Keeping his eyes closed was easier, Karasu decided.

When he opened them, the light stung even with the sun having fallen behind Mt. Hakodate, and Miss Yukie (that was still how he thought of her) would sometimes take her eyes off the road to smile at him nervously over her shoulder. Through the sliver of space between the passenger seat and the window, he could see Atori's nose pressed against the glass in a way that would have baffled anyone who had known him in La'Cryma.

"Look at all the houses!" Atori said, innocent as a child. "They're so pretty."

"They sure are," Miss Yukie replied cheerfully. Behind them in the trunk, Tobi ignored the conversation, but the spatial distortions that rippled at the edges of Karasu's consciousness suggested that he was checking for incursions into this dimension, whether by La'Cryma or Shangri-la.

The car rounded a corner too quickly, jouncing Haruka into his side - not that she could sit much closer to him than she was already. However many days he had spent in this dimension, he still marveled at that, and he would for as many as he had left. When she reached for his hand, it seemed that the world had never been so warm.

Past her, on the other side of the car, his younger self shot him a glare and hunched against the door, shutting out everything with a look that Karasu, to his discomfiture, knew quite literally from the inside out. He couldn't fathom how he had ever worn that expression in a world that still had Haruka in it.

Too exhausted for annoyance, he let his eyes fall shut and his attention settle on the sun-warmed glass against his temple, and the weightlessness of pain's absence, and the softness of the fingers that tethered him to earth.

The car slowed, but it wasn't until it jolted to a stop that Karasu opened his eyes. They were idling near the base of Haruka's long driveway, where Ai, Isami, and Miho stood on the grass with relief on their faces. Isami hung back behind the two girls but flashed them a peace sign and grinned in a way that drew Karasu's lungs tight, it reminded him so strongly of Fukurou, that most recent of losses he would never be able to assimilate.

"You're all okay," Ai said as the car windows hummed open. Her gaze slid past Karasu to Haruka. "So what happened, anyway?"

Haruka let out a sigh and squeezed Karasu's hand. "It's a long story."

"Your hair looks cute that way," Miho said to Atori, reaching through the window to tug at the incongruous blond curl that hung down over his left eye. Karasu tensed, but Atori just smiled at her beatifically. Once Tobi had marshaled enough reizu to heal Atori, the curl just... happened. If Fukurou had been here to see it, he would have laughed and laughed.

Miss Yukie turned around. "What do you want to do, Haruka? Do you need help up to the house?"

Haruka frowned thoughtfully. "Well, I guess first I'd better make sure Mom's still in her study before I try to get Karasu back upstairs."

"I can phase us both up to the second floor," Karasu said, irked at how thin his voice still sounded.

"You shouldn't be phasing anywhere just yet," Tobi cut in from behind them. "Your body needs time to stabilize. If a situation comes up that requires spin weaponry, I'll handle it." Though his tone was firm, Tobi's talents had always been better suited to quantum analysis than to battle. If Kosagi or Kuina crossed over, the odds were that Karasu would have to fight whether his body was stable or not.

"Say, Haruka, isn't that your mom out front?" Miho shot a worried look over her shoulder.

Karasu raised his head to see Haruka's mother with wine glass in hand, leaning tipsily out the front door to see past the bushes to the road.

"Oh no!" Haruka practically leapt across Karasu's lap to spring the door latch. "Get in, get in!"

Ai flattened herself against the back of the passenger seat, putting as much space as possible between Karasu and herself while sliding in to squeeze between Haruka and Yuu, then reached back to grab a handful of Isami's shirt.

"Crap! Sorry!" Isami said when his elbow connected with Karasu's stomach hard enough to draw a grunt. He scrambled across Karasu as if his life depended on getting to the other side, wriggled past Haruka and Ai, and flopped into Yuu's lap.

"Hey, watch it!" Yuu said, shoving him off.

"Dude, five in the back seat is impossible."

"I could sit in Karasu's lap," Haruka said, a suggestion that went unnoticed in the commotion, to Karasu's profound relief.

"There's room back here," Tobi said, and Isami practically threw himself over the seat, letting out an "Oof!" as he tumbled down into the trunk. "Be careful of the equipment," Tobi told him with uncharacteristic sharpness.

"Aren't you guys ready yet?" asked Miho, perched delicately between Atori and Miss Yukie on the emergency brake. Haruka slammed the door, and Miss Yukie peeled away from the curb in reverse.

"Wow, that was subtle," Ai said under her breath as they made a quick turnaround in a neighbor's driveway. Squashed between Haruka and Yuu, she cast Karasu a wary sidelong look. "Er, are you really okay?" she asked him. Your arm was missing, her eyes said, as clearly as her mouth didn't.

"I'm fine," Karasu replied, just as awkwardly. It wasn't as gratifying as he might have imagined at age 12 for Ai to find him more intimidating than he had once found her.

"Nothing a good night's rest won't cure," Haruka said, the cheer in her voice a little forced as she squeezed his arm. She didn't let go afterward.

"The question is, what are we going to do?" Miss Yukie asked. "Your friends can stay with me tonight, but my apartment's not very big. I have to admit, Tobi, there's a lot I want to ask you about where you come from." She sounded considerably more enthused at the prospect than Karasu suspected she would be upon learning the truth.

"I'll be happy to answer any questions you have, Miss Yukie," Tobi said absently, the quantum readouts he riffled through still whispering at the edges of Karasu's mind as Isami whispered, "Impossible."

"There's plenty of room at my house," Haruka said, "but I don't know how I'd explain it to my mom."

"You never explained him to your mom," Ai said with a glance at Karasu.

"Three people are a lot harder to hide!"

"What if you don't hide them at all?" Miss Yukie said, and before Karasu knew it, she and Tobi, with encouragement from Haruka, were concocting a harebrained scheme in which Miss Yukie would introduce the two Dragon Knights to Haruka's mother as foreign biologists in need of a place to stay - and the Kaminogi residence, of course, had a spare room...

Haruka clapped her hands. "And while you're talking to my mom out front, I can sneak Karasu in through the back!"

Karasu sighed. But their enthusiasm tugged at him, and he looked around at their laughing faces, even Ai caught up in the cascade of ideas. Once he had been one of them, and now, for the space of a car ride, they had roped him back into their circle, if only for Haruka's sake.

Yuu still stared sullenly out the window, and Karasu wanted to shake him. Look around you, he thought but did not say. Look at what you have.

"Let's try this again." Miss Yukie pulled onto Haruka's driveway, smoothing her hair into place like she was going on an interview.

"Ready?" Haruka said, squeezing his hand, and Karasu nodded. Out on the driveway, Haruka turned back to say, "Yuu, do you want to come?" but he slammed the door shut on her words and stared straight ahead. Pursing her lips, Haruka pulled Karasu toward the side of the house as Miss Yukie made for the front door.

Karasu looked back to see Yuu's face pressed against the glass, the anger there thin enough now to suggest what it was covering.

Just past the first set of windows, Karasu swayed. Haruka was a sudden solid presence under his arm, helping him over to lean against the siding as his vision slowly cleared.

"Stay here. Let me make sure my mom's not in the dining room." All wide dark eyes, she left his side to peek through a corner of the window, then shot him the thumbs-up and waved him over.

Laughter poured into the room as shadows fell in the hallway outside, and Haruka tackled him to the grass.

"Oh no, I'm so sorry!" Fear turned her whisper into a squeak as she scrambled to the front of him, her hands fluttering over his shoulders to assess damage. "Are you okay?"

Karasu gave her a grave nod and a thumbs-up.

"Who was that out front squealing their tires, Asuka?" Karasu's - no, Yuu's mother's voice carried clearly through the open window.

"At first I thought somebody was dropping off Haruka's friends, but I guess not. Whoever they were, they sure can't drive."

"Well, neither can we." The usually stern voice was airy. "At least, not right now."

Their peals of laughter rang through the room, louder than the comment really warranted. Was his mother drunk again? Catching his eye, Haruka clapped her hands to her mouth, almost failing to smother the giggles that threatened to erupt.

They army-crawled toward the back of the house, the most absurd cat burglars in Hakodate. "We can get in through the sliding doors in my mom's study," Haruka whispered. "She never locks them during the day." Karasu nodded. From there it was only a short distance to the stairs, but they'd better be fast.

Haruka listened by the back door. One of her friends must have rung Miss Yukie to let her know they'd gotten to the back of the house, because they waited no more than a minute before the doorbell rang. Haruka pumped her fist and tried the door, which slid open a couple of inches and jammed. She jiggled it lightly, shooting Karasu a panicked glance, then hard enough to make the frame rattle. Mrs. Kaminogi's voice reached them, growing louder as it approached: "Can you wait a minute, Miss Yukie? I think I heard Haruka just now."

Out of time, Karasu scooped Haruka up, and she squeaked in protest as they shot up above the eaves. When they lit on the edge his vision went dark, and he forced his knees to rigidity, because he would not lose hold of her now.

Below them, Mrs. Kaminogi muttered, "That's odd." The door clicked shut.

Fortunately, Haruka hadn't locked the storeroom window before going out to look for him. Karasu helped her through the window and then climbed through himself, with a landing he didn't recover from fast enough to avoid drawing Haruka immediately to his side.

"Haruka? Is that you?" Mrs. Kaminogi's disbelieving voice drifted up through the floorboards.

"I've got to go," Haruka said, and she touched his arm. "Will you be okay? I promise I'll be right back."

He managed a nod and a smile, and she threw her arms around his waist, surprising him into stillness. With a last little wave she slipped out of the room, and Karasu sank to the floor.

His eyes fell shut. It was easier. The storeroom had retained every bit of the day's heat, but the crate he leaned against was solid and comfortable under his cheek.

For a time he walked in darkness. A man in a cloak materialized far ahead of him, brown ponytail swinging over broad shoulders to the rhythm of his stride.

"Fukurou," he called, but the man did not turn around, and Karasu gained no ground. "Fukurou!" he called again, but his friend was disappearing into the murk, though not before Karasu's sight was arrested by the slight female figure who'd appeared at Fukurou's side, her long dark hair streaming over the billowing fabric she'd worn into the Reizu Simulator. His heart stuttering, Karasu broke into a run. Her voice hung in the still air, calling him...

"Karasu!" Haruka cried, shaking him by the shoulders. Before conscious thought could awaken, he was wiping away her tears, and she pressed her cheek into his palm. "I thought I saw your body flash, like you were going to disappear. Don't go. Please don't go."

Appalled, Karasu remembered the dream she'd shaken him from. Had he almost left her? He took her hand in his and held it firm. "I won't," he told her. "I'm not going anywhere. I promise that I will protect you, always."

Her eyes locked with his and the words ground to a halt, because it was a promise he had no business making. Somehow he would have to make it come true, because Haruka would mourn him when he faded from this dimension, he realized, in a way that he hadn't as he bled energy onto the warehouse floor while she cried, and the knowledge was a kick to the throat.

He looked down at his hand, wrapped around her small one, and as if someone else had wrenched it open, he let go. Just softly, she smiled and took his hand with both of hers.

"Mom said yes to Miss Yukie," she said finally. "Tomorrow morning we're going to clean out the storeroom so Tobi and Atori can come stay with us." Her smile took on a hopeful cast. "So, I was wondering, since they'll be sleeping there - will you come stay with me in my room?"

It wasn't the first time she had asked. Karasu just looked at her, and Haruka sighed. "Yeah, I didn't think so." Full of purpose, she drew herself up. "Then tonight I'll just stay in here with you."

"Haruka..." he began, but she was already scooting over to sit by him along the wall. Karasu looked down at her helplessly, but she ignored it except to tuck up her knees so she could lean into his side, her breath tickling the skin of his upper arm. He had never feared what he might do around her as much as what might begin to seem like a good idea if he let certain lines be crossed, if he let himself think of her as the Haruka he had grown up with. For a while his mind ran anxious circles but eventually fell quiet, because for all his paranoias and valid fears alike, he could not bring himself to push her away after what they'd been through together at the brink of time and death.

Or maybe he was just that tired.

Haruka's hand slipped into his. "Don't go anywhere," she told him.

His head drooped. He wondered drowsily what her hair would feel like if he let his cheek fall against it, and that startled him far enough awake to let his head drop back against the window sill. He'd leaned on her too much today. That had always been true. "I'll stay," he said.

Her voice was muzzy. "You'll still be here in the morning?"

Karasu thought of the boy with his own eyes watching Haruka from the car window. When Karasu's mornings ran out, Yuu would be there. But for now, this much he could promise her, and he squeezed her hand.

"I will."