It wasn't anyplace special. Just a sharp curve in the cliff road overlooking Fuuka Bay. The road bent here, keeping to the side of the mountain, and there was a little unpaved turnaround area in front of the guardrail. Subtly, that turnaround actually made the road less safe, at least while driving at night, because a driver could more easily see the position of the guardrail than the edge of the pavement, and come to think that he or she had more available road than they really did. There was still plenty of space to turn, though, unless the driver was going far faster than the safe speed limit.
Still, an ordinary place. There were many across Japan, probably hundreds throughout the industrialized world.
Yet, for Natsuki Kuga, this place had pretty much defined her entire post-childhood life. It was right here and on this very day of the year that Saeko Kuga, chased by the secret organization called District One, had gone through the guardrail, her sedan plunging to the ocean below, and only Natsuki had emerged alive from the wreck.
From then on, her existence had been consumed by the thought of revenge. Find District One. Identify their membership, plans, and goals. Thwart their ambitions.
Make them pay.
Finding them, staying close to them, had been easy. They'd found her, because Natsuki was a HiME, a Battle Princess, one of twelve women and girls vested with magical powers and forced to fight one another with the lives of their most precious person on the line until only one remained, who'd become the "bride" of an inhuman entity called the Obsidian Prince, which marriage basically meant being a channel by which said Prince could guide and direct the power of the so-called HiME Star. District One, it seemed, had hoped to work with the Obsidian Prince to make Japan first among nations, and so had worked to gather the HiME and support the Festival, as the battles were called.
It hadn't quite worked out that way.
Thanks to interference by an outside group with its own ambitions to control the Festival and some careful string-pulling by the previous "winner" from three hundred years past, the outcome had been unprecedented. All of the HiME and their loved ones were alive and well. The HiME Star and the Obsidian Prince had been destroyed.
District One had been rendered a pile of corpses, an object lesson in the wisdom of not making an enemy of a girl whose would-be lover combined a homicidal breakdown with ownership of a building-sized hydra.
Along the way, Natsuki had learned a lot of things about her mother. Saeko Kuga had been working for District One as a researcher, studying the HiME—her daughter. She'd also been a double agent, selling secret information to Searrs. She'd been found out and was fleeing to Searrs the night she'd died. That was why District One had been chasing her, not to kill her, but to retrieve her. To keep her from giving away secrets. Research samples.
It had been hard to process it all, to learn that Saeko Kuga hadn't just been a victim of the secrets and ambitions surrounding Natsuki's life, but a player among them. It was not the kind of thing a daughter accepted easily about her mother. But she'd made her peace with it, more or less, at least to the extent that Natsuki had chosen to remember the kind woman she'd known, who'd always loved and protected her.
She leaned against the guardrail, palms braced against the metal, as she looked out over the sea. The sky was streaked with the red and gold of sunset, and the water threw the colors back in a sparkling mirror. It was the first time since the Festival's end that the anniversary of that day had come around, and Natsuki was finding all those old memories, old feelings, old questions had come rushing back. Memories kept playing themselves in her mind, of that too-short time Natsuki had had with her mother and of the too-long time after, when she'd clung to pain and loss like an automaton, sealed off from everything else.
The change in pitch as a car decelerated on the road behind her caused Natsuki to turn her head. A gold-tinted Aston Martin slowed to a stop, tires scraping on the dirt as it pulled off the road to park next to Natsuki's Ducati. The rear door opened and a silver-haired, almond-eyed girl dressed in a Fuuka Academy uniform got out, then extended a hand to assist a golden-haired child in a blue dress from the car. The child carried a sheaf of lilies wrapped in tissue paper.
Natsuki suppressed a flinch. This was a private moment, damn it; she didn't want to share it even with Shizuru or Mai, the people she was closest to. Miyu Greer and Alyssa Searrs didn't even make the list.
And what the hell are they doing here anyway?
"I'm paying my respects," Alyssa answered calmly, making Natsuki realize that she'd said that last part out loud. Though she may have looked like an elementary-schooler, Alyssa's tone and vocabulary reflected a maturity and intellect vastly greater than that of her peers. The HiME knew her for who and what she was, so there was no need to pretend.
"Paying your respects? What the hell does that mean?"
Reacting to Natsuki's belligerence, Miyu took a step forward. The android girl was extremely protective of Alyssa. In a way, it mocked Natsuki's earlier comparison of herself to an "automaton," since regardless of the cold, dispassionate way in which they often saw other people, the relationship between Alyssa and Miyu was undeniably loving and affectionate.
Alyssa lightly touched Miyu on the arm with her free hand, making her ease back.
"It's just as it sounds. Today is the anniversary of Saeko Kuga's death, is it not? She is the closest thing to a mother that I have, and at the very least, I owe her my life twice over. I thought that it was only fitting to acknowledge that debt."
Natsuki let out her breath in a rush, then pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Alyssa, my mother had been dead for years by the time you were born. How could she be your mother, too?" She had a sudden vision of some twisted mad science, eggs harvested from Saeko's corpse and fertilized later or something equally disgusting. Outfits like Searrs and District One did that kind of thing as standard policy.
"Do you remember what I am, Natsuki?"
It was a measure of the older girl's agitation that she didn't catch on for several seconds to what Alyssa had meant by using "what" instead of "who."
"You're some kind of artificial HiME. Your people found some way to give the powers of one to somebody who wasn't supposed to have them, and—huh?"
Alyssa was shaking her head solemnly.
"No, Natsuki. The Searrs Foundation didn't give me a Valkyrie's powers," she replied, using the name Searrs called the HiME. Natsuki thought it was taken from Norse mythology, or at least that was the impression she'd gotten from the eight million times it had turned up in video games. "I was created by them, in a fashion not all that different from Miyu, here, except that biotechnology was used rather than robotics and electronics."
Natsuki gave a hiss of surprise. Miyu took the child's hand and gave it a quick squeeze—reassurance in the face of Natsuki's shock, in case it signaled rejection or disgust?
Maybe their similar origins explained something of the connection between them.
"I don't understand. Why would they do that?"
"Apparently, a Valkyrie is created when one with the proper genetics is born during the period when the 'HiME Star' is ascendant. It is a matter determined at birth, not during life, although the powers themselves may not manifest until the mind of the Valkyrie is emotionally receptive. Therefore, at the direction of my father, Searrs scientists worked to assemble the proper genetic template and built a clone based upon it, resulting in my 'birth.'"
She spoke matter-of-factly, as a mature adult speaking of practical matters, but she was watching Natsuki carefully the whole time.
And in truth, Natsuki didn't know what to think, Oh, not about Alyssa herself; if she wanted to get bent out of shape over the girl the Searrs takeover of the academy gave her a much better reason for than then any silliness over how she'd been born. But she knew enough about the history of cloning to suspect that the Searrs Foundation's Frankensteins had done a fair amount of trial and error on the way, not just popped out a perfect golden girl on the first try. Thinking of that genuinely did disgust her.
But more than that, there was the meaning of Alyssa's explanation.
And that had Natsuki, never particularly good at hiding her emotions in any way other than painting them over with a wall of sullen discontent or outright rage, reeling in shock, in surprise, and yes, in genuine anger.
Alyssa might have been an unnaturally intelligent and mature artificially-created human, but she was still a little girl. She flinched from the heat of Natsuki's gaze, clinging tighter to Miyu's hand.
"You're trying to say the reason that my mother...that you're calling her your mother...is that they built you using her work? The data about the HiME that she sold to Searrs?" Natsuki shouted. Alyssa shrank back and Miyu stepped forward, interposing her leg between the enraged HiME and the girl.
"It's more than that, though, isn't it?" Mathematics and the sciences were Natsuki's academic strong points; she not only followed the discussion but made further deductions from it. "The DNA...the genetic information that makes a person a HiME, you'd need specifics. A model for it. And if it's based on my mother's personal research she did for District One, then it means..." She stared at Alyssa, trying, maybe, to see if she could identify any sign of Saeko Kuga in her face.
"If what you're telling me is right, then you're, what...some kind of half-sister to me?"
Natsuki started at her incredulously for fifteen seconds or so, then whirled away from Alyssa and slammed her palms against the guardrail.
"Damn it! Hell, no wonder you want to pay your respects. You've got as much claim on her as I do." Are those tears? Am I crying? "They...I always figured the bastards killed her because she was trying to get me away from them, keep me safe from all this crap, HiME and secret conspiracies and every goddamn other thing. But...she wasn't running from them, she was running to Searrs. Because Searrs paid her to steal from District One, steal the stuff they used to make you." She whirled around to face Alyssa. "And then they killed her." Despair, rage, the same rush of emotions she'd felt when John Smith had first told her about Saeko's connection to Searrs all surged back up, a cold fist around her heart, a burning at the back of her throat. "She's dead because Searrs wanted to create you, and Mom was the one who was greedy or stupid enough to take their money."
The sharp cracking sound seemed to echo off the cliff face, reverberate from the waves below. Alyssa had yanked her hand free from Miyu's and delivered a slap across Natsuki's face.
"Don't you dare talk about her that way!"
Natsuki stared in surprise. Where had that come from?
"You have no right to say those things!" Alyssa added hotly.
As usual, it was anger that proved Natsuki's refuge from a confusing situation.
"What do you know about it?" she lashed back. "You weren't even born when she died! What's she to you but the signature at the end of a project report?"
"She's the reason I'm alive!" Alyssa shot back.
"Because she provided my genetic material to Searrs's scientists? That could just as easily have been anyone. Mom just happened to be the easiest for your people to bribe, but if she hadn't I'm sure there was a long line of other possibilities."
"That's got nothing to do with what I mean, and you know it!"
But of course, Natsuki didn't know it.
The claim that she did, though, brought her rant up short.
Not the world's most brilliant response, but I suppose that it gets the point across.
"You...really don't know, do you?" Alyssa said, with dawning surprise. "Smith told the Obsidian Prince when he was trying to establish friendly relations between his organization and ours, but perhaps Reito Kanzaki never passed it on, or even realized that it was important. And Smith apparently didn't tell you, either, even though he must have given you some information about Saeko Kuga's association with us."
"Okay, so you're saying that assorted weasels knew something about Mom but didn't tell people. Which is pretty much what you'd expect from their type, so I'm starting to follow along." She took a deep breath. "And whatever this is, it's pretty damn important."
"Important enough that if I had known about it, I'd deserve to get slapped silly for badmouthing Mom?"
She means it, Natsuki thought and suddenly found that her heart was in her throat. She obviously hadn't been as much at peace with her mother's choices and death as she'd believed she was, not if Alyssa could push her buttons right into anger and incoherence.
And now the girl was telling her that she shouldn't even have those buttons?
"Then tell me, already!"
"How much do you know about the destruction of the Obsidian Prince?"
"Mai had Kagutsuchi toast him one."
Alyssa gave her a sour look.
"You are not Mikoto, Natsuki."
"Okay, true, but there's not that much more to it than that. The ten of us destroyed the HiME Star, which left him vulnerable to conventional attacks, and a big fire-breathing dragon is pretty much going to destroy anything it wants to."
Alyssa winced at that, and Natsuki remembered how Mai and Kagutsuchi had defeated Alyssa's CHILD, Artemis. Mind you, Artemis had been about to nuke the school from space, so Natsuki kind of thought it was justified.
"And before that?"
"Miyu freed the spirits of the people most precious to the HiME from the pillars at the gate of the Obsidian Palace, and Mashiro used the power of the HiME Star, which she was channeling, to restore them, the CHILDs, and the HiME."
"Do you also know..." she started to say, but hesitated a bit, drawing out the spaces between the words. Up until then, she'd been smooth, easy, confident, leading Natsuki where she wanted her to go, but it was as if she'd suddenly found that the conventional path led her somewhere that she didn't want to be. "After the Foundation's...after all of you stopped our attempt to take over the Festival, do you know what happened to me?"
Natsuki shook her head.
"None of us had any idea. Except maybe Mashiro, but she didn't say anything." That generally bugged the crap out of Natsuki, how the Headmistress had been as much of a liar and manipulator as Nagi or Reito or Greer or any of the rest of the bastards, even if she'd had a good end in mind. "You never came back to school, so we figured you'd run off with the rest of the Searrs goons."
Alyssa clenched her tiny fists. The tissue paper wrapped around the flames rustled as it was crumpled in her grip.
"I was dead," she forced out.
"Joseph Greer shot her," Miyu spoke up at once, sparing Alyssa from having to answer for herself. "He answered to a faction within the Searrs Foundation that was opposed to that headed by Miss Alyssa's father. His instructions upon the destruction of Artemis were to eliminate her."
"Fucking asshole," Natsuki's comment was not elegant, but she thought it summed up the point well enough.
Alyssa seemed to approve, to judge by her tight-lipped, wolfish little smile.
"So you're telling me that you died, but came back to life when Mashiro restored all the HiME? Like Sister Yukariko?"
Natsuki folded her arms over her chest.
"Okay, so Mashiro saved your life. What does any of this have to do with my mother being a good person?"
"That's the part you weren't told. The Vortex device that Miyu used to release the eleven spirits from their imprisonment was created by Saeko Kuga. Its design was one of the things that she gave to us. It was built into Miyu to play as a trump card if it looked like the Obsidian Prince was going to be summoned."
"If you couldn't have the power, no one could?"
"That was our thinking. However, when my father...he was my most precious person..."
Natsuki didn't need her to elaborate. If her father was the one she loved most (androids apparently not counting for the purposes of the HiME's magic), then when Artemis was destroyed he'd have vanished from the world, imprisoned by the pillar. And with him gone, no doubt the opposition group in the Searrs Foundation had taken control.
"I get it. That other faction, it wanted to cut a deal with the Obsidian Prince, so it told Reito and Nagi about Miyu. It's why Mikoto almost got her before Midori booted her up, right?"
"Yes, that is right."
"Glad Midori was there, for all our sakes. But what does any of this have to do with Mom saving you? Sure, she made the device, but she didn't use it or plan what it was for or anything."
Alyssa looked up at her in confusion.
"You still do not understand?"
"Hey, I'm not some kid genius."
The golden girl sighed in a way that made Natsuki decide that Alyssa and Shizuru would probably get along way too well with each other.
"Natsuki, don't you think that it's suspicious that the Headmistress's plan to save us and defeat the Obsidian Prince once and for all absolutely depended on this device? That was why she took Miyu into custody after Miyu shut down, and why she sent Midori to restart her. The Headmistress needed for the spirits within the pillars to be freed so you HiME could regain your powers and destroy the HiME Star, to say nothing of restoring our lives."
"That..." She blinked in surprise. "Okay, that is pretty odd. She had to plan it all out in advance, so she couldn't have just got lucky that Miyu was there with the right tool. Could she?"
Alyssa smiled smugly. Oh, yeah; she'd definitely get along with Shizuru, I bet she drinks fancy English tea, even.
"Now, ask yourself why one of District One's scientists would invent a device whose only function was to interfere with a supernatural process that her organization was trying its hardest to make come to fruition. Even if it was pure scientific curiosity, they would never wave built it. No rational secret society builds its own nemesis intentionally."
"But you—Searrs—did, because it wanted to interfere with the outcome for its own purposes, and might have a use for it, maybe in defense or even just to use as blackmail."
"That's exactly right."
Natsuki didn't respond at once, instead just staring at Alyssa, her brain making the intuitive leap to cover the distance to where the girl seemed to be trying to lead her.
The tide was turning, and from below she could hear the waves crashing against the cliff base.
"You're trying to tell me that it was all planned? That Mashiro knew she'd need something like the Vortex, and got Mom to design it for her?"
"And not just that, but that she then had Mom turn spy for Searrs in order to get the design to someone who had both the technological expertise and the motivation to actually build it?"
Again, Alyssa nodded.
"So you're..." Natsuki looked away for a moment, pulling the thought into place, then turned back to Alyssa. "That's why you said you owe Mom your life, twice, once because you couldn't have been born without what she gave to Searrs, and once because you think she was a key part all along of Mashiro's scheme that wound up saving all our butts?"
"That's exactly it, Natsuki."
"But that means Mom was a good guy the whole time. Working for District One and selling out to Searrs, all of that was just a cover so she could help Mashiro thwart all of them and save everybody. Taking Searrs's money was just an excuse to convince them that she was giving them info for the usual reasons, so they wouldn't think something was up. But why? I mean, she got killed doing that. Why would she throw her life away for Mashiro?"
"You really are thick, sometimes, Natsuki."
"You spent your whole life trying to get revenge for her and you have to ask the question? Family feeling runs both ways, Natsuki. Saeko Kuga had a daughter who was a Valkyrie, and she knew that daughter would be drawn into the Festival, to either lose the person they loved most or win out and suffer Mashiro's fate."
"To protect me."
"To protect you."
And she had. It had taken a lot of luck, a lot of hard work, and a lot of people finding depths within their characters they hadn't known were there, but they'd all pulled it off, somehow. Mashiro's longshot had come through.
Are you watching, Mom? Did you see this all happen the way you hoped?
I should have had more faith in you.
She took a long, deep, ragged breath. Tears were stinging her eyes again, the second time in the conversation. If Shizuru ever found out, she'd tease me until doomsday, she thought, but Natsuki couldn't quite work up any embarrassment over it.
She wiped her eyes on the back of her gloved hand, the leather feeling rough on her hot skin. Then, she did something she'd never been particularly good at.
"Thank you, Alyssa."
The golden child shook her head.
"I didn't do it for you. I just don't want her memory to be held in contempt by the person she gave her life to save." She turned away from Natsuki, took two steps forward, and set the sheaf of lilies down on the ground in front of the guardrail. The breeze coming up the cliff off the sea rustled the paper and made the petals flutter.
"Doesn't matter why. It still means a lot. I don't have many memories of her, but I'm glad that even, through the eyes of an adult, with all the facts about District One and Searrs and the HiME and all of it...those memories are exactly what I always thought they were. So again, thanks."
She walked back towards her bike and picked up the helmet from where she'd left it sitting on the seat, then impulsively turned around.
"She ever needs help and you need some backup, call me, okay?"
Alyssa turned around, tilting her head sideways in curiosity.
"Is this some means of compensation?" Miyu asked.
Natsuki shook her head.
"Nah. Genetics. Mom, me, Alyssa, we all stick up for our family, right?"
The shared look of surprise she got from that kept her smiling even as she rode away.
~X X X~
A/N: Curious? Hop back to the middle of Episode 22, and you'll actually see the scene Alyssa refers to, where Smith warns the Obsidian Prince and Nagi, basically saying outright that the device was built by Saeko.