SSS: Sneaking, Stealing, and Sneezing
(Author's note at the bottom today!)
They spend the next day confined in their room and debilitated by crippling hangovers.
It's hard to tell if Setsuna wakes up because of the pounding headache, the nausea, or the sound of Konoka retching in the bathroom. She wants to call out and ask if she's okay, but opening her eyes causes a dizzying amount of pain, so she settles for trying to adjust to the amount of light in the room. It must be pretty early, judging from the weak sunlight passing through the window. They've probably been asleep for three hours or so, but being tired is the least worrying consequence of last night's drunkenness. The pain behind her eyes is far worse.
Just when she's finally feeling good enough to sit up, Konoka stumbles out of the bathroom and falls face-first on her bed. One of her hands goes up in a half-hearted wave, but there are no signs of life other than that one, not that either woman minds. They're both happy to sit quietly, and there's no bonding like bonding over extreme and superfluous pain.
A noise from Setsuna's bedside startles them both, and Konoka flinches at the volume. It sounds like two hundred decibels to her. She clamps her hands over her ears and mumbles, face still in the mattress, "Your phone is ringing."
Except it's not Setsuna's phone. She roots around in the drawer of her nightstand and finds the source of the noise: her compact. She shoves it in her pocket and retreats to the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
"Setsuna," Evangeline's replies through what sounds like a loudspeaker. She cringes at the volume and holds the little mirror further away from her, and Evangeline pauses. "What's wrong with you?"
"I had a lot to drink."
"You're hungover?" Evangeline raises an eyebrow at that. Who knew she'd adjust that quickly. And then another thought: Actually, maybe getting drunk isn't the sign of a well-adjusted person.
"Good to know you're having so much fun in the midst of saving all of our lives."
Setsuna sighs audibly. This wasn't what she was hoping to wake up to.
"Isn't it good that we're bonding?"
"You're right, I'm just giving you a hard time," the vampire smiles at her and Setsuna responds in kind. It feels like forever since the last time she's seen Evangeline, and the light-hearted teasing is a forceful reminder of that. Something close to homesickness, but not quite, knots in her gut.
"I miss you," she says honestly, and she's surprised to see Evangeline's image in the mirror blush.
"Cut that out, it's embarrassing."
"But it's true!"
"Ugh, you're making it worse."
Evangeline ducks out of the frame for a few seconds then reappears, once again composed.
"Well, I guess it's a good thing that you're learning about these kinds of feelings, as disturbing as your expression of them may be…" the blonde mumbles the last part. "But besides that, I'm calling because I have something important for you to do."
"Aren't I already doing something important?"
"You can add this to your list of chores, then. This particular task has to get done much sooner though, so no lollygagging."
Setsuna nods, looking a lot more alert than she had when she'd first opened the compact.
"What do I have to do?"
Evangeline holds something up in front of the mirror. It's an old, weathered scroll, and on the dried parchment is a picture made in thick lines of black ink. Setsuna studies the image, cocking her head to the side to make sure she's seeing it right.
"Does that crow have three legs?"
"I've never seen an animal like that."
"That's because it doesn't exist," Evangeline responds, rolling up the scroll and reappearing in the mirror. "It's a mythical creature of some importance to Asian culture. It dates back to the Neolithic era in China, but there isn't anything useful to me from that time that still exists. However, the legend reappeared in Japan in the early 1800s. That's modern enough that there still might be some useful items around."
"Why is it so important?" Setsuna asks, not quite understanding the relevance of these old folktales.
"Without going into details, something happened around that time which spawned the legend of the Yatagarasu in Japan. Unfortunately, I wasn't anywhere in the vicinity when it happened, and I'm trying to figure a few things out."
Setsuna pauses, recognizing an inconsistency.
"…How old are you?"
"Old," Evangeline says simply. "More importantly, there's a relic of that time in the Kyoto National Museum. Mana's told me you're in the area?"
"I – I think so, yeah."
"Good. It's a small item made of silver and black lacquered wood, and it's in the shape of the crow I just showed you."
"You want me to research it?"
"No, I want you to steal it."
"YOU –" Setsuna recoils at the volume of her own voice, remembering Konoka on the bed outside, "You want me to steal from a national museum?"
Setsuna's no expert, but she knows museums are full of valuable things, and valuable things means a lot of really comprehensive, really thorough, really state-of-the-art security. There are quite a few questions she wants to ask, but she goes for the obvious one first.
"I got some info from a security guard who works there. Once a week, on a randomly assigned day, the security system resets at three in the morning. Cameras, alarms, everything goes off – but only for five minutes."
"There's no way I can do that in five minutes! I don't even know where it is."
"Calm down, would you?" Evangeline rolls her eyes. "The person I spoke with has agreed to extend the shut down for some supposed maintenance, but only by ten minutes. The piece I need is currently on display in The Main Exhibition Hall; you can find a map of each building on the internet, I'm sure. Just get there ten minutes before three, wait for the shutdown, then run in and grab the thing. You'll have fifteen minutes – plenty of time."
Plenty of time?! Sure, maybe in the movies, or maybe for a professional thief, but for Setsuna? Not so much.
"When does this happen?"
Setsuna's head spins at the thought.
"I don't think I can do this," she mutters. "What do I do if I get caught?"
"Don't get caught."
How can she say it like I'm the one in control of that? But she has to do what she has to do, and saying no to Evangeline is out of the question. This is all part of her mission, and if she wants her life to get better, she has no choice but to do it. Even if it sounds ridiculously impossible.
"Okay," she sighs.
"I knew I could count on you," Evangeline says it mostly just to encourage the other girl. "I know you'll be fine. If you're nervous about someone finding the item on you, you'll only need to hold on to it for a few hours. At six in the morning there's going to be someone waiting outside your hotel. He's going to ask you 'how does the sun bird nest,' and then –"
"How does a sun bird –"
"It's just a code you –" Evangeline pauses, mid-reprimand, "Just say 'as the crow flies' and hand it over, okay?"
"Good. Let me know when it's done."
With that, her image disappears, leaving Setsuna to look at her own confused face in the mirror's reflection.
"How the hell am I supposed to do this…?" She mumbles to herself. This isn't The Italian Job, she's never stolen anything before, and Evangeline hadn't even gone into detail about the mechanics. How am I supposed to get in? Do I break a window? Am I supposed to come back here afterwards?
Setsuna inhales deeply and then lets it out in a rush. I'll figure it out, I guess. First thing's first: she has to find a map. (And learn how to read it.)
She opens the bathroom door and finds Konoka sitting up now. She's lying in a pile of pillows and blankets, curled up like she'd made a nest. Her long hair is fanned out around her in a mess of tangles, her shirt is halfway up her body, and she's only wearing one sock – in short, she looks like a disheveled mess. Not that Setsuna can blame her, considering how they'd woken up.
"Good morning," Setsuna tries warily, unsure if the other girl is even coherent at the moment.
"Hey," Konoka responds weakly, "And I think it's good evening now. It's seven at night or something."
"S – seven? How long was I in the bathroom?"
"Like thirty minutes or something."
Setsuna looks out the window. The light is fading as the sun dips past the buildings, and she realizes she'd mistook the weakness of the sunlight for sunrise when it'd really been sundown. They'd actually been asleep for over ten hours – which means she now has way less time to prepare. Crap.
"What were you doing in there, anyway? I thought I heard you talking," Konoka asks, rolling lazily onto her side. Setsuna grabs the information card with the internet password on it, then her laptop, and plops onto her mattress.
"I was on the phone."
She can hear Konoka shifting on the bed.
"Your phone's been out here the whole time."
"Oh, right, uh…" Setsuna fumbles for an excuse, "I was… talking to myself. I didn't want to weird you out."
"You were talking to yourself… For half an hour?"
"Yeah. It helps me deal with bad memories and stuff, like after last night."
Konoka flops back down, curiosity more or less satisfied.
"Gotcha. If you don't mind, I think I'm just going to sleep until tomorrow. This hangover is brutal."
"That's fine." Perfect timing for Setsuna.
"And just so you know, Ayaka texted to tell me tomorrow's meeting got rescheduled for t six-thirty in the morning. We'll have to be out the door at least half-an-hour before that."
At this point Setsuna's about to tear her hair out. So much for good timing. How she's supposed to pull off a heist, hand over the goods, and attend a business conference in the same three hours is beyond her. Not to mention, two of those events are supposed to happen at the same time.
"Yeah, that should be alright," she lies. I'll figure it out when I get there. For now, there's the issue of finding a good map, and maybe some decent burglar clothes. Whatever that means.
Konoka turns the off the lamp on her nightstand and rolls back over, leaving Setsuna free to plan. It's pretty easy to find a map of the museum online, and she pulls the website up on her phone for easy access. She spends an hour just staring at it, trying to absorb the information into her brain since she's not sure what the signal will be like in the museum. Just as she feels like she's going to go cross-eyed from staring at the screen, she sets her phone and laptop down on the desk and gets up quietly, not wanting to disturb Konoka. She opts for the same jeans she'd been wearing yesterday, since they're tight enough not to snag on anything. Rooting around her drawers, she comes up with a black zip-up sweater as her best option. She pulls the hood over her head and looks at herself in the mirror. The light in the room is dim now that Konoka's bedside lamp is off, and in the darkness it's difficult to distinguish her face.
Just like in the movies, right?
Setsuna bites her lip nervously. Am I really going to do this? What happens if I get caught – how can I possibly explain that to Konoka?
Her anxiety spikes and she opens the window to lean out of it, resting her elbows against the sill. The sun has completely gone down now and the night air is cool. She drinks it in and tries to calm her frantic mind. I'll be fine, she thinks over and over again, like a mantra. Just because I have no idea what I'm doing doesn't mean I'll fail, necessarily…
…This isn't helping. She ducks her head and comes back inside, leaving the window open. Her nervousness is making her overheat, and she tugs at her sweater uncomfortably.
Somehow she manages to keep herself composed until one in the morning, but at that point she's too restless to wait any longer. She goes down the stairs and out the door, grateful for the chilly breeze. There aren't too many people around, it being a Sunday night, and she's thankful for that too. It's very likely these stragglers will disappear as it gets later, which means less chance of getting caught.
Typing the address in her phone, she realizes a bit belatedly that she probably shouldn't be taking a taxi there. The museum isn't too far away, about five miles, but she'll have to start walking now if she wants to get there with time to spare.
True to her calculations, she arrives fifteen minutes before three. It's easy to figure out that the most convenient way to get in would be to go through the West gate, which faces the Main Exhibition Hall directly. Peering in through the bars, she can make out three sets of doors – all closed, and all huge and made of metal. No getting through those. And even if she could, it wouldn't be the best idea. Though the cameras are going to be off, there could still be a few late-night wanderers around, and the last thing she needs is to get the cops called on her for trespassing.
Setsuna follows the sidewalk until she's just behind the building, then strays off into one of the museum's parking lots. There's a dark alley that runs the length of the structure, and she's disappointed to find that there aren't any breakable windows. How the hell… How do they do this in the movies? If you can't go straight through the window, and you haven't spent the last two years tunneling underground, the only way is up.
Easier said than done, though. It's a long climb, and her one saving grace is a fire escape on an attached building. It doesn't lead to the roof of the one she needs to get into, though, and she warily checks the time. Five minutes before three. Do I have time to go in through a different building? What if there are gates blocking the connecting halls…?
These are all details that would've certainly been nice to know, but not having any real knowledge of these things, she resigns herself to doing this the hard way. If it doesn't work, well… it has to work, she tells herself firmly. There's no room for mistakes.
Setsuna waits underneath the ladder of the fire escape, anxiously shifting from foot to foot. She's not sure if she should climb it now or after everything's turned off – there may very well be active cameras on the roof, for all she knows. After about a minute of trying to decide, she notices that it's somehow gotten a lot quieter, and she realizes with belated alarm that the fans controlling the temperature inside the museum have stopped running. She checks her phone – 2:58am – two minutes early. Damnit.
The ladder is out of arms reach and she kicks off against the wall to get a little more height on her jump. Her fingers just barely catch the lowest rung, and with some effort, she hauls herself up. Her climb is hasty and maybe a bit too noisy, but with one minute already wasted she doesn't have time to concern herself with it.
Panting from the exertion, Setsuna gets to the roof and checks the time again. Two more minutes have gone by, and she looks around for any way inside. There are air circulators, but she isn't quite confident enough to climb through those fans – if the power comes back on when I'm on my way out, I'll be in pieces… well, at least they wouldn't recognize my body…
She shakes her head to dispel the morbid thought. I'm not going to mess up. There is a door that presumably leads down into the building, but when she goes to open it, she finds it lock. Isn't that against some kind of fire code!? She thinks frustratedly, trying again to pry the damn thing open. She gives it a kick, but the door doesn't budge. Setsuna checks the time again – 3:03am. Fuck.
Panicking now, she grips the door handle, and with every ounce of strength she has, gives it a vicious pull. There's the very conspicuous sound of metal grinding and then the door flies open, knocking her back on her butt. She gets up quickly and walks by the door, noting the huge padlock that'd been placed on the inside of it. How the hell did I break that?
Deciding to wonder about it later, she descends the stairs down into the museum, arriving on the second floor of the target's adjacent building. Setsuna's vision is good, but in the near pitch black it's difficult for even her to see. She pulls out her phone and holds it up to the wall, crossing her fingers for some kind of directional sign.
And there is one. Except it's in Japanese. Groaning quietly, she pulls up the map on her phone and takes thirty seconds to stare at it – if I came in from here, and the stairs only turned twice, that means the correct hallway should be… there. She sprints in the direction of her best guess, just barely able to keep herself from running into things. After a minute of sprinting through the connecting hallway, she passes under an archway with a sign hanging over it in both English and Japanese – "Main Exhibition Hallway."
Smiling at her success and infinitely grateful that there aren't gates between buildings, she pulls out her phone again. 3:06am. Now the big question: how is she supposed to find something the size of her palm in pitch darkness? To make matters worse, the building is huge. The hall has two wings to it, and even running to the other side would take her more than a minute. She bites the inside of her cheek to keep calm. The light from her phone isn't bright enough to illuminate much of anything. How can I make it brighter…?
What is that common saying nowadays? Oh, right. 'There's an app for that.'
Ignoring the ridiculousness, she opens up the mobile store on her phone and downloads the first flashlight app she sees. It takes thirty seconds, but when she turns it on, her visibility increases ten-fold. Scanning it around, she sees numerous glass-covered cases. Setsuna steps up to each one and shines the light through, trying not to be creeped out by the echo of her footsteps bouncing off the high ceiling.
It looks like I'm in the right place, at least. There are various metal-works in the cases, but no three-legged crows. There's only one more case to check, and she crosses her fingers as she walks across the hall. Stopping just in front of it, her eyes narrow as something occurs to her.
The sound of footsteps hadn't stopped when she did.
What the hell?
She spins on her heel and shines the flashlight around, but as far as she can see, there's no one there. Probably just an extended echo or something.
Turning her makeshift flashlight back on the case in front of her, she smiles with relief at the sight of a silver, black-lacquered wood, three-legged crow; the same one Evangeline had described. There's probably a pressure-sensitive alarm on the glass case, and she holds her breath nervously as she lifts it.
She breathes a sigh and checks the time: 3:09am. About four minutes left. She quickly grabs the small ornament and shoves it in her pocket. Now to get out of here.
Holding her phone in her mouth so the light is angled on the now empty pedestal, she fumbles a bit to replace the glass covering.
…And then her heart skips a beat and her phone goes clattering to the floor.
In the brief moment it'd taken her to put the cover back in its place, she could've sworn she'd seen somebody's reflection in the glass. Somebody standing behind her.
No, scratch that.
Somebody standing behind her and smiling.
Her heart races as she picks up her phone with trembling hands, shining it around once more. No one. Was I just imagining things…?
Regardless, she doesn't have time to find out. Even if there is someone in here with her, that's just all the more reason to hurry up and get the hell out of there. Not wasting any more time, she pivots on her heel and sprints back the way she came.
The neighboring building she'd come from has a similar high-ceiling, and she listens carefully for any discrepancy in the echo of her footsteps. So far she can't hear anything, but that might be because of her rapid breathing and all the blood rushing in her head. She can see the stairs to the fire escape now.
It's built into the wall, so there's no transition between the echo-y, high-ceilinged room and the stairwell, which is fairly narrow. She knows that as soon as her foot touches the first stair, the echoing should stop.
With renewed vigor she books it up the stairs, slamming the door when she hits the roof.
Only to have it burst back open behind her.
Setsuna doesn't turn around. She makes a dive for the ladder and nearly jumps all the way down it, descending the rungs haphazardly and tearing up her sweatshirt in the process. Thankfully, at least her hood remains intact, and she yanks the strings to tighten it as soon as her feet touch solid ground again. The sound of someone else's footsteps on the metal rungs has her sprinting again. Her lungs burn in protest, but her main concerns are the cameras and alarms – she can already hear the fans coming back on in the distance.
Her only thought is to get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. If this person had been trying to get her caught, they probably would've called the cops already or just tackled her while she was vulnerable in the museum.
And if they weren't there to prevent her from stealing, that means they're chasing her for a different reason. Which could be very, very bad.
Is it possible that there was another thief?
But that still doesn't make sense. Why would a thief go after her? If he had a different object in mind to steal, he would very likely have just ignored her and carried on with his own business, or knocked her out if he thought she was a guard, or killed her, or something. If he is a thief and he's chasing her, that means he must've been after the three-legged crow as well. But what the hell are the chances that they would be there the same night, at the same time, trying to steal the same thing? And moreover, how would he even have gotten in there? As far as she saw, the only feasible entrance was the one she'd come in from, and that'd been locked until she'd gotten there, meaning he must've been following her since before she even went inside. Come on, Setsuna, this isn't an episode of Jackie Chan Adventures. There's gotta be another reason.
Like it or not, she's about to find out.
An unnaturally strong gust of wind sends her tumbling. She'd been trying to make a diagonal break for the road and hadn't quite made it, but she's close enough that the streetlights illuminate her surroundings. Lifting her face from the dirt and scrambling to her feet, she looks around to try and find her assailant. She's in the middle of what appears to be an outdoor garden; the area is hedged in by trees and bushes, but beyond those she can see an iron fence about six feet tall. Whoever's following me might not attack if I'm in the middle of the street.
She starts to make a run for it and nearly falls again when a hooded figure appears two feet in front of her. Setsuna skids to a stop. She's so close her nose is almost bumping into this guy's chest. He looks down and smiles at her, and she recognizes his face as the same one she'd seen in the glass cover's reflection in the museum.
"I'm going to need that back."
The boyish voice brings Setsuna back from her state of shock. She jumps backwards to get some distance and gives him a once over.
He's not particularly threatening looking, all things considered. He's probably just under six feet, with a narrow figure and messy white hair sticking out from underneath the hood of his sweatshirt. That same feature – the white hair – makes her nervous though. He's certainly not old enough for that to be his natural color, and his bluish-grey eyes are evidence enough that he doesn't carry the same genetic defect that Setsuna does.
"You're not with the police, are you?" She asks, already knowing the answer.
"Good guess," he laughs. "How did you know?"
"You're wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, for one thing…"
The bluntness of her tone seems to annoy him, and he runs a hand through his hair in irritation. The hood comes down with the gesture to reveal more unruly white locks.
"Yeah, well, I'm surprised you even noticed. Boss told me you're kind of slow."
Boss? Is he an angel…? This would probably be a lot easier to figure out if Evangeline had told me what the thing I'm stealing is for… she sighs. Of course, that would make things too easy.
"Who are you?"
"The name's Secundum Averruncus – kind of a shitty name, I know. People call me Karma for short, even though that kind of sucks too. But you can call me that," he says it like he's doing her a favor, "At least for the next fifteen minutes or so."
"Only for the next fifteen minutes?"
"Well, yeah," Karma's smile grows as he talks, effectively giving Setsuna the creeps. "That's about how long it'll take me to send your ass back to Hell."
Just as that sentence is finished processing in Setsuna's brain, Karma appears in front of her again and delivers a brutal backhand to her face, sending her reeling to the side.
Not good. She clumsily tries to regain her balance, but just as she does, she looks up to find him looming over her again. This time he lifts his knee into her stomach and she doubles over in pain. He looks down at her and tsks disapprovingly.
"Aw, c'mon, it's no fun if you don't fight back."
Setsuna's on her hands and knees, trying to steady her breathing and come up with a plan. As quickly as her impaired state allows her, she leans back until she's sitting on her butt and kicks her legs out at his ankles, sending him tumbling in surprise. He lands on his back and she lunges forward, taking advantage of his vulnerability to jam an elbow into his throat. His eyes go wide with pain but his hands come up to grab her; she manages to get away just before he can grasp her arm.
She goes sprinting for the fence, but a hand on the hood of her sweater stops her. The collar presses against her throat uncomfortably and she lifts her arms up and ducks, shedding the piece of clothing.
"Fuck!" Karma grumbles, tossing the discarded sweater to the ground and sprinting forward. Setsuna's about ten feet from the gate when he grabs her by the shoulder and brutally pulls her towards him. She falls backwards and her head bangs against the concrete of the walkway so hard her vision goes black for a second.
"Ready to give up?" He plants a foot on her chest and leans over her with a cocky smile, like she hadn't just almost gotten away from him.
Panicking, Setsuna goes for her best bet. Even though his foot is on her torso, he hadn't secured her arms, so she balls her right hand into a fist and jams it upward with all her strength.
Right into his balls.
Karma lets out a strangled cry and falls over, clutching his man-parts in pain. Setsuna shoves him off her and unsteadily gets to her feet. She sprints forward – I think I can make it this time – but just when her fingertips touch the bars of the fence a sudden gust of wind blows her backward.
She's tossed fifteen feet and her body collides with a tree. The wind keeps her pinned there while Karma stands on shaky legs and walks a bit lopsidedly over to her.
"You bitch," he snaps. "That was a cheap move!"
"And this isn't?" She looks pointedly at her arms, which are pinned overhead by the force of the wind. It doesn't seem to affect him, however, cementing the fact that he'd been the one to create it.
"Do you know how hard it is to gather magic on this planet?!"
As if that makes it any more fair.
He dismisses the spell and replaces it with physical force, keeping her arms pinned to the tree with his hands. Her legs are free though, and she realizes she can probably get another good shot at his private parts.
Seeming to read her intentions, he glares and picks her up by the wrists, tossing her roughly to the ground a few feet away from him.
"Don't bother trying to run again; I have plenty more spells in my arsenal."
"I thought you said magic was hard to use here," she quips, mostly just to stall for time.
"You're talking to a master, you idiot! I'm the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the strongest opponent you'll ever face."
Despite his ridiculously egotistical speech, Setsuna can see the sweat dripping down his face. He'd obviously over-exerted himself using that spell, but he does appear to be pretty powerful. It'd be a big risk to assume he's bluffing.
"Now, since I'm such a nice guy, I'll give you a choice. You can either hand that thing over, and then I'll kill you. Or, I can kill you and then take it from your corpse. Your choice."
"…Is there a third option?"
He stares at her blankly for a second before erupting into laughter.
"Looks like our info was wrong. You're not so bad," he says once he's calmed down. "But no, I'm going to kill you. Boss's orders."
"So you're an angel, correct? Who's your boss then? Is it Nagi?"
If she's going to get killed here, she can at least return to Evangeline with some useful information. If Nagi is this guy's boss, that means he'd have to have known she was a demon to begin with. There's no way she can go back to Heaven if that's the case.
"Yeah, that's right, I'm an angel. One of the greatest!" He says again. Loudly. "And my boss is none of your business, but I'll tell you it's definitely not Nagi. That idiot has no idea what's going on – hell, if you're worried about him finding you out, I'm pretty sure he doesn't have a clue. He's too dense for that. But still," he continues, sauntering closer to her, but still keeping a few feet of distance, "I wouldn't bother going back to Heaven. If you do, I'll have to kick your ass again, and it hasn't been that much fun for me. So why don't you do us both a favor and abandon your ridiculous mission, okay?"
Setsuna tries to make sense of that information.
Nagi's supposed to be the gatekeeper. Shouldn't he be aware of his subordinate's actions? Is this guy not a guardian then? That means there must be another group functioning in Heaven, one with enough influence to remain a secret to people like Nagi. And if they're bothering with me, then Konoka's soul is more powerful than I thought. Either that or I'm missing some vital information…
Her eyes follow him as he circles around her. She can ask Evangeline later, but right now, she needs to get out of this situation. If Karma's job is to prevent her from getting to Heaven again, that means if she dies here there'll be no chance of a do-over.
With no other options, she decides to take the gamble. As quickly as possible she jumps up onto her feet and sprints for the gate again. Another gust of wind brings her right back, knocking the breath out of her as she hits the floor.
"I told you, there's no way –"
Setsuna doesn't let him finish. She gets up and does it again, hoping that maybe she can wear him out. This time he brings her back more harshly than before, and she lands painfully on one shoulder.
"Cut that out!" He yells, obviously annoyed. "I already told you that I'm awesome. Even if I can't do anything fancy, I have more than enough talent to keep somebody as useless as you under my control."
Setsuna grinds her teeth in irritation. He's right. My physical body will probably wear out before he does, even if he can't "do anything fancy," whatever that –
Her eyes widen as one very important piece of information crawls to the surface of her consciousness. She's not that injured, but she pretends to struggle to sit up, panting exaggeratedly. This is nowhere near her pain tolerance, but Karma probably doesn't know that. She glances around and spots her sweater a few feet away, within arm's reach if she lunges for it.
"Will you still attack me if there are humans around?" She gasps out, clutching her side. He rolls his eyes at her.
"There is no one around. It's four in the morning on a Sunday, you idiot, and it's dark as shit. You're not making it over that fence, and no one's gonna come running to save you. Here, let me show you," he leans back and lets out a loud shout. It echoes for a second then dies down, and he grins at her tauntingly. "Sorry little lady, no one's coming for you."
The grin on his face fades when he sees her smiling.
"Good," she says, lunging for her sweater and pulling out her pactio cards in one smooth movement. "Adeat!"
Please work, please work, please work –
Her wings appear from her back with a whumph of air, and she's surprised to feel the weight of a sword in her right hand. This must be the one with Asuna...
Without wasting any time, she leaps up into the air, flapping her wings to gain some height.
"Hey! What the fuck," Karma curses. "That's not fair either! I can't summon my wings on this planet!"
"I know that," she says, smiling at her success.
Her confidence ebbs a bit as she feels a powerful gust trying to pull her back to the Earth. She tries harder, beating her wings harshly and panting with exertion. Setsuna glances over her shoulder to see Karma standing below her at a bit of an angle, mumbling another spell, and looking just as tired as she is.
The force of the wind increases and she struggles harder, but despite her efforts, she can tell she's losing altitude.
"Quit struggling would you?! Come down here so I can kill you!"
"How tempting," she manages to say between gasps, her lungs and muscles straining.
"You think you're so fucking clever, don'tcha?!" He shouts over the noise of the wind. "I hate people like you, who think you're so much smarter than me –"
"Ugh," Setsuna grunts, losing more height as his spell gains power with his anger. I should drop the sword. Maybe if I lose that weight I can –
"Just like that bitch Evangeline you're working for –"
Setsuna's grip on her sword tightens and every muscle in her body tenses with anger. She gives one last beat of her wings, managing to gain about a foot of height, and then spins suddenly so she's face to face with Karma. Not struggling anymore, she falls quickly, and she angles her sword out towards him. His spell drags her to his body and his eyes widen just before the blade impales him in the stomach.
His body hits the ground with a thump, and Setsuna withdraws the sword from his torso and points it at his throat.
"What – what the fuck…" He takes a gurgling breath and his sentence dissolves into a fit of coughs, blood and spit spraying out of his mouth. Setsuna presses the point of her sword further into his neck, jaw locked and eyes narrowed through obvious rage.
"Don't. Insult. Evangeline," she growls through gritted teeth.
He tries to move out from under her, but Setsuna doesn't give him any time. She grips the handle of the sword with both hands and pushes downward harshly, sending the blade through his jugular. The gurgling noises continue for a few more seconds before dying down, and she takes a second longer to stare at his corpse.
Setsuna takes a deep breath, trying to calm herself down and slow her heartbeat. The rushing of blood in her head dies down enough for her to be aware of her surroundings again.
That idiot was way too loud, she thinks, looking around. Even though he'd made a valid point about the time, there are more than enough residential buildings around for someone to have heard his noisy shouting. Sure enough, she can hear voices coming from the direction of the street.
Someone shouts something in Japanese and Setsuna can clearly see blue and red lights flashing through the trees.
Running back to the museum would tipoff the police about the stolen item. I need to pass it off before they realize it's missing, or the risk is too big. Even if she did run that way, as soon as they see Karma's body, there's going to be tons of other cops searching the area. At the same time, the street is definitely not an option since that's where the lights are coming from.
With no other choice, she wipes her blade on the grass and runs along the fence until she can't hear the voices anymore. Glancing around to make sure no one is looking, she wraps the sword in her sweater and takes flight again. She stays low until she's far enough away that the cops won't see her, then beats her wings hard to gain altitude. It's dark enough that even if someone did look up, they wouldn't be able to make out her figure. Not that it would really matter – who would believe there was a girl flying over the city?
Setsuna stays far above the tops of all the buildings as she maneuvers back to her hotel, trying to stay out of better-lit areas and places where people may be awake. When her hotel comes in view she circles over it a few times. Looking down, she finds to her dismay that a few cars are in the front, people climbing out of them to check in despite the early hour.
Damnit. She considers staying in the air until they've checked in, but there's no guaranteeing more people won't show up. Not to mention there's only about an hour left before sunrise. Most people would play it off as a hallucination or a trick of the eyes if they saw her in the dark, but in the light, there'd be no denying the huge white wings jutting out of her back.
The other option would be to fly right into the open window of her room and hope that Konoka doesn't wake up.
That's a horrible idea.
If Konoka sees her like this, what's she supposed to say? Oh yeah, I didn't tell you? I'm actually a demon. But don't worry; I'm not going to do anything evil to you yet, hahaha…
Probably not. But what other choice do I have?
The back of the hotel is pressed up against another building and there are well-lit streets on both of its sides. At four-thirty in the morning, the early birds are starting to rise and head out to work, and it's now safe to say that it'd be difficult to find a completely empty area, which means landing and walking in through the front is no longer plausible.
I could get closer to the ground, then unsummon my wings and fall the rest of the way…?
But even that would require an explanation, if she even lived. She wouldn't be able to get closer than about twenty feet from the floor without people noticing her, and a two story fall is not something to scoff at. Explaining broken limbs might be difficult.
I guess I don't have a choice. She can see the open window to their room on the third floor. The lights are still off, but there are people on the street below. I'll have to gain some speed then fly through before they notice, she thinks, fiddling with her pactio card nervously.
The window is small enough that it's going to be near impossible to fly through it both quickly and quietly. I'll have to unsummon my wings right as I get to the window and hope my momentum carries me through.
There are more than a dozen things that can go wrong, but not having any choice, she gets some distance from the hotel and takes a second to adjust her angle. When she's fairly confident about the trajectory, she grips the pactio card in one hand, takes a deep breath, and glides toward the window. The sharp downward angle gives her plenty of speed, and right as her head goes through the frame she mutters a quick "abeat." Her wings and the sword disappear, leaving the rest of her body able to pass through without the interference of extra body parts.
That doesn't mean it's graceful though.
Not able to stop herself, she lands on the floor and rolls. One of her legs smacks into a dresser, sending a variety of items clattering to the floor noisily. The momentum carries her even further, and she tumbles head over feet into the open bathroom door, causing it to slam into the wall behind it so hard it nearly comes off the hinges.
She holds her breath and lies there on her back with both legs kicked up against the door, too afraid to move out of the awkward position.
Just when she feels it's safe to get up, there's a soft groan from one of the beds.
"…What the hell…? Setsuna, is that you?"
"Uh, yeah…?" Setsuna calls back nervously, finally getting to her feet. She backtracks into the bedroom and finds the bedside lamp turned on and Konoka surveying the damage.
"What the heck just happened?"
One minute Konoka had been asleep, the next there'd been an unignorable racket. Her hairbrush and makeup are all over the floor, and the dresser they'd fallen from is skewed sideways from what she can only assume was a powerful impact. Setsuna sidles into the room, a nervous expression on her face, and Konoka's eyebrows shoot up in surprise. She's dressed very strangely, for one thing, in muddy black jeans and carrying a ripped up sweatshirt. Weirder still is the bruise that covers half her face. There's a bit of dried blood on her chin, and spatters on her hands as well.
"Care to explain?" Konoka asks impatiently, a little worried, and more than a little annoyed at the interruption to her sleep. I have to be awake in half an hour, too…
Setsuna's eyes dart around the hotel room – as if this situation wasn't suspicious enough without that last signifier – as she tries to come up with an excuse.
"I went for a walk," she says lamely. That explanation doesn't appear to satisfy Konoka, however, so she fumbles for details. "I went out because I couldn't sleep, and I tripped outside so I decided to come back… and, uh, when I got here it was really hot in the room, so I went to open the window – but it was so dark I couldn't see, so I tripped and fell, and I guess I must've hit my face…"
They stare at each other for a moment. Konoka's about to question the legitimacy of that poorly fabricated story, but something shiny on the ground catches her eye.
"What's this?" She asks, holding up the three-legged crow. Setsuna checks her pockets and cringes at the item's absence. It must've fallen out when I crashed.
"It's just something I picked up at a souvenir shop a while ago, but I think I'm going to return it. So, uh, I'll keep it with me if you don't mind."
She holds out her hand and Konoka takes one last look at the weird thing before handing it over. She glances irritably at her phone and turns off the alarm she'd set. There's no point going back to sleep now.
"You should probably start getting ready." Konoka's tone is much more curt than usual; even Setsuna notices.
"Okay," she replies meekly, knowing the other girl is annoyed. And who wouldn't be? She'd just woken her up to a crap ton of noise, and if she hadn't thought Setsuna's weird behavior was irritating before, she probably does now.
Officially cowed, Setsuna grabs some work clothes and takes a record-setting shower. She comes out to find Konoka fully clothed and looking tired but ready to go. Normally she wouldn't be so sleepy – she'd been passed out for almost ten hours – but the hangover from the day before left her with a lingering headache. Setsuna can tell her patience is thin, but she also knows she needs to find a reason to miss the first half of the meeting so she can deliver the crow.
"Are you ready to go?" Konoka asks, checking the time on her phone.
"Um, kind of," Setsuna starts hesitantly, "But I was thinking: do you mind if I go and return that thing before the meeting? I can meet you there."
Konoka looks up from her phone, an expression of are you serious written on her features.
"I know it's a pain in the ass, but I kind of need you to be there. There's going to be tons of snooty business people, and as dumb as it is, they won't take me as seriously if I don't have someone following me around to do things that I should be doing myself."
"I – I know," Setsuna averts her eyes so she doesn't have to look at the other girl's frustration, "But it's really bothering me. It's not a conference meeting, right? If I show up a bit late I doubt anyone will notice…"
"Are you really going to bail on me to go get your money back, at six in the morning, for something you don't care about?"
"It's not bailing, exactly. I'm just… going to be a little late…"
Konoka takes a deep breath and turns away, opting to fix her clothes in the mirror and make some adjustments rather than continue this strange conversation.
Why can't she just let it go? Konoka grumbles inwardly as she touches up her mascara. She knows Setsuna's strange, and she's done her best to be thoughtful about it. She hardly wants to put pressure on the other girl considering what she's been through and how it's obviously affected her. But to leave a friend hanging for something as trivial as what's probably a ten dollar souvenir? That makes no sense to Konoka, who is far too thankful to finally be forming a friendship to consider pissing Setsuna off over something like that.
And it's true that the meeting is more like a breakfast party than anything else, but if anything that makes it more nerve-wracking. She usually hates the overly formal conferences, but at least in that atmosphere everybody's limited to talking strictly business until the meeting is over at a specified time. These kinds of events are brutal when she doesn't know anyone but two people, and Ayaka and Asuna will probably be busy trying to verbally maneuver through the crowd as it is. Without Setsuna, she'll be left to do it alone.
Not that she'd be much help. Konoka's hand pauses with the brush halfway through her hair. That was mean, she sighs, reprimanding herself. It's not Setsuna's fault she's so awkward, Konoka knows, but it's wearing on her patience. She hadn't expected that spending time with someone who's so… socially unaware would be so taxing. This would've been a good time to act as Setsuna's boss rather than her friend, but Konoka had already gone too far for that to be an option anymore.
"Just meet me there when you can, okay? I'll text you the address," Konoka says, grabbing her purse and trying to sound friendly.
She looks at Setsuna, skeptical and irked by the girl's formality, especially considering she'd just mentally admitted that she considers her a friend and not an employee.
"I didn't mean it like an order, you know."
"Okay," Setsuna replies timidly, keeping her head down and her eyes on the floor.
Which only makes Konoka feel guilty, which only serves to piss her off more.
"Whatever…" she mumbles, but of course Setsuna hears her and just ducks further down.
Throwing her hands up in surrender, Konoka grabs her purse and heads out the door. She takes the stairs down, smiling politely at some people toting their bags up to the higher floors. The concierge calls out a good morning, and she gives a quick wave before stepping out of the hotel. The sun is barely up and the air is still crisp, and Konoka takes a second to breathe.
She exhales and turns her head to spot a rather short teenager in a beanie leaning against the wall.
"How does the sun bird nest?" He asks, approaching her slowly.
The guy gives her a quick up and down, but not like he's checking her out, more like he's trying to determine something.
"How does the sun bird nest?" He tries again.
"I'm sorry," she says, making a show of checking the time, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
The guy retreats to his place against the wall, and without any more interruptions, she gets in one of the cabs and shows the driver the address of the meeting place. Glancing in his rearview mirror, she can see the young man accosting some other women around her age.
Is everybody going to be like this today…?!
Setsuna waits fifteen minutes, sitting on the bed with her head hung dejectedly, before venturing outside. By now Konoka has definitely left, and she checks the message on her phone for the address. The concierge ducks underneath his desk despite her friendly wave, and when she gets outside she looks around for whoever it is she's supposed to be passing off this item to.
"Excuse me?" The same boy that had approached Konoka asks, bouncing off against the wall of the building to stand up straight. Setsuna nods at him, and he continues, "How does the sun bird nest?"
"As the crow flies," she responds, fiddling with the item in her pocket. His expression turns serious and he holds out his hand, palm up. She hands it over and he inspects it to his satisfaction before shoving it in the pocket of his sweatpants.
"Nice work," he grins at her, "Lord Animus thanks you."
Setsuna shrugs. She hardly cares about Hell's mysterious leader; he's the cause of her suffering, more or less. The only person in Hell she has any respect for whatsoever is Evangeline.
The boy heads off without another word, leaving her to plug the address Konoka had texted her into the GPS. The route comes up, and the thought of her destination gives her nervous tingles.
What if she's still mad?
Setsuna isn't used to having to work out issues when someone is angry with her; usually they're mad for something that she had nothing to do with. In that case, her only response is to lessen the blow by avoiding eye contact and introverting in general. Konoka hadn't been too happy about that though, leaving her to wonder what it is she's supposed to do. The amount of guilt and anxiety is surprising; she didn't think she'd have cared that much if Konoka got mad at her.
"But I don't want her to be angry," Setsuna mumbles as she paces, ignoring the strange looks from passerbys, "I want her to like me."
It's a strange thought. The only other person whose opinion she cares about is Evangeline's.
For the mission? She wonders curiously, but that's questionable. If it were just for the mission she'd consider this nothing but a minor setback, rather than something that's legitimately eating away at her. I guess I just actually want her to like me…
Which means being any later to the meeting is probably a bad idea. Cringing at the hour, she looks around for a cab. Unfortunately, all the taxis that'd been dropping people off had left already, and there aren't any others around. She looks at her GPS: four miles to the convention center. It'd take pretty long just to call a cab, and even longer for it to get here… Sighing, she does one full body stretch before taking off in a run.
The convention center is big, modern, and considerably out of place considering the surrounding architecture. The inside had proven to be no different, with several huge rooms and multiple floors. Which suits Konoka just fine: it means more places to hide.
She's been in the meeting room for forty-five minutes now. Ten of them she's managed to spend sequestered in the bathroom, eight pretending to make a phone call in the hallway, but the other twenty-seven have been awkward and tiring. Multiple people have come up to ask her about the business and how she's doing, how her father is – all that polite talk. She finds herself having to answer the same questions over and over again while still having to seem interested. Most of these people she's only met a few times, but some of them have known her since she was a kid. Of those men, half of them tell her how beautiful she is – just like your mother! – and how proud they are, despite the fact that she hardly remembers them. The other half have the gall to hit on her, and she's had to politely excuse herself several times now.
"Why the hell do we have to do this?" She grumbles to Ayaka when they're both at the buffet table. Although the smile never leaves her face, Ayaka is sympathetic.
"Because running a business is more about appearances than actually running a business."
Konoka giggles at the truth of it as she pours herself some more coffee.
"I don't know how you do it, Ayaka. You always look so excited when you talk to people. Even Asuna is well behaved today."
"That, my friend," Ayaka says with great flourish, "Is because these men will jump on any mistakes you make, exaggerate them into unrecognizability, then publicize them to ruin your company. Even eating too much can spread some nasty rumors, especially for us ladies."
At that the blonde swipes a mini-muffin off of Konoka's crowded plate, glancing around to make sure no one is looking before shoving the whole thing in her mouth. Ayaka winks at her and Konoka has to stifle her laughter.
Despite the pressure, Konoka can admit this conference isn't as bad as she thought it'd be. It helps that her father is the owner of the company; her chances of getting unseated are as close to zero as they can be. From that view, it'd be difficult for her to embarrass herself badly enough for any negative consequences. And, after three cups of coffee, she's not nearly as tired. At this point she can admit she probably overreacted to the debacle with Setsuna this morning.
She didn't mean any harm, and I didn't even ask if she was okay…
"Why the long face?"
Konoka looks up to find Asuna standing next to her, enthusiastically pouring herself another mimosa.
"I had a bit of a tiff with Setsuna this morning," she says with a frown, wondering if getting a drink as well would be a bad idea.
"I just… got really frustrated. She can just be kind of oblivious, you know?"
Asuna looks like she's about to say something, but her expression quickly changes to a sympathetic smile.
"You mean like right now?"
Konoka turns around just in time to catch Setsuna stagger through the open double doors, one hand on her ribs and panting tiredly. They make eye contact and Setsuna averts her gaze, still worried about their interaction this morning. Still, with no other reason to be there than Konoka, she warily approaches the brunette. Several pairs of eyes follow the slightly sweaty, disheveled, clearly exhausted girl as she walks up to the banquet table.
"Yeah," Konoka sighs, "Like right now."
When she reaches the table Setsuna mutters a quick "hi," but keeps her eyes on the floor.
"What the hell happened to you?" Asuna jabs a finger in her direction.
"There weren't any taxis, so I had to run."
"You ran the four miles here?" Konoka asks incredulously. "Why didn't you just call a cab?"
"I – I thought it'd take too long, and I didn't want to make you any angrier…"
She looks like a kicked puppy, damnit, but at the same time, quite a few people are looking in their direction and whispering.
"That's okay," the brunette says tightly. "You're here now."
Setsuna lifts her eyes from their previously fixed position, but only to take a look around. There are a few dozen people here, all dressed in suits and dresses and formal attire, but one person sticks out like a sore thumb. In the back of the room, right in front of the air conditioner, what looks to be a twelve-year-old kid stands in professional, child-sized attire. He appears to be making animated, polite conversation with various people as they pass by.
Konoka seems to have noticed him as well, and she nods in his direction.
"Is that a kid?"
"Yeah," Asuna rolls her eyes. "He's quite the brat, but he's the protégé of one of the top law firms. Supposedly he graduated from college at ten – some kind of a child genius or something. His name's Negi."
"Why do you say he's a brat?" Konoka asks curiously. "He seems pretty well behaved to me."
"I hate kids," the redhead grumbles as her only explanation.
They watch as various people come up and shake his hand. A woman, one of the few in the conference, pats his head affectionately. He blushes at the attention and smiles at her, and she gestures at the air conditioner behind him, probably mentioning something about the cold. He nods, but just as he goes to say something, his head tilts back and a loud aaaaachoo! causes several pairs of eyes to turn his way.
The woman's skirt flutters angrily in what appears to be a random gust of wind, and she smoothes it down in embarrassment. There are a few snickers, and she quickly excuses herself from the conversation.
"Jeez," Konoka mumbles, "Must be a faulty air-conditioner or something. I'd be seriously embarrassed if that were me."
Setsuna squints at the boy skeptically. That would've been quite the coincidence as it is, but there's a familiarity about him that raises her suspicions further.
"That's Nagi's son," Asuna whispers when Konoka's out of hearing range, "That perverted skirt-flipping wasn't the air-conditioner; he specializes in wind-based attacks, and he's powerful and stupid enough that he probably infused his sneeze with magic by accident."
Now that she mentions it, Setsuna can see the obvious resemblance between the young boy and the gatekeeper. She watches him warily, wondering if she has a reason to be worried or not.
"You and Konoka should go say hi!" Asuna says loudly enough for the brunette to hear. "Doesn't hurt to make some more friends, right?"
"Yeah, you're probably right, and I'm kind of curious anyway," Konoka admits, already on her way over. With a nudge from Asuna, Setsuna follows a couple of feet behind her.
Negi looks at them through wire-framed glasses as they approach, and his gaze lingers momentarily on Konoka. Can he tell she's special? Setsuna wonders apprehensively. If he can measure her magical power, then he also might be able to determine Setsuna's impure heritage. He glances back and forth between them but doesn't seem concerned, so she lets herself relax a little bit.
"Hi there," Konoka smiles at him. "I'm Konoka Konoe. I've heard some impressive things about you."
His eyes widen when she says her name as something seems to click with him.
"Oh! You're Eishun's daughter, aren't you, Miss Konoe?"
"You know my dad?" She pauses mid-handshake. Eishun is hardly the talkative type, but Konoka is pretty sure her father would've told her about a little boy like this if he'd known one.
"Oh, no, not really. Our father's knew each other, and I remember when I was younger he'd tell me stories about their time together," his hand scratches the back of his head in the same nervous habit as Konoka's.
"Looks like we both do the same thing when we're embarrassed, too," she laughs, mirroring his actions. "Did you get that from your dad?"
"Yes, I did! I wonder which one of our father's started spreading that habit."
"I haven't called in a couple days; maybe after this boring meeting is over I'll ask him."
"You think it's boring?" He asks, surprised by her frankness.
His hand instinctively goes back behind his head again, effectively being an admission that he finds it equally as dull. They both catch the action and laugh good-naturedly.
"Don't worry, I won't tell anyone," Konoka reassures him. "I'm not a big fan of this stuff myself. If you ever need to get bailed out or anything, why don't you take my phone number? I'd be glad to rescue you from these conferences if I can. Maybe we can hang out and you can tell me about your dad," she finishes with a smile, and his eyes light up excitedly.
"That sounds great!"
She reads out the digits of her number as he plugs them into his phone, sending her a text to make sure he'd gotten it correctly. Setsuna watches the interaction, still not sure what to make of this boy, until finally his eyes fall on her.
"I'm sorry; I forgot to introduce myself to you. I get carried away when it comes to my dad. I'm Negi Springfield," he offers his hand and she shakes it.
"Setsuna Sakurazaki," she replies. "And that's okay. Your dad was an interesting person."
Negi's expression changes rapidly from confusion to understanding as he realizes who Setsuna must be. His emotions read like a book; despite that he's a working professional, his child-like demeanor and openness gives him away easily.
"You knew his dad, Setsuna?" Konoka looks between them confusedly.
"Not quite," she covers. "I've heard quite a bit about him, though."
"He must be pretty famous then. I'm surprised my dad never mentioned him. What's his name?"
"His name was Nagi, and he wasn't that famous outside of his circle of friends," Negi says, reciting the information like he'd read it in a textbook. "He volunteered for the Peace Corps. and did a lot of philanthropic –"
Negi pauses, staring blankly at nothing with a look of deep concern.
"You okay?" Konoka asks, leaning down so they're closer to eye level.
"Um, yes, I – ah – ah – ahhh –"
Setsuna glances at Negi, then at Konoka standing directly in front of him.
This isn't going to end well, she knows, remembering both Asuna's words about wind magic and Konoka's desire to not flash her panties to fifty strangers.
Not having much time, she pushes Konoka out of the way a lot less gracefully than she would've liked just as Negi finishes his sneeze with a remarkably loud AAAACCCHHHOOoooo…!
Konoka stumbles a bit from the force of the push. She looks back at Setsuna, about to demand an explanation, but is greeted by the sight of her friend's half-naked body.
"Oh – I'm – I'm so sorry, Setsuna, I didn't mean to…!" Negi covers his face both from embarrassment and from not wanting to stare.
"It's okay, I don't really mind."
Don't mind!? Konoka stares at Setsuna, who's clad only in her bra and panties, and notices everyone else in the room doing the same thing. Her clothes have somehow come right off her body, and they lie in tatters behind her.
"Um, Konoka?" Setsuna asks, still having the presence of mind to be shy about their fight – but not about the fact that she's practically naked, "I know I said I'd stay here with you, but I think maybe I should go find some clothes."
Looking around uneasily, Konoka takes off her blazer and hands it to Setsuna.
"That's… fine… I'll meet you back at the hotel."
With nothing but a nod, Setsuna turns around and walks out the door. Every pair of eyes in the vicinity follows her figure until she's out of sight. Normally the room would've very likely erupted into a fit of whispers and giggles by now, but she strolls away so nonchalantly that no one can think to question the pure absurdity of the situation until she's already gone. After a few more seconds of silence, conversations resume.
"Negi, you dork!" Asuna has gotten up to them by now, and she bops him on the head with her fist.
"Asuna! It's not his fault the air-conditioner is broken," Konoka quips. "But still," the brunette continues, baffled by what'd just occurred, "How did she know that was going to happen?"
"No clue," Asuna mumbles, glaring pointedly at Negi, who shrinks under the harsh stare. After a moment she relents and then turns to Konoka. "Well, no matter how she did it, it was pretty nice of her to take the hit for you. I doubt you would've gotten away so easily if you'd been the one to get stripped."
"Yeah, that's true…"
Guilt slowly makes itself apparent as Konoka remembers how just a few minutes earlier she'd been so angry at the other girl.
"I'd better go after her," she says, interrupting a quiet squabble between Negi and Asuna. "I'll see you guys later, okay?"
They both turn to say goodbye, but she's already halfway out the door.
The cab ride home was short, but she'd kept an eye out for Setsuna just in case the girl had decided to run the four miles back naked – not completely out of the question for her. Konoka hadn't spotted her though, thankfully, and when she enters the hotel room she finds Setsuna sitting cross-legged on the bed in some sweatpants and a t-shirt, TV playing quietly in the background.
She looks up when Konoka steps into the bedroom but quickly looks away again, and the guilt that'd manifested in the brunette earlier intensifies.
"I see you didn't run home this time."
"I didn't have to. People seemed a lot more willing to pick me up."
"I wonder why," Konoka jokes, obviously referring to Setsuna's nudity. The humor falls flat though, and Setsuna shrugs.
"I'm not sure either."
Konoka stands there quietly for another minute until Setsuna turns her attention back to the television. Biting her lip nervously, she kicks off her shoes and goes to sit next to the other girl on the bed. I should apologize, she thinks, but is surprised to find Setsuna beat her to the punch.
"I'm sorry," Setsuna blurts out, and the apology hangs in the air for a few seconds. Her face turns red and she continues hesitantly, "I know I kind of ruined your day, and I should've just gone with you to the meeting. It was stupid of me not to – and to make it worse, I somehow got stripped in the middle of the conference, and… I'm sorry. For being stupid."
Setsuna stops there and hugs her legs to her chest, resting her chin on her knees and looking anywhere but the girl next to her. Konoka considers the apology and tries to find the right words.
It's true that her oblivious nature can be a bit of a hassle, but to be honest, it's that same quality that played a part in saving Konoka's reputation today. Most people wouldn't be willing to get naked in front of a bunch of strangers for something as shallow as their friend's status, but Setsuna had done it without batting an eye. More than that, her indifference for social rules had somehow turned the entire affair into a non-event – something that certainly wouldn't have been true if Konoka had been in her place.
But it's too easy to pin Setsuna's surprise rescue on her indifference; even though she obviously hadn't cared about the consequences, it's the fact that she legitimately cares about Konoka's well-being that caused her to act in the end. And that's the part that matters, Konoka knows.
"You're not stupid," the brunette says after a lengthy pause, "And I'm not mad at you anymore."
Setsuna finally lifts her head, and her eyes are lit up with a hopefulness so earnest it's impossible not to smile at her.
"Really?" She asks, making real eye contact for the first time today.
"Really," Konoka affirms. "I like you just the way you are. I'm the one that should be sorry for being kind of a bitch this morning. You're a good friend, Setsuna, and anything else is secondary."
Setsuna smiles at her and Konoka can't squash the thought that she's so freaking adorable. Honestly, the girl looks like she'd just been proposed to or something, rather than apologized to. There's a moment of awkward silence and Konoka laughs at that because, well, I'd better get used to it.
Taking the lead, she wraps her arms around Setsuna in a hug, and the other girl tentatively hugs her back.
"Is there something I can do to make up for being mean today?" Konoka asks after they'd let go. Setsuna averts her eyes again, and this time Konoka can kind of guess where this is going.
"I didn't get much sleep last night, so I was thinking about taking a nap…" Her words diffuse into mumbles, but the word cuddle is definitely in the mix somewhere.
Konoka shoves the blankets to the side and crawls under them, motioning for Setsuna to do the same. When they're both settled she turns out the bedside lamp. There's still light coming in through the window, and Konoka catches the contented smile on her friend's face and can't help but tease her.
"Jeez, I'm going to spoil you if we keep doing this."
"R – really? Should we stop?" Setsuna lifts her head off of Konoka's shoulder in alarm, and the brunette giggles at her reaction.
"It was a joke, Silly."
"Oh, I'm sorry –"
"Don't worry about it," Konoka reassures her, "I wouldn't have it any other way."
A/N: Good God they're cute.
To all my reviewers, I owe you another hearty thank you! You all make my day, and as cliché as that sounds, I can't think of any other way to express my gratitude for your comments :) This chapter was pretty plot heavy, but there's going to be more and more KonoSetsu moments along the way. I must warn you though, that feeling of second-hand embarrassment isn't likely to disappear any time soon, haha. Also, I apologize for any typos or added commas in here; I had to change my spell/grammar checker options for school, so they're all wonky now.
To settchan-1995, thank you for your reviews! They help motivate me to keep writing, and if you want to recommend this story in your own/to your friends, I'm certainly not going to complain. Having more readers is always a plus, after all!
Now if you all will excuse me, I'm going to go hang my Conscientious Author Award, courtesy of Penshil, on my wall.
Please review in your way out!