When Sugata tried, later, to explain what driving Samekh had been like, all he was able to say was that he wasn't Samekh's driver; he was only its pulse. Samekh needed a living heart, and that was him. But the cybody answered none of his actions or impulses, the way the warrior bodies did. It slept, but only because its heart had stilled himself. When the screaming sense overload of zero-time breaking jerked him out of stillness, it was Samekh and not him who bolted for the sky, who hovered above the world and reached out to gather it all in. All the life, all the power, all the passion of a whole planet had begun to pour through Sugata, and there'd been no way to stop or escape it, though he'd tried. Tried to drag himself out of the cybody, to fight free of it's grip, until his own heart had been racing and spasming.
Until Takuto and Tauburn had broken in, and he'd made one last desperate lunge through Samekh's vast darkness to meet them.
Which was how they'd come to be here, floating in their flickering driver spheres above the world among the slowly spreading debris of Samekh. It took a few minutes before Sugata could stop marveling over the miracle of everyone still being alive and think about the practicalities of keeping them that way. "Can Tauburn still move?" he asked. Frankly, he doubted it; the most intact part of the cybody was the hand and arm curled around Sugata's sphere.
Takuto frowned and reached his hands out slowly. Tauburn didn't stir. "It looks like not," Takuto said thoughtfully. "But you know... I think I can fix that, now."
Sugata jerked upright, alarmed. "Takuto! A regeneration in your condition is..." he trailed off, looking hard at Takuto's small smile. "Not something I'm going to talk you out of, is it?" he finished with a sigh. "All right. Let me help, then." This was clearly everyone's day for doing stupidly reckless things; he might as well add another to his tally.
Takuto's smile brightened and he set a hand against the curve of the sphere that still held him safe, even though Tauburn's chest was cracked through. "Sure."
Sugata's mouth quirked ruefully and he spread his hands against the wall of his own sphere, reaching out again. He felt, sometimes, like he'd been reaching for Takuto from the moment Takuto had washed up on the island. Slowly, he drifted out of Tauburn's palm to hover over Takuto and sink down, down, until their spheres merged with a flash. Sugata landed lightly on his toes behind Takuto and set his hands on his friend's shoulders. "All right. Let's try it."
Takuto looked over his shoulder, even as his mark started to brighten, eyes steady. "I have a few things to say to you, you know. But that can wait until we're back."
Sugata firmly stifled a flush of heat to his face and concentrated on his own mark, instead, and on lending his strength to the cybody he could feel trying to stir around them. At least, he thought absently, Takuto lecturing him, embarrassing as he expected that to be, would probably be better than Wako; her version was entirely too likely to involve hitting.
Wako wrapped her arms tighter around Kate, holding her old friend close as they knelt at the peak of the mountain over the old "mine", where the dissolution of zero-time had dumped them all. "It's okay," she whispered, stroking the long fall of Kate's hair, tangled now from her last wild scramble, trying to halt Samekh. "It's going to be okay."
"But Samekh," Kate whispered, voice shaking. "Sugata..."
"Takuto is with him," Wako said firmly, eyes fixed on the sky. "They'll be all right." Takuto's look had promised her that, in that long, silent moment of fierce understanding they'd shared before she'd agreed to break the southern seal. And she was going to hold them both to that promise, if she had to regenerate Wauna and go up there herself to make sure of it!
"Can even Tauburn do anything about Samekh?" Honda-senpai asked quietly, arms folded as he also stared up at the sky.
"Maybe," Okamoto-sensei answered, low and tense, from the other side of the clearing. "If Sugata-kun has enough influence on Samekh to slow him, it's possible. Tauburn is different from the others, and even the Science Guild still doesn't know all of why or how."
Kate shivered in Wako's arms. "I shouldn't have agreed to break Samekh's seal."
Wako shook her a little. "Now you cut that out! It was what Sugata-kun wanted! It was the incredibly stupid and bone-headed thing he wanted," she added, mouth twisting a little, "but it was what he wanted and it's not your fault he was being an idiot!"
Kate looked up at that, laughing even as tears spilled down her cheeks and smudged her glasses. "Wako-chan."
Wako smiled, warmth gathering in her chest at hearing that again after so many years. "Kate-chan," she said back, gently, and kissed Kate's forehead. "It'll be okay." A flash of light, like a tiny, abrupt sun in the night, rolled down over them, and everyone looked up with a gasp. Wako pressed a hand to her chest, just under the lingering presence of her mark, eyes widening as a pull she hadn't really noticed in all the madness eased. "Kate-chan," she whispered. "Do you feel...?"
Kate scrambled upright onto her knees. "It's gone," she agreed tightly. "The pull. I think... that was Samekh."
"The Eastern miko would know, if anyone would," Okamoto-sensei said softly, and the remains of Kiraboshi looked at each other across the clearing, slowly relaxing. Wako kept her eyes fixed on the sky, ferociously willing something to move.
When something did, she started up to her feet, and everyone in the clearing jerked like they'd been shot. "Takuto," she whispered, clasped hands pressed hard against her lips. "Sugata. Let it be you. That had better be you. If that's not you, I'm going to kill both of you myself!"
Kate was still on the ground, laughing helplessly into her hands, interrupted now and then by a hiccup. "Wako-chan..."
The dot of light was brightening.
Wako bit her lip until she tasted blood, watching it come. It had to be them!
When Tauburn, shoulder shattered, missing a leg, swooped unsteadily over the clearing her heart nearly stopped. There was nothing in his hands. "Sugata," she whispered, throat tight and choked with the sudden, crushing weight of grief she'd been holding off, hoping. "Sugata..."
But when Tauburn landed and the sphere in his chest dissolved, two people dropped down to the earth, not just one. For a moment, Wako didn't understand what she was seeing, didn't believe it after that moment when she'd believed he was gone. But that was Sugata, standing next to Takuto in his flamboyant Kiraboshi outfit, both of them battered and breathless. And looking at her.
One step, and another, and she was running, wrapping her arms around Sugata and burying her wet face in his shoulder. "Sugata...!" She reached out blindly for Takuto, pulling him close as well, and cried harder at the feeling of their arms around her as relief shook her whole body.
It took a while to stop.
When she finally lifted her head, Sugata wiped her cheeks dry. "I'm sorry," he said softly, eyes sad in the darkness.
Wako punched him in the shoulder.
"You're damn right you're sorry!" she shouted over his yelp. "I can't believe you did that! That was the stupidest idea you've ever had! You were going to just up and sacrifice yourself without saying a single thing, weren't you?!" She pounded on his shoulders a few more times before he caught her wrists, wincing. "Don't you ever do something like that again, do you hear me?!"
Takuto propped an elbow on Sugata's shoulder, mouth curling up wryly. "That's about what I was going to say, myself, but it looks like Wako beat me to it."
"I knew her version would be worse," Sugata sighed, but he was starting to smile again. "I won't do that again. Not without telling you. All right?"
"And listening when we tell you it's a dumb idea," Takuto specified, raising a finger admonishingly. Sugata gave him a long look.
"I'll listen," he agreed at last, and Wako huffed with exasperation.
"He isn't saying he'll actually agree," she warned Takuto from long experience with Sugata's stubbornness.
Takuto laughed softly, smiling bright enough to light up the night. "That's all right. As long as we're listening to each other, we'll work something out. Just like we did this time."
This time. It really had worked out. They were all alive, and safe, and hadn't failed in their charges. Not even her, since all the cybodies were broken and not about to go anywhere. Wako sniffed back another treacherous wave of tears and pulled them both close again, holding tight to this reality.
Kanako nearly cooed over how adorable Wako and her two boys were. Not everyone was as impressed with the romance, of course.
Or, at least, not impressed the same way.
"That's so sweet I think I'm going to be ill," Scarlet Kiss, or rather Shinada, said flatly. "Come on, guys, it looks like there'll be school tomorrow after all." She stalked off through the trees, and Honda and Gouda followed after her as they always did. Gouda gave the other group of three a thoughtful look before he vanished down the path to the foot of the mountain, though, and Kanako almost cooed over them, too. It looked like both those little triangles might be settling a few things soon. Good; she was enjoying the show very much.
Business first, though. She cast a thoughtful look around the clearing. Okamoto had an arm wrapped around Nichi Kate, steadying her as she stood, and that was a good sign for Kiraboshi's (or at least Kanako's investments') continued viability. Kanako didn't see Dr. Shibuya or any of the support staff anywhere near, nor Head and the Chairman. Those were less good signs. "Simone, Takashi," she murmured, "I think we should be going as well."
"Yes, Madam," Simone said softly, and Kanako hid a smile at how closely she and Takashi walked as they moved off. This evening had settled things for many people, it seemed. As they passed Okamoto, though, she caught the woman's eye and raised a brow at the empty woods around them, the missing members who apparently had no wish to share Sugata and Takuto's triumph. Okamoto's lips thinned and she nodded a fraction. Kanako nodded back.
Yes. There was work still to be done. Kanako slipped her personal phone out of her jacket's inner pocket and hit her husband's speed-dial as they walked downward through the trees. "Leon, my love? It's me."
Her husband's voice was sharp, even through the crackle of static. "Kanako, what happened? That explosion..."
"Mm. That was Samekh's destruction, fortunately. I'm afraid we were too hasty with the project, and did not understand Miyabe Reiji's motivations. We need to track him down, and make sure he isn't any further trouble. We should also throttle funding, to keep the cybodies from being repaired immediately. Speaking of which, Dr. Shibuya needs to be reassigned somewhere that will take up his attention." Simone stumbled, behind her, and Takashi gasped. Kanako smiled over her shoulder at them, waving reassuring fingers at their stares. Really, you'd think they'd never watched her salvage a sinking project before.
"Hm. I take it you believe Dr. Okamoto will be more willing to take the time and care you feel are required, if she's in charge of research instead?" She did love how quickly Leon could follow her thoughts. "That can be done. And reducing funding," he added dryly, "will not be a problem for the immediate future. How long do you need?"
Kanako considered the two mikos they had left behind in the clearing as she stepped around a bit of loose stone in the path. "Six years should do, I think."
There was silence on the line for a moment. "Kanako..."
She laughed softly. "My love, there will be no shortage of second thoughts after the backers hear what very nearly happened. And I would like to give Wako and Kate a chance to be at least a little free before we ask them to take up their duties again. It will help keep them properly dedicated in the future."
His voice was gentler when he answered, "As you wish, my dear." He had always understood the sacrifice Kanako had made of her own freedom, of any pretense at carefree youth, and had always honored her for it. It was why she had meant all the vows she spoke when she married him. It was one of the things she truly did love him for.
"Besides," she added, "funding can always be channeled into collecting the remains of Samekh. The majority of them should appear to be destroyed; in fact, they can truly be destroyed if necessary. I believe the core is the only really important part to retrieve."
He made an interested sound. "I'll be waiting to hear what you're planning, when you have a more secure line. Call me when you're home, my dear."
She turned off her phone and waited, smiling into the darkness.
"Madam." Ah, it was Simone who spoke up first; Kanako wasn't surprised. Simone had steel in her spine, no question. "Why do you want Samekh's core? After what our own cybodies said..."
"They felt that Samekh's purpose is mistaken, yes," Kanako said quietly, recalling the deep echo of Betraida's memory and protectiveness in her heart. "But I believe they may have meant something different than we thought. If the other information we have heard is accurate, Samekh was made to rule, not to destroy. If he can be regenerated in a design that matches the life of this world..."
Endou had called Samekh a ship, after all, in her little parable of a play. Kanako didn't think that was an accident. The cybodies did not have life as it operated in humans, though they could take motive force from human life and passion. The very life and passion Samekh seemed built to absorb. Absorb... and transport intact, like a ship did its passengers? The very possibility was so delightful she gave a voluptuous little wriggle that made Simone snort and Takashi clear his throat in a flustered way.
"Let's keep that our little secret, though, shall we?" she murmured. "There's no reason Wako and her young men shouldn't enjoy their high school years, and perhaps university." Or perhaps a career as an idol. She would have to look around among her contacts and see who might offer Wako and Kate a good contract.
"You think they'll really join us willingly, in the end?" Takashi asked quietly.
Kanako smiled up at the starry sky through the leaves. "Sugata already did, for his own purposes. And Wako has a powerful sense of duty, wouldn't you say? I'm sure we can give them a while to sow their wild oats before it's time to settle down, though."
They would need the southern seal regenerated, at the very least, before exploring working cybodies further. The eastern seal might be wise also, if Kate was willing to return. But that could wait. The true star drivers of this age were all still young. Surely there could be time to enjoy that.
She was sure Takuto would agree.
Reiji stood under the darkness of the trees and watched the drivers go, a few at a time, heading down the mountain and away from the half-wreckage of Tauburn. The boys of Vanishing Age had, appropriately enough, disappeared already, most likely back to the obscurity they'd followed him to escape. He wasn't surprised. Those three had ambition, and passion of a kind, but little resilience.
Ryousuke stirred, at this shoulder, as Takuto and his two friends turned away down the mountain as well, Takuto with a last pat for Tauburn. "They shouldn't be leaving any of the cybodies out in the open like that," he murmured, disapproving.
Reiji shrugged. "I'm sure that will occur to one of them tomorrow. Kate, perhaps. Or Kanako. And Watanabe certainly has the resources to take care of any satellite images caught before then. Besides," he strolled out of the trees toward the cybody, "it's a nice chance for me."
Reiji's lips quirked. After this long, he could hear when Ryousuke was alarmed, even though he'd probably sound indifferent to anyone else's ear. "A chance," he murmured. "A last chance, I suppose." He laid a hand on Tauburn's side and closed his eyes, listening intently.
The children might only just have discovered that they could hear the voices of the cybodies, but it was old news to him. Without the right mark or, with more of the seals in place, the right interface badge, it was only a bare whisper of unformed feelings, but with enough concentration, and direct contact of some sort, it could still be heard. Tauburn was the one cybody he'd never been close enough to listen to, and the acid burn of anger over that washed through him again. He took a slow breath to quiet himself, and listened now.
The waiting flowed past him, not noticing him at all. Tauburn was waiting for Takuto. Reiji's hand curled into a fist against Tauburn's side.
"Tokio?" Ryousuke asked, cautiously. Reiji slumped with a short laugh.
"It's over," he said, low and tired. All the hope he'd had to recover the terrifyingly brief and fragile beauties of the world, to return to them and live joyfully in the moments where they were... it was over. Ryousuke's hands closed gently on his shoulders.
Reiji stiffened, glaring over his shoulder. Ryousuke looked back steadily. "Good," he repeated, more forcefully. "You've thrown away too much, chasing this. Your friends, your lovers, your child, your painting... You would have thrown away the whole world, Tokio! Don't you think it's time to stop?"
"I could have gotten them back!"
"No you couldn't have!" Ryousuke shouted back, and Reiji blinked; Ryousuke never shouted. "How many times do you think you could relive a moment before it lost its beauty?" Ryousuke actually shook him. "The whole reason those moments are precious and beautiful is that they pass! They change! They're never the same twice!" He pulled Reiji around and glared down at him. "When I thought you just wanted the strongest cybody, to make up for not having Tauburn, that was fine. There were other cybodies and other drivers, and I thought the challenge might be enough to make you look at the present again." He shook Reiji again, hard. "But you were going to throw it all away, destroy it all like a spoiled child, because you couldn't see that what you wanted was right in front of your face! Your sunsets, those were all now, not the past. Sora, she was now, and she would have stayed if you hadn't thrown her away too!"
Reiji pressed back against the not-metal behind him, staring at Ryousuke, at this startling flare of passion in him, fear slowly tightening in his chest. "It goes away," he said, low and raw. "It all goes away."
Ryousuke stared down at him for a long moment before he sighed, letting that bright, alarming passion (the bright things always went away) fall from him. "Come away, Tokio," he said quietly. "Let's find somewhere new to paint for a while, all right?"
Reiji let Ryousuke draw him away from Tauburn, but stopped him with a hand on his chest when he turned toward the trees. "Just a minute."
All the bright things went away, and it seemed that Ryousuke could be bright too. Despite all those years of seeming dull and steady, he could be. And it was already too late to let him go, because Reiji had spent all these years thinking Ryousuke was safe to be with! There was only one thing he could think of that might slow things down, might keep Ryousuke from going away for a while yet. A moment of concentration and Resh flared to life on Ryousuke's chest, under his hand. "There." With zero-time unlocked, Reshbal should be able to slow Ryousuke's aging even without being regenerated.
Ryousuke was staring at him, and Reiji snapped, irritably, "What?"
Ryousuke smiled. "Nothing. Shall we go?"
Reiji sniffed and stalked down the mountain ahead of him. Come to think of it, he couldn't wait to get off this island. They would make arrangements tomorrow.
Kate carried her tray through the cafeteria to a table in the far corner, listening to the conversations around her. Nearly everyone had felt the shock of zero-time coming unlocked, but it seemed almost no one had seen Samekh rise. Her schoolmates were gossiping happily about what the strange event might have been, but the wildest tales, for example that it was some kind of alien spaceship either landing or returning home, were clearly told as jokes.
Despite how bruised her heart and mind felt by last night, she appreciated the irony.
She wondered, as she pulled out a chair and sat neatly, as everyone expected of a class president, what she should do now. Part of her thought her work was done; Samekh was both unsealed and destroyed, and Sugata still lived. But the part of her that had been Ivrogne for two years remembered that she still had another driver and a support staff to look out for. Who would take charge of Kiraboshi now, with Head broken? She remembered hearing that the Chairman had been one of the people originally in charge of the project, but he'd given the project up to Miyabi's direction for so long... could he be trusted, now?
She sighed and took another bite of the cafeteria stew, and resisted the urge to hunch down grumpily in her chair. Winning shouldn't be this difficult.
Kate rolled her eyes. A voice that low should not be capable of caroling her school title, but this was Tsunashi Takuto, after all. "Yes, Takuto-kun," she started, repressively, "what is i—" She stumbled over her own words as she turned and saw who was behind him.
"Is it all right if we sit here?" Wako asked shyly.
"I... I suppose it's... I mean, yes that's fine," Kate stammered, one hand clenching around her napkin. She really didn't deserve to have Wako still look at her like that, like she was a friend.
"Kate," a lower voice than Takuto's said, at her shoulder, and Kate had to close her eyes for a moment. "It's okay to say no, too. We won't press, if you're uncomfortable."
"It's all right," she said quietly. She watched them settle themselves around the table, Wako on one side of her and Sugata on the other with Takuto smiling across the table at her, and stifled an urge to take Wako to task for not sitting between her and Sugata. This would be so much easier if Wako treated her like a rival, albeit a vanquished one, instead of a friend. If she had, Kate might have found a crumb of an excuse to hate her, which just about had to be easier than this tangled-up ache in her chest of wanting her best friends back, and wanting Sugata for herself, and knowing none of it was going to happen.
Except that getting her friends back looked like it just might.
"So, um, the math homework today," Takuto was saying, fiddling with his fork sheepishly. "I kind of didn't hear it."
"I'm not surprised in the least," Kate said dryly, concentrating on her plate. "You were pretty distracted by Watanabe-san." Who had been teasing Takuto as if nothing in the least unusual had happened last night. Kate was starting to think the girl had actual ice water in her veins.
"Sugata-kun has it; you can get it tonight," Wako told him laughing. She glanced over at Kate to share the joke and Kate's breath caught. "Um." Wako was making cross-hatches in her stew with her fork. "You know, I really was wondering... do you... do you still sing at all?" She looked up at Kate under her lashes, biting her lip.
Kate hesitated, looking aside, only to catch Takuto's eye. He was leaning his elbows on the table and smiling at her exactly the way he had when he'd promised not to tell anyone about her singing, warm and friendly. "Some," she muttered, looking at her plate again.
"I'd like to sing together again," Wako said shyly. "Sometime. I mean, if you'd like."
Kate swallowed hard, nearly flattened under a sudden cascade of memories. She and Wako singing along with the radio. Singing on the beach and arguing over who had to take which part and who got the most lyrics, dissolving into a sandy scuffle. Singing together for Sugata and seeing his eyes turn brighter and happier. "I... yes," she managed, husky. "Sometime. That would be... nice."
"I'd like to hear both of you again, too," Sugata murmured, and she looked over at him before she could help herself. He had his chin in one hand and a small, warm smile on his lips, and her heart turned over at the sight of it.
She was grateful when Takuto asked, "Can I come listen too?" and let her look away. His eyes on her were thoughtful, despite his light tone, and when she snorted he grinned brightly.
"I suppose you might as well, all things considered," she said, giving him a dire look. That little bit of silent teasing over the time he'd walked in on her singing in one of the karaoke booths, the little bit of normalcy, helped her take a breath, and another bite of stew, and reclaim her balance. It was the sort of small, warm kindness she was starting to simply expect out of Takuto, and really it was no wonder he was Tauburn's driver.
"All things considered?" Wako repeated, and gave Takuto a beady eye. "Takuto, what did you do?"
"Nothing!" he insisted, holding up his hands. "It wasn't my fault!" He looked at Kate, appealingly. "It wasn't, right?"
Her usually quiet table was dissolving into something bright and noisy. Wako was leaning shoulder to shoulder with her, and Takuto was trying to defend himself without telling anything he'd promised not to, and Sugata was laughing softly at all of them. Kate took a slow breath and leaned back against Wako's shoulder. Maybe it wouldn't happen the way she'd hoped it would, but it seemed she had a place with them after all.
The knot in her chest was a little looser than it had been.
Midori leaned back in her desk chair and stretched with a sigh. The cybodies were broken. Kiraboshi was finished. She didn't know whether she was happy or sad about that. But the work of the school nurse went on, so here she was for another day.
A tap on her office door punctuated the thought.
"Come in," she called, and frowned when Watanabe let herself in. "Headache?" she asked brusquely.
Watanabe laughed. "Not yet. I came to deliver this." She held out a few sheets of carbon paper and Midori's brows rose as she scanned down them. It was a contract.
Okamoto Midori, aka Professor Green... position as sole head of Kiraboshi's Science Guild... monthly stipend plus bonuses as stipulated... "What is this?" she asked at last, waving the paper. "Kiraboshi is over."
Watanabe raised an annoyingly superior brow. "Come now, sensei, I'm surprised at you. Haven't you put it together? Zero-time is undone; regenerating the cybodies will no longer take the kind of mechanical support it used to, not if the driver's will and life are strong enough."
Midori froze in her chair as realization slid through her mind, chill and electric. It was true. "You intend to repair them and push ahead with the Departure?" she whispered.
Watanabe's smile turned feline. "Keep reading."
Midori flipped to the next page, only to blink. "Six years of study before repairs are attempted?" she asked, disbelieving. "Didn't you just say—"
"It is possible now. That doesn't make it advisable." Watanabe leaned a rounded hip against the desk, arms crossed under her annoyingly voluptuous breasts. "After what Samekh turned out to be, do you really want to risk another surprise from the cybodies?"
Midori shivered. The girl had a point. She read on a little further and snorted at the line about the Bank asserting ownership of all cybodies. "Do you really think the drivers will stand still for that?" she asked, flicking a nail at the clause.
"Not for a single second," Watanabe said, sounding perfectly pleased. "Which will give us a very strong lever indeed to persuade them all to accept limitations on their uses of the cybodies in return for ownership after six years are up. A rent-to-own arrangement, as it were, compliance with those limitations to be the payment."
Midori leaned back, chilled again for a different reason. She thought she might understand, now, why a ruthless financier and multimillionaire like Leon Watanabe had married Kanako. "So. Are you Kiraboshi's new leader?"
"Would you prefer someone from Vanishing Age?" Watanabe asked, eyes sharp on her.
Midori's mouth twisted. Another point for Watanabe; as much as Midori was fascinated by the physics of the cybodies and wanted to know more, she wanted just as strongly to put one in the eye of Vanishing Age. Them and their arrogance, thinking no one else was a true driver. She picked up a pen and signed her name firmly on the last page. "Why six years?" she asked. "Why not set a knowledge goal, instead of a time limit?"
"Six years should give our mikos time to fly free for a while and satisfy some urges before they return to settle down." Watanabe sighed, eyes distant for a moment. "Though I do regret having to ask Wako to sacrifice taking her two boys to bed for so very long."
Well, that made a kind of sense at least; for such a schemer, Watanabe was a bit of a romantic. But that comment about Agemaki brought up another annoyance, and not just that Agemaki was hogging two gorgeous boys all to herself! Midori tossed the contract down with an exasperated sound. "Doesn't anyone ever listen to a word I say?" she asked, aggravated. "There are absolutely no indications that the drivers of the miko cybodies have to be virgins! And there is conclusive evidence that higher levels of passion and desire equate to stronger bonds to a cybody!"
Watanabe blinked, off balance for once. "But the mikos themselves say that—"
Midori cut her off with a wave. "Oh, I'm sure the idea's been passed down for hundreds of years. If you're feeling primitive and superstitious, I suppose entering a cybody could look a lot like being possessed by a god. But it isn't!" She added, grudgingly, "There could be an effect if the driver herself believes it strongly, I suppose. It might weaken her will, and that does interfere with the bonding. But it's pure self-sabotage!"
Watanabe smiled slowly. "I'm so pleased you'll be continuing with us, Professor Green," she purred. "I can see your knowledge and skills will be a great asset." She counter-signed the contract and tore off the top two copies, handing Midori the last. "We'll see you for the weekly meeting this Sunday, then?"
As Watanabe strolled back out of the office, humming, Midori wondered for a moment whether she'd gotten herself into something troublesome by going along with that girl's plans, whatever they really were. But the cybodies were so fascinating. And besides, the drivers included so many simply delicious young men who didn't seem to mind going around half dressed.
Midori sighed happily, chin her hands, and contemplated the future.
Benio walked soft-footed along the "mine" track down into the mountain, feeling rough gravel turn under her boots.
"Are you sure about this?" Tetsuya asked quietly, cautious as ever about anything not having to do with his precious motorcycle.
"I'm sure," she bit out. "I don't know what anyone else is planning to do, now, but I do know we just got our families' marks back and I'm not leaving Peshent down here in pieces!" Her eyes narrowed with satisfaction when they got to the end of the cart tracks, at the landing for the vast wheel that would take them below; everything was dark. "Looks like we're the first to come back, too. Good."
"You really think we'll be able to repair them?" George asked, glancing over his shoulder at her as he pulled open a discreet metal cabinet and hauled down the manual switch to engage the capsule track. Muffled clanks vibrated through the rock under their feet and a glass-and-metal capsule rose to the landing.
"We should." She led them in and pressed the start switch, bracing herself with a hand against the wall as the capsule started to move. "Zero-time is undone. There shouldn't be any more barriers between us and the cybodies."
Tetsuya leaned against the transparent wall with his arms crossed, watching the bottom of the cavern swoop towards them. "Nothing but our own limits."
Benio shot him a hot glare; every now and then, a little less pessimism would be nice. "We're Filament! We're the ones who shine! We'll find a way." She spun toward the door as the capsule slowed to a halt, stride firm and confident.
Though it did stumble a little when the door opened to reveal Watanabe's blonde assistant standing there.
"Scarlet Kiss. Speed Kid. Raging Bull." She bowed politely. "Right this way, please."
"'This way' where?" Benio sputtered. "What..."
Secretary (Benio didn't even know her actual name) looked over her shoulder, quite calm. "The President hoped you would visit this evening. She's waiting by the cybodies."
Benio exchanged a look with Tetsuya and George, lips tight, and nodded at the hard wariness in both their faces. "Let's go," she said softly.
They flanked her as she followed Secretary down the causeway that led out from the landing and finally across the open floor around the cybodies. Sure enough, Watanabe was lounging against one of the powered-down terminals there, in her uniform but without her mask. "Scarlet Kiss," she greeted, lazy. "I'm so glad you could join us."
Benio halted and crossed her arms. "Let's be very clear," she said in her meeting-hall voice. "We're not here to join you. There's no need for expensive support any more, to drive the cybodies, and you have no leverage over us."
Watanabe pursed her lips as Secretary came to stand quietly at her shoulder. "You intend to regenerate your cybodies, yes? I wouldn't recommend doing that completely without hardware support."
"If so, then it's Professor Green I'd be talking to, not you." Benio had never trusted President, or her campaign to get control of the cybodies.
Watanabe smiled, somehow both sensually pouty and annoyingly cheery. "Well, you know, scientists are generally loyal to whoever funds their research. Professor Green has already signed a renewed contract with me."
And that was why Benio had never trusted her. "I only have your word for it that regenerating the cybodies is still dangerous," she growled. "I'm not taking that alone. I did it once, when they were still half blocked off from us; I'll do it again!"
"And risk your loyal followers?" Watanabe asked softly, eyes flicking to George and Tetsuya. "I think," she added, as Benio's lips drew back off her teeth, "that we might reach some accommodation that will make everyone happier." She held out a couple forms, fanned in her hand; Benio eyed them like she'd been offered a viper.
"A contract." Watanabe's voice was cool and hard. "With all the rules and compensations spelled out, so we all know what we're here to get." Secretary took the papers from her hand and brought them silently to Benio, Tetsuya, and George.
Benio read quickly down the page and snapped her fingernails against the clause she'd expected to find, halfway down. "I knew it! You want us to actually agree you own the cybodies and lease them—lease them—from you! What absolute bullshit! This is just another power-play, isn't it?"
"Benio," Tetsuya broke in, frowning down at his copy. "This is really weird. Take a look at the terms of that 'lease.'"
She scowled down at the paper, reading on, only to stop short. "Full ownership by the Bank for a period of six years," she muttered, voice rising in disbelief, "leased with all rights in exchange for agreement not to regenerate...? What the hell?"
"For six years," George put in, eying Watanabe with just as much suspicion as Benio was. "Why would you want the cybodies to stay broken for six years?"
"In six years, I expect to convince the miko of the south to return and repair the last seal." Watanabe waited out their choked sounds of shock. "I don't think you understand just how precarious a position we're in right now. Kiraboshi had at least tentative agreements with a great many companies and nations. Those have come mostly undone in the wake of Samekh's rising and destruction. If any cybodies left the island now they would be picked off and destroyed by people who fear what they could do. Or even who just want to get a monopoly for themselves. Leon and I have enough money and influence to secure this island, but I can't make any promises at all if you leave it."
"And leaving the cybodies broken means all those people with itchy trigger fingers might not be as excited?" Tetsuya asked, eyes narrow.
"Exactly," Watanabe nodded, look as pleased as if she'd just gotten one of her through-the-glass kisses out of him. "Besides, we need to know more about them before we risk activating them out in the world again. Considering what we didn't know about Samekh."
Benio settled back on her heels. "That's actually a decent point," she allowed. "I'd still like to know what Head knew, and why he was the only one who did know."
"Samekh, at least, he learned about from his own father."
All five of them jerked around at the new voice, and Benio tensed as Chairman stepped out of the shadows of the machinery. Anyone with eyes knew that Chairman belonged to Head; what was he doing here now?
"Katashiro Ryousuke," Watanabe greeted him, with the same wary chill in her voice that Benio felt; on this, at least, they agreed. "Why are you here?"
A corner of his mouth quirked faintly. "I'm here to hand in my resignation, actually."
Slowly, Watanabe settled back against the console, and Benio's brows rose at that relaxation. "You were one of the original project personnel," Watanabe murmured. "You would leave all that behind to keep following Miyabi Reiji?"
"I've worked for Watanabe for almost twenty years, now," Chairman, Katashiro, said quietly, looking around the cavern with its machines and broken cybodies. "I fulfilled my contract, even when it was Tokio who really kept me here, even when I was part of a different faction than yours. But the project is done, now." He nodded at the papers in Filament's hands. "You know that, if you're drawing up new contracts."
"He's leaving, then?" Watanabe asked, eyes fixed on him like a hawk's.
Katashiro lowered his head, shoulders pulling in a little, like there was a weight on them. "I still believe he can be helped," he said, low. "But it won't happen here. I want Watanabe to let us both go."
"You're staying with him, even after all this?" George asked, incredulous, hand slashing out to take in all the cybodies broken in their desperate attempt to stop Samekh.
Katashiro's smile was bitter. "Once you're caught by one of that lineage, it's hard to even want to break free again." His eyes swept over them, dark and knowing. "As you've found out, with his son, I think."
Benio flinched back a step from that knowing look, from the lines of pain around the man's mouth. Would she ever look like that, over Takuto? She was grateful for the quick protection of George's arm around her shoulders, and the subtle support of Tetsuya's hand against her back, reminding her of what she still had. This was hers, through everything that had happened, and whatever she felt for Takuto wouldn't change it. "Maybe we do," she said, rallying, "but Takuto isn't the one who's crazy."
Katashiro snorted and pulled out a cigarette. "So maybe you'll have better luck than I did." He lit it and breathed out a steady stream of smoke, looking at Watanabe. "So?"
She nodded slowly. "Very well. You will take Miyabi Reiji, also known as Tsunashi Tokio, away from Southern Cross Island, and keep him away. For my part, I take responsibility for closing your contract. All severance and benefits will be forwarded to your account. We will take no action against Miyabi unless he makes another attempt on the cybodies."
Katashiro inclined his head. "Done." As he turned to go, though, Tetsuya stirred and called after him.
"Hey! If Head's dad was the one who told him about Samekh, why didn't Takuto know?"
Katashiro paused and looked over his shoulder, the end of his cigarette glowing as he breathed in. "If you had a son, and told him all about your mark, and the cybodies, only to find that the only value or wonder he could see in them was a chance to break the world so he could live in his own personal dream... wouldn't you be a little cautious about what you told the next heir?"
All of them were silent at that, and Katashiro's steps echoed softly all the way out of the cavern. Benio thought about just how crazy Head had to be, to do what he'd done, and how none of them had realized it until too late, and about other people who might just want to use the cybodies for their own purposes. Better Watanabe than another Head, that was for sure. And she was giving the drivers all rights, plus continued support, in return for sticking to the island. "What happens at the end of six years?" she asked, abruptly. "These contracts only say the Bank owns the cybodies for six years, and then you want to re-engage zero-time. What then?"
Watanabe shook herself, looking away from where Katashiro had vanished. "Then we re-negotiate," she said briskly. "Six years gives us time to be sure of each other's motives. And with zero-time re-engaged, some of the pressure will be off; I trust we'll be able to reach an agreement like sensible people, by then."
Benio looked at Tetsuya and George, head cocked. The boys looked at each other for a long moment before turning back to nod to her. She smiled, slow and bright. "All right. You have a deal, Watanabe. Filament will light the way, still."
Watanabe smiled back with obvious satisfaction. "Welcome back, then."
Benio took a pen from Secretary and signed, hearing the scratch and rustle of George and Tetsuya signing theirs. The back of her mind counted up divisions. Vanishing Age looked pretty defunct. The Adult Bank and the Science Guild were already accounted for, and now Filament. She doubted Emperor would reappear. That just left... "So, have you snapped up Ivrogne for this, yet?" she asked casually.
Watanabe touched a finger to her lips, coy. "One thing at a time, Shinada-san, one thing at a time."
After another day with no mysterious new events, the gossip on campus had died down and everyone had gone back cheerfully to their regular routines. Wako approved, in a general sort of way. But she did wish Kate would agree to expand her routine just a little bit.
Just a little. Really.
"The drama club will need another member, now that Endou-senpai is graduating," she coaxed, arm linked with Kate's as they walked down the broad brick path to the club building.
"You already got a new member this year," Kate pointed out, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at Takuto, walking behind them with Sugata.
Wako gave up on logic and descended to wheedling. "Pretty please?"
Well, at least it made Kate laugh. But her eyes were distant and sober when she said, "I like discovering things more than pretending things."
The way she'd had to pretend to be part of Kiraboshi for so long, right. Wako sighed. "Okay," she gave in, bumping her shoulder against Kate's. "But you'll walk home with us, won't you?"
"Yes," Kate agreed, smiling a little. "I'll do that." She stiffened beside Wako, though, pulling to a stop. Wako looked around hastily, and her own eyes narrowed as she spotted Watanabe-san sitting alone on one of the benches by the path.
"There you all are," Watanabe-san called, draping an arm over the back of the bench. "I've been waiting." There was something new about her voice, Wako thought; an arrogance that wasn't there when she spoke in class, no matter how casually self-centered she was then.
Kate stepped in front of them, hand slashing out to hold them back behind her. "What do you want, President?" she asked, and her voice had changed too. It was harder, lower, confident but edgy.
Watanabe-san chuckled. "Nothing dreadful, Ivrogne. I'm just here to ask what you and your fellow miko are planning to do, now."
"The cybodies are destroyed," Kate snapped, not even glancing around at them, and Wako realized how tense her friend was. "Why should we be planning to do anything?"
"Those broken cybodies are outside of zero-time, now," Watanabe-san pointed out, crossing her legs and leaning back. "It might not take mechanical support to regenerate them any more."
The boys had come to stand close at her back, and Wako felt both of them start at that. Slow, cold realization tightened around her heart. "Is it true?" she whispered.
"We couldn't repair Tauburn completely, but... yeah." Takuto stepped up beside her, looking down at her with worried eyes.
Sugata's hand closed on her shoulder as he stepped up on her other side. "That was what you wanted, wasn't it?" he asked Watanabe-san, voice cold. "Are you simply here to try to threaten the mikos into staying away?" His eyes narrowed. "Or is there something different you want, now?"
"You know, I wouldn't entirely object if Emperor returned," Watanabe-san murmured, full lips curved. "You have a good mind for these things. I assure you, though, I have no intention of threatening the mikos. I simply want to know what they plan to do."
"It isn't over, is it?" Wako asked, wrapping her arms around herself. She hadn't realized just how much she'd hoped that it was, that she could be free now. The realization that her duty was still waiting for her felt like someone hanging iron weights on her shoulders.
"Why shouldn't it be over for us, though?" Kate asked, spinning to face her, hands reaching out to catch hers. Wako saw the same desperate hope she'd felt, blazing in Kate's face. "The real threat is gone! Samekh is destroyed, out where no one will regenerate it again. Isn't it all right if the other cybodies are free, now?"
"That is your decision to make, now," Watanabe-san said softly. "No one else holds the marks to drive the miko cybodies. Is it time for the cybodies to be released? Or will you choose to contain them still?" Wako bit her lip, thoughts spinning. They could be free; but was that the right thing to do?
Sugata had his other hand on Kate's shoulder, now, drawing both her and Wako close as he locked eyes with Watanabe-san. "What will you do if the mikos do choose to leave zero-time unlocked?"
Watanabe-san examined her nails. "I'll scatter the parts of the cybodies as widely and secretly as I can. It will slow down research, but without the protection of zero-time that can't be helped."
"What?" Kate half turned, not letting go of Wako's hands, and stared. Watanabe-san shrugged.
"We aren't ready, yet. Not without knowing more than we do about the cybodies."
The words halted the spinning in Wako's head and she let out a slow breath. "I think that's right," she said quietly, and closed her eyes for a moment, opening her hands to let the future she'd almost had go.
"Wako," Kate whispered. Wako looked up and smiled, small and unsteady.
"Look at what everyone did with the suits, all this year. Lying and cheating and really trying to kill each other. That... that's what we're here to stop." She pressed a hand against the place where her mark had been; where she suspected it still was, if she only invoked it again with all of her will.
"But then we're the targets," Kate whispered. "I don't want to be afraid like that again."
Takuto, who had been watching them with quiet concern the whole time, rested his hands on Kate and Wako's shoulders, the same way Sugata was on their other side. "We'll protect you," he offered, soft and sure. "It'll be okay, Kate-san. I promise."
Kate bit her lip, looking up at him, and then at Sugata, who nodded firmly. When she finally looked back at Wako her eyes were wide and wet, but she swallowed hard said, husky, "All right. You're right. What happened this year... it shouldn't happen again." The slump to her shoulders felt just as defeated as Wako's own, though.
"Kiraboshi will protect you, as well," Watanabe-san murmured. "And I can give you a little time before you need to come back."
Wako frowned, stepping out from under the boys' hands to face Watanabe-san herself. "What do you mean? If the cybodies need to be in zero-time to be safe..."
Watanabe-san cocked her head and smiled up at Wako, wry. "Leon and I have a great deal of money, and that can buy security for a while. I don't want mikos who are pining and depressed, after all; you'd never be able to regenerate your cybodies in that condition. I can give you six years—time for college, or a career if you choose to be an idol singer." She pursed her lips and frowned critically. "Just make sure you don't take the first offer, if you do; you have a good enough voice to make them bid for you."
Wako looked over at Kate with wide eyes. Kate was opening and closing her mouth as if she wanted very much to say something but was sure what. "Why?" she finally ventured.
Watanabe-san held up her left hand, so that her wedding ring glinted in the sun. Her eyes stayed on the ring as she spoke. "I know something about sacrifices. Leon and I both... we made a promise, of faith and unity, and despite all appearances we'll hold to it. That's because we both think this marriage is worth what we pay to keep it." Finally, she looked back at Wako and Kate. "You should be sure that what you plan to do is worth what you pay."
"And you want someone else to be free, if you can make it happen," Takuto added, smiling. Watanabe-san shrugged and glanced aside, and Takuto's smile got a little softer. Somehow, that made Wako relax; Takuto was too chivalrous for his own good sometimes, but he was one of the best judges of character she'd ever met. If he thought Watanabe-san meant them well, she'd trust him.
Watanabe-san cleared her throat. "That reminds me! I have a present of sorts for you." Thinking about it seemed to please her, because she smiled, full and teasing as ever. "Professor Green tells me that there's no evidence the drivers of the miko cybodies actually need to be virgins." While all four of them were staring at her, off balance from the sudden non sequitur, she stood and brushed off her skirt. "Just something to think about." She waved her fingers at them and strolled back down the path toward the school. Wako caught her eye as she passed, gleaming and mischievous, and pressed her hands to her suddenly hot cheeks. A glance at Kate showed her friend's face was red too.
"I... need to talk to Okamoto-sensei," Kate said, a little strangled. "My club advisor. Yes. I'll... catch up with you later, okay?" She squeezed Wako's hand and broke into a run back up the path in Watanabe-san's wake, leaving Wako with the two boys.
The two boys who had their eyes locked on each other, and who wore matching tiny grins—the same ones they wore when they challenged each other with swords. Wako's eyes narrowed. Honestly, if the two of them started acting like she was some kind of prize in their personal competition again, she was going to smack them both!
"Wako! Sugata! Takuto!" Endou-senpai leaned out a window of the club building, yelling. "You're late!"
The boys didn't even twitch. Wako pressed a hand to her forehead, torn between laughing and groaning. "I'm going on without you," she told them loudly, hitching her bag over her shoulder and setting off down the path. As she'd more than half expected, that broke the deadlock and they scrambled to catch up and walk on either side of her. She rolled her eyes and caught both their hands. "Come on," she admonished. "We'd better run if we don't want Endou-senpai scolding us."
Sugata smiled, just the tiniest bit sheepish. Takuto swung their clasped hands and agreed cheerfully, "Okay!"
Wako couldn't help grinning back at them, and took off running, pulling them after her. "Come on!" In a few paces, they'd matched their strides to hers.
Wako was laughing when they reached the door.