Kuroyuri was a prodigy. She'd heard it from her family, she'd heard it from her teachers, and once she'd gotten to the Academy she'd seen it in the eyes of her classmates. Whenever they looked down far enough, anyway. She was the youngest person in the whole school by almost five years.
It wasn't that she was a brilliant strategist, because she wasn't. She just always won anyway. With the kind of zaiphon she commanded, she didn't need to "marshal her resources" or "coordinate with her partners". She just blew apart whatever was in her way. It worked.
So on the day of the exam, while everyone else whined and sweated, she stood apart from her "team" and leaned back against the clear wall of the arena with crossed arms. She tapped her toe, waiting impatiently while the proctor read out the rules and reminded everyone this was for real. It had better be for real; she hadn't had a single good match since she left home.
When the far door snapped up and the over-muscled target raged through, she pushed off the wall, filled her hands with power, and blew a hole where his chest had been.
The proctor, who hadn't even gotten all the way out the other door, hesitated. "Er. This team... passes?" She looked over her shoulder at the head of the academy and the fancy generals who'd come to watch exams with him. Kuroyuri sniffed.
"You know I passed," she said, waving a hand at the rest of the students. "If you want to know about them, go get another target." She wasn't part of any "team" of students; they'd all made that clear, and she'd expected it already. She'd been poisoned for existing when she was five, where was the surprise that people grudged her her life and power?
"There might be some justice to that, yes," the Chairman allowed, fingers flicking at the proctor. She guided Kuroyuri out with a hand on her shoulder, tossing a cheery, "Wait right here!" at the rest of the students.
"You have the strength for battle, certainly," the Chairman observed, giving Kuroyuri a stern look. "But I'm not entirely sure you have the discipline. Perhaps it would be better to keep you for another year."
Kuroyuri stiffened, starting to glare. She'd die of boredom if she had to spend another year around here! The general standing beside Miroku stirred, though, and lifted a hand.
"That won't be necessary," he said calmly. "I will take this one."
The Chairman cocked an eyebrow at him. "You will, hm? Well, Kuroyuri was certainly slated for the Black Hawks eventually, but are you sure, Ayanami-kun?"
"Quite sure." The general stepped forward and rested a hand on Kuroyuri's shoulder. A possessive hand, she thought, looking up at him, which made a little thrill of hope and surprise run through her. "Kuroyuri will do better among our own kind."
That was when the unit name clicked, and Kuroyuri looked up at Ayanami with wide eyes. This was the Warsfeil general! This was the man all the families like hers were talking about! He used his power right out in the open, he and the Black Hawks, and no one dared say a word! "I'll do my best!" she exclaimed, looking up at him with starry eyes. "I promise!"
He smiled faintly, glancing down at her. "I trust you will."
Kuroyuri wandered through the rest of graduation and processing in a daze, seeing again and again that tiny smile, hearing that low, sure voice saying he trusted her.
Her new post was so exciting it nearly made her squeak. Okay, fine, it did make her squeak, but only once! And that was just because Hyuuga could do really cool things with his swords. There was lots of blood, on that assignment; she approved. In fact, she kind of loved it. She was with other Warsfeil, she was one of the official ones. And, so, yeah, the rest of the military whispered about them, and crossed the hall out of their path, and moved away from any table one of them ate at. It wasn't all that different from how she'd already been treated at the Academy, and at least now she had a unit she belonged with!
It took a while for her to realize that there was something wrong.
She didn't always use her soul sight. It had been really strong when she was younger, and really distracting, so she'd learned to ignore it mostly. The first time she used a Wars in her new duties, though, she'd noticed that Hyuuga was half-souled. It hadn't taken much thinking to figure out who held the other half, and it made perfect sense that Ayanami-sama could do something that amazing. He was Ayanami-sama! She'd looked, when they came back to the ship, just to be sure she was right.
That's when she'd seen that Katsuragi was bound the same way.
Both the other Black Hawks' souls belonged to their commander. Hers didn't, and Ayanami-sama hadn't made any sign he expected to take hers. She searched his face when he told them they'd done well; she couldn't see any difference in how he looked at them and how he looked at her. But there must be one. Because otherwise, she'd be bound to him the same way, wouldn't she?
She brooded on that all the way back to the Fortress, curled up on her seat with her arms around her knees. Was it just because she was so young? Did he think she wasn't strong enough? But he knew her strength, he'd seen her in battle!
Was she... not suitable somehow?
That was the thought that finally drove her to his office to ask. She couldn't stand the thought she might not be what he needed. Once she'd kicked that clown Hyuuga out the door and slammed it behind him, she spun around to face her commander, biting her lip.
Ayanami-sama set down his pen and folded his hands with that faint smile of his. "What is it, Kuroyuri?"
"Am I... not what you want, Ayanami-sama?" she asked, soft and shaky. "Am I... am I failing in some way?"
His brows rose. "Why would you think that?"
"You haven't... I'm not... You haven't bound my soul!" she burst out. "You have both the other two, but not me! Am I... not good enough?" she finished in a whisper, blinking hard to hold back tears.
He rose and came around the desk to her, and she clenched her hands at her sides, trying to be brave in face of whatever he was going to say. When he knelt down level with her and touched her cheek, a sob almost broke loose.
"Be calm," he told her quietly. "Your place is here at my side. Do not doubt that."
Kuroyuri nearly gasped with relief, pressing her locked hands to her chest. "Ayanami-sama..."
"I hadn't thought to take your soul until you're older, and sure in your heart that you belong to the Black Hawks." Sharp violet eyes held hers. "To me."
"I do," she protested. "I am! You gave me a place, you let me fight, you let me use my power! You make everything right! I do belong to you!"
"Is a contract binding your soul something you really wish?" he asked softly. "This is your life bound to mine, and you are very young, Kuroyuri."
"You gave me a place," she said, soft and sure, because he'd just confirmed it. Her place was at his side. He was the one who let them command darkness right out in the light, and not fear for their lives. "I'm sure in my heart, Ayanami-sama. I swear it."
He held her eyes for another long moment, but finally he nodded. "Come here." He held out his hand to her and she stepped forward, trustingly, into the circle of his arm.
When his fingers reached into her chest, chill and sharp like a blade cutting her open, she bit her lip hard to keep silent. She wrapped her hands in his uniform coat and swallowed down the whimpers that tried to force their way up her throat. This was Ayanami-sama, and her soul was his to take. Everything that was her stretched, and stretched some more as she gasped for breath, until part of her settled into his hand.
"Ayanami-sama," she whispered, rough and shaky.
"Shh," he murmured to her, soft and cool, rubbing her back. "It's done. Be still, now."
She quieted obediently, leaning against his shoulder, and slowly the ache of dislocation eased under his soothing hand. "Thank you," she finally said, low.
He chuckled softly. "Thank you, as well." When she looked up shyly, her breath caught. She could see it, raw in his eyes, the possessiveness she thought she'd sensed when he'd claimed her from the Academy. Her. He wanted her to be one of his people, not despite what she was but because of it. She smiled back, cheeks warm.
"I belong with Ayanami-sama."
The satisfaction in his eyes made her blush harder, right down to warm her heart.
And that became her world.
When Kuroyuri announced, "I want to see you more often. Is that okay with you?" Haruse answered as honestly as he always answered her:
He wasn't sure why this caused her to grab his cuff and tow him promptly off down the halls of the Fortress, but she obviously had a destination in mind so he followed after willingly enough. When they went up an elevator into officer territory, he did wonder whether he was really cleared to be there. Kuroyuri had to use a keycard to unlock the elevator doors. But, he reasoned, he was in the company of someone who clearly was authorized, so it should be all right. Maybe she wanted to spend some time together in her own rooms instead of down in the common areas where people did tend to look askance and whisper.
So when she finally announced, "Here we go!" he was expecting the door to open onto an officer's suite.
Instead he found himself looking across a large office at a large desk, behind which was, unmistakably, General Ayanami, the Chief of Staff of the entire Imperial Armed Forces.
Reflex jerked him into a salute as Kuroyuri trotted blithely across the office. "Ayanami-sama," she said, leaning familiarly against the man's desk, "can we have Haruse for the Black Hawks? Please?"
Ayanami's brows rose, and his mouth quirked with unmistakable amusement as he returned Haruse's salute and nodded for him to stand a little easier. "This is a unit of Warsfeil, Kuroyuri," the General pointed out, quite reasonably.
Kuroyuri, though, just looked up at him and said softly, "You can change that, though. Can't you? You can, Ayanami-sama. Please?"
They looked at each other for a long, silent moment. Haruse didn't know what passed between them in that silence, but finally Ayanami looked up to regard him thoughtfully. "Is this your wish, Haruse-kun? To join the Black Hawks?"
"I... I didn't... I never thought..." Haruse took a deep breath, trying to get control of himself past his shock. "I hadn't thought it would ever be possible, sir. I never considered it."
Ayanami glanced back down at Kuroyuri, a little chiding. "Kuroyuri..."
"But!" Kuroyuri spun back to him, eyes wide and pleading. "You said you wanted to see me more often, too! You said it was okay."
"I did. I do!" he agreed earnestly. "I would love to be able to serve with you, it's just... I mean..." He ran a hand through his hair, flustered enough to be falling out of attention. He looked over at Ayanami, who was watching them quietly. "Is it really possible, sir? For me to become... what you and Kuroyuri-chuusa are?"
"Possible, yes," he murmured. "Is it your will to become that?"
Haruse took a deep breath, thinking hard. Dozens of childhood horror stories about Warsfeil clamored in the back of his head: anathema, unholy, they'll eat your soul if you're not good. But against that clamor was the pressure of Kuroyuri's eyes on him, their honesty and determination, their purity. He knew by now that the duties of the Black Hawks were dangerous and bloody, but he hadn't become a soldier because he thought it would be a safe, clean job. He had enlisted to serve his people and his country with his life. Slowly he straightened and nodded. To become as she was... "It would be my honor, sir," he said quietly.
"Even if you lose your soul?" Ayanami asked casually, and Haruse froze.
"Ayanami-sama!" Kuroyuri protested, scowling. "You're trying to scare him."
He cocked a brow at her. "Your soul is no longer entirely your own, Kuroyuri."
She huffed, arms folded. "That's because it's you. This is the place you gave me. You're my place; of course my soul is yours."
Haruse felt like the world tilted. She said it so calmly, so matter-of-fact. Warsfeil truly did deal in souls, then, but... not as a horror, it seemed? She said it as easily, and as earnestly, as if it was her loyalty she'd given. Perhaps... perhaps they were the same thing in a way.
Perhaps to "give your heart" just meant something a little more tangible to Warsfeil than to most people.
And this man, who had given his dearest friend the belonging Haruse knew she needed so very much, was offering to let Haruse see the world the same way. Offering him a place beside her.
Haruse drew himself back up to calm and proper attention. "Even so, sir. It would be my honor."
Ayanami smiled faintly. "I think you've found someone suitable, yes," he told Kuroyuri, and stood from behind his desk. "Come, then, Haruse-kun. If you would make this pledge with us, I will show you the first part of it." He stripped back the glove from his left hand and drew his sword, taking the end in his bare hand and closing his fist tight. Haruse flinched in shock. Ayanami's face was calm. He held out his hand, cupping it as red gathered in his palm. "My blood," he said, softly. "Take and drink of it." He smiled, and this time it was sharp. "If you would be raised up."
Haruse swallowed a little hard, but a glance at Kuroyuri showed her only smiling, happy and hopeful. If he was going to look at the world as they did... then his commander's blood was not a threat or a mark of pain. It was the offer of life--a new life. Haruse gathered himself and walked across the room to Ayanami, and knelt down at his feet; it seemed only proper. He cupped his hands under Ayanami's and touched his lips to the blood in his palm.
It slid down his throat and straight through his chest like a burning sword. Haruse doubled over, gasping harshly for breath. It felt like his heart was being pulled inside out, and each tug sent a stab of fire through him.
"Haruse! Haruse, it'll be all right." Kuroyuri's arms, small and strong, wound around his shoulders. "Let Ayanami-sama in, and it will be all right."
She was his guide in this, so he clenched his teeth and did as she said, fighting to surrender to the force twisting through him. And it was true--the more he yielded to that pressure, the easier it got, the less it hurt, until he felt like he recognized his own body again. Or maybe it was his soul. Slowly he looked up, and met Ayanami's eyes with a shock of connection. His lips worked as he tried to sort out, in his spinning head, what this man was to him, now. One title after another shaped themselves: General, commander, patron, Lord. Master, his soul whispered.
Ayanami's bloodied hand settled on his head. "Call me by my name, now," he said quietly.
Haruse shivered, panting for breath as Kuroyuri hugged him around the neck and made encouraging noises. "I..."
"Give it time to settle in you," Ayanami told him, more gently than he'd spoken yet. "Rest while I take care of your transfer to the Black Hawks. Kuroyuri can show you some of how to use our power once you've recovered."
Haruse's breath caught, because that new gentleness was open to see in Ayanami's eyes. It was quiet, but it was there, and it plucked at Haruse's devotion. "Yes, Ayanami-sama," he said softly. A part of him couldn't help wondering, though, whether the loyalty he knew he couldn't help giving Ayanami would take from what he'd already given Kuroyuri.
A few days later, when he was given his transfer papers to sign, he saw that his new post was listed as Kuroyuri's Begleiter. Haruse smiled.
He had chosen rightly.
Ayanami watched his newest member of the Black Hawks salute smartly and march out of his office with a straight back, and turned a thoughtful eye on his oldest member. "You didn't ask."
Hyuuga shrugged a shoulder casually, still looking out the window over the city. "Konatsu's a Warren, and word's gotten around the Fallen families, you know. I imagine he knows who you are. If he wants to be given that power, he'll ask himself."
"He may know," Ayanami agreed mildly, "but you certainly know. And you didn't ask."
Hyuuga sighed, a wordless admission that he wasn't going to get out of answering this one, and turned around, leaning his shoulders against the glass. "Yeah, I didn't. Aya-san, this kid grew up without power in one of your bloodlines. The Fallen families aren't nice, any more than the God Houses are, and no one's hand but yours ever redeems us." His mouth quirked, faint and sharp. "He lived and fought and never bowed down. I like the kid's spirit."
Ayanami snorted softly, amused. "Yes, that was what convinced me he was deadly enough to join us, power over Wars or no." He cocked his head at Hyuuga. "Why would you not wish to see him with greater power, then? I doubt he'd abandon the sword, not if he already fights such that you approve of him."
Hyuuga lowered his eyes, examining the toes of his boots. "It's something he said, when he woke up," he finally said, low. "That what he wants has no meaning if someone gives it to him." When he looked up again, his eyes were burning, they way they did in battle. "I want to watch him keep fighting for whatever it is he really wants."
Ayanami didn't think he'd ever seen Hyuuga this interested in anyone, before. Perhaps Ayanami himself held Hyuuga's attention that way, at least once Hyuuga had teased him out of patience, but certainly no one else. "Very well," he said at last. "I think I'll assign him as your Begleiter, then. Since you take an interest in his progress, you may stand as his superior and mentor. He seems very dedicated, so he may," he added dryly, "even be a good influence on you."
Hyuuga grinned at him, running a hand sheepishly through his hair. "Whatever you say, Aya-tan."
Long past being deceived by any apologies or promises to be more diligent at anything except field work, Ayanami waved dismissive fingers at his oldest friend and follower, and turned back to his own paperwork.
Over the next few weeks, though, he watched his new subordinate. Konatsu was, indeed, very diligent, and also quite practical. It took only a few days before the boy evidently concluded that nothing would cause Hyuuga to do his own paperwork, and took it over completely. Konatsu was courteous, capable, and deferred to his seniors, with the developing exception of Hyuuga. Ayanami could only approve of both his manners and his good sense.
And never, by word or look, did Konatsu suggest he hoped or desired to be offered the power of a Warsfeil. Hyuuga appeared to have read his protege correctly.
Something else Hyuuga had said lingered in Ayanami's mind, though. No hand but yours ever redeems us. For the God Houses, redemption came in the form of the Traveler to Seele, for as long as he or she was strong enough to bear the burden of cleansing the Houses. What did redemption mean for the families who had flowed from Ayanami's blood, down his lifetimes?
To judge from the responses of his Hawks, it meant his acceptance. His mark.
This boy of his spirit's blood, born without the touch of his power, still stood straight and walked without hesitation at Ayanami's side, of his own choosing. Perhaps the simple mark of blood and power would not be sufficient to Konatsu's pride. But there was another mark Ayanami could give him. If Konatsu was strong enough to bear it.
When Konatsu had been with them two months, and through one field assignment without faltering, Ayanami decided it was time.
"Come in," he called at the respectful tap on his door, and looked over Konatsu's shoulder at Hyuuga. "Kuroyuri and Haruse were just looking for you, Hyuuga. I think they said something about taste-testing." Hyuuga's eyes widened behind his glasses.
"Ah. I'll just... ah, there was something... yes, that I had to do." Ayanami smiled to himself as Hyuuga vanished rather than make himself an easy target for Haruse and Kuroyuri's experiments. Or perhaps he was simply obeying his commander's evident wish that he leave them alone; with Hyuuga it could be hard to tell. Konatsu blinked after his superior for a moment before shaking his head in mystification.
"You wished to see me, Ayanami-sama?" he asked, stepping inside and coming to precise attention.
"I did." Ayanami leaned back in his chair. "It has become my practice, over the years, to create a soul contract with my Black Hawks." He tilted his head, curious about how much this boy had or could observe without the senses of a Warsfeil. "Were you aware?"
Konatsu nodded slowly. "Something Kuroyuri-chuusa said made it seem possible. But... with the whole unit?" Softer, as if to himself, he murmured, "It's true, then." He lowered his eyes and bowed deeply, not a military salute but as a son of the Warren line to his Lord. Ayanami found that satisfying.
"Indeed. I see no reason to break that practice in this case. You are not Warsfeil, but you have a strong soul. I believe you could bear the contract."
Konatsu shot upright, eyes wide. "Me?" he nearly squeaked, and Ayanami's mouth quirked with amusement. He nodded silently.
"Yes," Konatsu whispered, nearly glowing with sudden excitement and determination. "Yes, Ayanami-sama. Let me serve you, I won't fail your trust, I swear!" He lifted a hand as if to offer Ayanami his soul in that palm.
Ayanami rose, pleased. Hyuuga had chosen well for them when he'd brought Konatsu's courage and faith to Ayanami's attention. "Come, then."
Konatsu came to him and stood straight and proud, bright eyes fixed on Ayanami's face even as Ayanami set a hand on his shoulder and reached for his soul.
Most of any soul was simply brightness and darkness, but each had it's own faint texture, the impress of the mind and heart born from it. Konatsu's was soft to his touch, not guarded with the fire and edge that so many Warsfeil gained. It was strong, though. Some souls tore when he took them to himself, but not this one. Half Konatsu's soul settled into his grasp like a bird landing on his hand, warm and living and surrendered into his hold without question or doubt. Ayanami smiled and stepped closer, drawing Konatsu in to lean against him as he marked that soul for his. The boy gasped for breath in the wake of the binding, trembling a little. "Ayanami-sama..."
"I was not mistaken," Ayanami told him quietly. "You have strength for this and more."
Konatsu actually blushed, and Ayanami chuckled, resting a hand on his head for a moment. "It's done. Go and rest, now."
"Yes, sir." Konatsu was still glowing with quiet happiness as he left, despite his shaky knees, and Ayanami contemplated the new soul in his keeping with some pleasure. He had missed this, the binding and sealing of souls.
He would have to find the rest of the Ghosts as soon as possible, and regain the rest of his rightful powers. Perhaps with them in his hands once again, he would be have what he needed to fill the loss at the heart of him that even his Black Hawks only soothed a little. He had searched since Raphael's hold had first been broken, and he had a feeling that the pieces of his self would come within his reach again soon.
Soon he would make himself whole again.