Author's Note: This has been a looong time in the making, and I'm stoked to finally get it off my chest. The upload is early, of course- by 12 days, because patience is a virtue I can't find in the refrigerator, so is usually in short supply. Amusez-vous!

- Chapter 1 -

Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before. - Mae West

"Oh, crap!" The young redhead stumbled over to her neatly arranged shoes, struggling to slip them on as a sandwich hung from her tightly clenched mouth. "I'm running so late!"

"It would probably help if you didn't sleep in so long." Her father, a bespectacled and weary eyed man, strode up behind her, adjusting his tie out of habit.

"Oh come on, Papa, it was the final night for the Gemini meteor storm last night." Suou blushed, knowing that her passion for stargazing would not excuse her for being late to class.

"Not so fast you two!" Two bags of lovingly prepared meals hung from Asako Pavlichenko's outstretched hands, finding their way to their rightful owners. "You almost forget your lunch." Where would they be without such a careful and doting mother? Starving, at best.

"Geez, thank you darling-"

"Your hair, total bedhead." She lightly chastised, smiling as her husband ran an embarrassed hand through his shaggy hair.

"Thank you mom!" Suou turned to her father, a sarcastic expression plastered over her face. "Maybe you shouldn't sleep in so long, Papa." Grabbing her camera and running out the door, she shouted a quick farewell to her parents and rushed towards school.

I feel like something's missing, but I'm not sure how long I've felt like that. It's strange- it doesn't matter where I am or who I'm with. Even with my friends and family, I still feel like something's missing. My friends are convinced that I just need to spend more time with other people, but it's not that I feel lonely. In fact, I actually feel like someone's watching over me, and it's very comforting. It feels like someone I've never met or seen, and I can't even imagine what they'd look like; and to make things stranger, I still feel like I know them very well… And I truly believe there'll be a day when I finally get to meet them. Farewell.

Suou blinked away the thought as the crosslight flashed red and traffic rolled into motion ahead of her. Tokyo was a busy place, day or night. The vibe of life on every corner resonated with her happy disposition, keeping a smile on her face no matter what was going on.

It was the afternoon, bright orange and red. The descending sun cast long shades across the cityscape and ambient lighting made for beautiful photographic opportunities, especially now during the summer. While she was eager to get home and change for an evening out with the girls, Suou felt a distraction tugging at her attention. In the corner of her eye, she spotted a young boy across the street.

Short, messy blonde hair. Metallic blue eyes. He gazed at her with a keen interest not unlike that of a child that had spotted a new toy, and as she drew closer, he began to smile, something only a child could get away with without arousing suspicion.

"Um… Hello." The words tumbled tentatively out of Suou's mouth, who was unsure of what to expect.

"Hello." The smile did not leave his face.

"Can I help you with something?"

"I'm not sure- but it feels like we've met before." Not something one would normally say to a stranger unless they were trying to make an advance. Given their ages, it was less than likely. Suou recoiled, feeling as if the privacy of her mind had just been breached.

"How did you..?"

"I don't know. Call it a gut feeling. Somehow, there's more beneath the surface, don't you agree?" For someone so disarmingly innocent, he had managed to leave a lasting impression on her fairly quickly. Eager to crank more surprises out of him, Suou warmed up to the conversation.

"Well, since you mention it, I have been feeling that way lately. By the way, shouldn't you be with your parents?" She could not help but notice he was awfully young to be out by himself, and a kind of instinct to ascertain his safety gripped her.

"Don't worry, I'll be fine out here. Where are you headed?"

Suou bit her lip, suddenly recalling the familiarity. "I saw you at the aquarium the other day." His eyes widened in agreement. "Yeah, that's right! You waved at me." Noticing his surprise, she shook her head, flustered. "Sorry, it just popped up randomly. I'm headed home right now. How about you?"

He bowed his head, seemingly deep in thought, an action uncommon among ten year olds. "I was simply wandering out here, drawn to this neighborhood. Do you mind if I…"

"Come home with me? Not at all." Suou grinned, feeling a light fluttering in her chest. His presence was almost calming.

"I'm July." A small hand raised up halfway to meet hers.

"Suou. Nice to meet you!" Her larger one engulfed his, and they turned to resume down the street.

"So, where do you live July?" Suou began innocuously. It seemed as good a time as any to delve into a friendly exchange.

"Not around here. Down by Ikebukuro." A district of not exclusive fame, regarding Tokyo's history.

"Ikebukuro, huh..? That's not far, but you'd have to take a-"

"Train to get here from there, yes," he finished the thought for her. "Have you ever been?"

"Only by passing through. I've never actually stopped to take in the view or anything." Now that she realized it, Suou had not been to many parts of Tokyo, even though she had been living there all her life. The idea of being less familiar than a tourist was embarrassing. "B-but I'll go soon! And not just there, but other districts too!"

"Sounds like an adventure."

In a swift motion Suou whipped out her camera, holding it proudly in front of them. "I love photography. It comes from my mother… I want to be able to travel all over to take photos, not just in Tokyo or even Japan."

"That's why you wanted to visit the districts, right?" July was exceptionally perceptive.

Suou nodded, rolling the camera in her hand. "Out there, beyond the walls of our home is a whole world to explore. And I… want to catch it all with this." She blushed, struggling to maintain her composure. After all, she had only ever given the same speech to her best friend, Soka.

But July didn't laugh, or tease her about it. In fact, he seemed to take every word seriously. If she didn't know any better, she would say he wanted to go with her… and it felt right.

"You sure are lively," he grinned.

"Don't tease! Don't you have a dream that burns in you and drives you?" Did ten year olds even have those? "Wait, that-"

"I do." The curt reply came as a surprise. "I like to paint."

"Wha- paint?"

"Yes. Sometimes of landscapes. But mostly of people that I…" July broke off, earning a concerned glance. "Of people that I care for."

"Like your parents?"

"Yes." Even as the words left his mouth, Suou felt his lack of conviction in them. There must have been a touchy subject behind them, but she didn't want to hurt his feelings asking. Now was not the time.

They turned a corner, the sun warming their backs. Suou gently squeezed his shoulder, meeting his dampened eyes.

"We're here, on my street."

Like an older sister Suou guided her new friend to the quaint house nestled among the concrete and streetlamps. A loud groan rumbled unexpectedly from her throat, disturbing a cat prowling nearby.

"What is it?"

"…I forgot I was supposed to be out with my friends this evening."

Just like it used to be.

Strong arms gently lowered a fragile body onto a couch, taking care to prop the young girl's head against a pillow.

When the Syndicate chased us day and night, and things got messy.

Hei sat down nearby, letting out a stale breath. Carrying a naked body out of Hell's Gate and through Tokyo to an empty house wasn't convenient work. But then again…

She looks so peaceful.

Hei's gaze roamed over every inch of Yin's face. Her eyes were closed, but her chest did not rise with breath. Her skin, already pale, lost even more of its color from two years in storage. Sadly, she looked like a light gust of wind might knock her over.

Yin… what have they been doing to you?

In places where suction cups had been attached, small and very faint circles took their place. Impressions left over. The idea was discomforting, even if mild. Hei's fingers twitched, and he realized that carrying her had not been enough. After two years, he wanted to run his hands across her skin, caress her hair, look down into her wide violet eyes as she whispered his name. So many damning cravings.


With some resentment, Hei stood to cover her body with a blanket, then left the room. The windows were closed. Blinds were drawn. Door was locked. Lights were off.

Only dreary, rain-soaked light streamed in through the curtains.

Light raindrops drizzled down from above, pattering the windows in a rhythmic melody.

"My, my, Ms. Kirihara. You've been a busy girl lately, haven't you?" Madame Oreille's insight was uncompromising and just as unescapable. Even without Ariel and Bernice's watchful specters, she had a keen ability for prying into the reaches of private territory, an all too uncomforting fact considering she wasn't even a Contractor.

Good thing she's on our side.

They drove through quiet streets inhabited only by other cars. What few people dotted the sidewalk retreated inside to shelter.

"Besides the obvious that we all have, what makes you say that?" Misaki Kirihara was business as usual. Even in the company of friends, her authoritative charisma sculpted her words, acting as a shield against whoever questioned her and a reassurance for whoever needed to trust her.

"Why, besides our work on the Gate, you've been biding yourself trying to sniff up BK-201!" Somewhat unfortunately, Oreille seemed not to pay attention to basic social etiquette, even around a former chief of police. If anything, that was an invitation to get under Misaki's skin.

"He's a Contractor. One of the few still alive since Heaven's Gate, and unquestionably the most dangerous. He may have worked for you at one point, but that doesn't make him any more of our ally. We still need to keep tabs on him- wouldn't you agree?" Kirihara's tone was flat, an occurrence that suggested the intended teasing had reached across and she was mildly irritated or trying to hide her position.

"No need to be so frank with me, dear, we both know that. Especially me." Oreille winked, an everlasting smile always just around the corners of her lips. "But tell me, there must be something more to it than that. No one has that kind of fascination with just any Contractor." It was a challenge, cleverly disguised yet unavoidable. It was also one she had heard an unbearable amount of times from other people, and it was quickly becoming an irritation. Oreille already knew Misaki had a more than passive interest in the Black Reaper that ran deeper than bringing him into custody; she was simply making Misaki admit it herself out of fancy.

"Do you really have to know?" Lying would only admit that there was something to hide in the first place.

"Knowing is my profession." Politely dropping the subject was not in the cards yet.

"I have questions for him. I… met the Black Reaper a few times, but never for long enough." Telling half the truth would have to suffice. That was all that needed to be said for now.

Oreille finally relented. "Wasn't that a load off your shoulders? See how nice it is to confide in a friend?" She bit back a laugh.

"Don't get the wrong idea. I'm still out to apprehend him." But they both knew that was just a formality; she would try to talk to him before considering putting handcuffs around his wrists, if such a feat was possible.

"We're here."

Goro Kobayashi's voice floated from the front of the car to the two women as they pulled up to a large building in the heart of Tokyo.

"That was a pleasant ride." Madam Oreille popped open the door and stretched out one long leg, and then the other. The fume-choked air was an uncomfortable welcome from the cool and conditioned confines of their offices.

"I thank you all for being here on short notice." Goro cleared his throat, addressing a gathering of twelve other men and women in suits and some in lab attire. Rather by chance, his tie felt a little too tight around his throat. "The recent appearance of a third Gate has grabbed our attention away from the events in Hell's Gate four weeks ago. The third Gate has shown no signs of activity yet, but, we're not keeping our breaths held. From the analysis we've gotten so far, it looks to be much the same as Hell's Gate here, with distortions in time and space occurring in fluctuations. There has been one notable difference, however."

Kobayashi paused to adjust his glasses and take in the thick silence that hung in the conference room. No less than a dozen faces stared at him expectantly, including Kirihara's and Oreille's.

"In the very center of the Gate there has been an exceptionally powerful field observed that cannot be breached, exactly like in South America. The exterior, from a distance, has the appearance of a glassy dome filled with swirling colored gases. There has been no significant event to explain why this field is there, for how long it will stay, or if it will remain the same size. The UN is clearing the paperwork to scoop up a section of PANDORA and station it next to the third Gate for observations and tests. Our operatives will be among those sent in Operation Sky, aiming to have inside intelligence available. In the meantime, we are to mobilize our Contractors to start a major operation against the occupying forces in Tokyo, called Operation Stone Breaker. Folders with briefings for both will be handed out in a moment."

"Excuse me, sir." The hand of a young man went up. Tenashi Hibino, an ambitious new recruit. "I was just assigned to this the other day and I didn't get the full memo for the meeting- where is this Gate again?"

The grim frown that crossed Kobayashi's face quickly dulled Tenashi's enthusiastic energy.

"Nowhere it should be. We're dealing with a third Gate on the borders of Germany and Austria."

Good? Yes? To your liking? Perhaps? Let's keep it that way.

Also, cover image is from reikkha9 on deviantart. Thanks! :D

(Fixed a major location mistake; thank you DarkerThanEvanescence!)