to Nicaea, which proved that he didn't remember what happened before… and then the death clip came, the earthquake happened and the summoning app downloaded itself into my phone, along with the demons I used to beat Polaris. Despite my data already being in their system, Tico didn't remember me, and obviously neither does Alcor."

Yamato leaned forward over his desk. "Alcor?" Hiro knew that name?

"Alcor. The Lifespan Star, companion star to Mizer, the Anguished One, the guy who programmed Nicaea to give us the power to survive, after giving us fire and language and giving you and your ancestors the power and knowledge to protect Japan. That Alcor. The 'weird guy' you haven't been answering my questions about."

"Nicaea was created by a septentrione?" Fumi interjected, smiling. That explained so much about how the demon summoning program interfaced and generated data out of magnetite like that.

Hiro nodded. "Yes. He's also the one who kidnapped you and used you to get at the file containing Yamato's plan for the revival of the world. He probably had you do a few other things too, but that was the one that mattered." Hiro shrugged. "After that, he tried to kill you, Yamato, by damaging the Terminal control at the tower, trapping you in Sapporo so you'd die when Alioth fell. He still sent me Otome's death clip so that I had warning and could stop one of his demons from assaulting the tower."

"Alioth… fell?" And why would Yamato be in Sapporo? He'd pulled all of JPs out of the city except for a token tower guard since it didn't really matter except as a distraction for the septentriones.

"Later," Hiro told him. "Well, the one thing that does matter about Alioth now is that Alcor is the one who gave me the hint that let me figure out how to defeat him. I know you have a grudge against him now, but last week, you forgave him after we killed him."

Yamato smiled, ignoring the 'forgave him' part for now. "We killed him?"

"Yes. We did. He said that it was his last duty as a septentrione, to die to open the path to Polaris for us. He wasn't trying very hard: if Betesnach could jam the summon app, Alcor could at least have made it display incorrect data, or not made himself a form that was weak to physical." If Alcor hadn't been a friend, Hiro could have described what happened as 'Hinako bitch-slapped him into next week.'

"Jammed the summon app?" Fumi asked, even more intrigued now. How would that work?

"You made Trumpeter cancel out the waves by hitting him over the head with a few laptops," Hiro said shortly, because that wasn't the point. "Look, the point is that having Polaris edit the world for us won't work. We beat him fair and square, proving our strength and that we had a good plan, and then instead of starting the next day in the timeline of our new world, he hit the delete button again." Hiro clearly had a guess why, but he waited to see what Yamato and Fumi came up with.

"Of course," Yamato realized, clenching the fist that was hidden behind the top of his desk.

"Will you tell me what it is that you know this time?" Hiro asked, sounding a little annoyed, and Yamato remembered all the times this time that Hiro had asked him about the strange man and Yamato had brushed him off, saying that it wasn't important for Hiro to know that. Yamato knew he hated to have others decide what the important information was: he shouldn't have treated Hiro like he was an ordinary civilian.

"Alcor was Polaris' sword, the most powerful of the septentriones. He gave humanity various tools, and he gave my family power. Alcor thought that it was because of humanity's decadence that Polaris set out to destroy us, but the bottom line was that we 'deviated from Polaris' plan because of him.' What if it wasn't the corruption of the old world that made Polaris try to destroy us, but our power? When it was the power of our wills to make our own decisions that attracted Alcor's attention to us in the first place? Polaris was the one who created the old world, the one where the weak trampled upon the strong!" Of course it was a reflection of Polaris' true nature! Why hadn't Yamato realized this before?!

Hiro nodded, looking pleased with him: Yamato thought that meant that Yamato's theory agreed with Hiro's. Actually, Hiro had hoped Yamato would come to this conclusion, since it meant that Yamato's world of merit, a world of the strong, couldn't happen without first getting rid of Polaris. Hiro could avoid a lot of hassle this way.

"If he is the most powerful of the septentriones, could we use him as a replacement for Polaris?" Hiro asked Yamato. "By the end of the week, there won't be much world left at all: unless Fumi can figure out how to program the Akashic Record from the summon apps, we need somebody to make us a new one, and Polaris can't be trusted."

"Possibly," Yamato looked thoughtful. "But there's no way he'll agree to it."

"Why not? He seems to care about the human race: he was trying to help us get stronger so we could survive," Yamato, "and follow our own ambitions," Fumi.

After fighting for his survival alongside these people for a week, he knew exactly where their buttons were and how to hit them. It would be kind of unfair to manipulate them like this if it weren't for the fact that the world was at stake.

"What he claims to value about mankind is our free will. Perhaps… It is a kind of strength to choose our own fates, defying the plans others have for us," Yamato thought aloud. "It's a strength he envies us: I know that. He won't go along with anything that he sees as limiting our free will, even if it's to allow us to make good decisions." Like putting the strong and suitable in charge instead of the unworthy suppressing them, enslaving them. As Polaris had created Alcor, presumably a strong warrior, a good sword, to serve him?

"He called Airi 'Child of Possibility' and protected that place for her after she decided that she could choose another ambition, find something else to live for," Hiro remembered. "I think you're right: it was the Ticos that thought Polaris couldn't be trusted: what made Alcor try to kill you was that you wanted to take advantage of Polaris' destroying humanity to try to edit us to follow the world of merit, taking away part of our free will. Wait, was it him or someone else who said that all of our ideas of right and wrong were edited into our worlds? Even if that's true, since there's so much difference between Ronaldo's ideals and yours, humans have a lot of freedom to choose our ideals as well as our purposes… That's right, he specifically said purpose. That we could choose our reasons to live and that was impressive. You said he was Polaris' sword?"

Yamato nodded. "The final septentrione, the one who guards the door to Polaris."

"So, if he couldn't choose his purpose, then even after Polaris kicked him out and put him to sleep, he still had to bar our way to Polaris? All the freedom he had was the freedom to do a bad job at his purpose? Be deliberately weak since it wasn't a purpose he believed in? He had to try to kill us, after all the work he did to help us survive?" Hiro's eyes widened in shock and revulsion. "…No wonder he didn't like the idea of doing anything like that to anyone else. Of making us like that. If we had to obey the strongest, and the strongest was Polaris…"

"We'd have ended up like Alcor. The servants of a master like that…" Yamato scowled with hatred. All his efforts, playing right into that thing's hands! "Alcor set the Hotsuin to guard Japan with their lives. Is that why I forgave him as he died protecting a master unworthy of that sacrifice? Because I realized that we were the same?" That Alcor was the same as his parents, although at least Yamato had the freedom to rebel, to try to replace Japan with a better nation, a better world?

"That would make sense, but there wasn't time to ask," Hiro told him. "And it looked like something private, but your guess would be better than mine." As to what Yamato's own reasons had been. "No one else has done anything at all differently until what you did earlier. So I was hoping that I might jog your memory."

Yamato hated to disappoint him, but, "The only thing that might be a sign of buried memories is my fascination with you. If you were responsible for our success the previous time…"

"You also said that you saw potential in me from the beginning last time," Hiro said, looking skeptical, "but then, we don't know that this is the second time. What if last time was the second time, or the third? What if we keep beating Polaris, and then he keeps deleting all the new data, the data that contains such strong humans that are capable of beating him, including his own memories, and then starts deleting the world all over again? For all I know, I might have years of experience fighting demons and septentriones and just can't remember it." Hiro winced at the thought. "There were a handful of powerful demons in my summon app last time, but I just thought they were a gift from Alcor to help me survive, since I'm… Why does Alcor call me the Shining One, anyway? Why is he so certain that I'm the one who can change fate, the one he sends Otome's death clip to? The only other person with a special name is Airi."

"The death clips… There might be our answer," Fumi thought, intrigued. "If everything's data, would that include the future? If Polaris was able to restore the world, then maybe it wasn't deleted all the way: the data might be in backup. If that's the case, wouldn't the data of previous iterations be in backup too?"

"Megrez!" Hiro realized. "Alcor said earlier that Megrez surfaced because he sensed my efforts to destroy him." So it wasn't just Alcor, but at least one more septentrione that noticed something special about Hiro.

"So the septentriones are aware that you're a threat, even if not consciously aware, because they are creatures of the Akashic Record and your data is still in their system, in backup? Interesting-Ah ha!" Yamato grinned. "Alcor: he also was rejected and cast out by Polaris, discarded for his rebellion the way Polaris wants to get rid the threat we pose. So he would be more aware than the others of the power and potential of humanity, the power to defeat his master, since he is linked to this fate of ours… The fate of his new master?" Yamato wondered, examining Hiro with a deepening predatory smirk of delight that would have worried Hiro if he knew that only the approval in it was targeted at him. Yamato wasn't seeing Hiro as prey, but as a fellow hunter. "If Alcor's fate was like that of the Hotsuin, if he was created to fight and die to defend his master, and yet he's been of service to humanity as well as Polaris, given you the summon app, a weapon with which to fight and the knowledge to defend our world…"

"…Maybe he doesn't have to be Polaris' sword."

Yamato only grew more delighted when Hiro caught on so fast.

"It was your ideal that bothered him, not so much Ronaldo's. Maybe he didn't want humanity to be ruled by the strong without any protections against the strong deciding to be cruel and unfair," the way Yamato wasn't cruel towards JPs, "because that's the way he exists."

"So, if we were to defeat him, to prove our strength and prevent him from escaping to the freedom of death…" Yamato continued the thought, and yes. This was why Hiro was so special to him. Hiro could keep up with him.

And he did. "He can replace Polaris for us. We can definitely be sure that he won't break his word and abuse his power, not when he has so much reason to hate people who abuse their power. He won't try to make us conform to a purpose, not when he knows what that's like. He really regretted what he did to your family: he didn't mean to make them like him."

"At least we could choose our fate: choose to fight for this country. At least I could try to create a better nation when I saw that this one wasn't worth all of our service. I wonder if that's why he's sought you out? Why he's given you special information and power?" Knowledge was power. "Is he trying to prove his worth to you? Yearning for you to become his new master?"

"Tico said that his fondest wish was that I would work together with his master. If the AI he created think in terms of masters, that's more evidence that Alcor does. They call us, 'Master Hinako,' and so on."

"Really?" Yamato hadn't had much contact with his after activating the app. In retrospect, it made sense that the Tico wouldn't want to have anything to do with its master's enemy, even if the app still functioned for Yamato, even if he was still drawing on Alcor's knowledge for power.

Hiro nodded. "The trouble is getting him to hold still." Hiro sat down casually on the edge of Yamato's desk. "I feel like I've known all of you my whole life, but Alcor's… definitely not human. He likes being treated like he's a normal person, and he's very… Lonely," Hiro finally decided. "He feels guilty and he's worried that we're being erased because of him, that it's him disagreeing with Polaris about our worth and nurturing our independence that made Polaris decide to destroy us – and I guess that's right, because he helped us get stonger – but even though he was cast out from the others, I can't manage to get him to stay around and talk the way I can everyone else."

"Well, if it's a seal you're after, you've come to the right person," Yamato said, feeling proud of himself, that he had something to offer Hiro, that he could devise exactly what the two of them needed. "I am a Hotsuin, and he gave me information about the septentriones, even if not the forms they would take. Do you remember where you will next encounter him?"

Hiro shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Tomorrow will be a busy day."

"Of course you had other, more important things on your mind," Yamato agreed, and didn't notice that he was a little relieved. The septentrione was just a useful tool to Hiro, and it wasn't as though Yamato kept track of Makoto's whereabouts unless she was acting under his orders. "So, I need to create a seal that you can carry with you, that you can use to capture him, bind him and make him submit to you."

Inwardly, Hiro winced, because once again it was clear that Yamato had no idea of what he was saying, or the way it sounded, especially when he said it so, so lustfully. That was really the only word. Then there was the way he'd wondered if Hiro was yearning for him the way Yamato yearned for Hiro, when Hiro came to recruit him after the battle where Yamato said he'd kill all of them for taking Hiro away from him. That had honestly made Hiro wonder what was next, love poetry? Probably in impeccable classical style. Well, if the world hadn't reset.

Messy pale hair: the two of them did look related. Had Alcor based his human form on the Hotsuin family to begin with? Yes, he'd started interacting with humans long before then, but Hiro remembered that Alcor saw past and future as part of the same thing, all written out 'ahead of time' from the human perspective.

It wasn't necessarily that he was gay, it was the way Yamato was talking like that and looking at him like that, like he wanted to eat Hiro up. Then there was the way he'd acted like a woman scorned during the fight at the tower last time. Now the younger man was talking about submission and it really was straining Hiro's ability to believe that yes, Yamato really was this oblivious. He was a teenage guy! Didn't he have any porn? Hadn't anyone given him the talk? Well, he probably was celibate, since he was responsible for maintaining a barrier that was important to national security, kind of like a miko. Actually, not being allowed to get laid or anything, since he didn't have anyone worthy of fooling around with would explain a lot of Yamato's pent up resentment for the Japanese government, but still!

Hiro was divided between wanting to give him the talk just so that Yamato would know what not to do in front of Hiro, like look up at him with eyes full of smug, playful hunger and knowing that it was a bad idea because Yamato might ask him for demonstrations. Or realize that yes, he actually was in love with Hiro, and then either Hiro would have to tell him no, which would be a bad idea, or be the younger teen's first and let Yamato get even more insanely attracted to him, which would also end in homicide if they ever broke up.

Hiro tried to tell himself that Yamato was just getting turned on by the thought of victory, not capturing someone and turning them into Hiro's bondage slave. Yamato certainly didn't have any idea what those were. Hiro just had a dirty mind: it came from being an ordinary teenager instead of one who had missed out on normal things like hentai and takoyaki.