An Epilogue in 30 Parts: The Messiness of Life
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters
A/N: It has always troubled me that I didn't finish this story as it was written during the course of a pivotal time in my life. To come so very close and not finish by a single chapter was also profoundly disappointing. This epilogue marks the thirteenth iteration of the final chapter of this story, and the fifth different structure for the epilogue that I attempted. I fully recognize that at this point, there are likely very few if any persons who followed the original story returning to read this last chapter. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to at least put a punctuation mark on this. Thank you to anyone who read this story… past, present, and future. Best wishes and much love,
-Victoria G.

Epilogue #1: Sanada Yukariko
Date: June 1st, 2014… a Sunday

Sister Yukariko stared down at the novel in her lap, Yuuki-san beside her and stunned to speechlessness for the first time since they met one another. Feeling absolutely horrified, she tossed the non-descript black paperback onto the expanse of pew bench between them. Her face, it's redness and the undeniable wretchedness she was feeling, the girl must've understood without her saying a thing.

"I can't believe it." The lamb said finally.

Her hands flew up, stopping whatever else might be said. "Please!"

"Sorry sister, but Jesus Christ."

And the blaspheming as well? Her soul had never felt more in danger. "Yuuki-san goodness! Control yourself." It was utter corruption. "It feels like sacrilege that it's even still in my possession."

The girl didn't move though. She sat quietly, was passing her crucifix along its chain, foot dangling from crossed legs and the noise…zrrp zrrp zrrp… it was like a metronome keeping time for some march to damnation. It was destroying the nun's already frazzled nerves. And oh, there was not enough penance in the world to fully absolve her, not after she'd continued past page one.

"I can't believe you read it."

"I didn't!" The correction was adamant, but it was a lie and she was instantly ashamed of her dishonesty. "Not all of it certainly."

Glancing at Yuuki-san had been a mistake, because that smirk, those eyes which were always brimming with dark mischief, as soon as she saw them… she was wholly abashed all over again. "How much sister?"

"Enough to know it's the devil's prose!" Yuuki-san definitely was finding this funny and she tried to be stern through her humiliation. "How did you even stumble upon such a terrible book?" An eyebrow raised and that was an unwise question to pose, wasn't it? Because the lamb didn't seem the type to stumble upon such things. She seemed the type who would know where to find them. "No, please, don't tell me."

"I didn't think you'd actually read any of it." That tone was just squeezing every ounce of guilt from her.

"Well, I hardly knew what wickedness it held!" The defense was more of a plea to the lord because it had infected her somehow from the first moment she touched it. Inexplicably, she was drawn back after each abandoning. It sat like a terrible festering secret in her mind…not the degeneracy of the actual content, but just the notion that an entire novel could be written with no purpose other than to indulge such depravity. The way it haunted her was especially noticeable whenever she saw that Spine surgeon, it nefariously leaping into her consciousness at the sight of him. Another page was read and soon two chapters, before the book's sinfulness and her own, were too much to bear. She'd been praying for forgiveness, for the strength to forget it, daily since she opened it.

"Just take it with you. For the sake of our Heavenly father Yuuki-san, it can't stay here any longer." Sister Yukariko covered her face with her hands, like a shield

"Sure, I could use a re-read anyway." Through her fingers, she watched as Yuuki-san, with a bit of a smirk, slipped it into her bag. "I take it you don't feel like praying?" The girl said, turning her way, still so clearly and woefully entertained by her plight.

"Could you think of a better time?" If any two people needed to atone themselves today, it was them. "Pray with me and not another word about that book."

Epilogue #2: Kanzaki Reito
Date: July 2nd, 2014… a Wednesday

Reito walked along a familiar stretch of road, toward the shop on the corner he frequented even more now than before. There was something amiss within him, something strange, a sensation more than anything else. Last night… that dream… the necklace that Mikoto had shown to him when they'd first met, the recently found present from Shizuru that he'd found tucked away in his glove compartment from the beach party, all of it would not leave him be.

He remembered the first night he ever had what might've been a lost recollection of his time before the orphanage. It was one of the first Christmas parties he'd thrown while at Fuuka. He'd found two pieces of black stone in a wooden box where he kept a random assortment of things months before the event. He could not remember where they'd come from, but they drew his eye and he had them fashioned into cuff links. He was wearing them at the party, on the edge of intoxicated and flirting with some young nurse, when they caught the firelight. It was more of a series of flashes than anything else, what appeared in his mind. The gleaming obsidian of the cuff… it became Mikoto's necklace, his mother's face, his father's hands. It made him feel sick instantly.

Was that visage truly his mother's? Those hands truly his father's? He did not know, and he did not want to. His early childhood had always been faded memory, just still frames of a farmhouse, swaying reeds, his Grandfather, a cat or two…were they even a memory? He had assumed so, but they could also be some amalgamation of images seen in waking life.

The experience had shocked him so violently that he'd taken the cuff links off instantly, walked into the woods outside his house, and let them slip from his fingertips, into the long grass. Whatever had come to him, he had no interest in thinking on it further. Shizuru had, of course, been the person who noticed their absence at the night's end. A wife-like reminder to search for them... his lie... and her replacement gift after so much time. They were so extraordinarily close to the original pair and then his dream last night.

Him as a young boy in the orphanage and a little girl that was his friend. She was so upset…crying her eyes out because that boy was teasing her again…they all teased her. He sang to her to calm her…a lullaby he knew well with his fingers drawing shapes from the song's story softly on her forehead. That boy who'd hurt her came back to taunt them, shoving him and pushing him, shoving him again and again and calling him gay for singing like that, touching so gently, like a girl…and the feeling that rose in his chest…darkness, anger, the necklace…his necklace just like Mikoto's. He'd run to where he hid it in the lining of his old coat. His small hand, the pendant part of the necklace wrapped around his fingers, strap held tightly in his clenched fist.

He punched that boy so hard. His nose crunched sickeningly, and the pendant cracked in two, blood and halves of the stone on the floor. That dark feeling filled him…like some animal inside, an image of a man's hands, his mother's face, and then the horrified faces of everyone who saw circling him. Then he was swinging his hands, kicking and yelling as they dragged him from the room, as he struggled out of their grasp just long enough to grab the red-stained pieces of obsidian from the ground.

Mai told him she'd tried to wake him, touched his shoulder because his sleep was so fitful, she said he was yelling… more noises than words. It seemed he'd narrowly avoided punching her face under the spell of his dream, hit her upper arm instead. Waking to her gasp and those eyes wide, staring…he saw her hand gripping just below her shoulder and felt sweat covering every inch of his body. As he left the bed that night, begging for a moment alone and apologizing profusely…he slunk to the couch just before another past snippet played uninvited across his mind.

They'd made him stay by himself for days afterward and from then on, he'd made a game of pretending the anger didn't exist and after years and years, maybe that was true.

He had moved passed all of it or so he thought… he had a good life. Why this now? A dream of something he couldn't even be sure was the past after so many years sanded smooth with contentment. He'd come back to bed but didn't sleep at all and was certain she barely did either. His eyes could not stop falling to her arm and the worry, that she might ask, what he could possibly say, what she might think…it was unbearable.

Gazing inside the brightly lit shop as he reached it, there was Mai smiling awkwardly behind the counter at a customer whose eyes had not remained on her face. She was not yet aware of his presence, and the bruise on her arm when it peeked from beneath her sleeve, jumped out at him even though she'd tried to cover it. He turned and moved away from those glass windows that felt so exposing. He leaned against the brick in the alley, feeling unable to move, unwelcome sensations crawling across his skin. Loosening his tie, unbuttoning the top of his collared shirt, did little to ease the suffocating sight of black and blue on her skin. The image of her arm became monstrous behind his closed eyes.

He couldn't see her, not now, not tonight…and he turned back in the direction he'd come, back to the garage and drove himself home.

Epilogue #3: Minagi Mikoto
Date: July 5th, 2014… a Saturday

"Bye." She yelled, slamming the front door in frustration. Good riddance.

"Don't be rude, Mikoto." He was waving to the woman apologetically as she walked to her car, but she didn't care because that woman wasn't Mai-chan. She shouldn't have been here in the first place. Dejectedly, she went back to playing with her pet on the carpet in the great room.

"Ani-ue," The name was strange to her brother still, so she didn't use it around other people. She could tell because he always stared at her a little longer than he needed to when she called him that.

"Yes?" He was glancing up from the papers he was organizing, down to the rug where she was watching Miroku sniffing around. Her brother was also pretending he didn't know she was mad at him… he liked to do that.

"I wish you wouldn't have girls over." It wasn't right, having another girl here when Mai-chan had texted him a bunch of times and he wasn't answering her. She'd checked his phone each time it buzzed. Mai-chan and Shizuru-san both. He wasn't answering either of them.

The look he gave was trying its hardest to be stern. "It was only one woman, Mikoto and she is my financial advisor." What did that matter?

"Why didn't Mai-chan come over?" Mai-chan and her brother were supposed to have dinner here last night.

"That's a bold question, isn't it Mikoto?" He asked with a small grin, a raised finger as though this conversation were playful.

It wasn't playful and they weren't joking around and he was being annoying. "I don't understand why you're being so mean! She's been texting you."

He was giving her that look he did when she was too pushy or did things he'd asked her not to. "Mikoto, you know you're not supposed to touch my phone."

"It wouldn't stop buzzing. Shizuru-san texted you too." Both seemed pretty worried about him, from what she'd read… although Shizuru-san was less direct.

"Mikoto…"

"Watch Miroku for a minute!" She yelled before scurrying off to the kitchen, rummaging for something to feed her pet. He looked like he needed a snack.

He was sighing to himself loudly in the other room, which she ignored while searching for the carrots. He'd been doing that for two days now…sulking on the couch, or in the kitchen and all because he had a bad dream. It was silly to her because everyone had nightmares and Mai-chan wouldn't care. She heard him yelling. He'd done that before when he slept and she knew it was a dream yell, because it had a weird muffle-y sound… like he had tape over his mouth or something. It always woke her up and it woke Mai-chan up this time too. She heard them talking after. The whole next day, he was so strange and then he just stopped talking to Mai-chan. She knew because the woman had asked her how he was today when she was at the shop working.

Ah, there they were! She frowned because the bag was almost empty, but at least there were a few still in there. She grabbed the carrots and skipped back over to the creature, plopping herself down.

Her brother was watching her with his hands steepled like a movie villain. He was such a weirdo sometimes. "I've been neglecting you, haven't I? Would you like to watch a movie, Mikoto?"

"You're gonna fall asleep or leave when it gets good! You always do." She answered matter-of-factly, passing a bit of vegetable to the animal beside her. Carrots were his favorite.

"I won't, I promise." She was not convinced.

"You never wanna watch the movies I like." Suspicious, she eyed him, deciding there was a strong possibility that he was just trying to distract her, to get her to stop asking questions. But another question had already formed, as soon as she saw Miroku amble toward the chair Reito was sitting in. "Hey! How come you don't like Shizuru-san's present?"

She was surprised by how worried her asking that made him. "What makes you think I don't appreciate her gift?"

It was a present, he said, that Shizuru-san gave him because of his new job. He said he'd forgotten he'd put it in the glove compartment after the beach party… and that was a while ago. They'd opened it together. Two black shiny stones embedded in silver, with funny T-shaped backs. Cuff links, he said. She had no idea what that meant, and it made no more sense to her when he explained them. It was jewelry for his shirts basically.

"You hid it under the chair over there. Miroku found it while he was exploring." She charged.

"Did he? He's quite clever for a hedgehog." He eyed the animal as it sauntered along the carpet.

"You know what else was in there?" The stranger thing to her was the other thing he'd put in the box…that he'd taken it in the first place. They weren't supposed to take each other's stuff, but she wasn't supposed to look at his phone either, so she guessed she couldn't be too mad.

"I do, yes." Reito would not look at her, brushed his hair from his eyes.

"You hid my necklace!" She gave him an accusing glare and pointed a finger at him.

"It was a silly thing to do." He admitted and that was not an answer.

Mikoto studied him like she would a stranger, trying to figure out why he was being so secretive. She tried to think about the things he didn't like to say and wondered if maybe it made him feel the same way she did sometimes.

"Did you take it and hide it because it makes you sad?" Though she liked it, the necklace occasionally would make her blue because it was from their mother. "I get sad sometimes too when I look at it."

His eyes opened and he was looking at her in such an odd way, like he'd never seen her before. "Do you?"

"Mmm-hmm. Grandpa told me Mama made them." She said, giving Miroku another bit of carrot which he crunched happily. It was strange to her that her brother would ask her anything more about that stuff now. They'd never much talked about Grandpa or the necklace or their parents, not since the very beginning. She always thought he didn't want to.

"I'm surprised you remember that, Mikoto."

She knelt on her heels and looked at him curiously, wondering what would make him think she didn't remember. "Why?"

Her brother smiled at her like it was hard for him to do, like he couldn't figure out how. "Perhaps that was silly of me as well."

So, the necklace was explained but what about the shirt jewelry? "Why did you hide my necklace with Shizuru-san's present?"

He moved to sit on the carpet beside her, took a carrot for himself, turning it in his fingers. "It is because her present…I think it reminds me of our mother as well… and maybe our father too." Her frown was deep because that answer instantly made her understand why he stashed them.

"I wouldn't bother remembering him." She offered.

Her brother turned the carrot in his grip again. "Did our grandfather ever say anything about him, I wonder?

She scrunched her mouth up and stared over at her brother. "He said he wasn't very nice." Grandpa told her that Reito lived with their father when he was very young, whereas she never had… that he wasn't very good to her brother or her mother and maybe the cuff links weren't a very good present. "Why would Shizuru-san get you them?"

He gave her a better smile than the others he'd tried. "She wasn't aware. All that she knew was I had lost the original pair." Biting off half of the small root vegetable, he then held out the rest to the cinnamon hedgehog who came scurrying over, gnawing at the end of it.

"Oh, she was trying to be nice!"

"Yes, she very much was." Reito agreed, releasing the last bite to the small animal who made short work of it.

Nodding sagely to herself, she made a pronouncement. "That makes more sense."

Her brother was definitely not himself these past two days, and if it was just the necklace and the present making bad memories came back, maybe she could help with that. "Hey, Ani-ue?"

"Hmm?"

"Miroku and me can take the present with the necklace. He likes shiny things and that way you don't have to see them. We won't tell you where they are… and I won't tell Shizuru-san either. If you want." Sometimes people gave you things you didn't want, but even she knew you never were supposed to tell them so.

"Thank you, that's very thoughtful." It was another good smile and she felt one of her own forming. "I think I'd like that."

It faded fast though and he was staring at nothing really with such a serious expression. That beard he had now… and she felt one of her own memories returning. He looked like that picture!

"Do you remember Grandpa?" She asked him. "Or the house?"

"Not very much, maybe that it was a farmhouse, there was a cat perhaps?" She was surprised he recalled one of the cats, wasn't sure they'd been there when he had.

"Orange or tabby or black?"

"Orange, I think."

"Taro!" She lifted her finger, grinning. Taro was a good one, even with his chewed ear…greedy though and very fat. Glancing over at him, she noticed her brother was frowning, and she wondered if thinking of Grandpa and the farm cats made him sad too.

Still, she wanted to tell him about the photo because she'd loved looking at it. "With your beard, you look like his picture from the army." It was said around a carrot, cracking and snapping noises breaking up the comment. "You talk like him too."

His head tilted slowly, a hand self-consciously pulling across his facial hair. It made a weird scratching noise. It was nice that he looked like that brown-tinted picture with the rough edges, liked that she could still hear him in his voice or see him in his smiles.

"That's how I could tell you'd be a good brother!" And it was the truth. When she showed up on his doorstep after Grandpa died, as soon as he opened his mouth, he felt like home.

"Mikoto, can I ask you something?" She nodded happily, watching him. "Do you know why it is," He stopped, his voice a little funny before he fixed it. "that I didn't stay with our Grandfather?"

"Yup!" Sitting back on her heels again, she studied the man sitting next to her, talking still through bits of food. "Grandpa said that some bad men from the government came. They said he couldn't take care of you right because he was too old and didn't have any money. He said that's why people couldn't know about me. He said that's why I couldn't go to school."

Her brother was studying her intensely and she realized suddenly, that even if this time it hadn't been completely on purpose, he'd succeeded in distracting her. No more! She was supposed to be talking to him about Mai-chan. Maybe he just needed to know that Mai-chan got sad just like them.

"Everyone has bad dreams Ani-ue and Mai-chan gets sad about her mom and dad too. You could talk to her."

He was silent for an irritatingly long time, blinking and touching his beard, making that scratching noise again. "You think so?" Of course, she thought so. Didn't he?

"You'd have to say sorry first for being mean." He needed to know that going in, because you can't just ignore people and not say 'sorry'.

"I would, wouldn't I?" It was said quietly as he heaved another one of those sighs, mussed his hair. At least he knew, but he was looking at her again and she didn't know why. "Mikoto…could your brother have a hug I wonder?" She smiled and threw her arms around him because that was easy and he seemed like he could use one.

"We need more carrots!" It was spoken next to his ear as she squeezed him.

He patted her back before releasing her. "We can pick some up tomorrow."

She placed her hands on her hips and stared him down. "Are you gonna call Mai now?"

Something of a relieved laugh tumbled out of him and he seemed a lot less like a raincloud. "That was a bit pushy, Mikoto."

"Well, she's waiting!"

"I will after our movie, that way I can think of how best to apologize. How about that?"

"Fine, but I wanna watch this one!" Glancing over the title, she could tell he wasn't excited, but he never was when she chose a horror movie… which was pretty much always what she wanted to watch. She loved them though and knew he wasn't going to argue. So, it was with particular relish that she popped "Tokyo Gore Police" in to play, trotting off to grab some snacks with Miroku, him turning to a ball in her hands, while the title ran.

She'd have to show the cats some clips of it when the shop was slow… she was convinced they'd love it too.

Epilogue #4: Tokiha Mai
Date: July 5th, 2014…a Saturday

Her brother was making her dinner…was wearing her apron, which she found more humorous than uncomfortable at this point. She had felt happy, settled with Reito, had not seen this coming.

He'd had a nightmare, a very bad one it seemed like. He'd hit her so hard while thrashing that it made her see stars, made her eyes tear, but it was definitely by accident. Which was not to say she was pleased about when it happened…she'd even had to lift her hands to cover herself from a second blow by his suddenly wild arms. She wasn't afraid really, more startled than anything else…by the unexpectedness, the violence, the sounds he made, the intensity of his breathing. Shouting his name loudly, it was really all she could think to do, wake him up somehow. Emotions were blazing all over his face and his eyes, she'd never seen anything even remotely similar in them before. A voice barely his own had come before he excused himself.

He'd disappeared the next day after he left in the morning. Ceased all contact, except to cancel their plans. A generous coating of concealer did enough to mostly cover the angry bruise on her arm because she knew any explanation would sound a lie. It hurt quite a bit still and she hurt quite a bit more. The image of that expression on his usually calm face, she couldn't wrap her mind around it. Takumi was the only soul she'd told. It had been nearly three days.

She had made sure not to tell Natsuki when she stopped by for a coffee this morning, because it would've required context to understand, and she didn't have any that. There was also just a weird feeling she got when they met eyes, that her friend was dealing with something herself.

Even in her upset though, she didn't intend to ignore the fact she was being cooked for, was sending a small smile Takumi's way. He was making something very spicy and she was looking forward to it. They both liked food a few shades hotter than most and only got to fully indulge when it was just the two of them.

"You've become quite the little chef." He knew from the look in her eyes, that her compliment, her smile…were merely a bit more concealer.

"I'm not sure Akira would agree."

A hand was flipped dismissively. "He's too picky."

"That's for sure." He said around a laugh that quickly faded when he saw her expression. "So, how mad are you?"

"I don't even know, Takumi." Pausing, she dragged her finger in circles on the counter. "You should've seen his face."

"Did you end up asking Mikoto if he was okay?"

She was slightly humiliated that she had but didn't lie. "Yeah."

"Did she say anything?" He asked as he ladled some of the soup and noodles he'd made into bowls.

"She said 'no' which wasn't very helpful. And I can't ask Shizuru, because then I'll have to ask her not to tell Natsuki. She'd flip."

"She might not."

"She absolutely would, and he obviously doesn't want to talk." An uncomfortable silence settled over them as they both tasted the deliciously spicy soup. They exchanged similar smiles as their lips started to tingle. It was then that her phone started vibrating against the counter. A sideways glance and Takumi gave her a quick 'what are you waiting for' expression.

She hit the button to answer it, heart in her throat. "Hey, how are…um, sure. No, I'm still there. Okay." She hung, up, gazing down at the bench. "He's coming over."

"Told you he'd call." He commented, taking another spoonful. "How long?"

"Probably twenty minutes or something."

"Text me after." Her brother said appearing unusually grave. "And don't let him off too easy."

"So worried, Takumi." She commented, eating a few bites even though she didn't feel very hungry anymore. "It's supposed to be the other way around, ne?"

Her brother gave her a rather knowing look and the rest of their meal passed in relative silence before he left with a hug. While she sat there in the closed restaurant waiting, her nerves began to build. Gnawing inside her, were suspicions, but it wasn't as though they'd never talked about anything. Here and there…sections of their histories had been discussed, his adoption, her parents' death, Takumi's health, his meeting Mikoto… details emerging in the casual sort of way that they tended to in a relationship. Why had he reacted so strongly to this, she wasn't sure.

He didn't really say anything as he came through the door, not until he was about half-way across the seating area of the dimmed restaurant.

"May I sit with you?" Her gaze was steady, but that question first, like things had changed so drastically, it bothered her. She only gestured to the spot beside her in response. When he sat, it was not upright as he usually did, but leaning over, hands folded and elbows on knees. "I believe I owe you an apology."

Leaning back, air passing audibly over her lips, she pushed a hand between her knees where they were crossed. There wasn't much she could think to say except exactly what she'd been wondering since he left. "What happened?"

In the poorly lit seating area, she watched his face, covered in the shifting shadows of a passing car, staring at nothing. "It is difficult to explain fully…I know that many people like to think on their childhoods. I'm certain you and your brother recall many pleasant moments from when you were small?"

Though she understood what he meant, that wasn't exactly the truth. Memories they held close, of times together as a family were often as painful as they were precious. "…some not so pleasant."

The quiet correction made him hang his head. "Apologies again, Mai. That was not very sensitive of me." And then he was looking at her, into her. "Life has hardly been fair to you."

Worrying her lip, she turned her eyes down. She was feeling a little swimmy emotionally, probably the stress of this… how caught out she was by it. There was some fear there too, because him beginning that way, him mentioning childhood straight away, it confirmed where the conversation was likely to go. "Is that what it was? A nightmare about something from when you were a kid?"

His jaw shifted beneath the short beard he was growing. "I don't recall much from before the orphanage, in all honesty…but it did feel real enough I suppose, to make me wonder if it was."

"It seemed pretty real." Frighteningly real in fact, though she did not use those words and she could already feel her anger beginning to dissipate beneath his obvious sincerity. She was annoyed at herself for it.

Guilty eyes glanced sidelong at her torso. "How is your arm feeling, can I ask?"

Rubbing at it self-consciously, she regarded him, needing to say at least one thing. "I know it wasn't on purpose, but the ignoring me was."

A slow nod met her words, and he took his time in finding what he wished to reply with, maybe was even struggling with it, but it was doing nothing for her emotional stability. "It's something that I have been trying to unravel myself, but the only answer I've come to is that there are certain things, Mai, that I don't remember, things I do not wish to… things I cannot talk about beyond the fact that they are there. I have had a good life beyond those things. That is what I want to think of, my adopted parents, Mikoto, my friends, and now…you." Her eyes turned his way. "I can tell you it was not a happy memory, if it was truly one at all, that there are likely more unhappy memories…but I did not think I could ask you to let me leave it at that. I hope you'll forgive me for saying so."

Mai sat, absorbing his words, fingers scratching restlessly at the inside of her knee. Something in those ideas resonated, wasn't all that different than how she felt about aspects of her own life. There were certain things that she stowed away, where talking was just reliving and not healing. She understood needing it to be enough for someone else sometimes… just to know something happened, without knowing every detail. He was looking at her again with those suddenly expressive eyes, waiting for an answer.

"Believe it or not..." Making sure she had his eyes, she told him her mind. "I can live with that Reito." But there would be a single rule about it. "Unless you're gonna disappear every time. That isn't something I wanna be a part of."

It was his turn to digest what she'd said, and another slow nod came. "I am truly sorry about that, Mai. I promise you that it will not happen again." And he did seem to be very genuinely repentant.

"Okay." The soft answer was just as much for herself as it was for him.

"You know, Mikoto did advise that you'd be exceptionally understanding." A tentative glance. "Yet again, she may be correct."

She laughed a little. "Mm, I don't know about 'exceptionally'. I promised Takumi I wouldn't forgive you too easily." Even as she said it, she leaned back, a bit closer to him.

He followed suit, arm stretching behind her put not yet touching, along the top of the bench. "So then, it would seem I'll still have some making up to do?"

There was another soft chuckle, this one carrying a trace of playful mocking. "It's been like five minutes, Reito."

"A fair point." He acknowledged, then with solemnity added, "Your brother must be rather displeased with me."

"He worries." Her head fell to his shoulder, against the soft shirt he was wearing. "He just wants to make sure I'm taken care of."

"If it is not too late, I'd like to nominate myself for the position."

"Oh, you would huh?" She asked with a sideways glance. His arm fell from behind the bench and draped across her.

"I would also understand if you felt some level of punishment was in order first." The joke was delivered with admirably steady seriousness.

"I think that's more Nao's bag." She was absolutely sure it was more Nao's thing, actually.

"Ah yes. Upon reflection, there was one occasion where she did threaten to tie me to a barstool."

"Sounds about right." A full laugh this time, with some embarrassment woven in.

There was another moment that passed between them, where she turned on the seating bench, where he turned too, where they angled toward each other and then they were kissing. That beard was going to take some getting used to, but she definitely didn't hate it, definitely didn't hate him, definitely was going to kiss him again fully forgiven or not. Takumi knew her too well, and she felt thoroughly chagrinned, as a brief, but ridiculous thought came to her…of being irresponsible enough to let this go further, as they deepened their kiss.

He pulled back suddenly, back of his hand wiping at his mouth, as a hiss turned to a cough…as his eyes were clenched. "Mai. What…" There was a bit of a spasm from him, as he violently cleared his throat, and she was alarmed to see his eyes tearing, color creeping up his neck. "Ha ah, what did you…" Another cough and a tear ran full down his cheek, a tremor racked him. "What did you eat?"

"Just some spicy ramen." There was no way this was a reaction to second-hand spice. If so, he had the single worst tolerance of any person she'd ever met…except for Mikoto. It made sense, suddenly.

"Ha-ah, it's like fire." Pushing himself off of the bench, he shoved himself toward the eatery's back room, hitting his chest with a fist while airy barks forced their way out.

"Don't drink any water, have some milk or juice Reito!" It was yelled, as she sat in disbelief on the bench, attempting not to laugh, any remaining tension between them completely evaporated. "Well, I guess you got your punishment." She honestly tried to hold in the smirk, but it was impossible.

"I would…eh-hmm… say so." The red, watery eyes that met hers looked more traumatized than anything else, holding a cup of milk shakily, hunched against the wall, with tiny beads of sweat breaking across his forehead.

After a few more gulps and gasps and he did manage a small smile, one which she returned, one which turned to a bit of laughter from both of them… before something caught her eye.

"Those little creeps!"

He was clearly surprised by the outburst, another cough rattling him. "What?"

"Look!" Mai whispered, pointing to two pairs of glowing eyes belonging to the stray cats, perched in the window and fixed on the pair of them.

Epilogue #5: Tate Yuuichi
Date: August 16th, 2014… a Saturday

Yuuichi sat on the edge of the bench in the public gardens thinking over what Shiho's text message had said. There were two things he was certain of at the moment, wherever Shiho got that picture of Natsuki and this unknown woman, it wasn't with Natsuki's permission. The other was that breaking up with the pink-haired woman was the right decision. It was one more affirmation that she was in fact not the tolerable levels of crazy he was accustomed to, something beyond that… something vindictive.

The things that he didn't know were much more numerous. He didn't know how to feel about his life. His ex, a woman he wanted to marry, loved…she seemed to be dating another woman. It felt like a blow and a relief at the same time, Shiho's taunting words augmenting an unease that likely would have otherwise faded. Remembrances came of guilty moments where he'd been out with Natsuki and some pretty girl had grabbed his gaze for half a second. Had it grabbed hers too and he never noticed because he was distracted himself? He'd not been able to bring himself to ask Mai about it when he stopped by her shop now and then, had forced himself to block Shiho's number and deleted the messages.

Those stupid texts from Shiho, congratulating him like her dating a woman was something he'd driven her to, suggesting he was that awful to be with. Even with every pixel destroyed, the images lived in his mind, despite their ambiguousness. The images really didn't prove much of anything…just their hands touching, them sitting close to each other. He felt like an idiot for letting it bother him, for wondering if it might be true too, what Shiho had insinuated. If Natsuki were actually with the woman from the pictures, was it even possible for it to be his fault? He didn't think that was how stuff like that worked and he knew that were she ever to discover that he even entertained the idea, the dark-haired woman would have slapped his face for being so foolish. And Kuga Natsuki definitely could slap.

He didn't know how to feel about how disastrously events had unfolded between him and Shiho either. He didn't know how to feel about how far he'd let himself fall or the softness around his middle he'd been trying to rid himself of or how to feel about the girl he kept running into. That woman who came to check on him after his hand surgery, he'd thought her an angel looking down on him when he was waking up from the anesthesia, voice soft, ceiling lights behind her making a halo, those unusual golden-brown eyes… those amber-colored eyes. He'd seen her in the grocery store twice now and a few times in this park where they both ran. She no longer looked like an angel to him without the effects of the drugs. He didn't believe in those kinds of things anyway, but she was definitely a beautiful woman.

Today had started with the best intentions. He had decided that he was not going to think about how many months it had been since Shiho, he was not going to think about those pictures either. He had every intention of simply focusing on his run today...until he had come across the ring he intended to give Natsuki while digging in his sock drawer for a matcher this morning. It was his grandmother's. She'd given it to him personally before she died, told him he'd know when he met the right girl; he thought he did know. When Shiho had specified a size, spoke of specific settings and carats, before that even, he'd decided not to offer her the family heirloom. That should have been a sign to him, so much should have been a sign to him. Maybe the fact that Natsuki stole his tie once in high school should have been a sign, even if it was just to piss off Miss Maria, even if Nao then started stealing it all the time. Maybe the fact she thought his face was scratchy should've been a sign too, he didn't know.

No, no more thinking about it. He wasn't supposed to be letting himself wallow anymore. He'd stopped drinking and he'd started running a month ago to help his nervous energy, his belly. It was shortly after the 'camping trip' that turned out to be a trek through the woods and mountains, he'd realized how much he was mistreating himself. The exercise had nearly killed him. He was out of shape and never in his life had that been true. He was an active guy, fit, and careful… and now he couldn't walk up a hill without panting.

Two weeks after, Yuuichi had walked into Masashi's dojo and waited till the class ended, picked up a kendo stick. The dark-haired man had said nothing, only nodded and walked over to him, took up a stance. They'd sparred, easy because of his hand and his knee, even though both had healed. The memory felt good, the sun felt good, running felt good, not throwing up so much felt good. He was even picking up some of the classes at the dojo now and then.

The drawstrings of the hoodie he was wearing hung down to his knees where elbows rested, a bottle of water on the bench beside him. He had a good run this morning and he closed his eyes for a moment to soak it in a little.

As he opened them, the former angel came jogging strongly up to the park gate, finishing her run. Those eyes that looked a bit like embers meet his with a stiff but real smile and a little wave, which he returned. Making a decision, he stood up and walked over to her. He made decent small talk about their runs, she asked after his hand as she stretched, then he asked her for coffee. She was surprised but said 'yes'… seemed genuinely interested, if a bit stunned.

He didn't want to worry too much about it yet, overthink it. Only coffee for now, he'd play it by ear and maybe this time, if he paid attention, took care of himself as well…something would work.

Epilogue #6: Kuga Natsuki
Date: October 2nd, 2014… a Thursday

She was lying awake and glancing at the sleep-softened face of her lover, who was murmuring softly. Even with Shizuru there, doing that pretty adorable sleep-talking thing she did sometimes…she couldn't quiet her mind.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. She had already found the clues, pieced them together, tracked down Yamada, tracked down the protocols and finally understood much of what eluded her for years. If Natsuki was completely honest with herself, she expected to feel some deeper sense of accomplishment, some sense that justice had been served. But instead, there was an aching sort of hollowness beginning to tug at her for attention…because it was starting all over again.

The specter of unfound secrets related to HiME, related to her mother, hints and rumors… it was taking her right back to her residency. Kyoto and Oxford gave her distance from HiME, forced her to let it go a little, while her brain was saturated with the profoundly overwhelming experience of residency. It let her see that maybe she'd gone as far as she could with all of it, to begin to accept that what mattered was what her mother meant to her.

Her final year in Kyoto though had been full of resurging rumors…about Fuuka Hospital and a man named Homura, and then that Trauma fellowship came up. She knew if she applied, she'd get it. Searrs owned the hospital. He thought himself clever enough for her not to intuit that he interfered whenever doors just oddly opened for her. His interference had always been unwelcome, but unfixable because she didn't have the slightest intention of ever confronting him. That would require speaking to him, so half the time she simply walked away from opportunities that seemed too good to be true. Fuuka Hospital though, she used his influence deliberately for the first time. Her mother was more important than her annoyance at Searrs and the decision appeared almost clandestine. She'd already been making arrangements and it was where all the people she cared about were, because Alyssa would be there now too, because all the material was still sitting in her childhood home on the island. Back in that house, she threw herself into HiME with the same fervor she did when she'd first discovered her mother's files. This time, she felt confident the information that had eluded her then actually existed. It had to if HiME was being resurrected.

The closing of those doors, the article by Takumi, Homura in jail, it was supposed to be an ending. Yet new cryptic and unsubstantiated whispers were stealing her sleep again, somehow building on themselves months later…the worst of which were about her mother. It was all slamming around inside her head with a strength that fed her tendency to dissociate in such situations. She suspected it might be Smith behind it, because he always seemed to be. Smith, who had taken her investigation, her commitment to finding the truth of what happened to her mother, taken her revenge and turned it into something she found little satisfaction in. The guilt she felt at the thoughts that now plagued her, it was consuming. That these horrible things being said, that she was validating them with consideration… it was so deeply disheartening. She wished she could believe that if Smith hadn't cast doubt where it was most painful…she would be fulfilled, wouldn't have even entertained these ideas, but she was too suspicious of simplicity.

Sakomizu had been right to question. Why was Smith there at all? Why tell her the things he had? Why were there so many articles and conspiracy theories still cropping up? What was feeding all of it? The things that remained were the questions that only those involved or those that were gone could answer. They were questions of intent or motivation, questions whose answers were singularly experiential and so could never be proven lie or truth…when or if they were ever offered up.

She rose gingerly after she sent the text. She dressed in near silence and darkness after the reply, collected the two vials, wrote a note in another room and left it in her stead on a rapidly cooling pillow. Her bike was walked down the road for significantly longer than needed because she was sneaking away now, wasn't she? Even if she'd done this a million times before Shizuru…it was different.

There was a touch of anger, a twinge of self-loathing at that the thought she'd ever believed even for a second making Homura pay would fix everything…as if anything could erase it. Maybe she was an idiot from the start.

Hands twisted the handlebars automatically, more speed… faster around the bend. Abandoned roads and black skies and winding curves and the feel of her bike beneath her… these things made her forget a little. The wind whipped at her, pulling bits of her mental burden away like grains of sand. It was racing air that muted the noise of the world, of her mind, made its own instead. Physically she could feel herself relaxing as she flew along the pavement that wrapped like a snake over these cliffs. There was still something unmatched, irreplaceable in the way she felt atop her motorcycle, body hunched and nearly melding with the machine, as though she were a machine herself, body adjusting automatically. Joined together, they were a knife…sharp and precise and cutting through the night. It never lasted though, that blissful state of robotic response. Spinning and arrhythmic wonderings would inevitably force their way once again to the forefront of her mind. Annoyance took her as she neared a particular bend because of how badly she wanted to simply drive past, but she could not…had never been able to.

She slowed, stopped and then pulled her helmet away, shaking her hair out. The stars showed faintly between hastily gliding patches of inky cloud cover. The ocean still crashed below her, waves curling and breaking against the rocks as they always did on such breezy, autumn evenings. Everything was still exactly as it had been, as it was in her nightmares…unchanged by anything that had happened.

Sighing, she placed her helmet on the bike, lifting a bundle from the storage compartment where it had been laying, wrapped in an old hooded sweater for cushioning. One of the two small vials reflected a touch of moonlight. It looked as though it contained nothing but water and a bit of agar at the bottom, clear and unassuming. The other looked black and shining and thick in the darkness and made her ashamed to even look at. Closing her eyes, she slipped gloves off one at a time, careful with the glass tubes, wanting to feel them in her hand for no reason she could define.

The incessant lapping and sloshing of the water below nipped at her attention as green eyes stared at the objects held in her palm. Some irrational part of her mind thought the sea was making these sounds on purpose. The ocean was reminding her of its presence, asking to have this last piece of her mother. She did nothing as yellow headlights rolled over her, kept her head turned away so she did not need to squint. Natsuki did not approach the vehicle as it stopped either or say anything to the man as he walked toward her. His eyes, smaller behind his glasses fell to the same place hers still rested. He sniffled slightly, breaking their silence. His allergies no doubt. She wondered briefly if they were getting worse with age, ignored the touch of sadness it pulled form her.

"It's late Natsuki," He said tiredly, and she glanced down briefly…feeling somewhat guilty for waking him. "Do you know what they are?" He asked after another silent moment.

The one that looked clear was familiar to him. "I know what it's supposed to be." She answered. "It's probably from Homura."

His eyes were on her and she knew that he was worrying, attempting to understand what she would not say. Looking down, his eyes fixed on the second of the glass tubes warily. He immediately knew it to be a vial of blood, knew what it meant…what she now feared.

"More than likely." He agreed, removing glasses to clean them roughly on his crumpled shirt, trying not to react too strongly to what he'd seen.

"It could be bullshit." She didn't believe that though, but was that because she didn't want to or because she saw no reason to? It could be one of the failed strains, a final and cruel joke, or it could be everything her mother worked for. Was the risk in continuing to pursue it reasonable? Reasonable. Did that word even apply anymore?

A heavy sigh broke from him. "It very well could be. I certainly wouldn't put it past him."

She felt her muscles tightening. Homura or Smith? Did either know she'd have so much trouble leaving this be? Was Homura laughing at her from some jail cell? Was Smith waiting for her to do god only knows what with it? Or was he just seeing if he could truly make her lose all faith in her mother? What purpose could that possibly serve? And why send it to Tate and not her directly? None of it made any sense, seemed so random.

Her eyes flickered his way. She could see him hesitating and knew he was struggling with many of the same questions she was. Her eyes clenched shut. "Saeko wouldn't…"

"Take it, Sakomizu." The words out of her mouth, interrupting him, before she realized even it, pushing the clear vial toward him. And her mother's name, the sound of it, her fingers curled around the other vial protectively, automatically. Her mother's name. God, it was still an overwhelming ache. She could almost feel the characters etched on her wrist pulse, like every cell in her body knew the word.

He walked up, opening his mouth to speak, but thought the better of it, patted her shoulder and it relaxed a little, one inch of tension lost. A pregnant pause, before he reached out. Her hand brushed his briefly as he took the offered vial from her palm.

She turned away from him then, stared out into the night, chest swelling, and then hurled the other vial into the vast and restless dark below them.

"Natsuki,"

"Do what you think with it." Was her response, as she stared, the wind pulling at her hair, annoyed at the sting in the corners of her eyes. Sighing, he tucked it away into his pocket, knowing arguing was futile, unsure what he would say anyway, what he felt.

She listened to his footsteps as they shuffled toward the car, listened to the sounds of his tires as he left. Both of them here this many years later, the vial she'd almost given him, she felt saturated with disappointment, alone and small.

Hands jammed into pockets against a sudden chill as she mounted her bike. Before putting her gloves and helmet back on, she checked her phone to see the time… 1:43 am, a missed call, and a voicemail. Shizuru. Another name that her skin seemed to know. That usually melodic voice carried a strained quality when it started to play, sleep and worry and an attempt to hide both. A bit of joking wove itself between serious words and she was still as she listened to her lover speaking, felt a pang of yearning for that curving mouth and those reddish-brown eyes. A beat of silence at the end, a wish that she be safe, and then three words that had only recently been spoken between them.

Her and Shizuru… at first, their happiness, how tightly it wrapped around them, how much of it spoke to pieces of her that felt broken…it was so easy to believe in a happy ending. Her leaving at night hadn't been an issue because they were both busy and didn't live together. She could still vanish on the occasions she felt she needed to, whenever they weren't together…whenever she wanted without guilt, without having to face what it meant. At the beginning, it was the same arrangement she'd imposed with Tate, the separateness that she clung to. They just kept getting closer though and even if they didn't live together still, now it was a rare night where they didn't see one another at all. Her remaining secrets, they were starting to squeeze unwelcome into their shared bubble. That two so opposite desires could live inside her at the same time, was frustrating and painful. That she could feel justified enough to keep disappearing for hours and hate herself for it…it was pulling her apart. It was probably only a matter of time before it started to pull them apart.

What she had always wanted was for Shizuru and this obsession never to meet each other. She didn't generally allow for it to meet anyone who it didn't already live inside. Takumi and Alyssa only knew what they knew by necessity. Her sister had ties to Searrs, to her, to the whole mess that couldn't be ignored…and it felt even worse to imagine she'd let Alyssa go work for him without ever having at least an idea that there was an underbelly to the business. Takumi had to know enough for the article. Mai and Nao knew what they knew from bits and pieces cobbled together over the years, things she's said accidentally or been pressed into.

None of them knew her whole story. They all knew enough. Natsuki saw no reason to ever tell someone that much, to ever trust another person that deeply, to freely offer information she considered her own. Shizuru's ties to HiME were much more superficial, didn't connect back to the history of it all. She didn't need to know…didn't need to be involved…at least that was her defense last year.

Her heart now twisted in her chest, so much so that she felt nauseous…beliefs she'd never doubted turning on end. She'd never felt beholden to another person the way she did Shizuru… and it was terrorizing the part of her that idolized autonomy. Nonetheless, it was clear to her, clear as it had been the night they'd first kissed, that she wanted their 'us'… and did that mean she had to tell her everything? This entire part of her world, HiME and the totality of what it meant, how much of her life was tied to it… Shizuru knew very little outside of what everyone else now did. Natsuki had, in typical fashion, kept things that way, had left information out or not answered questions, let Shizuru believe in simpler explanations or none at all…for her tiredness, for her return to Fuuka island, for her disappearing at night.

HiME was her madness, and the bare truth of it, when justifications were torn away, was that Natsuki didn't want her to see it. She wanted them apart…those two parts of her life, wanted what she had with Shizuru to exist outside of it… maybe in spite of it. She'd even naively convinced herself it wouldn't be a problem when they first got together… that it was all going to finally fade away because Homura was gone. She thought she could handle whatever was left…but she wasn't handling it and what remained was almost worst. She really was an idiot.

The budding recognition that she would have to show at least some of it to Shizuru was sitting untouched inside her like some great, heavy stone… and ignoring it was becoming a losing battle. The doubt, the questions… she couldn't keep chasing this. She had to find a way to trust the mother she remembered, to build a life where this did not consume her and those three words that her and Shizuru shared now and then…she wanted to be able to say them without the weight of the secrets she couldn't seem to kill, without the weight of everything in the room that Shizuru had never seen.

Epilogue #7: Sagisawa Yohko
Date: October 11th, 2014… a Saturday

Yohko was sitting in a beach chair, legs drawn up, oversized sunglasses perched on her nose feeling only mildly uncomfortable given how hungover she was. With her straw, she swirled a drink and tried to ignore Midori's ridiculous grin. The sun felt wonderful on her skin, warm and relaxing and just shy of enough to completely erase the aching from last night's fun. It wasn't her fault the bartender and she got along well, that they'd shared another drink or three last night. This was supposed to be a vacation, she planned to enjoy herself. So what if she couldn't understand half of what the woman had said to her last night? They'd done fine with what she knew. She'd learned enough for most conversations she intended to have in the resort casino they'd decided to stay in, for what they'd gotten up to after last call. Certain things were the same in any language.

"I leave you alone for two hours last night!" Yohko did not comment, reclining further, refusing to be baited. "Do I even wanna know why that bartender keeps looking at you?"

"Hmm." She glanced over at the gentleman polishing the glasses. He was the very same gentleman who witnessed her and the other bartender sneak off together the night before, covered for the woman. Gazing back, he gave her a raised eyebrow and a knowing look.

Her friend was having none of it. "Stop it! You know he does."

Yohko did know, but in this weather and with work so far away, she was experiencing an extreme deficit of caring. "Let him look, I'm on vacation."

Mischief pulled the corner of her friend's mouth to a smirk. "And the drink service, so impressively attentive all day."

"Take mine and relax."

In a pretend huff, her friend plucked the fruity drink from her grasp and rested back in the adjacent chair. "You get to have all the fun."

"I'm not sure your husband is gonna stay amenable to girls' trips with comments like that." Yohko chastised lightly, knowing her friend wasn't really serious.

Midori laughed. "I can't see where that would be a problem since you aren't gonna tell him I said it."

Just as she finished her sentence, another freshly made margarita slid onto the side table between their loungers. "I just might tell him if you ruin my drink with whatever else you were gonna say. Now hush." As Yohko reached over to take the cool glass in her hand, she gave her friend a very pointed look.

It was hand-delivered by the second of the two bartenders, a woman with the largest, loveliest brown eyes she'd ever seen, replete with a definitively alluring lack of yearning. It was a perfect situation really…built-in understanding that nothing could possibly come of whatever happened. There was also the fact that she hadn't encountered another woman who was a possibility since Shizuru…and it was really, highly enjoyable to experience that again.

With Midori finally silent and the heat of late afternoon making her sleepy, she decided she might just let herself succumb to a nap before the two of them hit the blackjack table in a few hours. It had been the main purpose of this trip, besides some quality friend time. Midori loved to gamble and some of her favorite memories of trips such as these, revolved around watching her best friend indulge her talent for it. Midori was uncommonly lucky and uncommonly theatric about it and for both reasons, Yohko seldom played directly against her friend in any games of chance. She dabbled alongside her now and then, but they were worlds apart in their comfort with financial risk. Besides which, the dreamlike atmosphere Midori was able to create through force of personality and a bit of drama… it was almost like chasing the edges of celebrity by the end of their outings. It was much more fun to sit back, dipping in and out of the gathering crowd, in and out of the experience as she pleased.

"One question." Her red-headed friend's voice broke into the settling calm.

"What's that?"

"Was it good?" She knew her smile was answer enough.

Shifting eyes hidden beneath sunglasses toward the female bartender as she leaned over to polish the bar top, she acknowledged a second time wouldn't hurt anything. Maybe she'd grab another late-night drink when Midori's crowd become large enough.

Epilogue #8: Yuuki Nao
Date: November 1st, 2014… a Saturday

That stupid man. Nao paced, naked, seething, and flushed. He'd kissed her… softly… terrible… tenderly… even fucking worse. She felt her lip curling. Strong arms had wrapped around her. Goddamn Takeda Masashi, didn't he know what this was? Didn't he get it? Those thick fingers, lightly calloused, squeezing her, something he apparently was stupid enough to let himself feel oozing out all over her unready skin. It was instantly too much.

Snatching her cigarettes and throwing on a robe, she stalked out to her balcony, lighting one with hands that shook annoyingly. She hated that when she mustered the emotion to get wholly enraged, it made her tremble like a leaf.

"Asshole." She murmured the word through smoke, closing her eyes. Gathering her control, concentrating it in fingers that played with the cross around her neck. The crisp evening air made her cold even with the heat she felt.

He cuddled…no… correction…he fucking tried to cuddle with her. He really was that much of an idiot. He'd managed to fog crystal clear.

She sat, slouching with legs crossed, bared ankle twitching agitatedly as she took in another drag. Two full cigarettes worth of annoyance it took, temperature biting at her…to clear her mind, to jam down the incongruous and thoroughly unwelcome tickle of guilt she had no intention of analyzing. Their situation was explained to him in both words and deed…and maybe he was just that dense. Even in their entirely transactional relations, his understanding of male-female interaction was so conventional that he really believed wrapping her in his arms after she destroyed him was a sensible course of action.

Her eyes rolled back in her skull and her neck cracked lightly as a faint sound caught her attention. Her phone, from the bedroom. She couldn't be bothered to answer it…whoever it was could wait. All she wanted was a mindless night where she could forget for one second that she'd somehow agreed to help Kuga's younger sister navigate a cutthroat world she had no business being a part of in the first place. Negotiation, politics, money, status… she didn't care about any of those bullshit things and how the hell was she was qualified to help anyone, let alone someone like that girl? She was no guide and how protective she felt…it was completely unwelcome. Alyssa's administrative assistant…she'd stopped going to school to do it, which was fine with her because college was still as boring as ever. She had a damn title…and the money felt almost wrong, like being bankrolled to hang out. It wouldn't leave her head and she'd kept going to see the nun, had the stupidest thought that some of that goodness might rub off on her accidentally. God, what the hell had she gotten herself into? Takeda fucking Masashi had one role to play, was supposed to give her two seconds to breathe and he fucking blew it.

An arm was draped over the balcony to flick away her ashes, as she opened her eyes. And there he was, staring up at her from the street, as if the mention of the depth of his idiocy had summoned him back, phone against his ear and a single rose in his hand.

Takeda Masashi…perfect spirit animal for socially inept masochists everywhere.

She was so stunned that it took her a moment to react in any way other than the widening of fire-filled eyes. She came back to herself, flipped him off and walked back inside. She couldn't even seethe in peace with that man.

An absolute fucking idiot.

Epilogue #9: Takeda Masashi
Date: November 3rd, 2014…a Monday

It was mid-way through his shift, and Masashi was sitting in the glass stairwell on the west corner of SEARRS inpatient building. He was reading a book about three men who'd climbed K2, one of whom had died trying. It made him wonder if Yuuichi would be up to hike again, made him miss the mountains despite the morbid subject matter. They'd been hanging out more and his friend was even taking on some of the junior classes at his dojo, which was helpful.

He liked quiet spaces…the mountains, this stairwell, practicing in the dojo when no one else was there…and he liked the orange light of sunsets. He didn't always watch them, but he liked to be able to look over at them, liked to see the glow on his hands or the page of a book. He had a beeper at his waist, which had been silent for a full hour now. The entire hospital was quiet tonight. He liked this book as well, but his mind kept wandering back to two nights ago. He'd let her do it to him again, four times now and every time was weird and almost violent and demeaning and hot as hell. She was definitely crazy, that he was sure of. He was crazy for sleeping with her again, that he was sure of too, even more sure that he was crazy for worrying about her. He tried to hold her after this last time because he just wanted to. She'd rolled her eyes, shoving him not only off her, but off the bed completely. That murderous glare from the balcony when he tried to make amends, it was completely terrifying. At least he knew now that she didn't like roses.

She was just not a normal girl and he was nothing to her. It bothered him and it didn't. All of that aside, he didn't know why he couldn't stop thinking about her. It was a strange sort of relief every time she texted him, that she was still there. Maybe because she seemed so changeable, so disconnected from everything, as if she could simply slip away forever at any moment.

And what was he even thinking? He shook his head and went back to reading.

There was nothing to be done about it now anyway, nothing to do but wait and see if she appeared again.

Epilogue #10: Sakomizu Kaiji
Date: November 14th, 2014… a Friday

Kaiji was watching from the window beside the round table in his kitchen. He figured that tonight they'd be sitting there because Natsuki had told him that she was going to 'bring someone by'. He had not expected it to be that anesthesiologist who exited the passenger side door.

Clearly, he'd been wrong to assume that it was anything to do with Natsuki's personal life. He knew of Fujino-san, that she had been involved with HiME and was in Homura's research group. Seeing her step out of that car, he felt foolish for the wine and halibut he'd gone out to buy hours earlier. His trying to make this into something like a real dinner, would that be strange now? They'd still need to eat, wouldn't they? He was also a bit disappointed because he had hoped against hope that Natsuki would finally leave HiME alone, that her throwing the other vial into the sea was a new beginning. He was a realist though and in his heart, he'd known that things were unlikely to be so simple. Not with how deep her scars ran.

He hadn't been able to bring himself to touch the HiME vial she'd given him...had put it deep in the storage area at work. With any luck, she wouldn't ask about it and he wouldn't have to explain his hesitation. A knock at the door knocked him from his thoughts.

"Hey." She said, gazing at him with her typical straight-set frown. He smiled at her and stepped aside to allow them both in. They shared a quick hug and he gave a nod toward the newcomer.

Natsuki paused and he noticed that she seemed uncharacteristically anxious. "This is Fujino Shizuru."

He stood a bit straighter, sniffled lightly against the itch in his nose. "Fujino-san, yes. I've seen you around the research building I think?"

"Yes, my office used to be in that building and I do believe we saw one another in passing. It's a pleasure to meet you formally, Sakomizu-han." Though she spoke congenially, the woman seemed much more reserved than he remembered from his limited encounters with her, but he'd also never much spoken to her.

Natsuki, for her part, immediately took a seat at the infamous table after watching their interaction. Somewhat stiffly, the other woman followed suit. His mind darted about. Unused to other company joining them in such discussions, it suddenly became fixated on whether the wine he'd bought should be offered now or with dinner…if it was appropriate to offer at all. He also had to admit that there was an ominous feeling, some indefinable spot of pressure chasing the two of them. Whatever new bit of HiME information they'd uncovered, must not have been very pleasant.

"Do you want anything to drink?" He asked, deciding he at least wanted a glass now. "Some wine or something?"

Natsuki seemed slightly puzzled, likely because they'd never drank during HiME discussions, or at his house at all really. It was too late now though, he'd already said it.

"Sure, okay." She replied, brow furrowed.

"Fujino-san?" He asked, looking over his falling frames at her.

She glanced at him, smiling more with her mouth than her eyes. "That would be lovely."

He hastily poured three glasses of the white wine he'd bought, hoping it would taste alright because he didn't really know much about wine except that Natsuki ordered it sometimes when they had their dinners. He wasn't much of a drinker himself, but the woman at the store had told him it would go well with fish. He divided the bottle between the three pieces of stemware, which worked pretty well because it nearly filled them with…he read the label…Sauvignon Blanc.

There was the slightest glimpse of surprise on Fujino-san's face when he very carefully placed the brimming glass down in front of her, and he wondered if he was supposed to let it 'breathe' first or something. The word was suddenly biting at him as having some connection to wine.

She made no comment to explain her initial reaction as it quickly melted into a smile. "Ookini."

He gave her another nod and a small smile of his own, trying to hide that tickling skosh of self-consciousness, then carefully walked his and Natsuki's pour over. Watching for any detectable shock there was fruitless because she didn't seem to be paying any attention to the glass. He noticed, as he sat down, that the dark-haired girl was staring fixedly at the other woman with a curiously concerned expression. Fujino-san, for her part, was now staring out of the window, distractedly following the stem of her wineglass with her fingers. He decided that she must be nervous or something, which was maybe to be expected. Kaiji knew things had gone rather badly for the research team when everything erupted with Homura. It stood to reason that Fujino-san had been caught in the middle of it to some degree. The wheels in his mind began turning, wondering if some fragment of the HiME saga was plaguing her now too. It was disappointing that Saeko's legacy had turned to something that seemed to taint everyone it touched. It was never supposed to be that way.

Attempting to settle himself for the coming discussion, he scooted his chair in. The resultant ear-splitting scrape across the linoleum made his teeth hurt… made him wince in undo humiliation. Fujino-san and Natsuki both turned, startled and he cleared his throat.

"How are things with your research, Sakomizu-han?" The anesthesiologist asked a second later, recovering herself and he was thankful for the conversational guidance.

"It's going well." He answered, feeling a little more confident at having been provided with an opportunity to talk about something he knew. "I'm with the innovations team now."

"I would imagine you see quite the variety of fascinating projects working with innovations. Are you finding the work to your liking?" She seemed genuinely interested, and his comfort rose.

"It's a good change. It's been a lot of neuro lately. Dementia and Alzheimer's projects…some new interesting ideas for dissolving protein deposits, but there're also some exciting proposals revolving around micro-robotics."

"How interesting. It seems a good deal of research is angling in that direction." She said, her eyes leaving his and traveling to the other woman. "…or AI."

"Yes, it's definitely where things are going. This is something they're calling 'nanomachines'…years away probably, but still remarkable. Plenty of grant support anyway." He agreed quickly, before glancing over to the other side of the table…questioning the silence too.

Mystery solved because the girl was thoroughly distracted by trying to figure out what was in the oven. She must've been hungry. It instantly brought back memories of her as pre-teen hovering around the kitchen whenever he cooked, feigning disinterest. She always did have quite an appetite for such a slender person.

"Ten more minutes." He said. "It's halibut. There's rice in the steamer and some vegetables roasting." She gazed at him with a little color coming to her cheeks, and then at Fujino-san…whose face now showed a small amount of amusement. He wondered if he'd embarrassed her accidentally.

An awkward silence descended upon them in the wake of his comment and they all took a sip from their glasses.

"So, what've you found out, Natsuki?" He asked, breaking a quiet that felt oddly tense. He took his eyeglasses off to polish them on his sleeve because he'd made sure to tuck in his shirt.

Green eyes flicked toward him, confused. "What do you mean?"

Pushing them back onto his face by the bridge, he spared a glance at her. "I'm guessing this HiME related since you brought Fujino-san." Both of them looked baffled. "You did…work on HiME?" He asked the woman cautiously.

"I did, yes. Briefly." She acknowledged, head tilting slowly as she shot her questioning gaze across the table.

"This isn't about HiME." Natsuki intervened, quietly and with the seriousness this table seemed to call for.

He hadn't the slightest inkling where this was going now. "Then what's on your mind?"

"Nothing." She said, looking at him expectantly, nervously and he was confused. "I just wanted you to meet Shizuru."

His eyes shifted toward the woman in question…Shizuru. He could tell by Fujino-san's hands and eyes that her discomfort was back and escalating. He had not a clue what to say. An idea was beginning to take shape, but it felt a leap.

"Oh, yes, right. Because…" He started, trying to find her thread of thought, feeling stupid as soon as the words left his lips, feeling his throat tickle. Was he supposed to be assuming? Was that what she was saying to him? Was she with the other woman? He could feel the pressure start to build in his chest, had to clear his throat. It was almost a nervous tick at this point… and why did the clock on his wall sound so incredibly loud? Had it always been that loud?

"Because we're together, Sakomizu." She stated in that same sort of vaguely emotional, yet fully forceful way she'd spoken during the discussion about his heart attack.

He felt his eyes widening, and always in moments like this, he thought of Saeko. Natsuki was staring at him with her same eyes…intensity and the tiniest kernel of hurt starting to form and did she think he'd deny them in some way? There was nothing else for this, save one thing because Natsuki was everything left of Saeko and doing right by her, it had always been the way he tried to honor her mother. He smiled at the girl he'd known since she was a baby, the girl he'd done his best to help where he could. That green softened and the emotion they so rarely shared…it was there for him to see. Good, that was good. Compelled, he reached out and squeezed the top of her hand.

Swallowing against the dryness in his throat, he turned, noticing that Fujino-san seemed a world way, almost like a posed statue. She was trying so hard to seem calm and he felt badly for her. He gave a smile that he hoped wasn't too awkward to the woman he could just barely sense felt equally if not more awkward. "Well then, I'm happy you could come to dinner."

Relief smacked him when the words he chose, though not particularly moving, seemed to draw a smile from her mouth and eyes both. Fujino-san glanced from him to Natsuki and there was a look that passed between them. It was a look that told him something very different than how she'd looked at that boy all those years ago. He felt the squeeze of emotion starting again. That he would be a person Natsuki wanted to tell this to and in this way… like family.

Uncomfortable with how much he felt, he stood, and that blasted chest tightness was back. "That fish should be ready now, I think."

He could hear them talking softly and he took his time plating the food. It was just as much to let them say whatever they needed as to collect himself. Their hands had touched, he noticed in his peripheral vision. Exhaling, he closed his eyes and let the smell of the food carry him away a bit. Tonight…he was just going to enjoy this dinner with Natsuki and the woman who she 'brought by'. He would make sure this was one of the few times that they didn't talk about HiME. It would be teaching her to change her oil or tend to plants…something that was theirs and not mired in conspiratorial tragedy.

Tomorrow, he knew he would go to the cemetery to share this news with Saeko. He always went to her when something big happened with her daughter. He'd bring fresh flowers and he'd tell her what he'd said and how he'd said it and hope that she would've approved.

Epilogue #11: Kuga Natsuki
Date: November 14th, 2014… a Friday

It had gone well with Sakomizu she thought, but she'd made the mistake of asking Shizuru to go with her, before asking her how she felt about it. Once she'd asked, the other woman felt obligated even though she'd tried to explain that she could just tell him on her own. It wasn't that she wasn't happy to have her there, it was just that she felt badly it stressed Shizuru out to the extent it did. They'd both been so tense lately, which was probably her fault. She still hadn't found a way to deal with any of what was going on, to keep herself from sneaking out at night when she should be sleeping.

Her girlfriend had been talking with the both of them all through dinner though, seemed okay after Natsuki had finally been able to spit out the reason they were there at all. Then she'd been quiet the whole ride home, silent and staring out the car window. Honestly, she just assumed that Shizuru was coming down from it all. Because of her anxiousness before they went up, the entire time really…even if it lessened…Natsuki had decided to just let her be.

Her opinion on the judiciousness of that decision was rapidly changing. Shizuru had just slipped off her shoes and walked past her when they got back to her house without a single word. Duran had immediately stopped nibbling her fingertips and trotted after the woman. From the sounds she could already hear from the kitchen, Shizuru was making tea. She was overcome by exhaustion as it became very apparent that things were anything but okay.

"Would you like a cup?" It was asked as she walked in, without an upward glance, but politely as always…despite its relative flatness.

"You're upset." Natsuki remarked quietly, leaning on the wall beside the entryway and crossing her arms. It wasn't a question.

Reddish-brown eyes passed slowly over her face, but they did not hold anger. They held an unreadable mix of light and shadow, something that made her heart plunge inside her chest. Limbs tightening, she watched Shizuru making her tea unable to pick out a single thing she was thinking.

"Natsuki," Her name was a sigh really and the other woman sounded just as tired as she was. "I cannot help but wonder why Sakomizu-han would believe we'd come there to discuss HiME? It was over some time ago, was it not?" It was not said aggressively, but it struck her just the same.

The way she eyed Shizuru was response enough. In all the imagined scenarios that cascaded through her sleep-deprived mind, every consideration she'd given to how such a topic would even be broached while she raced along that ocean road, she'd not yet been able to find her beginning. The words would not come to her.

Arms were passing over a torso, hands holding elbows, a protective measure… her dog was pulling his ears back, looking from one to the other of them. Natsuki turned her gaze away from both, fingers playing at an earring and feeling sick again.

"Can I ask, where is it that you go at night?" The question drew her eyes back to a pair that would no longer meet hers.

That was at least something she could respond to. "The cliffs."

Eyebrows knit together, and even with that voice so incredibly quiet, it seemed to echo. "Does it soothe you? To be there?"

"No." It definitely did not soothe her, if anything it made her more agitated, but it was the place she was drawn to regardless. It was the place she'd always found herself when she could not be safe from her own mind.

Another strained, softly spoken question. "…are you unhappy with me, Natsuki?"

"Why would I take you to meet Sakomizu, if I wasn't happy?" She challenged, more forcefully than intended before dragging hands across her face. God, the tension…but she'd made it, hadn't she? "Why do you always think it's you?" Was the closest she could come to verbalizing that.

"Kanin-na." Her eyes closed and when they opened were even farther away than before and an itchy fear, it was biting at the dark-haired woman's neck. Shizuru poured herself a cup of green tea, watching the steam curl. "Perhaps I am just being foolish." Their gazes met again after those words were spoken, both burning. "Or perhaps it is just that Sakomizu-han knows so much more of you and so casually."

"I don't know what to say to that." Even though it was the truth she knew from her lover's face, that the response stung…regretted it immediately. The panic was hot and scraping and just starting because Natsuki could feel the edges of what they'd built fraying in the swelling silence.

"Will you truly not tell me what it is that troubles you?" It was asked with such plain and uncharacteristic openness and that openness…it was what broke her open in turn.

She was too weary with herself to care about the few tears that escaped and forcing the first syllables past her lips, it was so much like a crumbling inside her and immediately after…when Shizuru stared at her with such naked concern. When she took her upstairs, opening the door to that room…it nearly broke her up all over again. The woman stopped after the first few steps, stock still and with eyes roaming, wide and unblinking, hands holding that steaming cup of tea…eyes grazing over the articles tacked to the wall, the piles of folders, pages and pages of notes, clippings, articles, protocols, textbooks on medicine and immunology and genetics, the whiteboards… Natsuki had never been more desperate to hide herself. She'd started already and what would be the purpose when her decision was already made? Instead, she sat in this place with her secrets gaping, plastered to the walls and lying scattered all around them as Shizuru took a careful seat on the floor as well, tucking legs beneath her…a little dog sitting between them, unable to choose.

It was painstakingly slow, laying out the story of HiME and her search for a truth she no longer was sure existed, while they sat with each other in this place. Her words failed her sometimes, she couldn't fully describe aspects of it, some thoughts too personal to weave in as she moved through something which in its entirety had been shared with no one, something that had always been hers alone.

She spoke quietly…of the coma…of her father…of this house… of finding the files and how it all started. She told her of England… of Kyoto… and of her motivations for returning…of so many nights spent in this room last year and years before…of reading until she could no longer see clearly …why she always seemed so tired at work …of sleeping in the on-call rooms to catch up…of her mother and Micronesia…of Yamada and Sakomizu and Searrs and Smith and the vials… of HiME 12 and HiME 18 and all the HiMEs she knew of in-between. She told her what she thought would happen after the article…what she was left with… of her fears…about her mother and herself and Alyssa. She told her of the articles and newspapers she'd read and collected since Takumi's was first published.

Shizuru said nearly nothing, listened intently and occasionally asked a question… usually a clarification of some detail from their prior conversations, to find what was true in the things she thought she knew. There were singular moments, gut-wrenching ones in which Natsuki actually saw some illusion shatter in the depths of her lover's eyes. Never though, did Shizuru's gaze waver during the unfolding of her tale.

The most hurtful and hardest were the last things…when she told her about the vial of blood she had almost given to Sakomizu and why…when she told Shizuru something she only fully understood herself in having to put it to words…that with all that was being said of HiME, with all that had been said already, with all that had been done, whether Homura was in jail or not, the damage was done… whatever promise HiME held was yet another casualty in all this…it was unusable now, both it and her mother's name ruined. She did not have to say she felt responsible…she could tell Shizuru realized that.

When every bit that she could say was finally poured from inside her, they sat in the resultant stillness together for a spell of leaden minutes uncounted. A few stray tears escaped, and she paid no attention to them, but as they fell, her lover's hand crept across the floor and took hers. A thumb slid and passed over tendons which flexed as fingers curled. It was a tentative touch and the first they shared since they'd come home.

"What are you thinking?" Natsuki asked, wiping at her face with the cuff of a sleeve, even though she understood that in the context of tonight, it must've been a nearly impossible question.

Gently Shizuru shook her head, fingers squeezing her hand…expression as young, as vulnerable, as raw as their night in the nook more than one year ago. "Perhaps the only important thought, is that I wish I had known this then…"

Her eyes bored into the other woman's, gaze solemn. "I wouldn't have told you then." A heavy sigh. "It's not like you never asked about it." She added quietly before the other woman gave her a small heartache of a smile.

"Ookini, for telling me now." Those eyes, they gazed into hers with such kindness. It made her want to kiss Shizuru, to find some stronger point of physical connection. Those words didn't feel deserved at all. "Kanin-na, for tonight, I…"

"Don't apologize." The interruption was needed, because she wouldn't allow her to take responsibility for something that so clearly wasn't her fault. "It needed to be said." Natsuki turned, put her other hand on a cheek, her stare softening even as she spoke quietly, seriously. "I love you, Shizuru." And then she placed a kiss on soft lips, while a whispered answer fell between them.

Epilogue #12: Munakata Shiho
Date: January 8th, 2015…a Thursday

Shiho married a man who worshipped her, that nearly the only prerequisite she cared about in a partner any longer. She devoted a large proportion of her time to making sure that every aspect of her life she showed demonstrated her happiness. She made sure all the pictures she posted on social media, anything she posted at all, screamed to the world how wonderful she'd done for herself with her cheating boyfriend out of the picture. The photos of her engagement, her wedding, her baby… they were gorgeous, professionally done, and sent exactly the message she wanted to anyone who would check in on her.

And Kuga Natsuki's life now? With a woman because her first boyfriend was just too terrible? It was laughable in comparison. She'd seen the two of them together in passing around the island, quite a few times now. Every time she did, she snapped a stealthy picture and texted it to Yuuichi with some choice words. He never responded, but it still felt like a bit revenge on both of them, just like her new marriage and her beautiful child and her second on the way do.

Whether she is truly as happy as she wants to portray is ultimately irrelevant, because Shiho is certain she's happier than they will ever be and that's all that matters to her.

Epilogue #13: Senoh Aoi
Date: February 20th, 2015…a Friday

Aoi was pleasantly surprised really, that her and Chie's invitation to Shizuru to 'bring whoever' was well and truly becoming a reality. It was an invitation that had stood for so long as to enter the realm of a running joke. Tonight though, Shizuru had brought Kuga-san over, and Chie had spent the hour before their arrival scheming ways to get the two of them to spill their secrets. What secrets her love thought they'd be able to pry out of them and how, she wasn't entirely sure. She was just happy to be having a double date. There was definitely some nervousness, because she wasn't sure what they'd talk about with Kuga-san, but it was only a little nervousness. The other two times they'd spoken with her had not gone poorly...they just didn't really provide any answers as to where was best to go with her. She had no doubt it would be an interesting night regardless. It was supposed to be a 'no kid' night too, but her mom had called earlier, reminding that she could only keep Keiko until 8pm. Aoi had forgotten it was riichi mahjong night and that was definitely not to be moved.

They'd arrived awhile ago, had a meal together and in a more intimate group, she found Kuga-san, who had asked to be called by her first name toward the end of the meal, easy enough to talk to, even if she was miles away from an open book. The four of them were now in the kitchen, chatting around their high-top counter. Their chunky cat had taken an instant and unusual liking to Kuga-san and was circling restlessly around the legs of the stool mewing periodically. The woman would glance down each time this happened, a barely detectable smile on her lips. Occasionally she would lean down to give a scratch. Surprisingly their moody cat hadn't once swatted at her. The dark-haired woman might just be an animal person, she decided.

"So, how's Alyssa doing Natsuki-san?" Aoi asked, honestly curious. She could see Chie observing the woman carefully, trying not to be too obvious about it.

"Good." Was the rather short answer, delivered with a bluntness that seemed at this point, to just be how the woman spoke. "She started university last semester."

"Mm, what's she studying?" She'd wondered if the girl had really decided to stay the course in going to business school. The decision had surprised her and made her a bit sad at the same time, someone with talent like that.

"Business." The woman confirmed, and it was difficult to tell how she felt about it really.

"Is she still drawing much?" The art she was given by Alyssa still rested in the second drawer down of her desk at school, where she kept all such gifts.

"She wasn't for awhile, but lately a little more." That was a bit easier to glean some information from and it seemed that they felt very much the same about.

"I bet she just needed to settle in. The first year is always an adjustment." She said cheerfully and Natsuki-san sent her a small smile while maintaining persistent eye contact…another thing which seemed to mean nothing in particular.

There was a forcefulness in her stare that she recognized from their high school days…what little she'd seen of her back then anyway. Aoi had to admit, she felt a tickle of intimidation, a need to look away now and then. Yohko seemed to have been right too, that Shizuru didn't notice it in the slightest. In fact, she seemed untroubled, pleased even whenever those powerfully green eyes turned on her.

"And how are your students this year?" Their friend asked.

There was excitement for her in answering that question. "I think I'll probably have them do that same project I started last year. It went so well before!"

Her love touched her wrist softly, admiration in her smile. "It was a good idea. She had them create their own worlds. You must've seen some of your sister's assignments?"

"Yeah, she showed me some." The woman acknowledged, looking legitimately happy about it. If anything was obvious from their conversation so far, it was Natsuki-san's affection for her sister.

"They were quite impressive." Shizuru added.

In the lull that came then, Chie and their friend began bantering happily back and forth, while the other woman silently observed the two of them. It seemed like a good time to get dessert ready and Aoi went over to the fridge. Grabbing those chocolate tarts she'd gotten from Mai's shop, she began arranging them on a plate. They'd really hit it off with Mai after the beach party. They all went out together sometimes and visited her shop too, because Keiko-chan loved the bentos and Reito's funny younger sister just about equally.

"Are those from Mai's place?" Her love remarked enthusiastically, when she placed the charger of desserts on the counter. There was definite interest from Natsuki-san in those, and she couldn't help her grin. Apparently, Shizuru couldn't either.

"Yup!"

"We better have our share before Keiko-chan gets back." That was absolutely the truth.

"Will she be home soon, I wonder? It has been some time since I've last seen her." Their friend asked, happily.

Slicing one of the small tarts into pieces, Chie answered. "Another half-hour. Aoi's mom is dropping her off."

"Did Keiko-chan not recently have a birthday?" With a nod, Aoi smiled at the memories of her party a week or so back. "I will need to apologize for not having sent her wishes sooner then."

"She'll just be excited to see you. That'll be enough for her." Her love's words were all wryness, and she didn't disagree. Their daughter seemed to feel about Shizuru, much like she'd felt about her coolest Aunt…marriage plans aside.

"Did your daughter draw that?" Natsuki-san was pointing toward a drawing done in orange marker, which was displayed very prominently on the fridge, a glittery purple frame and some silver stars now surrounding it…hard to miss. There was a way too pleased smile from next to her, and she had trouble containing her own, had to cover her mouth as a giggle bubbled up. Shizuru, for her part, unexpectedly had the tiniest trace of color on her cheeks, as she eyed Chie. Green eyes passed over the three of them, confused. "What?"

"Sorry Natsuki-san, we meant to have the artist sign it. Better late than never, Shiz?"

"I hardly imagine that is necessary." It was as close to a real lament as she'd ever heard from the tawny-haired woman.

"Oh, but it's the cutest!" Aoi replied gently, giving Natsuki-san a wide smile because she had the distinct impression she'd enjoy this. They certainly had.

There was a definite smirk. "You drew that?"

"She did. We think it's from her surrealistic period…a dragon," It was said with a playful glance over her glasses. "Speaks to you, doesn't it?"

"Ara, how very cruel you are, Chie." From the glint in Shizuru's eye, she was certain her love would definitely be owed some sort of revenge for this. She assumed it might come in the form of some clever zinger later, as good as she was with those.

For her part, Natsuki-san was making the most obvious expression she'd made all night, an eyebrow shooting up as her eyes nearly sparkled. She and Chie watched the exchange with keen interest. Tucking a bit of hair behind her ear, touching one of several earrings, the dark-haired woman stared at their friend, a curl coming to her lips as she pushed her tongue against the inside of her cheek briefly. "It's beautiful, Shizuru."

Her gaze was met with equal intensity, hand dangling in front of her mouth, before she whispered… "ikezu."

"Penguin or walrus?" Chie asked, eyes still trained on the pair of them.

There was a light shrug. "If those are my options, penguin."

"Ha! Told you." Aoi gloated and pointed a finger at the short-haired woman triumphantly.

She and Chie both laughed when the section of tart that Natsuki-san was about to pop into her mouth was stolen away…at the indignant glare as their friend chewed away happily. "Oi!"

Eating another delicate little slice, her love shook her head. "Mm, god. These things are addictive."

Oh, they definitely were…and she'd have to thank Mai the next time they went, but thinking of her made Aoi wonder something. "Do you still see anyone else from high school Natsuki-san?"

Those eyes lifted from the rest of her chocolate tart, which she was now protecting and met hers again with the same brazenness as before. They were really very pretty, up close.

"Besides Mai and Nao? Not really. Takeda Masashi but only because he works at the hospital."

What a coincidence. "That's so funny! He owns the kendo dojo we take our daughter to." Neither her nor Chie mentioned the rather infamous story they'd heard about Takeda and her back then.

"Hey, what about Tate Yuuichi? Weren't you guys close?" Her love asked curiously, picking at a bit more of the dessert. "He just started doing a couple of the kids' classes at Takeda-san's dojo."

There was a tilt of her head, a prick of curiosity and it was hard not to notice that Shizuru was watching Natsuki-san very carefully now. Aoi had no idea what the look they gave each other was about, or what the little nod that followed meant. There was no real facial reaction to the comment, except that she seemed suddenly serious again. "I don't see him."

She glanced away then and grabbed another piece of her tart, eying Shizuru sidelong as she quickly brought it to her lips, seeming to enjoy it, which earned her a smile. Aoi had to admit, they were fascinating to watch together. There was just something about the way they existed with each other, something that captured her attention. It was hard to explain or pinpoint, but she didn't really need to understand what was behind it, as long as they were enjoying it, which they seemed to be. However, she just could sense Chie getting all itchy over it.

"Oh! I heard Reito popped the question?!" It was a deliberate change of subject…to a topic she thought might suitably distract her love.

"He did, yes," Shizuru confirmed, smiling brightly.

"You knew he was going to, didn't you?" The question was posed, as the short-haired woman turned in her chair, getting comfortable.

A chin was rested on hands. "There is a rather remote possibility that I may have been asked to accompany him on a trip to a jewelry store."

"Mm and from that face, I'm guessing you knew too?" Green eyes shifted to the side. "That's a 'yes'." Chie confirmed.

"Kanin-na, but we were sworn to secrecy."

"That's so great!" Aoi declared cheerfully. It was a relief actually when he started dating Mai, because on more than one occasion before that, her and her love had discussed a lingering fear that maybe he really was waiting on Shizuru…as improbable as that seemed.

"It is rather lovely news, isn't it?" Their friend agreed.

Just then the door burst open and their daughter, with an excited scream, ran full force past them, and straight to Shizuru…much to Natsuki-san's alarm.

Epilogue #14: Harada Chie
Date: February 20th, 2015…a Friday

She closed her eyes when lips pressed to the juncture of her neck and shoulder, a whisper against her ear. "Chie-chan, it's time to let it go, I think."

She was beside herself and that was an understatement, really. After a year's worth of subtle hints for a dinner date, not only did she still not know that much about their friend Fujino Shizuru, but the woman she was in love with was a complete mystery as well. She'd thought Shizuru was difficult to understand, but Kuga Natsuki was impossible to decipher. There was no gossip to be pulled from either of them, almost no information whatsoever. On top of that, they seemed to have developed some sort of coded communication system largely based on looks. It was impossible to know what was happening between them ninety percent of the time, only that they were both enjoying it.

Aoi's arms slipped around her waist, fingers hooking into the belt loops of her pants. Lips pressed to her shoulder a second time before a chin rested on top of it. She found herself paying a bit less attention to the pair in the living room. They'd stolen a few moments for themselves in the kitchen, while Keiko-chan talked Shizuru's ear off.

"They're vaults, Aoi. I just can't get in there."

A soft laugh tumbled from behind her. "I think they're just private people and so they have a quiet love. That's all."

She quirked her mouth to the side. "A quiet love, huh?" That was most definitely the art teacher in her partner speaking. 'A quiet love', she'd have to tell Shizuru that sometime, she'd probably appreciate the slightly poetic quality of it.

"I think it's sweet and Shizuru seems really happy."

"Mmm." She agreed, fingers passing along soft forearms. "Very true."

They watched as whatever was between the two women, broke apart when an unhappy eight-year-old climbed onto the couch, very deliberately closer to Shizuru. Their daughter was staring down the dark-haired woman, as she wiggled in further, laid her head against their friend. Kuga Natsuki was looking mildly annoyed and the smallest bit amused.

"Your daughter is not happy," Chie commented, leaning back a bit.

"Natsuki-san is stealing her future wife," Aoi answered quietly but with obvious delight, nuzzling before she processed something. "And why is she my daughter all of the sudden?"

"Because that's your jealous face."

"Is it?" She said playfully. "Hmm, I wonder why you know what that looks like?"

"No idea." Chie answered, feigning ignorance as she watched her daughter play with Shizuru's hand, take it hers, swing it a little for emphasis. "Keiko-chan seems to be staking her claim."

They watched as Natsuki-san said something neither of them could hear but drew frowns from both the listeners… one pretend and exaggerated, the other real. Whatever it was she'd said, she seemed quite proud of herself over it, smug even. Curious, they observed as Shizuru leaned in close to their daughter's ear and whispered something to the child, all while directing a rather concentrated gaze at the woman across from them. Kuga Natsuki's eyebrows were furrowing steadily, worriedly.

Her love whispered as well. "Looks like they're up to something."

"Without a doubt." Another second passed before their daughter leaped onto the dark-haired woman, launching a tickle attack that had her wriggling like a snake and all but yelping. Shizuru folded her hands, smiling brightly.

"Uh oh. Should we go help her?" Aoi laughed.

"Probably, but it kind of looked like she deserved it." Chie answered as she shook her head, turning it to place a kiss on her lover's lips before she reluctantly broke away to retrieve their child… not, however, before snapping a picture.

Epilogue #15: Kikukawa Yukino
Date: April 5th, 2015… a Sunday

"I think they traded." Yukino commented, watching her little girl driving around a large plastic fire truck, which she crashed into a stuffed peapod she'd named Diana.

"What does he want with a doll?" Her eyes would not leave the boy as he hugged the baby to his chest, rocking back and forth such that its feet swung.

"He seems to like it."

"His father just bought him that truck." She nearly grumbled, and Yukino was again struck by the fact, that despite her eccentricities, it was really was nice to have her best friend so close now. To be able to have their children play together, to just sit and talk, was wonderful even if it occasionally stirred something long unaddressed. It only happened rarely…the latest being when she watched her friend reading to her own son, the gentle way she'd smiled down at him.

"Tell me about that new job offer Haruka-chan." It was a deliberate change of subject, but it seemed to work.

The blonde woman frowned, crossing her arms over her chest. "I don't know about that."

Tucking a bit of hair behind her ear, she watched her friend. "Why?"

"It's for a plastics group. More of an outpatient thing than I'm used to." There was a dismissiveness there. "Outpatient is less of a challenge."

"It's not interesting then?"

"It's closer, better hours, probably better pay, and less call, but I'm not going to take a job just because of that. Artemis just bought Aries. They're too new, Yukino. I don't trust them."

"Are they making unwelcome changes?" That happened sometimes when new management came in or structures changed. She'd certainly seen it quite a few times at the design firm.

"They haven't really done much yet, but who knows if they have any idea what they're doing. They're new to the game. No experience."

"I can see why you'd be concerned." It was a fair point and she'd be concerned as well, to enter into a relationship with a company she knew little about, but there was a distinct difference. From her conversations with Haruka, she understood Artemis to be more of a parent company, while the individual groups maintained a good amount of control over their day-to-day operations. It lessened the concern, and she was about to say so before her friend continued.

"Plus, they're just starting to build this group, so it's not established. I wouldn't even know who I was working with before I took it. People are talking at work too and saying that one of the surgeons they are trying to bring in is a real babbleax. Who knows what I'd be getting myself into?"

"Battleax, Haruka-chan." Yukino corrected automatically and she agreed less with that point. It took a moment to shape her response. It was an interesting development and she thought now more than ever that her friend should consider the position. It would be pointless to say, but she'd noticed a certain lack of enthusiasm in her friend's ranting about work as of late, ever since she left Fuuka…since she left Fujino-san. Maybe a rival wouldn't hurt things, because Haruka did like a challenge. "Isn't that always the case with a new job? And if anyone can stand up to someone with a strong personality, I think you could."

"I guess that's true." Her friend sighed, watching her son out of the corner of her eye as he placed the baby doll in Yukino's daughter's toy crib. "Maybe Tetsuo-chan could stand to have me around more. I don't know what they're teaching him at that daycare."

Considering whether or not it was prudent to say something, the brunette opted for a comment she felt was overall, fairly innocuous, but might plant a seed. "I think you worry too much about him, sometimes. He's okay, Haruka-chan."

"Do you see this?" He was rocking the crib and singing nonsense to the doll.

"Yes, but look at Nozomi-chan," Yukino answered, indicating her daughter, a rather small, generally shy child who was currently laying waste to all her stuffed animals with her new-found firetruck, a maniacal smile nearly splitting her face. It was almost disturbing.

She could see her friend acquiring that speculative expression she tended to when they spoke seriously. "Hmph." Was the only response.

"If you're really considering the idea of being home more, it might be worth exploring." Waiting patiently, she regarded her friend, curious to see if she'd pursue it.

The blonde took a sip of her water, thinking. "I guess it would be stupid not to at least meet with them." She reluctantly acquiesced.

Epilogue #16: Tokiha Takumi
Date: April 18th, 2015… a Saturday

Even through a bit of a rocky patch, he felt confident that this was a good match. It was a single incident, but he'd made sure that they all got together a bunch of times to be certain…asked Akira to observe for anything off. No one ever suspected Akira. They spent a solid few months surveilling the man stealthily, or mostly he did while Akira listed to him de-brief himself after each session, offering occasional agreement or counterpoints. In any case, there weren't any more red flags. Mai and Reito seemed closer than ever… and he had even proposed a few months ago, in a suitably romantic fashion.

As a result, Takumi was now sitting in a bridal boutique feeling happier than he could remember in a long time. He and Natsuki were chitchatting about the last few dresses his sister had tried on, while she enjoyed a coffee and he sipped his mango smoothie. She wasn't impressed by any of them either…one was too flouncy, another just not the right cut, and still another too revealing in her opinion. He thought the first was tipping toward tacky, the second was lackluster, and the third showed way more of his sister's chest than he ever needed to see. It seemed Natsuki and he had pretty similar taste. He had always liked her anyway.

"I saw some of Akira's stuff when I was at the shop awhile ago." She said suddenly changing the subject, while they waited.

He smiled at the thought. "He's so good, isn't he?" She nodded, giving him a grin back. "Are you getting some more work done?"

"No, but I need to go in for some touch-ups."

"I've been thinking about getting one. I think it would be nice, you know? To look at it and know it's his."

Nodding, she leaned back, crossing her leg at the thigh. "I get that."

"I was thinking maybe across my ribs." Watching her face, he saw a flicker of reaction, of concern. "What?"

Her laugh was a low airy sound before glancing at him. "It just can be painful. I had trouble with it."

Instantly his mind began to change. "Any suggestions?"

Studying him, she picked at the cardboard sleeve surrounding her hot cup. "I'd still get it there if that's where you want it…but your shoulder might be easier."

"Hmm." There was no reason he could think of it wouldn't look just as good there and he'd been working on his back anyway. "How are you and Shizuru-san doing?"

There was a tiny smile and a tinier blush. "We're good."

"…what do you think?" They both raised their eyes as Mai exited the dressing area.

Takumi was up in an instant, circling his sister. "Wow." It was perfect, the cut, the color… classic and at the same time not uninteresting and it fit her amazing well, thirty something clips in the back aside. It would be perfect after the alterations. They gushed together over various aspects of it, he and his sister… his sister who was getting married. He couldn't believe it and he was all teeth.

"I kinda feel like this is the one." Her blue-violet eyes shifted to her friend, who was simply watching them both and had yet to say a thing. "Mou, Natsuki…so quiet."

Her expression had morphed into one of the softest looks Takumi had ever seen on that oft somber face. "You look amazing, Mai."

"You think?" It was a nod as she stood, took in the dress, and then an absolutely real smile.

His sister flashed him a quick look that told him she was going to ask her the question now, so he quietly slipped away. He made sure he could still hear because it was okay to be nosey occasionally, he thought.

"Natsuki, I wanna ask you something." Mai sounded so nervous and it made him nervous in turn.

"What?"

"Would it be okay, if Yuuichi…"

"Invite him." The other woman said nearly immediately, barely at a volume that he could detect.

"Are you sure?"

"It's fine." She said quickly and he wondered if his sister's friend was upset. It couldn't be an easy situation. Then he heard the strangest noise, rustling fabric and an 'ooph' and he realized Mai must've hugged her.

"Jesus, how many clips are back there?" He heard the dark-haired girl murmur and laughed a bit, backed off to wander around.

"I want you to come to the ceremony too, Natsuki, ne?" It was said quietly and was the last thing he heard as he meandered away, letting them have that moment to themselves. It made him smile to himself as he walked the displays, Mai saying that, because it felt right, that him and Natsuki would be standing with her.

He paused for no reason he understood and glanced up. It was then he saw it…hanging there like destiny. It was something that had been on his mind since there was any talk at all of an actual wedding. His arms, his back, all the work he'd done on his body to feel normal, healthy… this vision of a garment felt the very culmination of all of it. Tokiha Takumi had always felt a little boy in daddy's clothes when he wore a suit, but there it was waiting for him and a tailor, the single most beautiful two-piece in the world. He felt stupid for the way his heart sped, but he couldn't help it.

"Mai! Natsuki! Come look at this!"

Epilogue #17: Marguerite Tomoe
Date: May 4th, 2015…a Monday

She'd been a fool for too long. Tomoe had fully intended to revenge herself for that restraining order. She had wanted to ruin both of them, wanted her Sensei to beg for her return, intended to wait till she finished with that dark-haired homewrecker. She'd thought herself untouchable, had trusted in Shizuru so entirely that she never considered the woman might turn over her e-mails and keepsakes. It seemed so much like betrayal. She tried to explain it to her uncle…that it was all a misunderstanding, but he'd been unmoved, he had slapped her and though physically he was more powerful than Shizuru…it had not wounded her in the same way. Her uncle was the head of the family, her father was his younger brother, and the family followed him.

Her parents had been unable to make the restraining order go away. Her uncle had taken her brand-new car, which was annoying, but they had been able to use their sway to get her a job. Her uncle had set her up with some sham of a relationship… a man of course… dull and boring… but rich enough to keep her in the lifestyle to which she was accustomed. She had him get her a better car. She'd racked her brain trying to understand the other woman's actions, why that hound dog of a cop who looked so much like Armitage kept such a close watch on the situation. Tomoe was not stupid, and all of it had taught her one thing, that she had to be much more subtle… quieter… it couldn't be so out in the open.

Her true revelation came after starting her new job. She'd been clinging to their lie of a relationship, to a woman who was beneath her. Shizuru paled in comparison to the gorgeous plastic surgeon she worked for now, was a failure of a person when placed beside this woman. Tomoe would do better for herself than Fujino Shziuru. She deserved someone who recognized her excellence, her better qualities. She'd decided to leave the other woman, to forget the thing between them and let Shizuru wallow in her own regrets when she finally tired of Kuga. The woman she worked for now, was a person of Tomoe's caliber, a person who truly matched her in all aspects. They were falling in love with each other, she could feel it, the woman looking her way, getting a drink at the exact same time. It had to be on purpose, there was no such thing as coincidence. It had to mean something.

In the end, it was obvious what the problem was. The problem was Shizuru. Shizuru had lied to her, had manipulated her, that she had been wrong about the caliber of person the woman was. Shizuru was completely and totally unworthy of her love, unworthy of anyone's love. She was a terrible, waste of a person. Shizuru didn't deserve her, she'd proven it with that restraining order, with her feigned ignorance, with her stupid obsession with Kuga. Shizuru was the biggest disappointment of her life, a sad little thing parading around as though she were on the level, and it took meeting someone who was actually respectable to understand that. Ahn Lu and her, they were destined and Shizuru was nothing but a bad taste in her mouth.

She was excited for Lu's upcoming meeting with Artemis, for the outcome of the new group they were building. She was confident that Lu would make sure she was taken care of in the arrangement.

Epilogue #18: Kuga Duran
Date: May 10th, 2015… a Sunday

The woman who smelled like tea had her own place and his master took him there frequently now, most of the time actually. His master had put stuff in boxes again some time ago, which he wasn't pleased about, but it was only a few of them and they hadn't gone far. Just to the woman's house. It was a very different place than the house his master had, but it did have some good things. In the middle was a place with plants and a bit of grass and best of all, the most perfect spot to lay in the sun and sleep. Whatever stones and tiles were there got nice and warm, and he could stay out there for hours. When the weather wasn't so nice, he liked the indoor space too, the one with curtain and the benches, slept there frequently. His master even came home sometimes for a short while in the middle of the day, to take him on a walk, which was productive. He had a lot of territory to claim in this new neighborhood.

There were only two things that were even remotely scary about the new place. The first scary thing was the door closing business that kept happening, when he was inexplicably locked out the bedroom… denied access when his master and the woman who smelled like tea were so very obviously in there. He had to give up trying after the third or fourth time it happened and decided he could live with it since he didn't have a choice and sometime later, he was always let back in. He'd started taking his indestructible toy to the living room when the door was shut, swinging it around as wildly and violently as he pleased, its many legs hitting his body as he thrashed it, frustration vented.

The second scary thing was thankfully a onetime event…when the giant noisy furniture-like thing he'd never seen before was delivered. It took a bunch of men and a long time to get it inside. There was a lot of banging and shouting and he wasn't allowed to bark at them, without his master giving him that look. Another man came after and messed with the thing a bunch until it made noises that he seemed happy with. Then the woman who smelled like tea came home and she seemed to think the thing was very nice, was obviously happy with his master over it…but then the door closing thing happened again. Now the thing lived in the house with them and only the woman who smelled like tea touched it. The noises she made with it though weren't scary at all, were nice even.

They still came back to the other home too and he was thinking that maybe both places were his now. He liked visiting his original space, which they did usually at least a few times a month and today they were all in the big room together. They seemed to gather in the big room a lot now, sometimes with the one who baked and the crazy girl and the new man. Today, it was his master and her sister, who were jamming on the weird plastic things and yelling sporadically at the television. It wasn't something he was particularly excited about, because he wasn't allowed to be as excited as they were when they played this game. He would be shooed away from the TV if he tried to join…he knew from experience.

The woman with the best lap was reading on the chair, but she was too scrunched up for him to join and wouldn't move for him anyway. The woman who smelled like tea was on the couch, working on a computer she'd balanced on the armrest. He decided that he would sit with her. Her legs would need to be moved over because the center couch spot was his. Tapping them lightly, she looked down at him, not understanding and not moving. He tapped them again with his paw and she tucked them beneath her, still watching him curiously as he hopped up, curled three times and laid down beside her. Her lap looked pretty nice up close, and he made a decision, rested his head against it, closing his eyes for a nap. It turned out to be a very good lap, which he took note of for the future and she rubbed on his ears a bit while he drifted off.

Epilogue #19: Alyssa Searrs
Date: May 26th, 2015… a Tuesday

"I think you made Katachi-san cry." The blonde commented, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, so as not to let it fall into the impressively large condiment mixture on her plate. She wasn't usually one to take pleasure in other's embarrassment, but the man was being an ass and kind of deserved it.

"He's an idiot."

"He's the head of publicity and marketing for the division!" She said around a laugh.

Nao shrugged, an attempt to cross her legs thwarted by the pencil skirt she was wearing. "What the hell do I care? He's still a fucking idiot."

Alyssa chuckled again, somewhat self-consciously. "I understand why my dad likes you."

"Oh yeah?"

"Definitely."

"How's school?"

"It's okay." At the skeptical glare she received, she gave a more real answer instead. "I dunno, it's a lot. I'm getting through it."

"So, what's the plan for this meeting?" The woman queried as she picked at her own food.

"It's definitely some sort of test for my negotiation skills. My dad is gonna listen in from London. I have to do a pre-meeting meeting with the Senior project manager to review the strategy. He'll listen to that too, I'm sure, make his notes."

"Your family's fucking weird."

A laugh met the pronouncement, and then she very maturely stuck her tongue out at the woman. "I know Artemis really wants to get into plastics, so they are trying really hard to pick up Lu for the new group…these are the bottom-line conditions my dad sent over. The senior advisors are going to lead the meeting, so I don't think they'll be much for you to do except look intimidating and disinterested." The blonde gave a toothy smile. "Maybe get a little snarky now and then."

Nao kicked the girl under the table lightly. "Glad we're playing to my strengths finally."

Alyssa kicked her back. "I think the 50/50 staffing provision is gonna be the main problem. Lu doesn't like it." Taking another bite of the burger, she leafed through her notes before pausing. "I usually hate them, but I'm kinda glad about it actually for this."

A finger was rested against the side of her face, as Nao sipped at her straw. "Yeah? Excited to see some people canned?"

"No!" The young woman sputtered, but then bobbed her head a little, waffling. "Well, maybe one."

Another sip at the straw. "Go on."

"…that girl who punched Nat."

"So, you're basically okay with making them get rid of half their existing group, to get back at the idiot who punched Kuga?" Narrowed, skeptical eyes were steadily watching from across the pile of fast food.

"It was in the agreement before I ever saw it, it's pretty standard." Nibbling on the end of fry, she gave the other woman a mischievous smirk. "Morality police over there."

A violent eye roll met the comment. "All I'm saying is I hope this job does fuck you up. This corporate shit will suck you in, kid. You're better than that."

Alyssa rested her head against her hand, elbow propped on the table and purposefully disguising how much she appreciated that Nao would even say that. "Aww, are you worried about me?"

The woman was unusually serious as she frowned. "I know the pup is."

Alyssa frowned. "Yeah, I know."

This school year had been hard, especially the beginning of it, balancing her school with her duties in the company and spending enough time with everyone was hard. There were things about the business that she'd always known Nat would hate, things that she knew would be an adjustment for her, things they just couldn't talk about, most of which revolved around her dad. Growing up with her father…he was a very particular type of person and living with him, having him as a father… it had effects. It was an impossible thing to explain to either Nao or Nat. It was too difficult to put to words without it sounding like having him as a father had done something irreparably negative to her and she didn't think that was true. In many ways, she thought he was a good father, in others he probably wasn't… but she didn't think that made him tremendously different from most people's dads. One positive from his negatives was that she had a more intimate understanding of ambitious people, what high-level performance in business required of a person. All of that wasn't to say that some of it didn't scare her, for herself as much as him. She and Nat though, they were important to each other… they loved each other, and they'd find a way to figure it all out, a way to say what they needed to. She'd make sure of it, just like she'd make sure of it with her dad. It was unrealistic to think they'd see eye-to-eye on everything.

Besides, she had been really worried about her sister too for awhile… how distant she was when Alyssa had first started college in the Fall of last year, sad almost. Her sister was turtling hard and no one could make Nat talk about something if she really didn't want to, if she hadn't yet found what was at the core of it. They were similar that way. Nat had told her what she was able to…that some of it was HiME stuff still. She was worried for her though, and for Shizuru… for both of them.

Four months back, she'd gotten a text though that happily brought her sister back, apparently out of the shell and doing very-Nat type things in very Nat-type ways. That text had shocked her to the core. A single, incomplete sentence telling her she could have the upstairs room now. She'd never even so much as implied she wanted it and what would she use it for anyway? Curious, she'd taken a break from her economics essay to wander up there. She found the room nearly empty, the walls bare. Plastic tubs were set neatly in the far corner, which she assumed contained everything she was used to seeing scattered across this room. The only other thing there now was an assembled high-end drafting table with various obviously brand-new art products stacked on top. The HiME evidence locker, as she thought of it, was gone and in its place, a burgeoning art studio. Perhaps best of all, there was a note from Shizuru who, it seemed, had chosen some of the supplies. Shizuru, who had apparently been allowed in that room that no one else but she had ever seen.

She couldn't stop smiling about it and had spent the next few hours drawing for the first time since starting her studies…Duran sniffing for fresh pens to chew beneath her feet. She'd been in an amazing mood that night, despite the cramp in her hand. That was until she saw a half-crumpled trashy newspaper in the wastebasket on her way out, the headline. What could be done about that, she'd done.

The months that followed were also good and even though she really missed having her sister around as much, she was happy that her and Shizuru were pretty much living together now. It was good for them, she thought… natural. The get-togethers at the house on a pretty regular basis, and the place to do her art were helping. It was comforting to have that while trying to learn all this stuff, keep herself real, and keep her head above water at school. Some of it took a lot out of her, kicked her around a bit… the dabbling in her dad's company. She'd only recently turned nineteen, but already she felt so many things her high school self had believed beginning to float away, the creative outlets she'd found which felt so very meaningful beginning to turn to hobbies, their viability fading with her mounting responsibilities. Thank god Nao was around… and though she wouldn't tell her so, because she thought it would freak her out, the woman had kinda become her best friend…had become one of a few people, who found ways to remind her not to take things too seriously, made her feel that it wasn't completely silly to believe that finding a place for her passions in this new stage of her life was important. Nao was so much smarter and deeper and nicer than she wanted to let anyone see...

A snap brought her back to reality. "Yo!"

"Sorry. Got lost in my head for a second." She could feel the blush scorching all the way to her ears.

Nao laughed, sending her a bit of side-eye. "You went on a fucking two-week vacation in your head there."

"Ha! What was I even saying? Oh!... Lu's leadership team and the Aries leadership team will need to decide together who is staying from Azurite's original group at Artai. They have till the end of the week and they finally found someone from Aries to head the anesthesiologists. She's apparently coming to this as part of their leadership team. I think this will be the first that they're all meeting each other, actually."

Nao was trying her best to seem interested and Alyssa realized she was getting too detailed. "Did you end up asking the Doc, see if she knew of anyone to poach?" She asked. That had been a really good suggestion actually and Nao had completely impressed her with it.

"I didn't need to. Resources found her on their own, guess they were courting her for a while and she finally decided to take the second offer."

She'd made plans with Shizuru on a Tuesday in honor of their former trading sessions, even after she found out the role was already filled. It was actually nicer that way, to just talk. The woman seemed so genuinely touched at the invitation that she'd blushed after asking. Shizuru and she had a great catch up session over an afternoon tea and delicious Japanese pastries. They'd gone together in the city with that beautiful car and they were most definitely going to do that again.

Nao nipped the end off of another French fry. "Not like I'll remember, but let me earn that paycheck. What's the name of whoever the hell they found?"

"Hold on, they finally sent it yesterday." Pulling her phone out, she scrolled through the messages trying to remember which one of the advisors the text was from. "Um...Haruka Armitage." Cat-like eyes narrowed in amusement, and she looked curiously at the woman she now considered her friend. "What?"

"Blondie…" She said finally, lifting an eyebrow, a delicate finger tapping at the corner of her chin.

Annoyed at the lack of answer, she shoved at the woman's foot with her own. "Do you know her or something?"

Lips were curling into a dangerous looking smirk. "This is gonna be a fun meeting, kid."

Epilogue #20: Edward Searrs
Date: May 26th, 2015…a Tuesday

As anticipated, Lu went after the 50/50 provision first, wanting total control over selecting who came onboard from Artai. That of course, could not be allowed, though it did show a strong deference to her workforce. Perhaps she was trying to create solidarity within the discomfort of a deal or perhaps she was truly one of those types. He was listening in from his office in London, under his pseudonym. The back and forths, the arguments, the sticking points…he stored criticism for Alyssa, intending to see if she could identify her own missteps first and made notes about Lu's priorities. When the major details were hashed out, he amused himself by observing on the one-way video feed, as the blonde Aries doctor and his daughter's assistant took turns making asses of the people who spoke out of turn using very divergent methods. They both might eventually require a little humbling, he decided, but for the time being, they were exceptionally useful as-is.

Smith was, of course, doing well with tidying up any loose ends left by the HiME cockup. He was honestly shocked in reviewing some of the material… that Iwasaka had ever bitten on a project which purported to be developing strength enhancement drugs with potential military applications. It was ludicrous and he only wished they had jettisoned the partnership sooner. Visionless morons apparently, the entire research approval board. He and Smith had been remiss to assume them capable of any sort of independent decision making. There were provisions structured into the design and reporting structures within Artemis to safeguard against any sort of foolishness in his second Healthcare foray.

In year two, it was starting to bring the modest (by comparison to his other ventures certainly), profit margin predicted. More importantly, however his golden angel was being given myriad opportunities for development. He loathed to admit it, but as with his other daughter, her flare for independence was as much a point of admiration as aggravation. Her negotiation style was perhaps, a bit more give-and-take than he would have preferred but the child always had a streak of whimsy and a tendency to ascribe to more conventional views of morality than he did. Likely her mother's doing or Miyu's, impossible to know really but it was there, nonetheless. In any case, it was progressing well as was their work with producing a phoenix from the ashes of HiME.

As he continued to listen to his advisors and his daughter during their post-meeting discussions, he let his thoughts wander. Alyssa, on her winter break home, had surprised him by requesting a meeting to which she did not bring her assistant. Somehow, she'd discovered…or more likely, theorized that the plethora of rumors about HiME were related to the company and Artemis. It was shocking to him that she would put such a thing together given how little he'd told her, impressive and disconcerting in the same breath. At that moment, it became apparent to him that he'd underestimated her intuition or her resourcefulness or her intelligence or perhaps some combination thereof, though he would've already rated all highly. Neither acknowledging nor denying her assertions, he listened silently as she made a request of him. She'd asked that whatever he felt needed to be done, he put an end to any efforts to further discredit Kuga Saeko or suggest that she'd been part of any secret testing in the early days of HiME. Homura was a more suitable and deserving target and Kuga Saeko was unable to defend herself, his daughter had stated. Then, she'd opened a rather handsome briefcase and placed some seedy months-old tabloid on his desk, flipped to a particular story. There was no agreement or further discussion after she said her piece, and he had simply watched her as she rose from her chair, left.

Via the closed-circuit security camera system that he could access on his laptop, his eyes followed her all the way out of the building, hands folded atop his desk blotter. Without much consideration he knew he would act on this request and it was an odd experience for him, uncomfortable in some respects, to feel so beholden to another person in his business decisions, but he was still clear on what he wanted…to have his daughter as a successor. Certain concessions were inevitable, but they would be limited. He hoped she understood this was using one of a restricted number he'd be willing to grant. It wasn't a very strategic usage of her allowances, but it must've been a sacrifice she felt willing to make, even though it was emotionally driven.

With a single finger, he spun the periodical to face him, gaze tracing the sensationalized byline. 'Rogue scientist tested on own daughter and others - new documents reveal'. The poor reprints of the aforementioned documents were designed in a rather familiar style. In fairness, he had not directed Smith with any specificity as concerned how to accomplish what needed to be done. The diversionary measures had been effective despite their unseemliness. Still, he felt compelled to define some boundaries, given his golden angel disapproved. It was a small request, and he supposed, in retrospect, that there was a possibility such an article, were she to see it, would cause his other daughter undue stress. He'd found no viable service for her or her lover in the current atmosphere of his business, and he, therefore, allowed that there was no reason to drive her in any particular direction either. It served no purpose.

He made his displeasure subtly apparent in a brief phone call. There was a distinct difference between insubordination and missteps. A first misstep only required reeducation and Smith was a man who understood subtleties, caught his meaning immediately.

Epilogue #21: Okuzaki Akira
Date: June 5th, 2015… a Friday

It was pancakes with real maple syrup for breakfast that had made Takumi so blissfully excited this morning because he knew Akira hated breakfast…usually didn't eat until sometime in the early afternoon. They were in America together and Takumi was absolutely convinced that pancakes with real maple syrup were a 'not to be missed' element of American cuisine. Now, he was thinking those pancakes had been a terrible mistake.

Takumi's English was a bit better than his, as he used it more often in his work for the magazine. Between the two of them, they'd rarely gotten stuck…but his partner in life and translation was fading fast. Akira gazed over at his boyfriend who was looking much less than well. He wasn't as interested in this particular section of the information session as it didn't apply directly, but it was fascinating to see what they were able to do surgically.

"Are you okay?" He said quietly, gruffly, embarrassed for his nearly gray lover.

"Do you have that water?" He tried not to smirk as he reached into their complimentary tote and handed it to the man beside him.

More talk about the specifics of male-to-female gender affirmation surgeries, potential complications, and the dark-haired man shook his head as a light sheen of sweat broke across his lover's forehead. He really should have known that his partner would have trouble with this. For a man who'd had as many surgeries and procedures performed on him as Takumi had, it was a bit… he hesitated to use the word pathetic… silly was nicer… that the man could still get faint at even the mention of anything involving blood.

When he first broached the subject of having surgery, of going to this conference, Takumi had been unsurprisingly supportive. He always was, even though this particular decision would be a big one for both of them. Akira quickly dismissed the idea in the weeks after, deciding he didn't like the idea of going to something so heavily oriented toward being a 'group', even if there would be good information. He didn't think much of it again until Takumi told him he bought tickets to Philadelphia. Now here they were.

"Let's go." He said. "I've seen what I wanted to, anyway."

Soft eyes, a little fuzzy with light-headedness glanced up at him. "No, it's fine Akira-kun."

"Come on." He put his hand out, less concerned about doing so given where they were. The red-headed man would do better with some fresh air.

Maybe they could grab a nice dinner before they flew back in the morning…if his pallor improved. Takumi smiled guiltily, bested by his own weak stomach, but took the offered hand anyway. Together they navigated the crowds of people and made their way toward the exit, letting their hands go on instinct when they stepped outside. Habit.

They'd come to this conference together because Akira had been considering 'bottom surgery'. It was never something he'd definitively wanted or needed, but the thought had been growing in him lately. He knew that some people like him felt it was a completion, but he also knew he didn't feel that way exactly. However, he was person who believed in preparation and liked to make informed decisions. It was a lot to think about, but he had plenty of time to do so. He was in no rush. This was a good chance for information gathering and really, that was all he'd expected it to be. There had been no thought on his part that attending would mean anything at all to him, but there were odd moments, where existing in the same space as so many people whose experience echoed aspects of his own… was affecting. He'd never been in a situation even remotely similar, and though he was not the type to analyze his emotions, he was glad to have had the experience. Unbeknownst to him, it had made a small crack in his bias against 'community'.

Epilogue #22: Yamada
Date: August 18th, 2015… a Tuesday

Another month and he was going to retire. Strictly moonlighting for favored clients, from then on. The chronic neck and back pain was starting to get to him, being bent over for hours at a time. Having a relatively functional body was pretty much a necessity if he wanted any chance of enjoying his retirement. Those two, they'd been quite a find for him and he was one of those lucky ones who got to leave feeling confident the shop was in capable hands. Akira and Sara, maybe he'd do something really nice for them… a bonus or something.

The bell on his door echoed as it opened and in walked Saeko's daughter. He'd been expecting her tonight.

"Hey," She said with a little wave. Definitely a better mood than the last time he'd seen her, but he wasn't sure the information he had to give her tonight was going to help that much.

He nodded to her and gestured to the salon chair. "Just some touch-ups, right?"

"For now, yeah."

Stretching his neck, he slipped himself onto the stool and rolled up to her. "Lift up your shirt, Kuga." His eyes roamed critically over his work as it was exposed, noting where more color was needed and where more definition might improve the overall impression. It really was a beautiful piece now that it was all together, one of his best he thought.

Grabbing a fresh pair of gloves, he cracked sore knuckles, while his eyes searched for the needed hues.

"Buy that cabin in the woods yet?" He asked casually, as he stood to grab what he needed, and snippets of their previous conversation returned to him. The laugh she gave was more of a snort and he started with the easier news. "I got my eye on one."

"Are you're leaving?" She asked, brow furrowed.

"Half-retiring. My back is pretty wrecked. Preferred clients only. I'll still do your work if you text me." He smiled at the fact that she honestly seemed relieved by the last part, taking a seat with the things he'd gathered.

"Smart to get out while you can still walk." The acknowledgment was made, as she glanced over her shoulder at him.

"Exactly."

"Let me know if you want the name of someone." He'd forgotten she was a doctor, found it hard to think of her beyond Saeko and tattoos sometimes.

Setting up everything he needed and popping in a cherry jolly rancher, he took another appraisal. Realizing the most work was needed on the newest part of her tattoo, he decided he'd need a flat needle. There was a lack of definition in the two characters, a hazy aesthetic that he had liked on paper, but wasn't quite as certain of on her skin. The silhouetted figures, kneeling and holding one another… some definition would help, but he'd have to be mindful to keep their ambiguousness. It was important, the point of that picture actually…that the observer was able to apply their own identities to the figures. They'd always been women in his mind. He'd pictured them as her and Saeko immediately, some heavenly reunion. Yamada wasn't certain what she saw when she'd first picked up the image...if it was even remotely similar, but he sure as hell wasn't going to ask something that personal. It defeated the image's artistic purpose anyway…for him to know how she saw it.

"I'm gonna sharpen up this part." He pointed, reaching over to grab the hand mirror…used his pinky to point to the outlines where he intended to refine some of the linework. "Some of the colors on the older part need refreshing." Another indication. "Like here. What do you think?"

"Yeah, go ahead."

"Yo, Yamada! We're headed out for a beer, you gonna come?" Shaggy blonde hair fell in front of Sara's eyes as she exited the office, gave a wide smile, tossing a thumb at Akira as he shrugged on his coat, expression neutral as ever. "Oh, whoops! Hey, Kuga!"

"Hey." She nodded at them both, one nodding back and the other waving with much more excitement.

"Find yourself someone who appreciates art yet?" It was said lightly, as she locked the office door. Natsuki lifted her head, giving the girl a bit of smirk, but said nothing and Akira smiled to himself as he zipped his jacket. "Wow, okay. Good for you."

Yamada wheeled himself out so he could see the Kuga's face, surprised when a hint of blush took it and eyes averted. Shrugging, he wheeled himself back. "Gallager, put on some mood music before you head out?"

"Sure thing, boss. Chet?"

"Perfect." The first strains began as the two of them locked up the front door and headed out. "Heard something interesting…"

"Yeah?"

"I guess the latest revelation on the rumor circuit is that it only worked in females."

She didn't seem particularly shocked by that little bit of information. "That was in the early stuff from my mom, but I thought they must've just found a way around it."

"Apparently not. Homura buried for some reason."

"That makes no damn sense."

"Agreed, but I've run out of why's for HiME at this point. Might as well get this out of the way too." He stated as he began to dot color where he thought it was needed. "They're gonna pass it off as something new, take her name out of it. Just thought you should know."

She was silent for a long time as he worked, and he began to worry he'd really upset her. "How?" Was the only word she said.

Pausing, he placed the gun on the tray and pulled off his gloves, needing to stretch anyway. "Give it a new history, start it somewhere else."

Her chest expanded around a sigh. "I knew they couldn't use the name, or hers. Not after everything. No one would touch it."

Nodding to himself, he couldn't argue with her logic. "That's pretty much what Searrs said in his memos. Someone dropped them off at the shop." A few lateral bends had his neck feeling a little less like it was made of wood. "Anonymously of course."

"Smith." It was said with such tiredness and he wondered if she was finally done with all this.

"I would guess so." Smith was the most likely culprit, always. A fresh pair of gloves donned, he started again. "I'm just glad it's finally gonna work out for Saeko." Her head whipped around and he had to still her. "Woah."

It took visible effort for her to relax, but she did and without her usually mumbled apology. "How the hell do you figure anything worked out for her?" It was one of the few times he could tell that something he'd said legitimately pissed her off.

"They can call it whatever they want." Dipping into the blue, he began working on the ice crystals. "She didn't care about her name on things. I told you before, she just wanted it out there." Her muscles seemed to smooth at the comment, tension easing.

"Not like this." She said quietly, which he could agree with. The whole thing from a global perspective was largely bullshit, but still… the serum would be available. That had to count for something.

"At least they didn't make it disappear. That's what I thought they'd do, trash it." A little more violet, maybe… definitely.

"True."

"Before everything got crazy, when I knew Saeko…for it to out there helping people, that's all she wanted." He wasn't totally sure she believed him and he also understood why, but it seemed to chill her out anyway. Good, let it sink in. Homura had to be stopped, that stuff needed to come to light… bad always comes with good.

Under his breath, he hummed along softly with 'I get along without you very well', as he continued perfecting his prior work, added the final touches to 'most precious person'.

Epilogue #23: Homura Nagi
Date: September 3rd, 2015… a Thursday

He still thought of Fujino-san often while sitting in his cell. It was one of his greatest regrets, not being able to fully realize her decline. In his defense, it was very boring in jail and there were so few beautiful things to distract himself with anymore. There was little of interest to him here…nothing to do really but amuse with small diversions, such as engineering spats or infighting amongst other prisoners, but they were trivial things, merely a way to pass the time. Sometimes he also thought of Kazahana Mashiro, of how far she'd let him take things and of whether or not she'd been successful in editing the breadth of her own involvement. He thought probably she had, because he'd heard nearly nothing about her in the aftermath.

Having pleaded guilty on all counts, his trial was fairly expedient and the fifteen years he received were significantly less than he would've expected. Some of the charges they'd initially wanted to levy against him had proven impossible to substantiate due to his dedication to inaccurately documenting nearly everything he'd done. The bedlam he fashioned had been his only true accomplice.

He was quite proud of much of it actually. From all the movement he saw happening with the Healthcare systems, it was pretty apparent to him that Smith was still hopelessly occupied with trying to resolve what he'd done… still toiling away at untangling his random assortment of individual messes. Those types of men were always toiling away, trying to control the disarray, to order things which could not be ordered, to find yet another way to convince themselves they were the masters of their own fates. He estimated the expenses to Searrs at a few billion yen by now.

There was the odd, trashy reporter floating in and out, less so now, but they wanted to talk to him, and he wondered briefly, when they first appeared, if they were agents of Smith as well. But then they seemed so convinced that there was some shred of continuity to a story he'd invented as he went. It was fun to talk with them and the things he told them were the most haphazard conjurings his mind had to offer. Some were true, some were half-true, some he couldn't honestly recall the accuracy of, and some were outright lies and he kept track of none of it because it no longer mattered. His time with them was spent watching their eyes as he tossed out this or that, marveling at how willing they were to believe that he held the answer to some great mystery in his head. It was the best kind of absurd. Often when it happened that his aimless vocal wanderings led to Saeko, he noticed that they became acutely interested.

If he'd learned anything in this, it was that these men, unlike the mainstream press who had taken the original article as gospel, took almost perverse delight in any tidbit which suggested fault on Saeko's part. Their thumbs would race across tiny screens, hanging on his every word as if he were some fly caught in a web she was somehow still spinning even some twenty years after her death. It was so far from the truth as to be laughable, but it seemed to be the version they most enjoyed the flavor of… the bad woman, the corrupted woman. He wondered if Kuga-san would ever come to hear these rambling, largely fictitious, nearly purely incendiary interviews. If it would bother her, how it would bother her, what she would do with her pain… if her suffering had even the slightest chance to still drive Fujino-san to the very edge of madness. Unlikely, but nice to imagine. Though what would be the purpose if he wasn't even there to see any of it?

He chastised himself for his disappointment. Whether or not anything he'd done had a lasting impact was never supposed to be the end game…an end game was never supposed to be the end game. The only point was always to create something that made no sense, to show everyone that searching for sense was the ultimate exercise in futility and he'd done that. Why did he hide the fact it only worked in females with such unusual meticulousness? No reason…another layer, which he was certain these types of men would read into. Why casually inject random members of his control groups? Why not? If Smith ever tracked down everyone in the control groups, every one of those vials, it would have to be through an act of God and he simply didn't believe in such things. Those little tubes, those injected people...they were now servants of chaos as well wandering about out there because he could not.

Goodness, he was so very bored here, but entropy dictated things would change again, at least that he was certain of. It was merely a waiting game.

Epilogue #24: Nina Wang
Date: December 12th, 2015…a Saturday

Nina held his hand in hers and reflecting on how sure was that she had yet to prove herself, that there was so much to do before she even considering dating. That idealistic, very ambitious mentality…how quickly it fell away when he'd walked up and asked her for coffee. Her rationale after the fact, had been that she'd gotten a new position, was learning how to work alongside Fujino-sensei effectively…she was on her way. The truth of the matter, when boiled down to its essence, was that a cute guy had asked her on a date for coffee and she said yes…and that could be okay. She was trying to be less rigid in her thinking, or Arika and Erstin were hell-bent on infecting her with their incurable positivity. In any case, things were settling at work and she was doing acceptably at her job, even though she still had a lot to learn by her estimation. She was trying not to be entirely ungrateful for the things that were going well and her relationship with Yuuichi was definitely one of those.

Nina was a serious girl and she drove herself with an almost aggressive amount of force. She hadn't anticipated how much she'd value meeting a person who felt satisfied with their work. His employment in IT and his teaching sporadic classes at the Kendo dojo were enough for him. The fact that his passion wasn't wrapped up entirely in his ambitions…she admired it.

Glancing over at him, the memory of his eyes before his hand surgery floated into her head. Such sadness, so haunted and now they looked nothing like that. They were such a gorgeous honey brown, with unusually long eyelashes for a man. He was so incredibly handsome, especially in his suit. She really wished Arika had never mentioned the fact that she thought he looked like a younger version of her adopted father. His eyes, they were different…she'd wanted to strangle the girl for putting that idea in her mind at all. It was such a weird thing to say.

It was also uncomfortable to think that Kuga Natsuki, the trauma surgeon, had been with him too. He told her about his prior relationship because he knew they worked at the same hospital. There were so few degrees of separation on this island. If she was honest, it did make her feel a little tickle of jealousy, but it was illogical and she had no reason for it, so she tried her best to ignore it.

It was even odder still, to be his date to Kanzaki-san's Christian style wedding. He married the women who owned the shop around the corner from the hospital, who Yuuichi had apparently also dated very briefly in high school. He'd been anxious about the going from the start, said that he and Kuga didn't talk really, but that there was a group of them coming to this event who all used to be really good friends. Yuuichi had confided in her last night that yet another one of his exes, the one where their breakup had led to his hand injury, had photographed Kuga and Shizuru in secret around town and texted the images to him. It was a really terrible thing to do, she thought…to both of them. In turn, she told him she'd heard things around the hospital, that there were rumors she didn't know the truth of which placed Kuga and Shizuru together. His reaction to it was difficult to gauge, but she always thought it best to know all the available information. Seeing Kuga and Shizuru there… them together, speaking quietly, their casual touches, familiar glances…the rumors that they neither confirmed nor denied seemed very probably true to her.

From an emotional perspective, there were many opportunities for jealousy tonight, maybe for him too, and it wasn't that she felt none of it, but he'd been so honest with her… about Kuga… about the texted pictures… about his discomfort. It would be unjustified punishment she thought, to treat him as though he'd done something wrong merely by attending. Honestly, given the circumstances, she was proud of him for going at all.

When the reception ended, they walked toward the coat check, somehow arrived only a few seconds after Kuga and Shizuru. Nina felt no reason to shy away from them unless he felt adamant about it, which he'd not said he did. Maybe it was for the best they'd run into each other, because she didn't think Kuga knew about them. They weren't close work colleagues, didn't even belong to the same division and it would have come across petty to seek her out just to tell her, she thought. It was probably pretty obvious now, but still. She could sense him taking in the sight of them standing there at the end of the line together, as he had when they'd given their speeches.

It wasn't shocking that her former sensei who noticed them, was the first to speak. "Good evening, Nina."

"Hi, Shizuru." It still found strange to call her former sensei that, but they'd both been Attendings for over a year together. It stood to reason that she would address her as if they were on equal footing. "Kuga." She added.

"Wang." She didn't think she'd ever seen the trauma surgeon quite so mellowed as she was then. Gone was the cool, almost arrogant confidence that so often surrounded her in the hospital. "Tate." It was said quietly.

Her boyfriend gazed back at the woman, surprising Nina when he entwined his hand with her own. "Hey, Kuga." She wondered if he was making a point, but his palm felt too clammy for that.

It was difficult to know whether introducing him was totally appropriate, but it was only polite. "Shizuru, this is Tate Yuuichi."

"Nice to meet you, Tate-han." Though it was said warmly, Nina noticed that her eyes held the same sort of concentrated focus they did during a difficult case. It was apparent to her then, that Shizuru was most likely aware of his and Kuga's past too.

Nevertheless, the greeting seemed to bring him back to himself. "Fujino-san, right? You work with Nina?"

"Fortunately, yes, I do have the privilege." Nina felt a distracting flush of embarrassment as the woman gazed her way. She never had gotten used to Shizuru's tendency to compliment. "You enjoyed yourselves I hope?" It was asked as Kuga turned to speak with the man at the counter.

"Yeah, it was good to see Mai so happy. She deserves it." Yuuichi glanced over at her, his eyes asking if she was okay and she squeezed his hand gently in case he needed it.

"She does." Kuga agreed as she passed Shizuru her coat. Having procured their jackets, there was no longer a place for them in line and they stepped to the side. There was a stretch in which it seemed none of them could think of a thing to say.

It was again her former preceptor who spoke…another warm smile given to the two of them. "Well I suppose we shouldn't keep you two, but I do hope you have a lovely evening and it was a pleasure, Tate-han."

"You too," Nina answered, while her boyfriend nodded, seemingly mulling something over.

"Kuga!" He said suddenly, drawing all of their eyes at once. "It was…good to see you." There didn't sound like any sort of hidden meaning, she thought, just honest sentiment.

The trauma surgeon watched him for a second, gave a small smile that she looked like she meant as well. "Good to see you too, Tate."

Maybe the oddest thing yet, was how much their exchange felt like a balloon popping, thick air turned thinner in an instant. Still, Kuga paused after taking another step, turned back to him, worried her for one foolish moment.

"Say 'hi' to Alyssa before you go." Was her only comment.

He laughed a little, nervousness as he rubbed at his neck. "Yeah, I will."

Then they all went their separate ways, him not letting go of her hand until he went to get their jackets. Without thinking, she turned, her eyes following them as they walked away. Feeling much the intruder, she caught Shizuru as she placed a quick hand on Kuga's face, thumb gliding softly across her cheekbone with an even softer look…and then her hand fell away.

"She's Kuga's kid sister." He said and she startled.

She was flustered enough that it took her a moment to process his words. She hadn't given Kuga's comment a second thought, assumed that it was some high school acquaintance. She was more genuinely curious than anything else, but hadn't intended to ask him who Alyssa was.

"Oh okay." Was all she could think to say.

He was considering something while they waited, but wherever he was with his thoughts he returned from quickly. It was hard not to notice that his eyes, when they lifted from the floor, traced her body briefly. He stared for only a moment from beneath those gorgeous eyelashes. It made her warm before his eyes met hers.

When he helped her into her jacket there was a soft-spoken, somewhat bashful compliment of his own. "You look really pretty in that dress, Nina."

She smiled at him with an equal level of bashfulness, slipping her hand back into his as they walked away together.

Epilogue #25: Sasaki Midori
Date: December 12th, 2015…a Saturday

Fujino Shizuru…expert secret keeper, mysterious letter recipient, possible antique weapons specialist, giver of subtly indecent stares, and now she could add toastmaster to her resume as well. Reito had asked her to make a speech almost immediately after the family members finished, in the ultimate lesbro move.

Mai-san and Reito had a number of friends make speeches after his father and her brother spoke. She sat in dreamy enjoyment listening to them…Chie, Yohko, and even Yuuki-san offering their unique perspectives, well wishes, and anecdotes for the couple. Kuga was the most intriguing to watch in her opinion, the way she spoke, with that deep voice oscillating between confidence and awkwardness, her straightforward stare saying just as much as her words. Midori could see what Shizuru was so taken by. There were some pretty interesting thoughts about his wife from Reito's sister, which his parents seemed alarmed by. Unusually the attendants were more friends than family, but it was sweet that way she thought.

The show-stealer, wedding dress aside, was the bride's brother's outfit, which was definitely throwing tradition out the window. An impeccably tailored silken suit in some blue color, with black trim. It was an absolute sight to behold and he wore it well. The wedding reception was lovely and romantic, and exactly the kind of event she loved to attend. Kanzaki really seemed head over heels for the redhead and vice versa. The whole thing just had a great vibe to it.

The afterparty though, this was what she'd been waiting for and she'd already stretched herself out on the corner of a couch. It was the first time that the bride and groom's two groups of friends had collided since the beach party. Yohko sat next to Midori with two freshly poured shots of whisky. Lifting their glasses, they clinked and tossed them back. Oh, it burned so good.

"So, that suit, huh?" She asked, with a grin, tilting her chin toward the brother.

"I'm in love with it." Yohko laughed, her eyes momentarily wandering as Shizuru walked by. They smiled happily at one another as she made her way toward Kuga.

"How did it feel to be part of Kanzaki's all-girl half and half speech factory?"

"Do I even ask?"

"Half lesbian ladies, half straight ladies. Although with the way his sister hangs on his new wife it might be 75/25." Playful eyes met a pair of skeptical ones.

"Seriously, what goes on in that head of yours?" Midori shrugged, taking a sip of the champagne that Aoi had left on the table when she went to the bathroom with Chie. "It's fully possible I'm getting too old for afterparties," Yohko commented.

"Oh stop." She waved her hand dismissively, then waggled her brows. "Besides, love knows no age. Who knows how many more of these, there'll be?"

"If I ever get married Midori, leave that out of your speech." The nurse dragged the champagne glass her way.

Her friend was staring at her with interested eyes. "If you do? Did you change your mind about the whole bachelorette lifestyle?"

It was incendiary phrasing from the standpoint that Yohko never specifically said she was against such a thing, but Midori was in the mood for banter and she knew where to find it. "Just because I don't care if it happens, doesn't mean I'm opposed to getting married."

"There might be some benefits."

There was nothing but chiding on the face of her friend. "Not shocking that a woman who just spent weeks running around Patagonia looking for dinosaur bones with her paleontologist husband would think so." Yohko teased, gently pushing the other woman's knee.

The redhead laughed. "There's still arguably some utility… even for the half-tame among us."

"Mm, such as? And don't you dare say sex. I'm not having that conversation here."

There was a definite smirk. "Opening a stuck jar can be hard on your own."

"That is a struggle." Was her mirthful response.

Midori grinned, stealing Aoi's champagne back, "So, who was that loud blonde lady? The one Shizuru looked like she'd subtly trying to get away from half the night. I didn't know her."

Her friend nearly snorted. "Oh, that was Armitage, she's an Anesthesiologist too. She used to work with us. Her, Reito, and Shizuru actually used to go get drinks, believe it or not. She's okay."

Resting her cheek on the back of her knuckles, she gazed over at the other woman. "I thought you were Reito's drinking buddy?"

"Only when he wants to get serious."

Another chuckle. "Is Shizuru a lightweight or something?"

"I don't know if I'd go that far."

Clapping her hands together twice, her eyes twinkled with a bit of excitement. "Then a shot is definitely happening. It's a party after all, and with the wedding of our very own Mai-san and Reito as our reason to celebrate, the bar for a completely unforgettable good time has never been higher!"

"All of that means what?" Yohko interpreted, voice dry as toast. "You're gonna try to convince Shizuru to do a shot with you?"

"Why not?"

Both her hands were lifted as she shrugged her shoulders. "Go for it, Midori, but I'd bet you a bottle of that sake you like, it won't happen."

There was another sparkle brimming in her eyes. "Oh, we'll see."

"Hiya!" Aoi greeted, taking a seat at their table with Chie.

"Hi." They both said, nearly in unison.

"How deep in are you?" The short-haired woman asked, eying them as she and her partner plopped down on the couch.

"Barely started." Midori delivered her correction airily, turning her head haughtily. "I have at least two more evolutions in me."

Chie sipped conservatively at a beer, watching the two of them for a moment. "You two scare me sometimes."

"As long as everyone doesn't get too drunk to dance!" Aoi added with a light laugh that suddenly became a pout. "Hey! Did you drink my champagne?"

Despite their talk, Midori and Yohko regulated each other as they were wont to do nowadays at important events, where maintaining the line between fun and sloppy was essential for maximized enjoyment. Even so, there was still plenty of celebration to be had. The karaoke was epic, her own performance quite spirited. Between drinks with Yohko, the redheaded woman had a great time ranking the various couplings on the lighted dance floor…such wonderful variety. Aoi, without a doubt, would be awarded best overall…graceful and comfortable and clearly possessing some level of skill with it. The trio of siblings was maybe a fan favorite for their enthusiasm and unexpectedly flashy moves. Most of the others earned a smattering of style points, the bride and groom especially.

Midori, much to the shock of her friend, succeeded later in convincing a pretty solid group, which Fujino Shizuru and Kuga Natsuki were among, to take a shot in honor of the happy couple. Whether it fully counted though, remained hotly contested because Shizuru had sipped hers, but finished it. Midori debated that 'yes' it counted, because the shot glass was empty, while her friend argued some absurd semantics about the definition of 'taking a shot'. Regardless, she considered it a win and fully expected Yohko to buy her that bottle of Isojiman.

Epilogue #26: Haruka Armitage
Date: October 9th, 2016…a Sunday

Haruka had intended to raise her son in a very particular way, the right way. He was fiercely independent though, and unerringly… unfortunately… different. That boy. Such a constant surprise.

Her son had started this entire mess by kissing Yukino's daughter directly on the mouth. He'd done it after getting a bit too rough when they were playing. He didn't know his own strength and he was certainly strong for a boy his age. She couldn't help the swell of pride that she felt watching him, his physical development well ahead of where it should be. Good genes, Sizushiro genes her father had remarked. Haruka was becoming less and less convinced though, because his physical giftedness was where the genes seemed to stop. The doll he'd carried despite her insistence that he not, the doll he inexplicably named 'water', that had been such a difficult time between the two of them. At least he liked sports too.

This morning Yukino's daughter had fallen, cried her eyes out, and he'd helped her up with such gentleness. She'd watched the whole thing, ready to lecture him for misappropriation of strength, but a touch to her crossed arms stopped her. She looked on as her son leaned in. Her head had swiveled on her neck of its own accord as their tiny lips met. She'd been too surprised to speak for a moment and then his name tumbled from her lips, laced with annoyance and incredulity and embarrassment. He'd looked at her with those brown eyes he'd gotten from his father, his blond hair pushed up toward the middle… it was such an unusual combination.

"Don't do that!" She said.

"But I like her!" He protested and they'd locked eyes.

The cross of her arms had tightened. "You can't go around kissing anyone you like!"

"I love her, okay!?" His arms shot out laterally accentuating his words and her irritation.

Eyes widened, his words exacerbating her mild horror. "You can't just say you love her now so…"

"I'm not!" He'd accused, interrupting and now crossing arms as well. "I love her, so it's okay I kissed her!"

She felt her forehead wrinkling. "Enough. I said not to."

"But I didn't do a bad thing!" He looked to Yukino. He was always looking to Yukino, it was infuriating. "It's not bad. right?"

She was on the edge and ready to reply, but in truth, she was curious about what her friend would say as well. Untucking her hand from her elbow, she gestured for her to try what she would, clenched her own lips to hold in the aggravation. If Yukino wanted to attempt reasoning with the boy, good luck.

"It's not that it's bad Tetsuo-chan, not if you care about someone." Her friend tired, followed by another thoughtful pause that made her stomach twist inexplicably. "But you shouldn't without asking. You should always ask first."

She couldn't help it as her eyes rolled. He was going to be kissing everyone now! That was unusually terrible advice from her usually reasonable friend. Reluctantly, she said nothing because if Yukino thought such a thing was logical to tell him, she felt somehow obligated to trust that, at least until the complaints started from that daycare.

"I guess it's not as bad if you ask and you care about them." She acknowledged with only a trace of frustration she actually felt.

Haruka didn't like the twinkle in his eye at her admission, she didn't like it at all. Then, sure enough, he looked Yukino straight in the face. "Can I kiss you?" That boy.

She could tell her friend was a little embarrassed as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Then she slowly knelt down and Haruka couldn't believe it… she was just going to humor him?! There was a moment where the two of them, her son and her friend, stared at one another and Haruka tried to relax.

The boy stepped up and there was a shy smile from both of them, a quick nod. Then her three-year-old gently pressed his lips to her friends. She felt her eyebrow rise, twitch and had no idea where the second surge of discomfort in her came from.

"It's okay, 'cause I asked." He pronounced.

Yukino smiled at him. "Don't you want to give one to your mother too?"

"No." The blonde could tell her son was making a point, a bit of a bratty point. "You should!" He proclaimed, pointing excitedly at Yukino and Haruka felt her other eyebrow jump up to meet its twin. Of all the things to say…

"No, she shouldn't!" She corrected him firmly.

And of course, he was pouting now. Her heart pinched despite the annoyance she felt. That pout was deadly and now what? He thought she was going to kiss Yukino just to satisfy him? Not a chance.

"But why?" He asked...fists on his hips.

She grimaced, searching for words. "It's different for grownups."

"She can ask you first!" As far as the little boy was concerned his mother was now trying to break the rules they set. "That's what you said!"

"Tetsuo-chan, enough. And Yukino said that."

"You did too mama." That bottom lip, it was starting to tremble, and his eyes were narrowing to match hers.

A bright red flush took her friend's cheeks and she felt bad. "Okay, stop this right now. I said 'no' and this is not how you ask for anything anyway!"

He flopped dejectedly onto the floor, facedown and laying absolutely still…like some fish hauled onto dry land once it finally gave in to its fate. It was his weird version of a tantrum and she prayed for strength. Yukino's daughter, curious, came over and poked him with her foot, while he whined with each jab of her toe.

"Nozomi-chan, be nice to him." Yukino corrected and she stopped, with a chastised nod. After another moment of sulking, he stood, fingers eaten up by his too-long sleeves and sniffling. The little girl stood beside the boy and pushed his hair back up into points.

She didn't like how carefully he was thinking or how distractingly cute they were being and then that stare, those sparkling eyes. "Please Mama? If she asks you, it would be okay 'cause you love themchuthers."

"Each other, Tetsou-chan." Her friend corrected gently, and then gave her a shy glance, that was fast firming. She was at a complete loss. "Haruka-chan?" The tone of it, her name said so softly, was what surprised her, and she turned to her friend, anger forgotten. A strong sense of déjà vu began to tug at her.

"What?" She said sheepishly, eyes flicking down to her son's suddenly hopeful expression.

She felt her eyes widening, as her friend took a breath, a slow blink. She wouldn't possibly dare, she couldn't possibly. "Yukino…" Her voice was quiet, unusually quiet, her whole body humming, but she was unable to say anything more.

The hopeful eyes of two children and another pair averting and then steeling. "Can I kiss you?"

There was no explaining any of the things she felt. Those words in her friend's voice, they held some bizarre power. She shouldn't have let her say it, now those words in that voice would be bouncing around her brain forever. Her son was shockingly silent, watching them with still glimmering eyes that could not possibly understand. It was a moment between them, the same feeling washing over her as it had so many years ago in that dorm.

Shizuru's unwelcome words about the two of them, they returned to her. In a flash, she felt oddly disgusted by herself, that she had not been forthright with Yukino about this ever. It was not like her, to hide from anything. Some loud voice took her mind. Didn't Yukino deserve acknowledgment at the very least? Even if she could never give her anything else?

As her hands were placed on her friend's shoulders, they met eyes, Yukino's questioning. Haruka leaned in with a body that had never felt tighter in her life. She pressed her lips to the softest cheek she'd ever felt, a subtle smell of body lotion tingling her nose. Soft lips touched her cheek as well. Yukino's daughter clapped as she drew back and the was understanding clear in her friend's gentle eyes…that Haruka knew, had known…but that this was her limit.

Her son sighed dramatically. "You missed Mama!"

Epilogue #27: Viola Ritsuko
Date: December 16th, 2016…A Friday

Ritsuko dusted and polished her husband's urn as she did every morning, adjusted the first two letters he'd written her so that they were perfectly upright, as she slipped the third in behind them. She would not read his letters again today, she'd resolved not to read them so often, for the guilt it brought. He'd written her thirty-five letters before his death, one for every year they'd been married, to be opened once a year on the anniversary of his death. They were, of course, numbered and put in a handsome box. Her first thought upon seeing them was that she hoped she did not live long enough to open all of them.

The first letter was an apology for leaving her and had taken days to get through. The second year revealed that Ken had known about Shizuru. How could he have known and never said so? How could he have let her do all of this to protect him from knowledge he already had? He knew that the stories were her creation and he said nothing until that letter, which he'd made her promise not to open until he passed. He was such an infuriating creature even now, and every moment she felt annoyance with him was the sharpest stab of grief. Ken Viola, the single strangest man she'd ever known, and she'd loved him in a way that made the world feel illusory without him here. What did she have now, but half of herself and the lies she told?

She'd taken a walk to the market a month ago, if only to distract herself from the ache the emptiness of their house caused and had run into that girl's parents. They'd given her the same stare of unadulterated hatred that they always gave her, and she'd pretended not to notice, as she always had. There were many people in their town who still, even now, whispered or gave her looks. Ken and Shizuru… both had given them plenty to talk about over the years. Whenever these encounters had happened in the past, she'd return home and read the letters she'd written as Shizuru…or she'd find Ken and have him help her imagine it all away. There was no Ken to write to now and no Ken to come home to and waste an afternoon with. The pointlessness of all it stayed with her as much as the grief.

Today had been the third year and the third letter… she'd read it this morning in bed almost immediately after waking…had left it for herself on the nightstand.

In his third letter, Ken asked her to reconcile with Shizuru. He'd explained his own thinking on the matter. She could not agree with all his points, because she did believe that Shizuru should have righted herself. She never faulted Ken for the gossip he incited because it was his own name he played with. Shizuru though was in the same boat as she was, carried the weight of family and that had to be respected. Being born a woman, there were certain obligations owed to your father's name and then to your husband's. Your life could never be fully your own and to make it so was selfish. It was fundamentally different for them. Nonetheless, she understood his message… that he thought there were immutable things which can only be accepted, that Shizuru's actions fell into that category, that perhaps her own story-making did too. His death was also that sort of a thing, immutable…and no matter how many tales she told herself about convalescence, about the severity of his illness…he had still slipped from her grasp. She could not keep him with her.

And she could not even begin to conceive of how he thought the situation with their daughter was reconcilable, not after all that had happened between them. So many things that had gone so very far. And why three years before he asked for such a thing? Bringing Shizuru back to Kyoto was unthinkable... because Kyoto was a place where an imaginary Shizuru lived now. If her daughter had wanted to pretend to be what she'd created, she would've returned and done so already. Whether considered from Ken's view, that Shizuru was to be accepted or her own view, Shizuru was to be tamed… she'd failed her daughter in both scenarios.

She had not been able to do either and she didn't want to do this. There was only one thing she ever wanted from the moment they'd found out his cancer was terminal. It was a yearning that had only strengthened in the years after his passing, an impossible thing…to have died in his place. Ken would've known what to do with all of this. He was more equipped for it and would've not cared what her parents thought…he would have found his daughter once she passed and the two of them would've found a way to carry on together. Shizuru and she were never close, and it would not mean the same thing even if they ever reunited. She'd always seen that there was a special connection between Shizuru and her father, a connection she'd only ever had with Ken too. She could not be a boy for her parents, could not make one either, could not even be a real mother to her daughter. Ken had always been the only place where she belonged, and the only one built for such heroics.

His third letter also had something else in it, another request that was more of a suggestion. He told her that he had always pictured them retiring to some small island. There was a deed enclosed in the letter to a home on Yakushima of all places. How he'd even bought something like this without her knowing, she could not begin to guess, but he was crafty. She sighed to herself as another piercing slash of loss cut into her. He said he wanted her to leave, to tell no one, especially not her parents, to simply disappear and live a new life that was hers entirely. He'd set aside money for her, investments. He wanted her to go start afresh, as if she could leave everything that troubled her in Kyoto, shed it like a coat. It was so fantastical and so very Ken.

Why did he think her capable of any of these things? What if Shizuru did not want to be found by her? If she were in Shizuru's place, she would not want to be found by her own mother. She doubted very much that Shizuru thought of her, was sure that probably the only thread of connection they had left was their shared grief for Ken. And what would she do every day on a tiny, but beautiful island all on her own where no one knew her? She was not her husband… and she was tied down by things he had never been.

And if all this was so firmly the case, if she was immutable, why did she get up from her bed this morning and wander around their shared home, considering what it would be like to just never return? To never see the judging faces of the people in this town again? To never again let her mother cut her in two with carefully chosen words? Why had she sat in this garden all afternoon, plagued by thoughts of calling her daughter? Imagining what it would be like to see her again, a grown woman who had done all the unimaginable things Ken described, relocated to some island and rewrote herself afresh, selfish or not.

Here she was, sitting in their garden with her phone, surrounded by plants Ken had chosen, considering a call to a daughter she no longer knew, arguably had never known and to whom she would say god knows what… at the behest of her dead husband, who somehow was still making requests of her. Her eyes dropped to her phone again and with no consideration, her fingers moved.

She was calling Shizuru and it never even rang. The number had been changed.

Epilogue #28: Yumimiya Arika
Date: December 28th, 2016… a Wednesday

Arika was super excited to have secured a job Fuuka hospital, super excited to have been working there for over a year. The three of them… her, Nina, and Erstin who was now in her third year, largely got to stay a trio. She was also super excited that Kuga-sensei and Fujino-sensei seemed to really be together now. It was very romantic she thought and having seen them leave with one another three weeks back, she was wholly convinced that they had to be official. The cool trauma attending and their beloved sensei, she couldn't help but feel a little swoony over it. She'd told Nina as much over lunch and Nina, atypically seemed mildly interested in the conversation.

There had definitely been some growing pains for them in the last year. The biggest thorn had been the fact that Arika got along really well with Nina's dad…who just so happened to be their chief. It wasn't very helpful to her and her new friend/boss's work relationship. She liked serious people though, she liked almost everyone really and no one else seemed to want to chat with him. She felt bad, thought he was probably lonesome. It took Arika a little longer than it should of, to realize she might have had the littlest, tiniest, bitsy crush on him…which was weird because he was such a serious guy and way older than her and her chief…and maybe worst of all Nina's father. Thankfully, it seemed completely one-sided. She might've let herself slip to Nina when she found out about her boyfriend though, saw a picture…said he was cute and then immediately followed with an ill-advised comment about how he maybe kind of looked a little like her adopted dad, but younger. That was stupid of her.

There was weirdness from that, but they'd finally worked out the power dynamics, found their harmony. Things in the Fuuka anesthesiology group were good now.

She really felt that Nina was a great Attending…disciplined, good at keeping things organized, always learning and didn't care as much as Armitage-sensei had about what Fujino-sensei was doing at any given hour. That probably helped with their former preceptor and Nina's improved relationship. Again, not that they hadn't gotten along, but they didn't seem to mesh much before. Now, with Fujino-sensei back and happily working cases much more often, it seemed to be ironing itself out. She'd even spotted them having an occasional unprompted conversation, usually about a case or some new piece of research. It probably helped that when Nina wasn't certain about something professionally, her senior-most choices were Fujino-sensei or her father. She thought Nina just needed to see that beyond their former preceptor's playfulness, she was an extremely competent doctor. Besides which, she was always lecturing at the schools or conferences, so she knew things. Ultimately Nina respected competence and was willing to tolerate the by comparison rare teasing their former preceptor aimed at her...as long as it meant she could learn something of value.

They'd just come from a staff meeting about shuffling hours, in which she got to reduce from five to four days a week, staying a bit longer on the back end to cover evening cases. It was some work-life balance initiative. Either way, she was all for it. Interestingly, Fujino-sensei had opted to take the longest shifts, moving from five to three days a week. Arika had noticed that their former preceptor seemed just a little drawn out lately, even tired sometimes, and she hoped this would help. It was an unexpected move though, which meant Nina had spent their whole lunch puzzling over it. Wang-sensei had announced that she would still continue her preceptor duties but asked Arika to assist as needed. It was a role she was more than happy to learn, felt excited for. Her chest had even puffed with pride at the look of acknowledgment her former preceptor sent her way.

Epilogue #29: Mr. Smith
Date: January 9th, 2017…a Monday

The truth… it was a term that Smith distrusted. The truth, in so far as most seemed to understand it, was the great lie, the supposition of an objectivity that simply did not exist. It assumed some sort of inalterable base level story even existed. Only pieces of any story, only the few consistencies that stretched across every perspective even came close to what most people considered the truth. Any story was in actuality, numerous stories made from the collective narrative of every involved person, each considering their own version of the events to be the truth. He was consistently amazed by the media's dedication to finding this imaginary thing, their tenacious dedication to it.

He would freely admit that it was impressive, the enormity of the mess Homura had created. It was coming up on three years since the HiME incident at Fuuka and still, he was fielding off reporters by supplying them with fabricated clues, scraps of inaccurate information with just enough basis in the fact that they seemed plausible. It was a painstaking process really, covering things up, and unappreciated art. As far as he was concerned, his job was only to do something that every other person involved already had. He was a crafter of "truth".

There were several 'facts', which remained problematic for his employer for years after the incident came to a head. He had focused his attention on constructing new truths for those. He determined early on, that the primary and chief most concern was to track down all of the individuals in the original control groups for Mr. Homura's trials, from his time with Kuga Saeko. It was most important, in any situation, to thoroughly understand what factors need immediate attention. Prioritization was paramount. Distractions would buy him the necessary time while providing adequate cover.

He anonymously contacted several of the more fringe reporters and a ridiculous documentarian, made it clear to the Ministry of Justice that access to Mr. Homura not be refused. He correctly assumed that Mr. Homura would amuse himself with them and it worked too well, to the extent it caused problems with Mr. Searrs that needed to be addressed. Still, he had his team pour over all the trashy articles and crackpot theories and conspiracy stories that emerged, for anything that might prove useful in the long run. It served it's intended purpose, helping them to locate more of the information Mr. Homura had spread far and wide before his capture. Periodically, he had the SEARRS media group provide Fuuka hospital with generic responses to the articles that drew enough attention, disavowing such claims for show. Typical sorts of measures to draw attention away for parts of this debacle he still deemed important. After all this time, he'd had no luck in locating the individuals from the initial control groups. He understood Mr. Homura had used the PPD as some sort of marker to determine if the serum had taken, the short-lived rash it produced proof of success. However the names of the carriers, those results could not be found anywhere. Given the limited information and onion-like layers of misinformation, it simply wasn't possible to find. The only option was to publicly disavow any knowledge of the possibly infected individuals. If he was honest, it was the only part of this that truly touched him, his annoyance at not being able to solve that particular problem.

He'd also kept surveillance on Miss Kuga, Miss Viola, Mr. Sakomizu, and the young Miss Searrs throughout. The latter had been a tough sell to his employer, but highlighting the closeness between the sisters repeatedly eventually led to his acquiescence. Initially, he had been surveilling the reporter, Mr. Tokiha, as well but a thorough search of his office revealed he had far less information than Miss Kuga herself. Between the four of them, he was able to piece together what he considered to be most of the important information for the remaining parts of their plan.

In-depth analysis of the research, the alterations to the protocols uncovered patterns only recognized by a computer program specifically designed to search for such things. After the falsified lot numbers were finally matched to the correct recipients, it was apparent that the serum had taken only in female participants. Analysis of the edited documents determined that the result was inexplicably redacted from all official documentation by Mr. Homura. It was the part of this he'd been most successful in keeping secret, even among those who followed HiME.

He was sipping a cup of black coffee, eyes tracing over his own notes and those from his science team on Mr. Sakomizu's hard drive. The reality, as they suspected, was that HiME was simply never intended or designed as a tumor treatment. That appeared to be something of a smokescreen, in spite of its incidental, though inconsistent efficacy. Ms. Kuga had discovered an x-chromosome recessive genetic mutation which through not fully understood means, resulted in super-charged T-cells with high tumor specificity and some suggestion of accelerated healing capabilities. Her early work included some treatments aimed at replicating the few known transcription products of that gene, but they were largely unsuccessful, occasionally deadly. HiME 18 was a version Mr. Homura had made through some minor adjustments to Ms. Kuga's most successful serum, a serum that had markers for gene and immunotherapy. By tinkering with it seemingly at random, sometimes adding the failed formulas and often mixing other pharmaceuticals into the concoctions, like some demented chemist… he produced this unspeakable mess. One of his team had been fortunate enough to spot one of Iwasaka's own formulas mixed into HiME early on and contain the spread of that lovely little detail. It was no small wonder that patients were killed. It seemed inevitable that the samples Mr. Homura had mailed would turn out to be some deadly brew…oddly though all those they'd recovered were pure. Every piece of information they'd acquired supported the notion that Mr. Homura had done this as some ultimately meaningless recreation of his world view. It was not difficult to determine the origin of his vendetta, once the deaths of his family were uncovered.

Ms. Kuga's obsession with cancer prevention…her successes in that area had been the impetus for her removal in the first place. Really, she should have understood that when she elected to work at a pharmaceutical company whose primary focus was the manufacture of cancer drugs, such a direction would be unacceptable. Hiding her research by disguising it as a treatment kept the funds coming, but that coupled with secret changes to the testing protocol ultimately allowed for her removal by the forked tongue of Mr. Homura. A brilliant set-up, since Mr. Smith was quite certain Mr. Homura had been the one to talk her into it in the first place. In any case and all of that sordidness aside, the legal separation between SEARRS and Iwasaka was finally complete.

Artemis Healthcare had been operational for two years now and had finalized the purchase of First District one year ago. His sources indicated there wasn't even the slightest idea that Mr. Searrs controlled the company, only talk that Mr. Searrs had greased the wheels in getting his daughter hired there. His involvement had required no further explanation anyway, once the "purchase" of First District Healthcare was complete. He could then, rightfully sit on the board of Artemis as prior president of First District. Several hospitals, outpatient facilities, and other assets had been acquired. A fairly well-rounded group if he did say so himself, which would by all projections make a tidy penny for his employer, hardly enough to begin accounting for what was lost, but it had elevated their influence in the medical sphere exponentially. In time, it would be recovered. The issue of Miss Marguerite had also been addressed, though with Mrs. Armitage in place it had required almost no effort on his part, just correct set-up. His employer was satisfied with her ousting and her subsequent disillusioning regarding Lu's dedication. The last check-in on her found her father orchestrating some sham of a marriage between her and a minorly influential local politician, a man of course. Whatever came of that was ultimately irrelevant and he considered her chapter closed.

Mr. Searrs had given his group perhaps the heaviest of workloads with his grand plan for a secret rebranding of the functional HiME 18. It would have only been time-consuming if he didn't also have to spend quite a great deal of resources positioning the young Miss Searrs to accept it, giving her enough information and enough misinformation to shape things the way he needed them, building her a truth she could swallow so to speak. It was exhausting really. Mr. Searrs' older daughter, Miss Kuga, who was also particularly labor-intensive to manipulate due to her own tenacity and the ragtag network of characters she'd collected to feed her information … was simpler for once. Luckily for him, it was a situation where the truth needed no massaging. HiME was a tainted name, a dead legacy, and if she ever wanted her mother's cure realized, it had to be hidden, born anew. It was not a debatable thing. He used her informant, Yamada, to deliver the news… a few fabricated internal memos and the issue was resolved.

It was done, all of it. The miracle treatment was to be released by Artemis's pharmaceutical division in about four months, assuming no further delays. The bulk of the work had really been creating a believable back story for its 'discovery' and the supporting documentation. They dealt with the female-only issue by selling it as an ovarian and cervical cancer prevention vaccination… with the unadvertised side effect of reduced cancer risk across the board… and the listed side effect of mood swings. That was to preempt any lawsuit which might result should the aggression sometimes seen in the test animals prove to have any measurable effect on humans, nothing had manifested in the trials yet. It was decided fairly shortly after Mr. Homura was jailed, that their best course of action was to have "Schwartz" partner with a reputable organization, preferably foreign so as to attract less attention and work on the cure out of country. They'd pursued a relationship with an organization based in Canada, the Centre for Genomics-Enabled Medicine (GEM). By all accounts, the relationship between GEM and Artemis was a success and their breakthrough applauded. Research would continue on how or if, it could be modified for men. Preliminary results were poor.

Placing the last of the documents into his file, he locked the box, carrying it back to the vault in his office… to the place where he stored his truths.

Epilogue #30: Fujino Shizuru
Date: April 20th, 2017… a Thursday

She ran long fingers through dark hair, moving it from the beautiful face resting on her thigh. "Do you wish to be lied to or do you wish to be told the truth?" It was asked with feigned seriousness.

"Lied to." Was the quick answer, as nervous eyes were cast down the length of her leg.

She took a breath, adopting a suitably apologetic tone. "My poor Natsuki was never informed of the increased possibility of such an occurrence, nor was it properly discussed with her beforehand by several physicians on multiple occasions. Forces have conspired to keep vital knowledge from her."

"Over the top, Shizuru." Was the reply, amusement barely hidden inside a grumble.

"Kanin-na, but can I ask," She let her touch travel along an ear, familiar with its curves and bits of metal. Such a gorgeous creature, content to simply lie in her lap, to stay with her…it was still somewhere just beyond believable, even years later. "Are you truly upset?"

The woman's brow furrowed. "No."

"Terrified perhaps?" It was said gently. She could sense the anxiousness which had understandably been radiating from her lover since it was first revealed to them… but there was fear there too, from both of them. It had been weaving itself in with their excitement since they left.

There was a rather deep sigh against the part of her being used as a pillow. "It's not that I'm not happy about it, Shizuru."

"I know." A nod and words spoken lowly. "I do, Natsuki. Perhaps, I may have been projecting a bit before."

"Why would you be terrified? Kids love you." Came the mumbled scoff of a reply.

"Keiko-chan cannot be used as a measure for all other children."

"Shut up. You know it's true."

"Even so," The brunette relented because if she was being honest, most children did seem to take to her. That was not ultimately the issue, "…being responsible for the wellbeing of two people is another thing entirely."

It was something she'd always been drawn to, the idea of having a child, but the imminent reality of it felt quite different than her imaginings. It was one of the most worrying things to her in this, having that much influence in the making and mental health of another human being. So many mistakes that could be made, it required so much trust in herself. She surprised herself with thoughts of her own mother, wondering if she'd felt anything remotely similar when she discovered her own pregnancy, wondering if they'd struggled in the same way when starting down this road or if she'd simply waited too long, wondering if her mother would want to know about this. Unusual for her to think on such things…and still more than a twinge of hurt, even after so long apart.

The dark-haired woman released another of those heavy sighs as she settled into a more comfortable position, burrowing almost as though she were trying to hide. It happily distracted her from her rather morose thoughts. "Giving birth to two babies is another damn thing entirely."

A soft hand on a cheek turned stunning green toward her, a green that could still make her breath catch. "Is that what is frightening you? Because that is certainly understandable."

Her lover frowned as she often did, less than in the past, but still frequently… glancing away and back again. "You better make sure they do the epidural right."

She smiled reassuringly, electing not to bring up the likelihood of caesarian. It hardly seemed the time. "That I can promise you. I will do it myself if need be."

"Alyssa's gonna be excited."

"Of course. She will be a fantastic aunt I think." Considering the recent birth of their friend's son, she thought it prudent to mention them. "Reito and Mai will be quite pleased as well, I would imagine. If not somewhat surprised." She added, because they'd told no one but Alyssa that they were even attempting such a thing.

Natsuki nodded, rotating her neck to stare up, turning an earring, thinking something over…something that obviously had to do with her. The studying was almost academic in its intensity. They'd not had the easiest of times getting to this point, had not originally planned for Natsuki to carry, she'd even changed her schedule at work in preparation, which would still be beneficial but…she stopped herself. None of that now.

"Shizuru," Her name was a sigh, too many things to pick out any one them trapped inside. Glad for the interruption, she gazed down at the woman in her lap quizzically, equal parts intrigued, wary, and confused by the sudden comment. What was said next came after a few more moments of silence. "I want one of them to have those. I hope it happens."

"Hmm?" She asked, curious, and not following.

"Your eyes." And green closed, her exhale running away Shizuru's heart.

"So sweet." She whispered not wanting to let her lover dwell and a slight blush, a brief though not unhappy frown answered her. The dark-haired woman had never come to embrace that description, despite Shizuru's insistence that it applied.

Natsuki could be very romantic…always accidentally. Somehow that made it all the more affecting. Those types of words spoken from honest lips, they sank so deeply into her, made her heart strain for just a beat. Shizuru reminded herself that she was not supposed to feel undeserving of this, had sworn to her lover to try and avoid such thoughts. Leaning her head back against the wall behind their bed, she closed her eyes.

The mattress depressed lightly as a small dog hopped up, interrupting them by pressing a paw to her unoccupied thigh, drawing her gaze. "Ara, it seems someone is jealous."

"He doesn't like it when I'm on your lap." Her lover reached over and scratched him. He squinted in approval, a tooth that Alyssa referred to merrily as 'happy fang' poking from beneath his lip.

"He does have a rather strong affinity for laps." She agreed.

"Yours and Nao's maybe."

Her hand shifted from raven strands and came to rest on the sensitive skin of her lover's stomach. "I do hope that does not mean you intend to move."

"No." She stroked a finger between his ears, rubbing his head softly. "He's being greedy."

"And yet Natsuki is rewarding him. Should I find that concerning for the future I wonder?" She let the joke sit, the woman below shooting her a mild glare.

As it became apparent that neither of them intended to move, Duran escalated his protest. Natsuki laughed, air puffed through her nose, as he all but threw himself onto the mattress, pink tongue curling as he released an odd yelp of a yawn. Another minute in which neither of his masters moved, and then he gave up, curling into a ball to sleep.

In the quiet that then fell between them, the older woman concentrated on the feel of warm skin, of smooth bone transitioning to taut muscle beneath her hand. Her lover's body…its shapes and its heat always evoked a bit of want despite how many times she'd run her fingers over it…kissed it, seen it. She let herself soak in her desire only briefly…she was very much enjoying their current position. They had not another thing planned this evening, would have time enough for her to indulge it as fully as Natsuki would allow later.

Another rather new imagining bloomed in her thoughts, the experience surreal as she pictured how much must be going on beneath her palm…how much that body would change in the coming months also crossed her mind…how difficult she thought that would likely be for Natsuki, who took such meticulous care of it. It was something she intended to devote her full attention to, providing assurance and reassurance. She was also reasonably certain that Natsuki had no idea how thoroughly she intended to pamper her throughout this, equal or no. Her own eggs that her body would not carry, growing inside the more cooperative body of her lover...it was a thing beyond emotional comprehension. A patch of silence followed during which the dark-haired woman tumbled back into her previous state of seriousness. The shift was noticed, and Shizuru's hand journeyed upward, intent on soothing again. She knew that they'd both thought of those they lost in receiving this news, of the moments that would never be and considered whether that was part of Natsuki's unease.

"I cannot help but think it is more than the unexpected news." The backs of fingers, gentle and slow, traced the line of her lover's neck as she waited for an answer…careful not to tickle. A beautiful little sigh escaped, as her lover's eyes fluttered closed. She'd discovered that once the woman trusted her hands fully, she responded so adorably well to pets. "Can you tell me what's on your mind?"

"Have you thought about it? If they're girls?"

Shizuru was certain that Natsuki was referring to Artemis' and GEMs supposedly new soon to be released, breakthrough cancer prevention serum. She knew that the other woman was specifically asking if she'd considered it in light of their trying to have a child. The answer she gave was an honest one. "It would be a lie to say that it has not crossed my mind."

"I hate that I'm thinking about it." She murmured, melting rather visibly despite her worry as piano-player hands ran in slow, mesmerizingly smooth tracks along her scalp.

Shizuru reflected on what, if anything else, to say. In their years together, she'd come to think of their grief as waves on the ocean, crashing and receding, but never ceasing, never fully letting them go. She'd learned to trust that they would find each other again, as they had each time one of them was set adrift...and it was for this reason, that the bittersweetness of something so wonderful did not make her lose herself. "We've no need to discuss this quite yet Natsuki, and Alyssa is likely to have better information. She can assist when or if the time comes."

The woman in her lap did not answer. Instead, she absent-mindedly dragged a hand through the fur of Duran's back. He woke and turned to lick her fingers while she gazed at him, her smile turning to a frown. "He's getting gray."

Shizuru reached over and touched pointed ears that still surprised her with their velvety softness. She felt pressed by the need to lighten her lover's heavy thoughts. "It gives him a touch of dignity, does it not?" A dark eyebrow arched at her and that lovely half-smile was back…even if it was a bit small. The silly comment had served its purpose, but a bit more distraction might be helpful. "Natsuki will wear hers just as well, I think."

A glare, she'd successfully prickled the ego she'd seen hints of now and then, but the upset was now lifted. "I don't have any gray hair, Shizuru."

"Not yet, no. But in another six months perhaps?"

Eyes rolled. "Idiot."

Shizuru smiled down at the woman whose insult had become a term of endearment between them, before she closed her eyes. Her fingers resumed their play in silk-soft strands while she basked in the warmth between them...in their quiet love.

FIN.