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Peacetime - Part 1 of Symbiosis

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It was a classic Satsuki move, Ryuko decided, showing up on the doorstep unannounced, on an ordinary weekday, in the middle of breakfast.  Not that she or the rest of the Mankanshoku family minded, they were more than happy to call the kids in sick from school and spend the morning sitting around the table in the combined kitchen-dining room-den of their modest apartment catching up.  The half-eaten remains of breakfast had been forgotten by everyone but Mako (and Guts, who managed to sneak a nearly whole piece of toast off Mataro’s plate), and they crowded around their guest expectantly. It might have been Ryuko who did most of the talking, but the entire family was consumed by curiosity as to what she had to say.  A week hadn’t gone by in which Satsuki wasn’t on the news in some capacity, and word had it she was something like the de facto ruler of Japan; it was all very intriguing.  But more than that, with Ryuko now officially their adopted daughter Satsuki was practically family to.  How could they not be excited to get to know a new member of their family?

               “I apologize for not coming to visit sooner,” Satsuki said once the pleasantries were wrapped up, “Half a year… Well, it’s longer than I had planned to stay away.”

               “Nah, don’t sweat it, we knew you were way busy,” Ryuko responded, warm yet gruff just how Satsuki had remembered, “We watched whole the Geneva Trials, y’know.”

               “Yup, and we recorded ‘em too - oh and a bunch of other times you and Ira and the others were on the news,” Mako added, holding up a laptop coated with stickers of a myriad of colors, “It’s all right here if you wanna watch ‘em later!”

               “Hmm, perhaps I will, I never did see the recordings.”

               “So, exhonorated on all charges, huh?”  Barazo, launched in on the topic of the Geneva Trials, which had taken up Satsuki and her Elite Five’s (they were referred to publicly as the Elite Five now that Shiro’s secret membership had been revealed) first month following the war against the life fibers.

               “Well, except for Hououmaru, she was issued extensive psychiatric work to fully deprogram her from… her influence,” Ryuko nodded somberly at that, but the others either didn’t understand the full context or didn’t really remember who Hououmaru was because they just let the comment pass.  “But aside from her, it turned out in the end everyone was grateful enough to overlook our war crimes.”

               “Oh, c’mon Satsuki, we all know you wouldn’t have gone if you hadn’t seen that coming a mile away,” Satsuki pulled a face at this remark, thinking that by now Ryuko should have known that the self-serving, manipulative Satsuki Kiryuin of Honnouji was long gone. She shook her head sadly.

               “We killed a lot of people over the course of our mission, Ryuko.  If the world wanted to punish us for it, I would have gladly accepted the sentence.  Not only that, it was nice to finally tell our full story, and see how the world reacted to it,” The Mankanshoku family nodded at this, although they knew that there had been some choice omissions in the story, mostly personal details about some of the key players who wanted to avoid the public eye.  First on that list was Ryuko, about whom almost nothing had been said aside from what she looked like and what specifically she had done.  Satsuki actually thought this might have been a mistake in retrospect, for it only inflamed people’s curiosity until people around the world were demanding to know who The Girl Who Saved the World really was. 

               “You know what I really liked was the part where Houka and Shiro showed all the scientists the footage of all the fights,” Mataro exclaimed, “I’d never seen the one with you and Ryuko in Osaka, that was so cool!  I think my favorite part was when you knocked over the tower.”

               “Aw yeah, the good ol’ days eh Satsuki?” Ryuko quipped, and Satsuki let out her trademark lilting chuckle.  That battle had been her confirmation that she had created in Ryuko an expendable Kamui user who was her equal.  Her nuclear option.  And that moment when Ryuko had returned Bakuzan to her, that was… nice.  Satsuki hadn’t expected it, and back then she had hated unexpected things even more than she did now, but she’d felt a deep sense of pride knowing that she’d won the respect of such an indomitable woman.  More unexpected even than that, for the first time in years she wasn’t sure if she was comfortable with dying in the process of achieving her goal.  And when she’d felt Ryuko’s blood in Junketsu and saw how she’d felt about that exchange – well, she hoped there was no outward sign of the sudden fluttering she felt in her chest on remembering that.

               “I hope you aren’t still getting into fights so frequently, Ryuko,” Satsuki quipped dryly, and Ryuko, who had been lounging with an arm across the back of her chair, held up her hands defensively.

               “Huh?  Well no, I-,”

               “Nah, Ryuko never fights anyone who can’t fight back, and now there’s nobody who can fight back against her, right Ryuko?”  Mataro cut in enthusiastically, looking to Ryuko admiringly.

               “Yeah, what he said,” Ryuko relaxed again, reaching over to ruffle Mataro’s hair. “Although I did one time stare down a couple of seniors who were giving Mataro a hard time, but once they saw the red,” She twirled her red streak illustratively, “They were all apologies.”

               “Mmm, that only makes sense,” Satsuki said, “I hope it hasn’t been too tough on you all, with everyone knowing who you are.  I know that’s not what you wanted, and I did my best to make sure you would be able to live normal lives.”  She referenced what Ryuko had said to the crowd that gathered to greet them on the shores of Tokyo bay after the sinking of Honnouji Academy: “Everyone’s giving me the credit, so I won’t be modest:  I did save the world, me and Senketsu, that is.  But I don’t want any fame or fortune for what happened here.  Being free to live your life how you want, I think that’s worth saving, but it’s something I haven’t got the chance to do.  So that’s what I’d like to do now, if it’s not too much to ask.”  Satsuki had never seen Ryuko so subdued, and especially never seen her ask permission.  The adulation of the crowd seemed to have shocked her; her eyes were glassy and her voice soft and tremulous despite her smile.  But it had been so heartfelt that over the following month as Satsuki and the elites laid out the entire story to the world, they respected her wishes and kept quiet about her life without even consulting each other about it.

               “I don’t think Barazo or Mataro or myself have had any problems, what about you girls?”  Sukoyo said.

               “Well, it’s weird.  People are really nice nowadays, but they never seem to know how to act.  You can tell they’re trying to treat us like normal, but they aren’t very good at it.  Fer instance, they won’t even take my money at the coffee shop, so I just shove it in the tip jar and run,” Ryuko answered with a chuckle.

               “Are you really so surprised?”  Satsuki said, “They aren’t going to forget you.  If that’s all though, I’d consider you lucky.  There’s plenty out there who believe you’re a goddess, or something similar.  They’d never give you a moment’s peace.”

               “Ugh, don’t remind me.  Y’know they already won’t leave me the hell alone,” Ryuko groaned, “So many letters, you’d think they’d have realized by now that I don’t wanna visit the Pope or whatever.”

               “Free trip to Italy though,” Barazo quipped.

               “If you’d like to visit Italy, or anywhere else for that matter, the Kiryuin fortune is as much yours as mine,” Satsuki said, “You shouldn’t seriously consider any of their offers, anyway - the important thing is to avoid legitimizing them in any way.  Unless you want the world to think you’re Jesus, which could come in handy I suppose,” she joked back in case Barazo thought she hadn’t gotten that he was kidding.  This was a new trick she was practicing in hopes of combating her rather severe public image.

               “Yeah I think I’m good on that one,”  Ryuko said.

               “Indeed.  And what about the paparazzi?  They’ve been quite merciless to the elites and me.”

               “They were pretty annoying until I started flipping over their news vans whenever I saw them,” Ryuko said, with a dismissive wave of the hand, “It took about a week, but they eventually figured it out.”

               “They did get some pretty good pictures of me and Ryuko before that though,” Mako cut in with her usual verve.

               “Pictures?  What kind of – wait, I can imagine.  I can have a team of lawyers on finding whatever tabloid took those and get them expunged –,”

               “No no really it’s fine!”  Ryuko said awkwardly, her face flushing up a little, “That was months ago, nobody cares about that anymore.”

               “Are you sure?  It’s no problem at all.”

               “Yup, positive,” Ryuko said, and Mako affirmed that, saying, “It’s no biggie”.

               “Well, it’s good to hear your powers seem to be stable.”

               “I’m at the peak of superhuman health, what can I say?”  Ryuko chuckled, back to cool and casual, “at least I think I am, Houka and Shiro are always saying I should come by their lab for a checkup, but I’ve been putting it off.”

               “You know, you really should…”

               “Well, nothing hurts, and they aren’t mad about it or anything.  You’re not gonna nag me about this too, are you?”  Ryuko said in a kidding tone, but Satsuki could tell she was serious underneath that.

               “Of course not.”

               “Good, cuz we’ve already got a mom around here, and you just got here and you’re on my case more than she is.”  Everyone had a good chuckle at that one, even Satsuki, though she was just a little worried that Ryuko’s joke contained a shred of truth.  Ryuko will be Ryuko after all, she won’t do things how I would, and I just have to get used to that.

               “Still, it’s nice that you guys get to see them so often.”

               “Oh yeah, it’s like twenty minutes by train to their lab so they come by all the time.”

               “And they are so cyuute together,” Mako gushed, to chuckles from everyone, “always bickering but you can tell they love each other under it all.”

               “I am well acquainted with that, I had to put up with it for four years you may recall.  Although you really should see them working in the lab together, they’re a well-oiled machine.”

“That only makes sense, considering they were in college for like two weeks before they dropped out they must really know their stuff,” Ryuko said.

“Mmm, there was nothing left for them to learn from it, so I’ve heard.  They know what they’re good at, can’t fault them for that.  And what about the others, do you see any of the rest that often?  Tsumugu and Aikuro both work at the lab too, but I know your friendship with them has been… on and off, so…”

               “Nah that’s all water under the bridge.  Tsumugu is my MMA instructor, so I’d say I see him pretty damn often.  We get along great now. And Aikuro’s actually a lot better now too,” Ryuko said, and Satsuki’s eyebrows crept upwards in surprise.

               “Well that’s a relief.  His reputation was less than spotless where you were concerned.”

               “Oho yeah I know what you mean, but now that he’s got women his own age to chase after he’s not so bad.  He’s like that stereotypic cool but sketchy uncle, you know what I mean.”

               “Actually, I’m not so sure I do. Is this a common social phenomenon?”

               “Uhh nah, it’s mostly just a joke but every so often you see a real one,” Man she’s out of touch, I guess that’s what you’d expect but still it must suck to have to learn all this simple shit. “Well, anyway, he’s brought around like three or four girlfriends in the six months we’ve been here.”

               “Yeah they’re like women version of him – It’s pretty weird actually,” Mako added.

               “Mmm, I can imagine.  Well, if he’s happy with that lifestyle and they are as well then good for him, especially if it makes him more fun to be around for you all.”

               “You really are a new Satsuki, aren’t you?  Once upon a time you would have said he lacked ambition.”

               “I still might, but if that’s his ambition, then what do I have to criticize?”

               “I suppose so.  Oh, and on that topic did you know Tsumugu got himself hitched?”

               “Hitched?”

               “Married,” Mako said in explanation, “Yeah he got married like a month ago.  Apparently, he’d had a girlfriend in Nudist Beach all through the war and no one ever knew because they were both so serious they never let on even once!”

               “Why, I had no idea,” Satsuki said, letting out a breathy laugh of genuine astonishment, “And he didn’t have a wedding or anything?  I know he didn’t just not invite me – Houka and Shiro would have told me.”

               “Oh no they just had a little dinner with just us and a few people from the lab and Nudist Beach – still can’t believe they called themselves that,” Ryuko said, “and when we were all seated he just told us they were married.  At first nobody even believed him.”

               “Well I’d believe it, that’s very like him.”

               “No yeah it totally is.  Anyway, I’m sure you’ll meet his wife, Aoi, eventually.  She’s way to serious for her own good and is like always reading.  You’ll get along great.  Aside from them, Takaharu and Omiko are in college in Tokyo so we’ve gone to visit them once in a while –,”

               “And don’t forget Ira!”  Mako interrupted.

               “I was getting to him Mako, don’t worry,” Ryuko smiled back, “Yeah he’s a few hours away by train so we don’t see him that often, but he’s been by plenty and went to look at his family’s ironworks once.  He said he also does work for you too, didn’t really say what but that’s alright.”

               “Oh, he mentioned that?  I’m surprised he even said that much.  Gamagoori is actually my head of security, he works remotely so that nobody can find his identity or trace anything to him.”

               “No shit,” Ryuko responded while Mako made an extended “ohh” noise, “Wait, you still need bodyguards and shit?  Who would even want to try anything, everybody loves you, right?”

               “It’s just a precaution, one can never be too safe,” Satsuki replied with the didactic air of someone repeating a proverb.  Technically it’s true.  No need to worry them with all the rest now, Ryuko wouldn’t take it well.

               “Makes sense,” Ryuko said, “It’s like with the boys and their lab, why let his talent in that department go to waste?”

               “Indeed.  If you get that, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that all of the former elites are still working with me.”

               “Wait, all of them?  But I thought Shiro and Houka owned the lab with Aikuro and Tsumugu.”

               “And Nonon is the CEO of Sony now isn’t she?” Mako asked, almost at the same time.

               “And I thought the Sanageyama boy was touring Europe going to martial arts tournaments,”  Barazo said, putting a thoughtful hand to his meaty chin.

               “All of that is true.  Nonon took over the Sony megacorp as heiress to the Jakuzure dynasty – because I placed her parents and older brother under house arrest for the rest of their natural lives.  She is currently running the tech giant into the ground the same way I am doing the Kiryuin conglomeration.  In a few years all her dynasty’s misbegotten wealth will be spent on charitable works and building projects, and the factories and other raw materials will be sold to small, manageable companies run by people with their priorities together, and she will retire.”

               “Geez, when you said she’d be taking over the family business I hadn’t thought it would be a hostile takeover,” Ryuko quipped.

               “It wasn’t so hostile as you’d think, nobody was really in the mood to say no.  Now Uzu, yes, he is competing in tournaments in Europe.  But with tengantsu and shingantsu he’s essentially unbeatable to ordinary humans, so he just fights exhibitions matches and coaches other fighters.  What he’s really there for isn’t the tournaments though; in every country he meets with the heads of state, oligarchs, or whoever holds power and acts as my high-level diplomat.  His combat skills have proven invaluable, especially with the Americans and English when he had to stand up to their despots.”  The table now rang with a chorus of “ohhs”.

               “Wait, you trust Uzu to with all that?”  Ryuko said with a chuckle, “Like, no offense to the guy, but I didn’t think he’d be able to sit still through all the meetings and shit.”

               “Peaceful diplomacy is ninety percent personality.  I can assure you Uzu has the brain power for the other ten.”

               “Okay, that’s fair enough, I’ll accept it.  And I bet Houka and Shiro’s lab is also under your control as well.”

               “Well, technically it is government owned, but before the government was up and running I was their first donor.  And they still report all their findings to me before anyone else.  And believe me, that arrangement is working out well for you; if we didn’t have the world’s best life fiber scientists in our inner circle we wouldn’t be able to background check other scientists studying it and you’d have all sorts of disreputable characters claiming to be scientists trying to get their hands on you.”

               “Geez, alright.  So, you guys have been rebuilding the government, dismantling megacorps, doing diplomacy with other countries, and researching the life fibers.  Sure sounds like enough to keep you busy.”

               “As a point of technicality, I’m also working on my PhD.  Either way, I know you accepted my apology for staying away for so long but -,”

               “-Wait, hold on, you’re getting a PhD too?  What the fuck Satsuki how do you even have the time!”

               “Delegation Ryuko, there’s no real trick to it.”

               “Yeah alright, you keep saying that,” Ryuko joked snarkily.  By now Mako had finished her plate and had moved on to Ryuko’s, and Barazo and Mataro were picking at their half-finished breakfasts hungrily.  Satsuki hadn’t failed to notice this, and after she told them they didn’t have to stop eating for her sake they finished with relief.  Sukoyo stood up then too, telling Satsuki that she would fix her up something.  Satsuki started to tell her it wasn’t necessary, but Sukoyo had already put bread in the toaster and was busily cutting an orange.  When she finished with Satsuki’s breakfast and the others had taken second helpings, the conversation turned to the Mankanshoku’s lives in Kanagawa.  Rinne High was apparently working out well; Mataro had already made a strong impression with the local delinquents even as a freshman, thanks in no small part to the skills acquired when he survived on his own during the war. Mako’s bookkeeping experience from her time as fight club president was paying off too, she ranked top of her class in mathematics and not too far behind in other subjects either.  Ryuko seemed fairly ambivalent about the whole thing, Satsuki suspected that she wasn’t finding it any more interesting than she had her previous schooling.  At least she had friends this time, a small group of kids who either weren’t afraid of her fame or were enamored by it.  They all had lots of stories to tell, and Satsuki was charmed by the quaint peacefulness of it.  She could have sat there listening all day.

               It was about ten O’clock when their conversation was interrupted by a buzzing on the intercom.  Mako leapt up, clapping her hands together, but nobody else looked too surprised or excited.

               “Mail’s here!”  Mako shouted, running over to the intercom and shouting into it, “We’ll be right down!”

               “Do they always let you know when the mail arrives?”  Satsuki asked, standing up with the rest of the family as they began putting their shoes on.

               “Well, we get a lot of mail,” Ryuko answered, “C’mon, you’ll appreciate this.”

 

               Down in front of the apartment a medium-sized delivery truck was parked, the driver standing by its rear door expectantly.  Ryuko was the first one out, and when he saw her he bowed deeply at the waist.

               “Lady Ryuko,” He quavered reverentially.  In turn, she groaned and straightened him out by the shoulders, giving him a friendly pat when he was back upright.

               “How ya doin’ Touma?  Another full truck for us?”  He nodded in response.  “Hey, I got someone for you to meet.”  She motioned to Satsuki, who was standing on the curb with the rest of the family.  Satsuki raised an eyebrow as she stepped up. “Touma, meet Satsuki Kiryuin.  Satsuki, this is Touma Itou.”  Touma’s eyes goggled and his aged, stooping shoulder trembled as they shook hands.

               “The L-lady S-satsuki?”  He stammered, “I-it is an honor, My Lady.”

               “It’s very nice to meet you,” Satsuki replied with a warm smile.

               “Alright, stand back now folks,” Ryuko said, waving a hand to direct them back to the curb a few yards away from the truck where the Mankanshoku’s were standing expectantly.  When they were in place Ryuko threw open the rear door with a metallic clunk, revealing cardboard boxes and letter bags stacked to the ceiling.  She began efficiently unloading the truck into an open parking space while Satsuki watched with openmouthed surprise (for Satsuki just a slight parting between her lips constituted an expression of utter shock) at the sheer volume of correspondence.  Once she was done unloading she gave Touma another pat on the back and sent him on his way.

               “Alright, now usually Barazo unpacks this stuff and then it just sits here all day until we get home from school and sort it, but today we’ll just do it now, so you can see what’s inside,” Ryuko said, slapping her hands together as the truck ambled off.  Satsuki had to admit she was dying to see what was inside; she’d gathered that it was fan-mail, but she hadn’t expected such a volume.  I don’t think I get even half this much, but then I never see it since it all goes to my publicist.

               “And they just let you leave it here?”

               “Well yeah, its basically a feature of the street at this point.  Besides, they know who it belongs to.”

               “A feature… Wait, how often does this happen?”

               “Every day except Sunday man,” Ryuko said, tearing off the top of the first box with her bare hands and beginning to rifle through rows of carefully wrapped paintings. Oh, in that case I don't think I get even a tenth of what Ryuko does, Satsuki realized. “Hey stand back alright?”  Ryuko barked when Satsuki began walking forward to check out the paintings.

               “I don’t understand, why do we have to stay over here?”

               “One time there was a letter-bomb, so we have Ryuko open them over there for safety!”  Mako said with undue enthusiasm.

               “A letter-bomb?  From who?”  Satsuki shouted with alarm.

               “Who knows?  That’s the sort of stuff you have to deal with when you’re famous, I guess,” Ryuko grunted, bringing the first box over, “this one’s clean, take a look.”

               As Satsuki had expected, the box contained a profusion of artworks from fans around the world, in all manner of styles.  There were Ryukos drawn in manga and western comic book styles, Ryukos painted in exquisite portraits, even Ryukos painted like religious devotionals, with halos pointing out behind Senketsu’s shoulder spines.  Also present were plenty of paintings of Mako, Satsuki, the Elites, some combination of the above, and an unfamiliar looking dark-haired, scruffy man that Satsuki realized was supposed to be Senketsu, as interpreted by people who hadn’t gotten that he wasn’t human.  And that was only the beginning; over the next hour they unpacked so many paintings and sculptures that Satsuki lost count, and they soon began to spill out from the parking spots so that traffic had to swerve around.  There was clothing too, some for every member of the family, and plenty of random objects and gifts too.  While they were working pedestrians paused to watch, and with some encouragement from the family many of them began perusing the artworks and taking ones that appealed to them.  Ryuko had moved on the letters now, skimming through them quickly and precisely, tongue sticking out a little in concentration.  While she worked she mumbled to herself, “cult shit, cult shit, cult shit, real person, cult shit,” and laid the envelopes into piles based on that.  Whenever she came upon one with money in it she tossed the bills to whichever pedestrian was nearest, which was most commonly received with a great deal of bowing and scraping but every so often with a hug, which always brought a little smile to her face even when she was getting worn out.  It was without question one of the oddest rituals Satsuki had ever witnessed, but as she watched the locals hurrying off with their painting and little statues of The Girl Who Saved the World cradled in their arms she was sure she could feel a sort of connection between them and Ryuko.  It reminded her of nothing more than the feeling she’d had on the shore of Tokyo bay the day of the graduation ceremony, and that only made sense.

               The Mankanshoku family made light of the work, probably in no small part because Ryuko had taken the boring task of sorting the letters upon herself.  By the time everything was sorted, they had spent a great deal of time gushing over the higher quality works, and Satsuki had joined in.  Some of the standouts were an oil portrait of Ryuko that was nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, even getting her gear shaped pupils right, a set of stylized soapstone sculptures of Ryuko, Satsuki, Mako, the Elites, Aikuro, and Tsumugu whose bases fit together so that they all posed together, and a shockingly lifelike picture of Ryuko and Satsuki kissing which she really didn’t like looking at but which Mataro described as “pretty sick, actually” until Mako slapped him around a little bit.  Satsuki couldn’t help wondering aloud what would even compel someone to send someone something like that.  Ryuko nonchalantly told her it was far from the weirdest thing they’d ever gotten.  Eventually everything had been sorted, but the passersby had barely made a dent in the piles of paintings, even the good ones.  As for the letters Ryuko had sorted them into two messy piles: one a mere foot and a half deep and the other spilling up almost to her armpits.

               “So, what do you do with the rest?”

               “Well, the clothing goes to the local clothes drive, which I believe was set up by the Kiryuin Foundation, so thanks for that, the paintings and shit go to the local souvenir shops who sell ‘em to tourists, and the letters…”  She gestured first to the larger pile, then to the small, “Those go straight to recycling, and these go to our publicist and he sends out form letters to everyone.”

               “Oh, so you do have a publicist,”

               “Well, he actually approached us when he heard Mako and Mom were trying to read them all themselves.  He lives around here, works for us for free too, you know.”

               “I see," Satsuki said, pondering for a moment how odd it was to hear Ryuko refer to Sukoyo as Mom, although it was technically correct since the Mankanshoku’s had officially adopted her, “Then, you won’t mind if take a painting for myself, will you?”

               “Help yourself, hell, take as many as you can we sure don’t need ‘em.”

               “I’m afraid there’s just one I had my eye on,” Satsuki said, picking it up from where it was stacked.  A detailed but still highly impressionistic watercolor of Honoujji, with a corresponding letter explaining that it was made by an artist who had been on the Tokyo waterfront when the Cocoon Sphere Genesis happened, depicting the first thing he’d seen when he came to after being returned to Earth.  The sky was dark and stormy, the sea chopped by monstrous whitecaps, and the broken towers of Honoujji bleak and dark, but despite it all the scene was awash with color.  Crimson trails flowed through the sky; the rest of humanity returning to life, but one among them, streaking right down towards Honoujji, outshone all the rest with brilliant golden flames.  And it was matched by a bold floodlight that shone out from Honoujji area, illuminating the storm clouds with brilliant, heavenly beams.  The painter confided in his letter than he had no idea what was happening in the picture, but something about the image was so marvelous that he couldn’t get it out of his head.

               “Ooh pretty,” Mako gushed, “That’s lady Satsuki for you, she’s got a taste for the finer things.”

               “Yeah, good pick,” Ryuko said, cheeks just a little rosy.  The artist may not have known what the painting was of, but Ryuko sure did.  She was touched that it was the moment Satsuki chose to take with her, even if she’d never admit it, “That’ll look great framed.”

               “Indeed.  I already have the perfect place in mind for it.”

Chapter Text

Although Kill La Kill is decidedly sparse on worldbuilding and very fluid with its rules, the context clues pieced together through the show provide us good indication that Honoujj Academy is only somewhat more dystopian than the rest of the world.  Where is all the journalism about the human rights violations at Honoujji?  Why didn’t any national military intervene on the tri-city raid trip?  Why are Ragyo, Satsuki, and other scions of vast megacorps treated like royalty?  Why are roving gang-armies of hundreds of kids rampaging across the countryside? When Rei Hououmaru says in the OVA that theirs is a world where the strong trample the weak without any shred of sympathy it seems to be an understatement of how dysfunctional the setting is.  Answering these questions opens up possibilities for a new near-future sci-fi setting far beyond the scope of the original series.

 

The year is 2064.  None of the problems threatening modern society have improved, in fact things have gotten a whole lot worse.  The number of functional democracies left in the world could be counted on one hand; dynastic megacorps, despots, and oligarchs rule over the rest with iron fists.  In Japan the semblance of public order is maintained only by the military academies that police the cities under oaths of loyalty to two great clans:  the Kiryuins and the Takaradas.  In this neo-feudalist society, the value of human life is almost nil; rulers give scarcely a thought to their subjects besides how they could be of use, blood sports are common, and beneath the rich and middle class lies a vast underclass that barely scrapes by.  Meanwhile, urban sprawl and utter environmental negligence have devastated much of the world.  The great old cities are drowning, deserts expand at a slow creep across the land, and in the face of this grave threat the world has turned a blind eye.  Everywhere there are signs that things cannot continue as they have, but the correct combination of power and will to act that could make a change does not seem to exist.  Nobody is saying it, but a great many people are finally, belatedly realizing that things aren’t going to just get better.  Humanity has reached the peak of its evolution, the only place to go from here is down.

Then, suddenly, everything changed.  The whole world was whisked away with scarcely any warning to experience the sublime horror of the Cocoon Sphere Genesis.  When they were returned to Earth an eternity or a mere instant later, the whole thing was so inconceivable that at first nearly every human on earth was convinced that they had just had some sort of hallucinatory stroke.  That was until they talked to each other and realized that they all remembered the same prison of flesh and needles and the same gruff, vitriolic woman’s voice that cut through it like a pure beam of hope; then they realized that they had been saved from a fate worse than death by that mysterious woman whose voice none of them would ever be able to forget.  Everything had been returned to the way it was, but life could never be the same again.  Around the world a sort of spiritual sense rose in a great many people; in the face of such a brush with calamity, it felt like a second chance to make things right.  At last, power and will to act had met in the indomitable women and men of Honoujji.  What’s more, the power of the life fibers, like nuclear power before it, could not simply be set aside and forgotten.  Together, these great forces now at last stood poised to transform the world and save it all over again.

This is the story of how that happened.

Chapter Text

 

It was on Satsuki’s second visit to the Mankanshoku’s that she inadvertently learned how Ryuko had really been passing the six months since the war ended.  This time, the family had wrung out a promise from her that she would stay for the weekend, and since she couldn’t justify being idle for so long she brought along Soroi and a mountain of paperwork.  When Saturday evening rolled around, she gladly turned the guest bedroom over to Soroi to spare his ageing back, and so found herself coiled up on the living room sofa.  It must’ve been about midnight when she was shaken awake by night terrors, the usual ones, after which she just couldn’t get back to sleep.  Her mind was busy with nagging thoughts from the day before.  It had been a pleasant day by any measure, one spent ambling around the local park (Barazo and Sukoyo had offered to take them someplace more upscale, but she’d graciously turned that down), then splitting off with Ryuko and Mako to check out the shops in the mall and catch up.  It felt like an eternity since she’d spent so long doing so little, probably a month since her last get-together with the former elite five, and although she was still unused to shopping just for the fun of it she didn’t feel so awkward with such enthusiastic coaches.

But there was a detail that was troubling her: they were dating.  You couldn’t ignore it; on top of all those little glances and touches that went on just a moment too long, they were constantly picking out clothing for each other the showed a scandalous amount of skin and shared a changing stall even when they were trying on bathing suits.  What’s more, and this might’ve been most uncomfortable, Ryuko, who was famously modest even when she learned to synchronize with Senketsu, let Mako grope her just about wherever she pleased.  Satsuki knew from the days of the war that Mako was the only one who could get away with that without at the very least bruises, but she’d thought nothing of it then.  And to top it off, when she’d been given a tour of the apartment, to see what the family had made of the Kiryuin Foundation stipend they received (Satsuki had offered to give them enough to live at any lifestyle they might desire, but Barazo and Sukoyo had graciously turned that down, saying “we learned our lesson on that one”) she couldn’t help but notice that Ryuko and Mako’s room had but a single bed.

               And how did she feel about all this?  During the day Satsuki had known she was happy for them, that they were adorable together, that they deserved to be happy together.  Now, in the late-night gloom with the oppressive thrum of a less than effective AC unit grinding at her ears, she wasn’t so sure.  The burn of jealousy clawed at her chest, and Satsuki realized that she wanted what they had together.  This was the source of the listless feeling that had been growing since the end of the war; though she’d kept occupied first with the trials and then with rebuilding the country and getting her degree it still felt like she was sleepwalking through it.  She could stab out in any direction and find something worth fixing, and all she had to do was tell people her name and sign a check and it would get done, but then the next day there would be something else to do until it all blurred together.  She didn’t have anything or anyone that really satisfied her, a part of her life that was just for her and not for the sake of others.  She’d tried, but where was she even supposed to begin?  She’d been taught all her life etiquette and how to speak properly and taught herself how to make others do what she wanted, but how could she learn how to just talk to people?  They never seemed to understand, or maybe she could never make herself understood, even when she was saying something simple and every-day.  Even with Soroi and her eiltes, she could never quite tell them she was feeling listless, lacking direction, lonely.  Only Ryuko had understood, only she had that same furious demand for action, a perpetual motion towards something, something Satsuki had assumed was the completion of her mission but now knew extended beyond that.  But did Ryuko remember, or had her mission somehow come to a close for real this time?

I know it’s wrong to live for myself, especially when I have such a chance to do so much for the world, but I wish I knew how to have just a little bit of that?  How does Ryuko do it?  She’s the happiest I’ve ever seen her, she’s in love, and she’s got a whole life to look forward to after that and I… I feel like everything important in my life is already over and I don’t know what to do. And here I thought she wanted to be with me, I know she did, at least for that day we spent on the Naked Sol when we finally made up and I felt her blood in Junketsu.  Was it really that short?  She knew it was wrong, and back then she was so frustrated by that she almost didn’t care, but maybe it was just a passing fancy brought on by something I said?  It felt so much more real than that though. Agh, dammit Satsuki, stop thinking like that – it doesn’t matter what she felt then, how much you think you understand her – that you would even entertain the notion proves there’s something wrong with your mind.  Admit it: Ragyo did something to you, and you can’t bring yourself to face up to it.  Pathetic –,”

Satsuki was broken from her self-disgusted reverie by the sound of footsteps in the hall, someone coming her way.  Her well trained ears immediately pricked up; the bathroom was in the other direction, so whoever was up was doing something specific, maybe something interesting.  She’d expected to hear Mako or Barazo going to the fridge for a midnight snack, but the footfalls were fast, precise, heavy, and doing a bad job at staying quiet.  Ryuko.  Satsuki kept still, eyes an almost imperceptible crack away from shut, waiting to see why Ryuko was trying to avoid disturbing her.  When she came into view in the middle of the living room Satsuki shut her eyes and tried to appear to be sleeping, but not before she got a glimpse of Ryuko fully dressed in her white trainers, bomber jacket, and loose athletic shorts. Her hair was spiked up not unlike the way it used to whip around when she activated Kamui Senketsu, showing its shiny crimson underside. So, she is sneaking out, Satsuki thought, not sure if she was angry or oddly charmed, You haven’t changed a bit, have you Ryuko.  She paused for a moment there, presumably to check if Satsuki really was asleep, then did something Satsuki hadn’t foreseen.  Satsuki heard the glass door to the narrow balcony slide open and popped open her eyes just in time to see Ryuko vault of the railing in one smooth motion, a silhouette against the dull magenta of the city night that was gone so quickly Satsuki wasn’t sure she’d really seen it.  Ryuko could obviously survive such a fall, she was still as super-human as ever, but Satsuki bolted over to the balcony anyway, just to see her jogging along the near-empty street seven stories below.

If she knew I was awake and is trying to lose me, I’d better get moving.  Satsuki had already decided that she would follow Ryuko, although she wasn’t quite sure why.  She envisioned herself bursting in on Ryuko in a bustling bar, chewing her out for being derelict in her commitment to her schoolwork and for violating the trust of her adopted family – but no, that wouldn’t do.  Maybe she’d just pull her aside quietly and have a nice, calm chat about what she was up to.  Hopefully she would be able to keep her temper, it would kill her to go back to her old antagonistic relationship with her estranged sister.  She quickly grabbed everything she’d need: shoes, phone, wallet, jacket, hair ties.  It was lucky that she chose to sleep in shorts and an undershirt, so as soon as her shoes were on she slid out the door and bolted down the stairwell.  Fortunately, Ryuko was still visible down the street, and when she turned at an intersection Satsuki had a solid idea that she was heading downtown.  She couldn’t catch up with her, but she could take shortcuts.

Ryuko wasn’t hard to follow, she was running at a roughly human rate and using the main roads along the most obvious route.  All Satsuki had to do was jog along one street away from her and check at each intersection that she was still on track.  She was sure she wouldn’t be spotted: regular training ensured her athletics were just as sharp as ever, and she could blend into the night and the other pedestrians unerringly.  Street by street the tree lined boulevards and bland but quaint apartment complexes gave way to the shining storefronts and cool metal of the center city.  She was getting into a good rhythm after a few minutes, so she almost missed it when Ryuko suddenly stopped, tilted her head, and turned off in a completely different direction at a breakneck pace.  Satsuki had no time to ponder what had set her off, as she quickly ground to a halt and set off after her.  This was perhaps the most difficult part of her night’s exercise because while Ryuko ran with reckless abandon, dashing between pedestrians and even smoothly hurdling over cars with a speed only she could achieve, Satsuki had to hang back and jog, not just because she didn’t want to look odd to pedestrians but also because she knew she couldn’t keep up.  It was grueling, but she managed to keep Ryuko mostly in sight until she disappeared down an alley.  Peering down the alley, Satsuki saw something she hadn’t expected at all.

“Back off, or else,” Ryuko said flatly, staring down a hulking, unshaven brick of a man who brandished a short switchblade.  Behind her, pressed up against the wall, stood a messy-haired young man with glasses and the look of being too drunk to be out on his own this late.

“Get lost bitch, this is none of your business.”

“I’m making it my business.  Last warning.”  Rather than respond, the mugger thrust out his knife straight for Ryuko’s gut.  Satsuki gasped, no longer worried about drawing attention to herself, but there was no cause for concern.  Somehow the knife was in Ryuko’s hand, and she slid right up into his face tauntingly.  The red in her hair glinted like garnet

“Oh god, it’s you!”  He hissed in a panic, falling to his knees and shouting that he was sorry.

“Yup.  I warned you, you know.  Now you don’t get off so easy.”  She pushed the mugger with one hand, and his back hit the ground like he’d been tackled.  Recovering from having the wind knocked out of him meant that he couldn’t run while Ryuko turned away, wrenched a rusty pipe off the wall, and wrapped it around his torso and arms until he was totally contained.  With the long ends of the pipe threading out from his sides he couldn’t even stand up.  Satsuki couldn’t help but be impressed by the inventiveness, and by Ryuko’s conscientiousness as she asked the young man she’d saved if he was able to get home on his own, then called the cops to pick up the mugger.  She was even more flabbergasted when she heard her exchange with the police operator.

“Hey it’s me… I’m alright, got a guy for you… yeah, he tried to mug a kid and tried to stab me… nobody’s hurt, he’s restrained, and the kid called a friend to pick him up…  Uh huh… Yeah you can come pick him up whenever, he’s not going anywhere… alright, talk to you soon.”

Once that was take care of, Ryuko turned back out of the alley and Satsuki barely had the time to pull her head around the corner.  Fortunately for her, when Ryuko walked past she didn’t think to turn, or she would have seen Satsuki pressed up against the cool brick of the wall in a less than dignified manner.  Instead she tilted her head and set off at once again at an inhuman sprint.  Satsuki sighed, and after a quick stretch she set off after her.

She needed to see what Ryuko was going to do next.  But there was no way even she could keep up with her forever.  And the night was still young.

 

For the next few hours (the adrenaline of the breathless chase made Satsuki uninterested in the time) Satsuki did her best to keep up as Ryuko bustled around the city and the nearby suburbs intervening in other situations that could make use of her talents.  She stopped a few more muggings and armed robberies, pulled a few people out of car wrecks, even sprinted a man in the throes of an overdose to the hospital.  After that one Satsuki was sure she’d lost track for her for good, Ryuko had departed at inconceivable speeds the moment she realized an ambulance wouldn’t arrive in time.  One moment she was there and the next there was only a gusty shockwave blasting trash around the street.  Satsuki, crouching behind a dumpster almost a block away down the deserted street, had sighed and relaxed her shoulders for the first time that night. 

Nothing left to do but return home, but she didn’t feel right about it.  So many questions about why and how Ryuko had taken it upon herself to police the city, and more importantly she needed to figure out how she felt about it.  She knew something about it didn’t sit right, it felt odd that she had to sneak out, and if she was sneaking out even when guests were over she must’ve been doing so frequently.  So she was probably not getting enough sleep, and Satsuki knew full well how that could drag down the rest of one’s life.  What’s more, her detached, dead serious attitude throughout the night was disconcerting, Satsuki hadn’t even thought it possible for Ryuko to suppress her emotions and she couldn’t shake the sense that something was wrong.  On the other hand, how could she criticize, what even was there to criticize?  This was exactly what someone with incomparable strength, speed, and reflexes should be doing with their time, and Ryuko was by all indications very good at it.  Satsuki felt a vicarious pride from the heaping gratitude Ryuko scarcely accepted, and the groveling terror of wrongdoers that she barely acknowledged.

She’s like a superhero.

Satsuki was about to get up and start walking back to the apartment when she heard a faint whistling, which was followed by a tremendous whoosh of air that slapped her face like a cold breeze.  She peered out from her hiding place and, no surprise, Ryuko was standing there as if she’d never left, minus the man she’d saved.  As simple and serious as ever she tilted her head to the side once more and was off, and with a degree of relief that surprised even herself Satsuki followed on after her.  Their night’s travel continued, and Satsuki took care to note any signs of expressiveness on Ryuko’s part.  Only once did Ryuko show a shred of happiness, when she busted through a window to perform CPR on an elderly woman who’d just had a heart attack, restoring her to consciousness before the ambulance had arrived.  Satsuki had felt herself choking up then and was happy to see Ryuko smile momentarily as she eased her patient into a chair to wait for the paramedics. Likewise, there was only one time when Ryuko got truly angry, when she intervened on a rape.  That one was more than understandable, Satsuki couldn’t even bring herself to look, but from where she stood around the corner she could hear Ryuko deliver such a punch that the thin clink of the perpetrator’s teeth on the asphalt echoed for almost a minute.  She could also hear Ryuko’s heavy, seething breaths and an utterly disgusted growl that nearly reached into the shouting range.  Once again, she felt such a turmoil of sympathy for Ryuko for subjecting herself to this repeatedly and pride in her for the very same thing that she had no idea what to make of it all.

It was about 45 minutes after that event, the sky now showing early signs of dawn, when Ryuko suddenly stopped in her jogging and, rather than tilt her ear towards the next spot of trouble, she turned all the way around with a deeply concerned look on her face.  She took out her phone, scrolled for a moment, and slapped a hand to her forehead.

“Ah crap, a big one tonight’s the last thing I need,” She muttered to herself and then, just as suddenly as the last time she engaged her top speed, she was gone.  Satsuki slumped down frustratedly; this time she had definitely lost Ryuko.  It was about time to go home anyway, she figured, but then her phone buzzed repeatedly until she had no choice but to answer it.  Once she had there was no doubt where Ryuko had gone.

*Emergency Bulletin: Highway Access bridge #7 has collapsed.  Avoid all travel in the area until further notice. *

 

The situation on the bridge was as bad as Satsuki had feared.  Crowds were gathered at both sides, cars, rubble, and rescue boats were scattered in the river below, and on both sides of the collapse and all across an isolated, still-standing central column a mess of suspension cables ran like spiderweb, ensnaring dozens of cars and even a bus.  Satsuki hurriedly threw a wad of cash to the taxi driver who had gotten her to the edge of the crowd in exchange for the promise that he would wait for her to come back and waded in urgently.  On the ride over the night’s exercise had finally caught up with her, and she stumbled occasionally, provoking angry responses from all around.  She did manage to get to the front eventually, standing right along the police barricade where paramedics were busy ushering survivors out of the way.  As she scanned around, she couldn’t help but notice Ryuko’s name coming up frequently in the crowd’s breathless chatter, and plenty of the names and titles that she was known by as well.  She was definitely here.

“Where’s she gone this time?”

“She’s on the center, getting that blue van, you see there?”  The bystanders were pointing, and when Satsuki followed their fingers and spotted it: a van teetering on the edge of the island platform.  It shifted once, twice, and then as Satsuki watched in amazement it sprang up, sailing in a wide parabolic arc towards her side of the gap.  Now that it was in the air, she could clearly see Ryuko holding up the bottom of the van, a pale blip in the early morning light.  They hung motionless for a moment, then plummeted to a skidding halt accompanied by a cheer from the crowd.  She set the car down and paused just long enough to make sure the family scurrying out of the van were unhurt, departing once again with a running start. 

“Er, why is she in her underwear?” Satsuki asked, almost unsure if she’d said it around.

“Lady Ryuko always strips down when she’s doing a big job.  So she doesn’t rip her clothes, is what I think,” An answer came from a young man leaning over the barricade a couple people to her left.

“Oh, I see.”

“Not from around here, are you?  That’s funny, you look familiar.”

“I’m just in town visiting relatives,” Satsuki said with a chuckle.  It wouldn’t do if she was recognized, but it didn’t seem likely with this fellow.

“Well geez, I hope they aren’t on that bridge-oh!  There she goes again!”

 

What Ryuko hated most about losing Senketsu was the silence.  Being in constant connection with him had filled her mind with an entirely new set of thoughts, a constant chatter between them that was busiest when they were synchronized and in the midst of action.  It was almost never on topic, she’d remember something delicious she’d had for breakfast that morning, he’d remember a seagull they saw a few days ago eating the same thing from the trash, she’d ask him if he thought the architecture at Honnouji was as depressing as she thought it was, he’d respond by humming a tune she’d never heard whose general mood made his thoughts on the matter clear.  By the end she could barely recall what it felt like to have her head all to herself and being forcibly reacquainted with it was like being dunked in the arctic ocean.  Normally, she could find adequate substitutes in the Mankanshokus and her few friends from school; Mako in particular was almost as good as the real deal, but there was nobody to talk to while sailing through the air over the wreckage of the bridge.  She was down to her final target, the bus hanging over on the other side, and she’d already decided that she’d have to toss it to deliver it back where she started because she couldn’t climb back up while carrying it, so what was there left to think?  The silence reminded her of dull dreaminess that came before sleep, but rather than being a soothing departure from the day’s worries it ached.   She hadn’t chosen to relax her mind, there was a part of it she just couldn’t access, a piece of her that was ripped out.  Running up against it was like running her tongue into a sore spot where a tooth had been knocked out (she'd experienced the sensation a couple times during the war, unlike other people's her teeth grew back).

 “Buckle up!” She heard herself shout over the screams as she robotically wound one of the thick metal ropes around the bus like a Christmas ribbon.  Now she wrapped a cable around her legs, ignoring the burning abrasions the coiled metal left on her skin, and with both hands swung the bus underneath her and released it in a smooth underhand throw.  It soared overhead in a lazy arc, fortunately staying upright the whole while, but Ryuko didn’t see this and barely noticed the hush falling over the crowd.  Now she called up the full extent of her speed, scrambling up the cables and leaping over to the column and then to the other side in a fraction of a second.  Going this fast was rarely necessary, but it made for a good distraction nevertheless; it was like her body was finally operating at the same speed as her mind.  The bus hadn’t even passed the column by the time she turned around and braced, so she had enough time for one pressing observation to cut through the silence.

That’s coming in a little faster than I thought.

 

When the bus came down, Ryuko disappeared beneath it with a fountain of blood and a gasp from the crowd.  Only the footsteps of the paramedics rushing to help could be heard for a moment as it slowly crept down from a 45-degree angle to resting flat on the ground, and when it did Ryuko slumped out beneath it.  If Satsuki hadn’t known better she would have been sure Ryuko was dead, for her feet had been ground down to bloody stumps, her hands were raw from being run along the metal, and most freakish of all her neck was sharply bent, spouting blood from a vast rend that nearly pulled her head clean off.  But she was alive, picking herself up on legs that shouldn’t have supported anything, wincing with a mouth that tricked blood in a steady stream. Satsuki was reeling, she felt lightheaded like she hadn’t since the war, but she resisted the urge to look away.  Have I gotten soft?  I’ve seen much worse, hell, I’ve seen her chopped in half.  Still, the pain must be unimaginable, look at what she puts herself through.

“Whoa, are you alright?” Her acquaintance asked, and then called out to a kindly looking middle-aged woman standing next to her, “Hey, can you help her?  She’s feeling faint.”  Once the woman noticed that Satsuki was having trouble keeping her feet she was quick to grab her shoulders and ease her forward onto the barricade, where she could lean and catch her breath.

“It’s lady Ryuko, isn’t it?  Don’t worry, she’ll be fine in just a moment,” She said, and Satsuki managed to keep watching to see how true that was.  Ryuko’s wounds were seething, blood rippling as her lacerations sealed.  Her feet rebuilt themselves like they were made of clay, and her neck, well, she gave it a casual roll like she’d woken up with a crick in it, and with a wet thunk that made bile clench Satsuki's throat it snapped right back into place, the wound sealing up in an instant.  Ryuko blinked and stretched, and she was back to normal.  The crowd erupted into cheers, surging past the barricade, but Satsuki stayed behind in stunned silence.

My god, she’s even more powerful than before, isn’t she?

The sea of heads around Ryuko swallowed up the survivors disembarking the bus (miraculously unhurt, save for a few bruises), but they parted in a ring around her, staring in awe and shouting their thanks.  Satsuki too was in awe, in awe of the reverence Ryuko had inspired in them.  If she’s trying to convince them she isn’t the second coming, she’s doing a bad job.  Someone passed up Ryuko’s clothing, and a paramedic extended it to her, bowing on one knee.  Satsuki was sure Ryuko wouldn’t appreciate being treated like royalty, but she didn’t even seem to notice him even as she scooped up her clothes.  She strolled off, eyes far away, hand clutching the air over her heart, and Satsuki realized immediately why she seemed so distant.  She turned away, both so that Ryuko wouldn’t see her and because she finally couldn’t bear but to turn away.  Besides, she needed to get home before Ryuko, and she had a lot to think about.  By the time she got back to her taxi she was choking up for the second time that night, a bittersweet sadness welling up in her chest from the experience.  The image of Ryuko standing half-naked and dazed in a pool of her own blood, surrounded by the adoring crowd, backlit with dreamlike hues by the siren-lights, was stuck in her head.  Still, it didn’t stop her exhaustion from catching up to her in a wave, and she nodded off in the back seat within minutes of leaving the bridge.  When she finally got back to her couch, the sun scraping a thin line above the horizon, she dropped down and passed out without even thinking to check if Ryuko had gotten back before her.

 

Satsuki awoke with a brutal cramp in her lower back (which wasn’t even from running all night, it was just from how she slept), and she lay squinting into the sun for nearly 15 minutes waiting for it to pass until she could finally roll over and check the time.  When she did manage it, she groaned a little louder than she intended.

“11:30 already?”

“’fraid so.  C’mon sleepyhead, I’ve got coffee brewing if you want,” It was Ryuko, seated at the kitchen table.  Satsuki turned around over the back of the couch to stare blearily at her, and she smiled back with a shining, toothy grin, her hair even messier than usual.  Her laptop piped out tinny video game music, and the coffee machine was bubbling loudly, nearly finished with the pot.  Aside from that, though, the apartment was practically still, even Guts appeared to be missing.

“Where is everybody?”  Satsuki asked, kicking a blanket she was sure she hadn’t put on from her legs.  She stood and stretched out the soreness in her back while Ryuko refocused on the game.

“They’ve gone down to the shop to get lunch – took Soroi too.  Don’t worry, they’ll bring something back for us.”

“I can’t believe I slept through them leaving,” Satsuki chuckled, hoping that Ryuko wouldn’t ask why she was so tired.  She planned on mentioning Ryuko’s night-time hero work at some point, but after she decided what she wanted to say about it.   And how to salvage the fact that she followed Ryuko without her permission; that had not been very sisterly of her.

“Ah don’t sweat it, I basically just got up too.  That was some night, huh?” Ryuko looked up, and though she was still smiling and her eyes still shone with good humor they suddenly pierced Satsuki like daggers.

“I uh – and what do you mean by that?” she stammered.

“Satsuki Satsuki,” Ryuko said, waving a hand, “C’mon, I knew you were behind me the whole night, gimme a little credit.  Why else would I keep my speed down to normalish levels?”

“Oh,” Satsuki muttered, crestfallen.

“No ‘oh’, what did you think?” Ryuko gave her a playful poke on the shoulder.  She had to imagine Satsuki would be proud of her, it’s what she would be doing if she had Ryuko’s powers, after all.  She was elated when Satsuki’s disappointed frown turned into a soft, sad smile.

“I thought I was doing a pretty good job staying out of sight.”

“Hey, no jokes!  First off I’m serious about this, second off I can hear things happening blocks away - there’s no way anybody can sneak up on me anymore.”

“Oh, so that’s how you were able to find people who needed your help then.  I was wondering.”

“Yeah.  Now come on, what did you think?”

“Coffee first,” Satsuki said, a desperate deflection she would never have stooped to under normal circumstances.  Ryuko’s face suddenly fell, and she paused the game.

“You-you don’t approve.  What did I do wrong?”  Seeing the confusion in Ryuko’s eyes, Satsuki let out a defeated sigh and sat down, still composed but obviously deflated.  She hadn’t meant to hurt her, and at her core she was… proud of Ryuko for taking the initiative on her own.  She needed to soothe over feelings before they got hurt, but still she wasn’t in the business of saying things she didn’t mean, not anymore.

“I wouldn’t say I disapprove.  I’m just confused, and I have questions.”

“Oh, okay then.  Ask away, I guess,” Ryuko was still wary; she’d been hoping for praise, fearing a stern talking-to, and now she wasn’t sure which was coming.  Satsuki was just happy to have the ball back in her court, so to speak.

“You do this frequently, don’t you?”

“Every night,” Ryuko affirmed with a serious nod.

“Do the Mankanshoku’s know?  No- they must.  Mako at least has to know.”

“Oh yeah, they know.  Actually, I talked with them about whether I should even show you, but I knew you’d notice when I left.  Mataro suggested I try leaving out my bedroom window, but we couldn’t figure out how to get the screen off,” Truthfully Ryuko had really wanted to show Satsuki, but she hadn’t told any except Mako that.  She’d only asked the other Mankonshoku’s to see if they would be able to talk her out of it, but they’d been less than helpful on that front.

“I see,” Satsuki said thoughtfully, then paused for a moment.  While she was thinking of how to proceed Ryuko was become more obviously agitated by the second.

“Satsuki what’s your deal?  You said you don’t disapprove but you’re still acting pretty damn weird.”

“If you’re doing this every night, when do you catch up on sleep?”

“Oh, I get it,” Ryuko mumbled, “Yeah, I catch up in class, what did you expect?”

“Ryuko…-,”

“Well, what?  When else am I supposed to?”

“But your grades-,”

“They’re in the toilet, I know I know.  But it’s not like they’d let The Girl who Saved the World flunk out.”

“You shouldn’t use your influence that way.”

“That’s rich coming from you, Miss Kiryuin,” Ryuko snarked back, crossing her arms and staring down into her lap sulkily.  Satsuki had a point, one she knew all too well, but she couldn’t back down.  So the guilt became anger.  I didn’t want a lecture, and I definitely didn’t want to make you mad.  Why couldn’t you just be impressed?  I guess it wasn’t realistic to think that my little heroics would impress Satsuki Kiryuin – one of us basically rebuilt the country and the other can’t even keep one little city safe.  Still, if you think you’ll get me to stop by telling me I’m not being responsible you got another thing coming.

“There’s no need for that Ryuko,” Satsuki said as calmly as she could manage, determined to be conciliatory.  “Actaully, I’m sorry, I think I’ve said things wrong.  May I start again?”

“Yeah, you’d better, cuz I’m starting to think you want me to stop saving people’s lives, which is…-”

“-Not at all what I’m trying to say.  What you’re doing here is good, a very fitting use of your power.  But-“

“-But-”

“-But I thought you wanted to go to college, have a career.  It’s not going to be easy if your grades are as bad as you say.”

“I do, I do.  I mean, I want to.”

“You make it sound like it’s already too late,” Satsuki said, thinking of what she could say to reassure Ryuko that she could turn it around if she just engaged on her studies, but was cut off by a grim chuckle from Ryuko.

“You want to know the truth of it?”  She asked and, not waiting for a response, continued with the defeated air of a confessional, “I haven’t even applied anywhere.  Mako’s gotten accepted at a few places, and I missed all the deadlines.  So that’s it, really.”

“Oh Ryuko,” Satsuki sighed, a sudden upwelling of sympathy urged her to go hug her estranged sister, do something to make that gloomy, glassy look go away.  But the tension in her shoulders said that admitting even that had been a stretch for Ryuko; she wasn’t ready to accept pity.  “I-I don’t know what to say.  I didn’t think you’d give in so easily.”

“Yeah well!” Ryuko blurted, “What am I supposed to do?  Besides, even if I did go what would I study?  What would I do when I got out?  How can I work a normal job now after everything that’s happened?  I want to, I do, but it’s all so complicated, and I’m rotten at school.  I don’t even know anything I can do well besides fighting and lifting things a-and people need me to do that so that’s what I’m gonna do,"  She crossed her arms resolutely

“But it doesn’t make you happy,” Satsuki said plain and clear, and something clicked in Ryuko’s head.  She’d been so intent on getting Satsuki’s approval because she wasn’t happy, she needed someone to tell her she was making the right choice.

“Well, apparently that’s something we just have to deal with sometimes!”  Ryuko was almost yelling now for some reason, “I thought you of all people would understand that, Satsuki Kiryuin.”  At that, something clicked in Satsuki’s head.  Ryuko was struggling just like she was!  The sudden realization that Ryuko also felt trapped by her obligations to society filled her with a sense of kinship, like she felt exactly how Ryuko was feeling.  That sense was an infrequent visitor to Satsuki, but not an unwelcome one. She couldn’t resist it anymore, she stood and flung her arms around Ryuko’s shoulders, burying her cheek in that bushy, shining hair.  Ryuko let out a little gasp and, very stiffly and with a faintly red face, returned the embrace.

“I do understand,” Satsuki said softly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know how to say it.  I just want you to be happy, but you’re entirely right.  You have a duty to use your powers to help others, and it is the same as what I do.”  Ryuko had been glowering, averting her eyes, but now she looked over to Satsuki and saw a warm smile and a hopeful gleam in her eyes.  She’d been seeing, or rather expecting, the old Satsuki, gearing up for a confrontation that was completely unnecessary.

“T-thanks Satsuki,” She smiled back, “I knew you’d get it.”  Satsuki hummed in response, and the vibration of her throat on Ryuko’s shoulder suddenly made her uncomfortably aware of their close proximity.  “Alright, that’s enough.  Get off a’ me, sap,” she said with an awkward laugh.  Satsuki complied, disentangling her arms quickly, though still as gracefully as ever.

“So, am I forgiven for being so dreadful at explaining myself?”  She asked, making the nearly imperceptible shift between her more serious, emotional tone and her relieved, casual one.

“Well, that depends,” Ryuko replied, “Do you think how I’m using my powers is cool?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And you aren’t going to tell me that I should stop?”

“No, in fact I completely agree that you’re obligated to continue.”

“Well then good, you’re forgiven.  Although you really ought to practice talking to people normally and not giving orders to them.”

“Believe it or not I am,” Satsuki said with a chuckle, “It’s hard to find people to practice with in my position.”

“Yeah, I get that.  I’m already sick of having to deal with people kowtowing and it’s only been six months.”

“You’ll get used to it, frankly you’ll have get used to it to like it or not, they’re not likely to stop.  And besides that, since you aren’t going to stop your nightly escapades either you still have a problem when it comes to your future.”

“Yeah.  So, what should I do?”

“I can’t tell you that,” Satsuki said, “But I can help you decide.  First off, are you certain that you do want to go to college?  There’s no reason why that’s a requirement for living the type of life you want.”

“I – yeah it isn’t technically, but I still want to try it, experience it - y’know?”

“That’s completely understandable, but you should know you do have other options.  For example, I would certainly be able to find a position for you in the Kiryuin Foundation that was suited for your talents.  We could even fly you around the world to disaster zones where you could put your powers to good use, if you wanted.”

“Now that,” Ryuko said thoughtfully tapping her chin, “It makes sense, I’ve actually had a similar thought.  But that’s – I don’t know - maybe a little too far.  Like I’d just have to keep doing that forever.   Maybe if nothing else works out.”

“So, college then, for now.”

“Yeah, I guess.  Even though I don’t really know what I’d do there.”

“Well, you can always go undecided for your first semester.  So then that leaves the question of where you’d go.  The way I see it, you can either take a gap year and apply next year, but that will still be hard with your grades.  The other option, and this is only if you’re okay with it, is to use your influence to just get an acceptance now.  I’m sure if I made a few calls we could get you in anywhere you wanted.”

“Then that’s what we gotta do, fuck it.”  Ryuko said decisively.  She was starting to get into the idea, remembering dreams of a successful college career full of friends and great memories that she’d nursed during her delinquent years.  Satsuki’s characteristic seriousness was rubbing off on her, or maybe challenging her to not look weak and noncommittal, “It’s not the worst thing in the world, if I just use it this once, and then do better from then on.”

“Exactly,” Satsuki said, although she worried if she were being hypocritical considering how frequently she used her fame to her advantage.  It’s different when I do it because it’s not for my benefit, right? “Now, where were you thinking you’d want to go?  Probably wherever Mako decides, right?”

“Nah, Mako’s going over to Kansai so she’s close to Ira.  Don’t want to step on any toes there.”  Satsuki’s eyebrows shot up and she tilted her head slightly, her equivalent of reeling in confusion.

“But I thought you and Mako were-,”

“Dating?  We are, yeah, but it’s different between us.  We have one of those ‘If we’re not married by the time we’re thirty’ deals, y’know?” Ryuko looked down into her coffee cup with a small, secretive smile. 

               “I’m afraid I do not know,” Satsuki said, “Is this a common arrangement amongst young people these days?”

               “Oh, uh no it’s not, it’s kind of one of those things you hear about but don't know anyone who does it in real life.  And it looks like we probably won’t need it considering how into each other those two are.  Oh boy, you sure look confused by this one.  Well, I know you have a question, spit it out.”

               “So… do you love her or not?”  Satsuki asked, trying to pierce to the core of what Ryuko meant by this all.  Her late-night musings on a crush Ryuko may have at one point harbored for her were far from her thoughts; instead she felt a sort of sinking dread at the prospect that she might just be incapable of understanding this concept.  Someone couldn’t love two people at once, could they?  Experience had taught Satsuki that those who claimed to were only interested in debauchery and pleasure.  There was no way Ryuko and Mako could be like that, Satsuki had seen to it personally that they would be bound together inseparably during the Fight Club incident, so how could they be so casual about their relationship?

               “Blunt as ever, I see,” Ryuko snarked, “Don’t worry, it’s cool, we had to explain the concept to Mom and Dad and boy that was way more awkward than this.  Here’s how it is:  Mako and I love each other, but we’re best friends first.  So it’s okay with me if she loves someone else too, because I know she’ll always be there for me whether it’s as best friend or girlfriend.  And vice versa, of course.  Does that make any sense?”

               “On a logical level, it might.  It still seems very strange to me though.”  What would I do if I met someone who claimed to love me and someone else at the same time?  That would have to be one hell of a woman to make her worth sharing.

               “It’s definitely not for everyone, I’ll give you that,” Ryuko said with an awkward chuckle, “Anyway, now you know why I won’t be following Mako to college.”

               “Well, that still leaves you with a host of options.  Does anywhere in particular stand out?”

               “I was thinking that it would be nice to go someplace in the country, but I don’t want to go so far away that I couldn’t come home and visit from time to time.  So then my other thought was maybe Tokyo University, even though its right in the middle of the city, because it’s so big that I could probably find somewhere I fit in.  And also, my nights there would be put to good use, I’m sure of that.”

               “Indeed they would.  Well, if you want countryside close to home your best bet is somewhere up in North Kanto, where Uzu grew up.  I must say though, I never pegged you for a country girl.”

               “I’m full of surprises.  Plus, I’ve lived in cities all my life, it’d be a nice change of pace.”

               “I do agree, it was refreshing when business called me out to the countryside back in the old days.  On the other hand, Tokyo has its advantages.  The campus has basically every educational advantage you could want, and it’s very diverse too; it’s been the forefront of my new initiative to bring the tuition and acceptance back down to something that lower-class people can afford so you wouldn’t be so stuck in with rich kids.  I will admit that I’m a little biased because that’s where I’m getting my PhD, but I’m not gonna tell you it’s the clear superior choice.  It just has advantages is all.”

               “See, that sounds good too though!”  Ryuko exclaimed with a little lighthearted frustration, “I don’t know which would be better.”

               “That’s alright, you should take some time to research it then.  And while you’re at it you should look into what you would want to study, since you also haven't decided about that either.”

               “Yeah, totally,” Ryuko said.  Her eyes which had look so glassy moments before now gleamed with their usual enthusiastic energy.  Satsuki made everything seem so possible, narrowing her whole dilemma down to just a series of simple questions.  After all, she was a graduate student, and some kind of genius to boot, so she knew what she was talking about, “Mako and I will start looking at it right away.”

               “I’m glad to hear it.  You can let me know when you come to a decision and I’ll make the arrangements personally.  Do you think you could have at least some more ideas by next weekend?”

               “Uh sure, but why then?  What’s next weekend?”

               “Oh nothing, I just-,” Satsuki began awkwardly, “I was thinking since we both know you won’t stop your nighttime work when you’re in college, that I should help you improve your study habits so you can get by on minimal sleep.  So, if you’re okay with it, I’d like to visit more frequently, maybe every weekend if I can.”

               Ryuko beamed at that suggestion, looking up with that puppy-dog gaze that made her go ever-so-slightly cross-eyed when she was feeling particularly friendly.  “Are you kidding?”  She said, standing up, “C’mere”.  Satsuki complied, embracing her sister briefly.  “You’re my sister, I’m their adopted daughter, that basically makes you a Mankanshoku as well.  And even if you weren’t, you’re welcome anytime, you know that.”

               “Well, I had an inkling that I might be,” Satsuki smiled back, “But don’t think this is just going to be all fun like this weekend, I’m dead serious that you’ll be studying more than you ever have before, and I have plenty of work to get done as well.”

               “And I’m dead serious that you’ve got a lot of catching up to do since you’ve been living under a rock all this time so we’re definitely watching at least two movies a day and you’ll just have to work that into your schedule.”

               “Alright, but don’t be offended if I work through them; I’m a very efficient multitasker, you know.  Now, let’s see about getting some of that coffee, I’d like a cup or two before it goes cold.”

               By the time the rest of the family got back from the shop with bags of takeout under each and every arm the altercation and serious talk had been almost completely forgotten, as Ryuko did her best to sell Satsuki on all the different movies, TV shows, books, and etcetera that she wanted to show her.  Satsuki ate with enthusiasm, crowing internally, we managed to have a real conversation without tearing at each other’s throats and without me thinking anything unsisterly about her!  I think maybe I could get used to having Ryuko as a sister.  Ryuko, as she always did, ate only a fraction of her portion and handed the rest of it off to Mako.  Her mind was fixated on something quite different: the lingering ghost of their close embrace from before that set her skin tingling.  Goddamn her why does she have to be so gorgeous?  Or better yet, why does she have to be my sister?

Chapter Text

“So, which are you more upset about:  that we’re wasting a Saturday or that there might be needles?”  Satsuki broke the silence that permeated the back seat of the bulletproof luxury sedan, and Ryuko sat up with a start, glaring at her defensively.

               “Who said I was upset?” She said, clearly a little upset, “And how do you know about the needle thing anyway?”

               “Houka recorded everything that happened at Honoujji, you know that.  I remember specifically saving that conversation between you and Aikuro in case I ever needed a phobia to use against you.”

               “Man, you were a piece of work back then, weren’t you?”

               “I can’t argue with that.”

               “Well, to answer your question it’s wasting a Saturday; I had some classic American films from the 1900s lined up for you today.  Also getting up at seven but you warned me about that.  Still not keen on the needles though.”  Satsuki smiled at that one and made a little “mhm” noise.  This would be her seventh weekend with the Mankanshoku’s, and after much nagging she had finally coaxed Ryuko into stopping by the lab for a checkup with Shiro and Houka.  A part of her was just as loathe to go as Ryuko, the last six weekends had been some of the happiest times she could remember, and she didn’t want to give up any of it.  Satsuki was finally beginning to feel like she understood where she fit in their family dynamic, playing in equal parts the roles of pampered guest, overprotective big sister, and naïve younger child who needed everything explained to her.  And it was so nice.  This felt like the thing she had been missing from her life, and whenever Monday rolled around she found herself daydreaming in her office, wondering what the Mankanshoku’s had in store for her next weekend.  Of course, she’d never let it interfere with her work, but to say it was on her mind was an understatement.  She’d even gotten to the point where she could get gifts for them; it had started with seeing things in store windows and thinking Oh, Ryuko would love that, but before long she was arriving with something for everyone. They always said they didn't need anything, but considering how happy they were when Satsuki got just the right video game or piece of jewelry or camera equipment (Barazo had taken up photography as a hobby, and surprisingly not all of his pictures were of women and some were even pretty good) how could she resist?

On the other hand, though, she was looking forward to this checkup in an odd way.  She had a lot of unanswered questions about Ryuko’s alien biology and powers, and she knew Ryuko did too though she’d never admit it.  Besides that, Shiro was very excited about something new they were working on, something he wouldn’t even mention except in person and about which he wouldn’t share details on even the most secure networks.

               They’d been driving through the suburbs near Tokyo for a while when they reached the research lab, signaled first by a wide grassy expanse that Ryuko assumed was a park until Satsuki said, “We’re here,” and they pulled into a wide, tree lined arch with a signpost reading Kinue Kinagase Memorial Research Complex.  Beyond the trees the campus spread out across many acres of lawns, gardens, and ponds interspersed with buildings and plazas.  Whoever designed it had a great aesthetic sense in both landscaping and architecture; the buildings had a unified, modern theme with smooth white concrete and wide, airy windows.  It looked clean but welcoming, and of course very scientific.

               “Damn, this place is bigger than I expected.”

               “Shiro and Aikuro wanted it to be a ‘one stop shop’ for all the research that would advance our goals.  See over there on the left is the Biomedical Engineering department,” Rather than a single building the department Satsuki pointed to was divided up by many courtyards and greenhouses.   “On the right is the Quantum Physics building,” This one was much larger, an office complex with a huge, ring shaped particle accelerator in the center.  “And in the back is Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering.”  The final large department was a mess of garages and warehouses that buzzed with activity.  Most of it was obscured though, behind the glittering glass skyscraper in the center of the complex that housed the visitor center and main offices.  As the centerpiece, it was by far the most overwrought with spangly strips of lights and vine encrusted terraces splattering it with color.  Ryuko wasn’t at all put off by its extravagance though, especially considering what Satsuki’s previous building projects had looked like.  Satsuki was still pointing stuff out while Ryuko examined the skyscraper, “Then there’s quite a few one-building departments scattered between them, and all those lower buildings around the edges are housing for the scientists who came here from abroad.”

               “And what about that one by the entrance?”  Ryuko said, pointing out the car’s rear window to a mid-sized building that looked like a cross between an apartment complex and a shopping center, perched to the left of the entrance arch.

               “That is a homeless shelter,” Satsuki said succinctly, but explained further when she saw the confused look on Ryuko’s face, “The campus exterior is open to the public on principle, you’ll notice there’s no gates on the entrances.  But when we first opened this area was so impoverished that the homeless were swamping us.  So, we put in that building.  It’s got more than food and beds, too:  There’s a doctor’s office, career advisers, even a rehab clinic for those with addictions.”

“Wow, you’re a real woman of the people now, aren’t you Satsuki Kiryuin?”  Ryuko said, and though it sounded slightly snarky Satsuki could tell she was genuinely impressed underneath it. 

“I’m better at it than before.  To be fair, I’ve had good teachers,” Satsuki smiled modestly, and Ryuko blushed just a little, knowing that she was probably the first of those teachers, the one to make the old Satsuki realize she couldn’t treat people like pawns, “And it worked, too.  Not only did us being here completely revitalize this neighborhood’s food and retail businesses, but quite a few of the lab assistants you see on campus first came here to use that shelter; I even recognize a couple of them.  Perfectly capable people who were never given a chance before.”  Ryuko was openmouthed; what a complete reversal from the woman who had believed that the common people were destined to be enslaved to the rulers, who had shouted from her throne that the purpose of wealth was to be doled out by the ruler to manipulate their servants!  Without really meaning to she recalled how ardently she had hoped to pull the old Satsuki down from her throne, humble her.  How she had fantasized about humbling her in… other ways too.  She never dreamt that that woman could be rebuilt so thoroughly.  Ryuko decided she couldn’t keep looking at Satsuki right then, so she turned back out the window and kept examining the campus.

“Alright Satsuki, I’ll admit it,” she said as they pulled into the visitor center’s roundabout, “You’ve been up to some pretty cool stuff the last seven months.   Not quite as cool as me, of course,” She quipped to make the praise just a little less glowing, “But almost.”

“I can’t take any credit for this,” Satsuki said, “It really is Houka, Shiro, Aikuro, and Tsumugu’s vision.  There’s equal part of each of them here, all I did was provide funding.”  Their chauffer, a beefy security guard with an ill-concealed Nudist Beach needle gun on his belt, opened first her door then Ryuko’s, and they stepped out into the blustery November breeze.  “Where are you headed?”  Satsuki said as Ryuko started off purposefully to the left.

“We’re here for a checkup, right?  So Biomedical building.”

“We’ll be meeting Aikuro in the main office first,” Satsuki said, directing her back inside the main doors.  The inside of the visitor center was just as lavish as its exterior; if it weren’t for the touches of postmodern styling throughout it would’ve looked almost baroque.  Myriad fountains and gardens and statues and displays about the projects going on around the complex were scattered throughout an atrium that stretched several stories up to a lofty skylight.  In the center stood a large statue of a woman in a lad coat who looked very familiar to Ryuko; she realized after a moment that it must be Kinue Kinagase, Tsumugu’s sister after whom the complex was named.  The placard beneath her was emblazoned with big, bold lettering that read Don’t Stop the Experiment, her last words and by all indication the complex’s motto.

“-Ooh yes, I would go with the violet.  That would look great with, well, with what you’re wearing right now,” A dashing blue haired man who Ryuko recognized instantaneously was leaning over the receptionist’s desk, practically whispering to the pretty young European woman who was giggling in response.  She’d never seen Aikuro dressed up for business, but as usual he pulled it off and looked like more than your average suit.  His tie was a little loose, maybe, but that was his one concession to his tendency to disrobe; Ryuko had a personal theory that he had some kind of chronically-itchy-skin condition that explained that.  He couldn’t just be that weird on his own, right?

“Do you think?  I’m inclined to agree,” The receptionist replied with a thick accept but impeccable grammar and pronunciation, then stopped and looked up when she spotted Satsuki and Ryuko entering, “Hello!  Welcome to Kinue Kinagase Memoral Rese-,”

“Oh, I’m sorry Adrianne, these are my clients, there’s no need for the spiel.  Although with that I’m afraid I must be going, my dear.”

“Aikuro,” Satsuki greeted him with her friendliest smile, “So good to see you.  I’ve brought a friend today.”

“Ahh Satsuki,” He gave her a brief hug, and Ryuko watched with amusement as the receptionist pouted in response, “And we can’t forget about Miss Matoi either, although I’m sure you’re less than thrilled at being dragged out here.”  He gave Ryuko a hug as well, which she rejoined with a gentle punch to his shoulder, “Alright, if you’d please accompany me to my office.”  Aikuro’s office turned out to be a mere ten yards away, in fact it overlooked the atrium from right near the main doors with wide glass windows.  As they entered, Aikuro turned back to the receptionist, shouting, “See you later Adrianne!”

“Have a nice day President Mikisuki!”  She replied, and that was the last they heard from her as Aikuro shut the door.

“Hold on, your office is right here?  You could have just waited for us in here if you weren’t such a horny bastard,” She dug in on him accusatorially, and Satsuki colored up at Ryuko’s harsh language.  Under her embarrassment, on the other hand, she was tickled by it, and if it had been her and Mataro bullshitting back at the apartment she probably would have let out a scandalized giggle.  Aikuro on the other hand was unfazed, making a clicking noise with his mouth and pointing goofy finger guns at Ryuko.

“President’s gotta know what’s happening on the ground floor, isn’t that right Satsuki?  And besides, she’s out there all day, gets boring for her.”

“Oy vey, I seriously hope you didn’t just hire her for her looks,”

“You never know with me, Miss Matoi, I’m an enigma.  Now, into the conference room.”  On the back side of his office a door opened onto a windowless conference room - Aikuro did a quick finger scan to get everyone in and when the door shut Ryuko could hear what sounded like very large, powerful locks sliding shut.  Once they were securely inside Aikuro pressed a palm to one of the smooth, metallic wall panels, and with an almost silent whoosh it popped backwards into the wall and slid away, revealing a small, barren elevator chamber.

“Ooh, secret elevator.  What a big, fancy secret agent man you are,” Ryuko mocked him with a condescending tone, like he was a child playing pretend.

“We can take the secret stairway if you prefer, Miss Matoi,” he shot back, but both Ryuko and Satsuki were already stepping in.  Once the elevator got moving, sliding smoothly downward, he turned to Ryuko with a far graver look on his face.  “Alright Ryuko, what you’re about to see here is the height of secrecy.  You are not to discuss it at any time, except with people you have seen in person in this area of the lab, and even then, you can only discuss it with them face-to-face, completely alone, with no devices nearby that could possibly be recording even ones that you own.  For example, Tsumugu and I go out fishing whenever we need to discuss our work down here, but for you it would be best if you didn’t ever talk about it except when you are in this area.  Are you prepared for that?  If you’re not we’ll take you back up and give you a normal routine checkup and send you on your way, no hard feelings.”

“Fuck that, now I know I gotta see what you’re hiding down here.  And yeah, I won’t ever speak about it or whatever.”

“Alright, so long as you’re sure.”  When the elevator came to a stop Aikuro pressed the button to open the elevator (Ryuko didn’t think she’d ever seen an elevator where you had to press the button to open the door before) and they exited into a dingy, rectangular room that looked about half as large as it actually was thanks to all the computers that filled it.  Beyond that, the room had all the hallmarks of a typical man-cave:  plush but beat-up couches, tables with playing cards scattered around so that some of the cards were definitely missing, and of course empty energy-drink cans scattered on basically every available surface.  Each side of the room had a hallway in the approximate middle of the wall that lead off into the dimly lit gloom.  The sign on the left one read Quarters but someone had covered it with a sheet of paper that said “Night Zone”, the one in the dead center said Test Chambers, and the one on the right was labelled Storage; this sign had a piece of paper next to it that read “Remember your safety gear:  This mean you Aikuro”.   The conversation between the room’s unseen occupants fell to a hush as the elevator doors slid open.

“I don’t know if you guys heard, but there’s this real fancy research lab above your heads.  You should check it out sometime, if you ever get tired of living the rat life,” Ryuko said, immediately owning the room as she entered it and prompting a hysterical “Oho shit!”  from Houka as he stood up and peered over his monitors at her with a grin.  I’ve never seen Houka react like that, Satsuki thought, No surprise, Ryuko’s so cool of course she’d be able to bring that side of him out.  As he came around to greet them Shiro and Tsumugu also emerged from somewhere, Shiro wearing an apron and Tsumugu busily inhaling another energy drink.

“Welcome!”  Shiro said warmly, giving both Ryuko and Satsuki brotherly hugs around the shoulders.  His broad forehead glistened with fresh sweat, and as usual he had dark bags under his eyes from spending all day fussing about down in this cavern, “I take it you like our humble abode.”

“Well, it’s a fuckin mess but it actually smells pretty good.  What’s cookin – Ope!”  Ryuko cut herself off when Tsumugu drew near, tensing up and holding her hands up in a loose combat stance.  But nothing came of it, he held his hand up for a shake and she dropped her guard and responded in kind.  In a lab coat he looked so different from his old combat getup – especially since he’d traded his mohawk for a neat and stylish new haircut with a slick side part.  He’d kept the red though, using it to dye up some wings above his ears; since that style was so strongly associated with silvered hair Satsuki couldn’t help but think he looked at least fifteen years older than he had during the war.

“They tend to attack each other at random whenever they see each other,” Aikuro explain when he saw the quizzical look on Satsuki’s face.

“I see.  Well, are we ready to begin?”  She asked after the pleasantries, “I’m very interested to see what Ryuko’s test results are.”

“First, one quick thing,” Shiro hurried off back in between the computers, and the rest followed him around the corner to a smashed-up kitchenette that both Satsuki and Ryuko couldn’t believe was functional.  “I gotta finish dinner,” He lifted a tray of some sort of casserole from the countertop; it was still steaming so apparently he’d just taken it out of the oven.  After it had been wrapped in wax paper (“no non-recyclables plastics down here”, he said when Ryuko asked why he didn’t use plastic wrap) and popped it into the fridge he quickly exchanged his apron for a lab coat and one of his trademark face masks and they were ready to go.

The testing chambers quickly brought to Ryuko’s attention that this secret lab was far bigger than she’d envisioned.  Each one was at least the size of a basketball court, constructed out of pure white concrete panels, and there were at least five of them.  Most of them were completely empty, the first one on the right side of the hall was the only exception, with what appeared to be a broken, charred harness in the center and massive scorch marks spreading out across the floor.  She really wanted to ask what that was about, but before she got the words out Houka directed her to the first chamber on the left. Observation chambers for each one, complete with a host of incomprehensible monitors, spread off directly from the test chamber hallway; the actual floor of the chambers was about a story down with an elevator and a stairwell down to each.  After some discussion it was decided the Shino and Houka would run the tests and Aikuro, Tsumugu, and Satsuki would sit in the observation chamber.  This was in no small part because Ryuko didn’t really want Aikuro down in the chamber with her when she was stripped down to her underwear. “Done that one enough times already,” she said. 

When the testing group got down into the chamber, there was a whirr of machinery and some of the floor panels in the center of the room suddenly shifted and spun rapidly, flipping all the way over to construct a miniature doctor’s office minus the walls.  It had a sink and a countertop complete with various instruments, a row of monitors and a chair, and what appeared to be a dentist’s chair with a few more machines built into it.

“Whoa, that’s some high-tech shit!”  Ryuko said, jumping back a little.

“Mhm, please remove your clothes and have a seat,” Houka said, sitting down at the computers.

“Oh man, I’m getting into some real mad scientist shit aren’t I,” She said jokingly, although Satsuki thought she could hear some genuine anxiety in her tone, if only a little.

“Mhm, please remove your clothes and have a seat,” Houka said again, more tersely, and Ryuko shot him an annoyed look that just screamed Come on dude.  He laughed a little at his own assholery, then looked back to Ryuko, “Uh, sorry about that.  We just have to do some basic biometric scans before we can get into the interesting stuff, I just want to get through these quickly.”

 

“Ookayy,” Houka drawled slowly, sitting up from his chair.  The three up in the observation chamber leaned in intently and Ryuko shifted uncomfortably in the chair as he continued, “the scans indicate that Ryuko is extremely healthy, at least as far as normal human biometrics work on.  Her blood pressure is, well, multiple times that of a normal human but everything else looks fine so we’re going to assume that’s just normal for a hybrid.  Her metabolism also appears to function at an extraordinary efficiency, she seems to be able to get much more energy out of food than she should.  Based on these enzyme readings we’ve also isolated that she metabolizes certain foods much more efficiently than normal humans.  Shiro, can you explain that one?  Not my specialty.”

“Certainly.  She appears to be very good at metabolizing organic acids, citric acid in particular, as well as leafy gree-,”

“Holy shit, that actually makes a whole lot of sense,” Ryuko said, and when everyone turned to her expectantly, she explained, “I’m basically the only person I know who likes eating lemons just on their own.  Whenever I suggest it to someone else they always say they’re too sour to be any good, which I never got.”

“So, citrus fruits may taste different to you too as result of your altered digestion.  Interesting,” Shiro said, then looked down at the tablet he was holding, “Ryuko tell me if you can, what’s the longest you’ve ever gone without eating?”

“Oh, umm let’s see.  It would have to be I think this week in the February before I came to Honoujji, you know, when I was going around from town to town trying to find out who’d killed my dad.  I think there was about a week when I was going through some rough neighborhoods in East Kanto.  I was out of money at that point, but I hadn’t resorted to stealing yet.  So, I think about a week.”

“I see.  And you were active all throughout this time?”

 “Yup, I had to keep moving.  Rough neighborhoods, like I said.”  Listening to this, Satsuki felt a lump rising in her throat.  She could so easily picture Ryuko as she’d been that first day she arrived at Honoujji Academy, stalking the cold streets with nobody to help her, no home to spend the nights, and she burned with guilt for having not realized the desperation in her face when they’d first met.  It hadn’t even been a year ago that she would have been so, so grateful for a place like the complex’s homeless shelter.

“That’s no small feat,” Shiro continued, “Although you forgot about the month you spent comatose after the Covers attacked.”

“Oh yeah.  I assumed they were giving me some sort of nutrient paste then.”

“We were at first, but you didn’t seem to need it.  Well, what this all shows is that your metabolism is so efficient that you can get away with not eating for as long as you might need.  On a biomechanical level – well, it shouldn’t be possible – but it’s marvelous nonetheless.  I would say for you a healthy food intake would probably be one meal every other day, and you could probably stretch it to every third day with no discomfort.  In fact, you’re actually at risk from gaining weight from what would be a normal Calorie intake for a human.”

“Oh double holy shit!  Senketsu always used to rag on me that I needed to watch my weight.  He could, like, sense things about my health that I wasn’t even aware of,” Ryuko explained for everyone’s benefit, “I don’t think he understood that my metabolism wasn’t typical otherwise he would have told me so.”  When she said that Satsuki couldn’t help but notice a conspiratorial glance pass between Aikuro and Tsumugu.  She began to guess what they might have been thinking about – it must’ve been something from when Senketsu was alive – but the implications of Ryuko’s biology occupied her mind to a far greater degree.  She barely needs to eat, is basically resistant to any reasonable degree of heat or cold, and can’t be wounded.  On a basic survival level, she scarcely needs anything from society.  She could wander if into the woods and never come back if she wanted.  I’d definitely like to try that for like a month if I had that kind of power.

“Some of the other abnormalities we’ve noticed: Ryuko’s senses are off the charts, as I’m sure you know,” Houka continued as Ryuko nodded, “Her eye anatomy is more like a bird’s than a normal mammal’s – won’t bore you with the details.  Her fingernails and hair seem to grow in short bursts rather than continuously like ours.  You can see it on the close scans of her head, should be up on some of those monitors.  Oh, and uhh Ryuko, have you ever smoked?”

“W-well yeah a little,” Ryuko said, embarrassed to admit it, “B-but that was years ago, don’t worry.”  She looked up at the observation chamber, seeming to be directing that specifically at Satsuki and Aikuro.  The two people most likely to nag her.

“Yes, there appears to be trace amounts of tar in your lungs.  Your regeneration appears to be stopping it from harming anything, but it’s still not able to leave your body.  If you want we can give you an inhalant that will dissolve it, it’ll take several doses so we’ll have you take it home.”

“Sure, might as well,” Ryuko said, then after a slight pause, “Well, are we gonna move on to the cool stuff yet?  You promised mad scientist bullshit and all you’ve done so far is shine lights in my eyes.”  Ryuko did her best to keep the mood light with her petulance, but the harsh white lighting and stark barren walls of the test chamber were beginning to get to her.  It was an awful lot like something she’d felt before, a lingering old memory.  Reminds me of dad’s lab when I was a little kid, she shuddered involuntarily, ah hell, depending on what they want to do to me this might really suck.

“Yes, let’s.  We’re still waiting for the hormone data to process, but the computer will take care of that.  Shiro, the nerve receptors, if you’d please.”  Shiro busily produced a tangle of adhesive stickers like small defibrillator pads and began sealing them all over Ryuko’s body.

“These will keep track of your nervous system’s response to the various tests.”

“Make sense.  And what have you got for me here?”  While Shiro was working on the pads, Houka had produced a sheet of paper and a pen and handed them over to her.

“It’s a release, giving us permission to publish the data we collect from you in scientific papers.  Of course, we won’t use the more sensitive stuff, but because you are the only one of your kind presently alive on Earth we can’t protect your identity like we normally would.  You don’t have to sign if you don’t want, and this data will stay right here accessible to only us.  But, not to get too greedy, but if you let us publish on it we’re sure to get a Nobel.”

“Eh sure, what the hell.  But I get a piece, okay?”

“You want… a piece…” Houka sighed, already knowing where she was going with this one.

“Yeup.  Say it.”

“A piece of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Well, that is just dreadful.”

“Yeah well let’s see you do better Mister Serious Science Guy.  Alright hit me with; what’s first.”

“You’re gonna love this:  We’ll begin with your regeneration and pain tolerance.  First, let me remind you that we will be doing nothing that we haven’t seen you bounce back from before, but if we don’t know how you’ll respond to a certain factor we will make sure it is something survivable by a normal human,”  He was talking quickly now, speeding through this little disclaimer, “If at any time you feel uncomfortable with the experiment we can stop, just let us know. Got that?”

“Uh, sure,”

“Excellent.  Shiro, you may begin the dissection.”

“DISSECTION! Wait hold on-,” But it was already too late. The handle of a scalpel was already protruding from the soft skin of her forearm, clutched in Shiro’s dexterous gloved hands.  Then things began happening quite quickly.

 

When Satsuki saw the fountain of blood leap from Ryuko’s arm she let out a quite involuntary gasp.  She’d known that the plan for today involved hurting Ryuko quite a bit, Ryuko even knew that on some level although she’d had no real concept of the specifics.  As a result, she’d been wondering if she would feel sickened the same way she had on the bridge, and yes, there it was again, although sitting down made her more able to tolerate it.  Ryuko, on the other hand, didn’t seem at all fazed.  In fact, as Shiro fell flat on his ass, his face and torso complete coated in blood, she laughed.  He looked foolish, sure, but that was far from a natural reaction from someone bleeding profusely, and when Satsuki heard it she suddenly felt even worse.  She stood up.

“Well, it looks like they’re going to be here for a while.  Aikuro, Tsumugu, if you aren’t needed here I have some business to discuss,” With a shrug, Aikuro stood up and followed, Tsumugu close behind.  It was true, she had lots to talk about with them, but also she needed a moment away while she processed her suddenly realization about why Ryuko’s response to injury was so unsettling.  That’s not a natural response, not a human response to being hurt even if you know it won’t last.  She didn’t used to react this way.  But I know who did.  She wouldn’t pronounce the exact words, not even to herself, but it was a chilling reminder that her little sister was the same kind of… being… Ragyo had been.

 

Meanwhile, back in the test chamber, chaos unfolded beneath the brilliant spray of Ryuko’s blood.  Houka immediately dashed over to Shiro and helped him up, shouting to nobody in particular, “Shower Stall!” On that command a panel a few yards away flipped over and became a utilitarian shower with opaque glass panels and a small changing area.  Ryuko meanwhile was fighting down her laughter as she pulled the scalpel out of her arm.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.  High blood pressure indeed,” Shiro said loudly, holding up his hands as he stood.  Once the scalpel was out of the way the wound sealed up in mere seconds, stopping the crimson spray.  Still, everything within a four-foot radius was dripping.

“That’s what you get for surprising me, asshole.  Seriously, what was the point of that?”

“We thought you might get squeamish.  You do hate needles, and you can’t be put under, so we planned to do it like pulling a Band-Aid in case you started squirming.”

“Oh, for the love of - does everybody know about the needle thing?”

“Shiro are you sure you don’t want a shower?”

“Nah, fuck it, it’s just going to keep happening.  Get me a bigger knife though, something with teeth preferably.”

“Oh sweet Jesus,” Ryuko exclaimed, reverting to the old fashioned Christian swear for added emphasis.  Despite that first disaster, secondary incisions went a lot more smoothly.  The steak knife Shiro settled on cut through Ryuko’s unnaturally tough skin much more easily, though he said it was more like rhinoceros’ skin than a human’s in structure.  Eventually, after dumping enough blood thinners to kill an ox on the wound (the countertop was piled high with the little bottles it came in) they cleared out enough to peel back the flesh with some forceps and get a look at it.

“Fascinating,” Houka said, snapping a few pictures of the rend, “It appears that the fibers suffuse the entirety of your physical form.  Look at how they strain to reconnect.”  It was definitely odd, Ryuko had to admit, her flesh looked more like magnetic iron shavings than any meat she’d ever seen, and it pulsed and flowed seemingly of its own volition as it let off a faint red glow.  She must’ve never noticed it before because usually the blood would cover it up, “I wonder if it looked like this before your awakening, or if you had a normal consistency of flesh before this.”

“Uh hey, you’re using weird terms here and not filling me in,” Ryuko said petulantly, “What do you mean by ‘physical form’ and ‘my awakening’.”

“Your awakening is what we call when Ragyo ripped out your heart and caused you to go comatose for a month, then when you awoke your life fibers became far more active.  That’s when your super-strength and enhanced reflexes and senses kicked in, as well as your regeneration abilities.  As for ‘physical form’, well that’s in relation to a hypothesis Shiro and I are testing right now.  It will become clear to you in a moment.”

“Alright, weirdo.  So, what are the results, then?”

“Well, you’ve seen the first part,” Houka said, sitting back down as Shiro removed the forceps and let the wound close, “So, Ryuko, how would you describe your pain on that test?”

“Eh, not so bad.  Three out of ten.”

“Well, that’s just not – Ryuko, your nervous system registered quite an incredible pain response to that.  Just a few levels below a broken femur, the blood thinners in particular seem to have produced a brutal sting.  You definitely felt excessive pain, the question is just how well you handled it mentally.”

“Well, my scale does go up to having your entire guts ripped out.  So, compared to that.”

“Even so, you didn’t flinch once.  Your pain tolerance is clearly incredible.  But what’s even more incredible: from that one cut you bled almost two times the volume of blood that your body can hold.”

“What?  How?  Where the fuck is it coming from, then?”

“Where indeed.  You see, this is the dilemma we’re trying to solve:  your body seems to be defying one of the most basic laws of physics:  matter cannot be created or destroyed.  We aren’t sure where it’s being created, but you body definitely seems to be creating new blood from, well, nothing.  And this isn’t new either; life fibers have been observed to have this property before.

“No fucking way.  So how then is it happening?”

“We don’t know.  We want to see what happens when we perform some more tests.  For the next one, if you don’t mind, we’d like to remove an extremity and see how your body regenerates it.”

“Oh, like a toe or something? Yeah that’s fine.”

“Excellent.  Quantum Fluctuation Detection Chamber!”  He shouted into the air once more, and this time the floor parted behind Ryuko, producing a cube shaped chamber the size of a lavish walk-in closet.  Its walls were made out of something that looked like glass, but Ryuko thought they had to be some kind of plastic because she could see minute differences in its texture and reflection.  All along the edges ran a mass of machines and cables whose functions she couldn’t begin to guess at.  As it clunked into place and the side nearest to her slid open it lit up with various display lights until the previously bright white room was filled with vibrant multicolors.  The effect became even more pronounced when all the other lights, including Houka’s computers, shut off.

“Come on in,” Shiro said, stepping into the container, “Don’t worry about the lights – the main lights emit faint UV radiation and that messes with the instruments.  Oh, but if you could grab that little box from the counter, it’s connected to all the nerve pads.”

Ryuko followed him into the chamber, and when everything was ready she sat down on a small stool inside it and Shiro, with a surgeon’s precision, sliced through the ligaments of her right big toe until it dropped to the ground in another spray of blood.  First, they recorded video of it popping back on of its own accord (Ryuko still would never get over how bizarre it was to move a part of her body that had been disconnected from her, nor how equally bizarre it was to feel the part while it was still detached).  Then, they cut the toe off again and tried to see if she could pull it back to her body with just her will.  It turned out that after a little practice she could, the trick was mostly to visualize it flying through the air and then imagine the feeling of that happening on both ends, and then it would soar back like an electromagnet.  Then, and this was the one they were really interested in, they took the toe off and put it outside the quantum chamber.  It took a few seconds, but after Ryuko tried willing it to go faster the flesh of her toe-stump began to seethe and bubble, and before their very eyes the toe rebuilt itself, starting first from a white knot of bone, then the rubbery cartilage around it, then the more-fibrous-than-usual muscle and flesh, and finally the skin and toenail to cap it off, all in just a couple seconds.  Shiro and Houka both stared in awe as Ryuko did her best to remain nonchalant while ignoring the nearly three inches of her own blood that had accumulated in the basin of the chamber.

“Uhh, did you get that?”  Shiro asked, still a little stunned.

“Ohoho yes I did, you’re both going to want to see this,” Houka said, opening the door allowing them and a little tidal wave of blood to exit the chamber.  Shiro’s shoes squeaked as he quickly hurried over to Houka’s monitors.  Houka had flicked one of them on, and in the dimness, he pointed to a serious of bars graphs and numbers that were quite incomprehensible to Ryuko.  “See, it’s quite similar to what you predicted.”

“So it is.  It looks like a localized hyper-instance of the geodetic effect, but then right here it stops.  Do you think the continuation is happening… beyond?  What really makes no sense is that it happened inside her body and none of her other tissues show any change – you’re sure there was no material loss elsewhere?  Body fat reduction, bone rerouting?”

“Take a look.  Besides those two instances the rest of her was as still as a statue.”

“Uh, hello?  Please stop speaking nerd when there’s monolinguals around,” Ryuko said, leaning into the screen.  She saw a small drawing of a generalized woman’s body in the bottom left corner of the screen, with two bright red dots on it: one on the toe that had been cut off, and the other right where the heart was, “That supposed to be me?”

“Yes, that’s you.  Those two dots are what we’re talking about.  They’re what you would call gravity fluctuations, the same kind that make the gravity of our planet and other objects in space but much smaller.  What makes these ones special is that what they most closely resemble is those found around black holes, or what we suppose the ones around wormholes would look like.”

“Wormholes.  So, my body is literally teleporting new blood and like, toe meat in from somewhere,” Ryuko said with an almost exasperated tone.  Whenever she used her powers, especially before Senketsu’s death, she felt an elation in the back of her mind that never fully went away.  Put into words, they would be most easily summarized as:  This is so fucking cool.  But hearing where they came from, that put entirely different nagging thoughts into her head.  The same dark thoughts that had consumed her when she’d awoken from her coma, not nearly as strong of course, but still there.

“Well, that’s the gist of it.  As for where, this is what I meant by physical self.  You see, the signal is incomplete:  there should be a link that would shoot of into space somewhere and we could theoretically follow it to find the other side, but instead it just folds into itself and disappears.  It’s all in the numbers here, although I don’t suppose you know too much about general relativity.”

“No, and frankly I don’t care to learn.  So then where’s it going?”

“Well as far as we have figured out,” Shiro weighed in, still flicking blood off the fringes of his needlessly long lab jacket, “The other side is in another dimension… Ryuko, are you okay?”

Ryuko realized she’d been standing there with a stunned, openmouthed look on her face.  She quickly threw up her hands in surrender, saying, “This is too fucked up for me to think about right now.  I really didn’t come here to hear about how I’m some kind of weirdass cosmic entity or whatever the fuck.  I just wanted to know if the life fibers inside me would try to kill me or something.”

“They won’t.  They’re a part of you, and-,”

“No, that’s good enough.  Let’s get the rest of your tests done and you can tell Satsuki and your other nerd friends and we can go hang out and not think about it.”

“Okay, but for the record I think you’re extrapolating a bit too much from all this,” Shiro said, and he looked a bit hurt by her sudden hostility.  The thrill of discovery had been upon both him and Houka, and now they both frowned at the realization that something had upset their friend, although they didn’t fully grasp what it was.

“Don’t care.  So, what’s next, you guys want I should drink poison or something?”

“Well, now that you mention it…”

 

It had been nearly two hours, and Satsuki had now officially bowed out of the conversation.  There’d been lots of business to discuss; pertaining not just to the research complex but to the Kiryuin Foundation’s business, the Japanese government’s diplomacy, and some further cleanup from the war.  Even so, it hadn’t been enough to fill up the time, so they’d started in on the small talk.  But even Tsumugu’s recent marriage wasn’t enough common ground to keep her in the conversation forever, especially since both Satsuki and him were less than excellent conversationalists.  So when Ryuko, Shiro, and Houka returned she was scrolling on her phone while Aikuro and Tsumugu gossiped about some mutual friends.

“Alright,”  Shiro said as his test subject, now fully clothed and looking pensive and worn out, flopped down on a couch next to Tsumugu, “we’ve tested Ryuko against physical cuts, abrasions, and blunt force trauma, extreme heat and cold, electric shocks, extended periods of time without breathing, and various toxins, carcinogens, and drugs including rattlesnake venom, cyanide, asbestos, and alcohol, marijuana, and heroin -,”

“- You gave her heroin?”  Satsuki asked loudly.

“Don’t worry, it had no effect on her.  In fact, none of the test caused any lasting effects, unless she willed them to.  We found that with concentrated effort she could allow her resilience to slow down enough for her to, for example, experience a high, but the moment she decided she’d had enough she could sober up.”

“I’m a little cross-faded right now, actually,” Ryuko said, and Satsuki considered shooting her a disapproving glance but decided against it and kept her eyes trained on Shiro, “It’ll make the next part much easier.”

“Yes, Ryuko isn’t much interested in our results, but I think the rest of you will find them very interesting.  Houka, the screen?  The screen, Houka.”

“It’s being slow, give me a minute,” Houka replied petulantly, and when it loaded he turned a monitor around to show a bunch of data and displays to the assembled group.  Aikuro and Tsumugu leaned in with great interest, and though Satsuki didn’t have much understanding of this sort of science (her PhD was in Sociology) she could tell that the data she was seeing was more typical to astrophysics than human anatomy.  “Basically, the results completely support our interdimensional warping hypothesis, and you can eat shit Tsumugu.”

“What?  I said I thought it was the most likely to be true.”

“Sure, you said that, but what you really thought…”  He trailed off with a shrug.

“I’m lost, what’s the hypothesis here?”  Satsuki asked.

“Yes, I’ll break it down for you,”  Houka came around from behind the desk, carrying a small vial.  Within it there drifted a single glowing red thread.  A life fiber.

“WHY!”  Ryuko shouted, leaping up onto the couch with a pained expression.  “WHY did you keep ANY of those things?!  I thought they were supposed to have died out when I stopped Ragyo!”

“Ryuko, please calm down.  They are quite harmless in this form.  We’ve been collecting the excess life fibers left over since the war and storing them down here.  The only people who know that we’re keeping them down here are the six of us and the other three former Elites.”

“Destroy them.  This is such a ridiculously bad idea – I can’t believe you let them do this Satsuki!” 

“Ryuko, Ryuko!”  Satsuki said forcefully, then when Ryuko focused on her she turned to a softer tone, “Please sober up.”  Still staring at her, Ryuko eventually complied, and Satsuki could see her eyes becoming clearer until she seemed back to normal.  “Do you really think I would have approved this if they hadn’t demonstrated there was no risk of the whole thing happening over again?”

“I don’t know, would you have?”

“Well, I didn’t.  The life fibers can’t turn humans into energy anymore – it seems to be something that you did when you took control of Shinra Koketsu.  Shiro offered his own body to prove it couldn’t be done.”

“Yes, we built a COVER using the blueprints we took from REVOCS data and Shiro entered into it.  The scorch marks in test chamber 2 are from it self destructing when it tried to consume him,” Aikuro explained.

“Really.  And you went along with this?”  Ryuko turned now to Tsumugu.

“I know what you’re thinking, and how I used to feel about the life fibers, but there’s –,”

“Two things, yeah, go on,” She said testily.

“One:  the tests were conclusive, nobody is lying or mistaken, they really can’t consume humans anymore and it is because you willed it to happen through Shinra Koketsu.  Two:  I don’t approve of everything that they’re working on and even less of what they want to do down here, but that’s why it’s important that I keep working here to act as a voice of reason.”

“Alright.  Either you’re all insane or you’re right, I’m gonna choose to believe you’re right for the moment.  I can always come back and wreck the place later if I change my mind.”

“Please don’t,” Aikuro said lightly, conceding that they actually couldn’t stop her if that’s what she wanted to do.  Something in his tone resonated with Ryiuko, maybe it reminded her of all their bizarre encounters at his messy Honoujji apartment, but suddenly Ryuko felt much calmer.  Yeah, she was in control of this situation no matter what her batshit crazy friends had in store; they’d just spent two hours proving she couldn’t be killed or stopped, hadn’t they?

“Hey man, who knows what I’ll do.  I’m an enigma!”  He chuckled at her callback to his earlier quip, and then nodded to Houka, who had stood holding the vial as if he didn’t know what to do with it throughout the exchange.

“Okay, Ryuko are we good?”  Houka asked, and when she shrugged and nodded slightly he went on, uncapping the vial and using a tweezer to pull the life fiber out.  “Satsuki, if would please hold this, you’ll note it has some interesting properties.” Satsuki took it with an outstretched palm, “Try to hold it between two fingers.  What do you feel?”

“Nothing,” Satsuki said in bemusement, gently waving the life fiber around between pinched thumb and forefinger, “It must be extraordinarily thin.  I was expecting something like a strand of hair.”

“Now try holding it out at arm’s length and slowly bringing it up to your eyes.”  Satsuki did, and when she’d brought it to her eyes and it seemed to shrink the only appropriate response was a nonplussed “Huh”.

“It appears to be the same thickness no matter how far away from you it is, doesn’t it?”

“So, am I just seeing the light it emits then?”

“Precisely – pass it over to Ryuko so she can observe the phenomenon, if you’d please – you see, the life fiber is actually infinitely thin, and depending on your measuring tool it can appear to have mass – it has mass on a scale – or not – under a mass spectrometer it produces no reading whatsoe-,”

“Whoops.”  Ryuko said bluntly, and when Satsuki looked over the life fiber was gone.  She brushed the red streak out of her eyes, and it seem to pulsate and glow just a little.

“Uh, what happened?”  Houka said, confused now that he’d been broken out of the lecturing flow

“I absorbed it.  I swear I didn't mean to, It just got a little too close and magnetted in."

“That’s fine, we have others.  Anyway, what we’ve observed is that life fiber isn’t completely immaterial – it obviously exists – but it doesn’t entirely exist here.  Part of it is elsewhere, in a space we can’t observe, which for the sake of convenience we are describing as another dimension, although it doesn’t fully describe what we think the phenomenon is.  It's like another axis, maybe two, that branches off from the three we can see, so it both overlaps with the physical space we can see and doesn't.  Truthfully, you can't imagine what that would look like.   And this is backed up by what we see with Ryuko’s body.  When it can, it will regenerate by reattaching its severed parts, but when denied that it will just recreate the missing parts seemingly from nothing.  What it’s actually doing is pulling the raw material from the other place, or possibly from some other part of our observable universe using the other dimension as an intermediate.  Same thing when we introduced poisons and drugs to her system, we thought her biology would be too inhuman to be affected on a basic level, but instead it just removed the hostile particles.  And when she held her breath for an extended period of time her body just created oxygen and pumped it directly into her bloodstream.  And there’s one other thing.  Ryuko, do you recall the time you were shot in the head?  It was on the news a few months back.”

“Oh yeah.  I was stopping a jewelry store robbery and the robber got nervous.  Went right in here and right out here,” She gestured to her temple and the back of her head, “Hurt like a bitch.”

“But you didn’t lose consciousness, did you?”

“I – no I didn’t.”

“Which is strange, isn’t it?  That kills normal people instantly, you would think you’d have at least blacked out for a moment.  Well, we hypothesize that the flesh-and-blood brain in there isn’t actually your brain:  the real one is out there in the other dimension, and what’s in your head is just a connector between it and your body.”

“Woah.”  Ryuko mouthed, before a horrifying thought seized her, “WAIT!  That would mean Ragyo would be out there somewhere, too, wouldn’t it?  If you’re gonna tell me that bitch isn’t dead, and Nui too, then… then… then what the fuck!”

“The idea occurred to us too,” Tsumugu said calmly, putting a hand on her shoulder, “Nui was absorbed by Senketsu when he absorbed Shinra Koketsu, she’s as dead as he is.  We have been looking, but we haven’t found any quantum disturbances that would indicate that a being such a Ragyo still existed and was active.  We’ll keep an eye out, obviously, but it seems for the moment that she really is gone.”

“Or it’s possible that Senketsu absorbed her too, or at least her life fibers,” Shiro weighed in.

“Okay.  So, you guys are taking that seriously, at least.”

“Very seriously.  Ragyo returning in any way could be disastrous even if she cannot activate the Cocoon Sphere.”

“Okay then, I guess that’s fine.”

“However, your brain being immaterial does open up another very interesting possibility: you may be immortal, Ryuko.  You only have growth hormones, not the ones associated with ageing, so once those run down in your early 20s the life fibers will probably keep maintaining your body in stasis for, well, forever maybe.”

“Alright, cool.”  Ryuko said, and then after a pause where everyone stared at her in confusion she said, “Uh no, that’s not what I meant.  I’m just mind-fucked out for today, I’ll get back to you on that one.”

“Sure, sure.  Well then, that’s the bulk of what we found, the rest is numbers and stuff you probably don’t have interest in.  We’ve just got one thing left for you.  Shiro, if you would be so kind.”

“Certainly.  We’re going to go see the project now, so safety gear, everyone.”

 

The storage area turned out to be even larger than the test chambers, and full of all sorts of weird looking stuff that was apparently not what they were looking for.  It was at this point that Ryuko started to wonder how deep underground they actually were; there was no way all of this was just in the visitor center’s basement.  There were rooms filled with broken swords that looked by all indications to be prototypes of Satsuki’s old sword Bakuzan, large machines filled with water and blue light that made Ryuko feel sick to look at them (she didn't know a nuclear reactor when she saw one, but she was still glad she was wearing a lead padded lab coat and hardhat when they passed them), dozens of those scanner chambers that they’d cut Ryuko’s toe off in, and more bizarre pieces of tech that Ryuko couldn’t describe.  There was even a large chamber filled with crates of massive, yellowed bones of unfamiliar, monstrous looking creatures.

“Why do you have dinosaur bones down here?”  Ryuko asked, and Shiro turned back and glanced at her mysteriously.

“Those aren’t dinosaurs,” He said, then continued on without further explanation.  They finally stopped in front of a broad double door that required both a fingerprint scan and a pin code.  A brilliant blue-white light and pale streaks of mist drifted through as it slid noisily open, and all those with normal human eyes squinted into it, rendered momentarily blind.  Ryuko wasn’t so affected, but what she saw struck her dumbfounded anyway.  Throughout a warehouse just as large if not larger than all the rest stood row after row of vast, cylindrical pods filled with life fibers, slowly swaying like vast, corded rods of kelp in pale cyan fluid.

“This is where we’ve been keeping all the life fibers.  They can still draw upon the electromagnetic pulse of humans and other animals for energy, but we haven’t been making any new clothing out of them.  So, we keep them alive using this electrically charge solution although they multiply much slower this way.”

“And what are you going to do with them?”  Ryuko asked, just on the edge of accusation, “Not more Goku Uniforms, I hope.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Shiro said, “Goku uniforms were mere weapons of war, I swore I would never give life to another.  Isn’t that right?” He said, and his colleagues nodded.

“Then what?”

“Well, more of you, not to put too fine a point on it.”

“W-what?  Seriously?”  She breathed, barely able to register her shock.  Satsuki also had a stricken look on her face – this was news to her too, “Oh my god, you are serious, aren’t you.”

“Now, it’s just theoretical, you understand,” Aikuro said quickly, raising his hands to placate Ryuko.

“No, you don’t have to take the heat for this Aikuro, this is my hill to die on,” Shiro said decisively.  There was a glint in his eyes that Satsuki had only seen a few times, most notably the first time he’d seen the capabilities of life fibers as an 11-year-old boy genius, “My god, do you realize what we could do with this stuff?”  He’d grinned, “If one day we can remove the dangers, render it no longer a threat to humanity… Ohh, it’s going to change everything.”  Now, it seemed, his dreams were on the verge of coming to fruition, and Satsuki couldn’t help but feel a little nervous, despite having trusted him with her life for the majority of it.  “Ryuko, you don’t need to eat or drink, you don’t need to breath air, you don’t need to fear disease, or violence, or maybe even the ravages of time.  The world is slowly starving to death, but if we could turn even 10%, even 5% of the population into what you are, imagine what that would do for reducing our needs of food and energy.”

“But what about Ragyo?  You aren’t afraid you’d make another monster like her?”

“Well, what about you?  We’ve studied your father’s notes extensively and we found that there’s a big difference between how you were fused with the life fibers and how Ragyo was, what they tried to do to Satsuki too.  The life fibers must be implanted while the child is still an infant, before it has a well-developed sense of identity.  If it is too old, as Satsuki was, there are two possible options:  the mind will either embrace the life fibers and become their unquestioning slave like Ragyo, or the mind will reject them, the connection will fail, and the child could possibly die.  Now obviously there is a bit of an ethical concern with performing this procedure when the subject is too young to consent to it.  I think it’s worthwhile even despite that.”

“Yeah, you do realize that that still made me have that coma and then a hugeass freakout when my powers awakened, don’t you?”  Ryuko snarked loudly, getting very close to Shiro's face.

“And you’re fine now, aren’t you?”

“Well, yeah, mostly.  I still don’t think I’ve ever gotten all the way used to it though.”

“My hypothesis on that is that if we allowed a child to awaken gradually, it wouldn’t experience the same shock and could avoid the coma and everything else that came with it.”

“You’re fucking insane, you know that?”  Ryuko said, still disapproving but now taking a different tact, “I know you won’t stop with just 10% or whatever, you want everybody to be like me one day.”  Even Satsuki was now flinching back, listening to them have at it for this long had already made everyone deeply uncomfortable.  Shiro wouldn’t back down, and he stared Ryuko in the face, jaw set resolutely.

“Is that so bad?  A future where nobody dies, nobody needs to work to stay alive.  Some would call it heaven.  Is it really so bad to be you, that you would stop anyone from being like you even if it saves humanity from a slow death?”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it; don’t twist my words,” Ryuko said at nearly shouting volume, but Shiro was unmoved, and though Ryuko balled her fists up his resolve was beginning to eat at her.  She was disturbed by his commitment to this insane scheme, but still she couldn’t believe that was so far down the mad science rabbithole that he wasn’t still the person she knew.  They’d made brownies together just weeks ago for goodness’ sake!  Seeing how the others were cowering in the face of her anger, and considering that this wasn’t the first time they’d done so today, she began to worry that she was losing control of her temper, “Er, Satsuki, c’mon, what do you think?”

“I don’t think we have enough information to say definitively what will happen.  A sample size of three, two of whom are deceased, isn’t much to make predictions on,”

“Er, as a point of technicality,”  Houka began, and when everyone glared at him for interrupting the resolution to the argument he cleared his thoat and continued quickly, “It’s a sample of two, Nui was in a class of her own, more like a humanoid Kamui than anything else.  Still, your point stands.”

“Even more so.  In light of that:  I sanction this line of research,” Satsuki said in a voice not too different from her old command voice as Ryuko groaned and shook her head, “On the condition that you will not begin any new stage without consulting me first.  Ryuko, will you be content if I promise to consult with you when and if they make important strides on this project?”

“I-I guess.  Damn, I really thought you’d be on my side.”

“I’m on the side of us getting through the rest of the tour without any more shouting matches.”

“The we’d better hurry on to the next part.”

“After that,” Tsumugu said with a mirthless laugh, “I’m a little worried that the next part might be worse.”

 

Satsuki knew what it was the moment she set eyes on it.  An elegant emerald and gold cocktail dress with a beaded, lacy pattern on the neck and divots in the skirt in the front and back so the legs could move freely, it was a beautiful piece of fashion even if it did look a bit odd pinned up in that display case.  But the red slits on the breasts gave it away, to say nothing of its unusual, glossy, chitin-like texture.  Those were the eyes of a sleeping dragon.  And when they opened…

“Alright,” Ryuko was the first one to speak as the enter into this new room, “I want you guys to know that I’m doing my very best to keep my cool this time.  So, what’s the deal with this new Kamui?”

“Kamui Saiban!”  Aikuro exclaimed dramatically, turning the face his audience with all the ham of a used car salesman.  He had recovered quickly from Ryuko’s antics, probably because he was the most used to having her in his face of all of them except maybe Satsuki.  “This is an incomplete prototype Kamui that your father was testing, hoping to use as a counter to Junketsu.  It is also, unfortunately, the cause of death of Kinue, Tsumugu’s sister.  We recovered it from REVOCS inventory after the war – apparently they’d raided your father’s house not long after you found Kamui Senketsu there.”

“Saiban – Judgement,” Satsuki mused, “It seems our father had quite the flair for naming.”

“Out of curiosity, do you have any record of what he was gonna call Senketsu?”  Ryuko asked, "Not to derail us or anything,"  She added in a high pitched, snarky tone.

“Actually, we do, especially since Tsumugu and I worked for him when he made it.  He called him Nozomi – hope.  Although personally I like Senketsu better.”

“Me too, obviously.  So, this thing is probably more like Junketsu then, considering that it killed her.  He probably hadn't gotten the whole bonded human-kamui pair down yet.”

“Functionally it is almost identical to Junketsu.  Based on Satsuki’s testament, when she first put on Junketsu it attempted to crush her, much like a boa constrictor, and the same thing happened to Kinue.  Only difference was that Kinue couldn’t withstand it; Satsuki is in fact the only normal human who has ever effectively worn a pure Kamui that doesn’t have a human’s genome incorporated into its micro-weave pattern, and she managed it through sheer force of will alone.”

“While that’s flattering, I can assure you I have no intention of replicating the feat,” Satsuki said.

“And we have no intention of asking you – or anyone else – to wear this Kamui.  At least not in its current form.  With what we have of it, we believe we can remake it into a bonded Kamui like Senketsu:  Sentient, capable of communicating telepathically with its bonded wearer and with other nearby people, and capable of absorbing life fibers to become more powerful; not to mention all the other powers a Kamui provides and without the danger of it trying to kill or mind control its wearer.”

“So we’re making new sentient lifeforms now,” Ryuko said with a sigh.

“Uhh, do you disapprove, or…”

“Honestly?  Not as much as everything else.”  She crossed her arms and rubbed her arms thoughtfully, “Meeting Senketsu was… the best thing that ever happened to me, no other way to put it.  You can’t know what it’s like to have a Kamui until you’ve experienced it.  So, if you can get this to work, I say go for it, other people should get the experience too.  Count me out of wearing it though; no way I’m letting Senketsu get replaced.”

“That’s completely understandable, thank you Ryuko,” Aikuro said solemnly, then cracked a smug smile, “Looks like I get off easy today, boys.”  His colleagues frowned or chuckled frustratedly, “Anyway, we still need someone to be Saiban’s wearer.  Satsuki?  Any interest?”

“I’m sorry Aikuro, but I’m afraid not.  I promised myself I would never take another life, and in a Kamui, well, I suppose being able to do so that easily I’d eventually be put into a dangerous situation where that was the best option.”

“I see.  Well, then we go to our next best.”

“Nonon?”  Satsuki asked, anticipating who he would pick.

“Well, yes.  As one of the elites she has experience with Goku Uniform transformation process, which is not terribly different from the life fiber synchronization process.  Her combat prowess is probably third only to Uzu’s and your own, Satsuki, and she’s already physically fit enough to resist the strain of wearing a Kamui.  And, of course, she's female unlike the other elites; it should be possible to make a male compatible Kamui but Saiban is definitely not.  Do you think she’d agree?”

“She might, if I approached her in the right way.”

“Quick question,” Ryuko said, “Why do we have to use this Kamui?  If you guys have all the blueprints, why don’t you just make a new one that you can know for sure will work?”

“That’s my complaint too,” Tsumugu said, “My position has always been that we should reverse engineer Saiban and use what we know to make a better bonded Kamui.”

“And I keep telling you that while that would be better it will take at least a year until we can get that working, and we could use a Kamui much sooner than that,” Shiro said.

“Now why’s that?”  Ryuko asked, and all four scientists looked at Satsuki bemusedly.

“You mean you haven’t told her?”  Houka asked, and now Ryuko looked at Satuski accusingly too.

“Satsuki, what is it?”

“Well, I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely up front with you Ryuko.  I’ve been sparing you from an unpleasant truth up until now.  You once asked why I needed security guards now that our story broke and I’m one of the most well-regarded people on the planet, but the truth is that there’s a few people who definitely do not love me.  Powerful people.”

“Oh shit.”

“Indeed.  You may be aware that lately there have been quite a number of terrorist attacks across Japan, especially in Tokyo.  The press has been reporting that they were perpetrated mostly by lone lunatics; we know better, but they’ve covered their tracks very well.  You see, Ragyo managed to dupe a large number of her employees at REVOCS into believing that the Coccoon Sphere Genesis was some sort of apotheosis for the human race, a bridge to heaven.  Even now quite a lot of them still believe it, and they hate all of us with a passion.  It's become some sort of doomsday cult, and while we're doing our best to track them down they're pretty good at their game.  What’s worse, they have copies of the REVOCS database and they have life fibers; they will be making Goku Uniforms, maybe even Kamuis if they can figure out how, and they will be coming for us.”

“Wow, alright, point taken,” Ryuko was staring at the floor pensively, a shadow over her face.  What could she be thinking?  I hope she isn’t angry at me for hiding this.  “And I bet the other countries that you said didn’t like you much will be a problem too.”

“They will, especially America, England, and Russia.  They already have Dotonbor- sorry, DTR based mecha in production; a significant markup over conventional military forces, and we’re operating under the assumption that it’s only a matter of time before the REVOCS cultists sell them some life fibers and they have Goku Uniforms.  We need to be prepared in case they decide they've had enough of the way things are run now.”

“Wow.  This really sucks, but for once I think I see where you’re coming from.  I only hope Nonon turns out to be the right troll-doll for the job.”

“Ryuko I know you and she don’t get along, but do you have to refer to her like that?  Especially at such a serious time.”

“Until she changes that ridiculous dye job, she’s the troll-doll.”

“Wait, hold on, you do know that’s natural, right?  She suffers from a very rare pigment disorder similar to albinism.”

“WHAT?  Satsuki that’s absurd, quit making shit up.”

“No, it’s true – I’ve known her since we were toddlers and she’s always had hair that same color!”  Shiro came to Satsuki’s defense, smiling now.  Oh, they’re definitely fucking with me now.  Punishment for acting like a jerk earlier.

“Guys come on.  Houka?  They’re trying to trick me, aren’t they?”

“Why would they make up something that specific?”

“Oh for the love of – Aikuro?”

“I’m pretty sure they’re telling the truth, Ryuko,” He said with a laugh, by this point they were all laughing, Ryuko wasn’t sure if it was at her or with her, but it still felt good nonetheless to see them smile after so many heavy revelations.  Especially Satsuki, who was laughing so softly that on anyone else it would’ve hardly been noticeable, but was still laughing.

“Tsumugu?  C’mon someone please be real with me here!”

“There’s two things you need to know,” Tsumugu said with an entirely straight face and crossed arms.

“Okay, good,” Ryuko said eagerly, motioning him to continue.

“One:  I have no idea if they’re lying or not.”

“Oh, come on!”

“Two:  You definitely shouldn’t ask Nonon about this,” He finished, finally cracking up just as Ryuko gave up and joined him.

 

Back in the car, pulling out of the roundabout to leave the research complex, Satsuki couldn’t help but notice that Ryuko was deep in thought.  It had been a long time saying goodbyes, Ryuko had insisted on apologizing to everyone for getting mad, then got mad again when Houka asked her if she would come back for more tests, then she had to apologize again.  Despite all that, Shiro had texted Satsuki as they were leaving, saying *Nothing important got broken, so I think we can chalk that one up as a win*, and though part of Satsuki was upset at him for still treating Ryuko like a wild animal sometimes, she had to admit that they’d dropped a lot on her little sister’s head all at once and she’d done a decent job handling it all.  Or had she?  Satsuki couldn’t parse what was going on in those eyes as they stared with a dull glimmer at the passing scenery.

They were about half of the way back to the Mankanshoku’s when a good idea struck Satsuki.  Some quick texted instructions to the chauffer and they were pulling off the highway, which made Ryuko sit up.

“We taking a different way home?”

“You’ll see.”

“Okay,” Ryuko muttered sullenly, and soon enough they were pulling up in front of a small bakery on the edge of a park.  With antique glass paneling and a narrow but comfy area of outdoor seating confined by wrought iron fences with flower baskets along the edges, it was about the most welcoming looking place Satsuki knew.  She’d discovered it with Nonon a few months back, it was quite close to Nonon’s apartment in fact, but when Satsuki told Ryuko this for small talk while they waited on line she wasn’t especially impressed.  In fact, she stayed fairly quiet and lost in thought until they were seated with their pastries and hot chocolate at one of the little tables outside, where she suddenly let out a groan of frustration.

“I really want to talk about it,” She said, propping her head on her hand as she watched Satsuki polish off the last of her cinnamon roll (Ryuko had gotten just one miniature cupcake, so she was long since finished with it), “I’m not gonna, but you know.”

“I do know.  It’s hard at first, but you’ll either get practice or someone will reveal everything you couldn’t talk about and then you won’t have to worry.”  Ryuko made a noncommittal grunt, then stayed quiet for a moment longer before opening her mouth again.

“It’s just, it’s never going to end, is it?”  Ryuko said, and Satsuki didn’t need any further explanation to know what she meant.

“No, I don’t suppose it will.  Not for as long as we live,” Satsuki responded in a tone as slow and subdued as Ryuko’s.

“So, forever, apparently.”

“I – um, I don’t know.  Not for a long time, either way.”

“I’m gonna get dragged into it,” Ryuko said after another long pause.

“You don’t have to, you know.  We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure nobody knows your whereabouts who shouldn’t.”

“Yeah, but I’m gonna get dragged in anyway.  Not soon, I hope, but eventually.”

“If you ever feel you don’t have a choice in the matter, don’t hesitate to tell me.”

“No, it’s alright.  Actually, I wanted to say I don’t blame you, or any of the others for it.  When whatever happens happens I’ll want to help, I’m sure of it.  Y’know, I actually really appreciate how up-front you guys were with everything.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, I suppose you’re welcome.”

“It’s nice to know what’s going on for a change.  Last time I didn’t know what the fuck was happening half the time,” she said with a quiet chuckle, “And when I did it really pissed me off.  It’s just a lot to think about now.”

Satsuki couldn’t help but agree, but she interpreted that so differently than Ryuko did.  She reflected that she probably seemed lost in thought as well, because her mind was racing with all the different possibilities the day had opened up for the future.  Could she persuade Nonon to take up Kamui Saiban?  What would Saiban be like?  Would they even get it to work?  Would it be enough to defeat their enemies?  She couldn’t even begin to guess.  Once again we’re saying the same thing, but we’re on completely different pages.  You’re right Ryuko, the madness of our lives is never going to end.  But you know what?  I don’t think I’d know what to do with myself if it did.

Chapter Text

~ November ~

 

               Sometimes, even when everyone agrees that society needs to change, even when everyone agrees how it needs to change, change is slow to arrive.  The students at Rinne High still marched the parade grounds in carefully drilled lines every morning before classes, even months after any reason to do so had been eliminated.  They would not be sent out to patrol the city streets and maintain order – there was now a government police force for that.  There would be no Takarada school coming for a raid trip – the country was unified again.  Most importantly, there were no more Rinne-Do Enforcers, the elite guard of Rinne Alumni who had stuck around to terrorize the student body – Those meatheads now mostly found employment in the police force and national military.  But they were still out there, rifles on shoulders, come rain or snow or baking heat, hating every minute of it. 

Mataro probably hated drill even more than most.  He knew he was destined to be more than another meathead; they were in plentiful supply these days.  He couldn’t stand the monotony, especially not how similar everyone looked with their hair pulled back under their caps and their uniforms buttoned and in order.  Too often he’d tried to chat with a friend during drill only to find he’d accidentally stood next to a complete stranger instead.  It didn’t even have the saving grace of being a good warm-up for track.  Locking your legs for so long just made them stiff and sore.

               Ryuko never marched during drill, of course.  There she was now, Mataro could barely spot her reclining across the school’s front stairs even though their smooth stone must have been freezing this time of year.  She had tried to, gussied up her uniform and stood in rank and file with all the rest on their first day of school, only to have the principal pull her aside and tell her that, well, they just couldn’t have Lady Ryuko Matoi doing something so common and low as that.  Mataro got why she’d been disappointed; she wanted to live a normal life her way and considering that was part of normal high school experience she wanted to experience it too.  Usually he was as grateful as could be that she’d chosen that path, especially when she could just as easily have gone off with Satsuki to lead the life of a princess if she’d wanted.  But every so often she really ought to own it a little more, say to folks: “Yeah, I’m Ryuko fucking Matoi, I sword-fought monsters and dictators and an evil goddess while wearing nothing but a living bikini, what have you done lately?  Oh yeah, and I also saved the world, so maybe I don’t have to march in drill if I don’t feel like it.”

               Classes were boring as usual, Mataro sat at the back with his friends throughout the morning.  Slouching and swaggering his way though classes had come naturally to him, despite having never gone to an actual school before Rinne.  He’d gotten so good at it, in fact, that boys twice his size (which was most of them, even though he’d finally started to shoot up) avoided him, especially since he’d gotten a reputation for acting on his threats, even with his friends.  The teachers were still adjusting to life without the enforcers, many were still too meek to say anything while Mataro’s little crew hung about with rumpled, unbuttoned uniforms, muttering amongst themselves.  A few were of a different breed, drill sergeants who weren’t afraid to take the rules into their own hands.  Mataro could respect that, they reminded him off Ira Gamagoori a little bit and though the guy was a pain in the ass at the best of times, he got results.  But they weren’t common; for the most part Mataro was content to slack off and play the role of leader for his crew.  His leadership in that little group came naturally, too, once he’d established his reputation other freshman were happy to let him boss them around.  They didn’t need to know how much work he put in after hours to keep his grades up, and they wouldn’t like it much if they found out.

               On this particular day when lunch rolled around Mataro was distracted and in a bit of an irritable mood.  Plentiful thoughts were keeping him busy – to be fair, most were video games or other such inanities – but he did have something more practical too.  Today was the semifinal for Track and Field, squeezed in just before it got too cold for outdoor events.   Mataro was the clutch runner for both hurdles and sprints, his scores would be essential for ensuring the school made it to finals.  And it was a home game, so the family would be coming to cheer him on.  Including Ryuko.  So he had to be on his A game.  It wasn’t really related, but all that made him particularly incensed when, as he approached his crew’s table in the mess hall, he saw one of them pull a none-too-small plastic bag of weed out of his backpack like he was the slyest thing on Earth.

               “What the fuck’s this, Kinzo?!”  Mataro shouted as he gave him a nasty whack right above the ear.  Kinzo immediately dropped the bag, and Mataro’s lightning quick hands snatched it while everyone was still letting out dismayed “Woahhh”s in reaction.

               “Owww, what the hell Mataro!” Kinzo whined, but he kept his hands to himself as Mataro held the weed up accusingly.  Kinzo was a bulky kid with a great deal of muscle for a freshman – When they played ball after school his secret weapon was the good-old-fashioned shove - but in the face of Mataro’s jabs he might as well have been a sandbag.  Mataro had learned in Honou-town never to hesitate when striking, something his classmates hadn’t figured out yet, and it gave him an insurmountable edge despite his scrawny physique.

               “You can’t wait three fucking hours?  You’re gonna get us all in trouble moron!”

               “Dude chill, teachers don’t give a shit,” One of the others chimed in, hands raised to placate Mataro.

               “Mr. Neiji for sure does, and he’s on lunch duty today,” Mataro returned, pointing out one of the drill- sergeant-types teachers standing with crossed arms at the main doors, “You all blind too, huh?”

               “Oh, shit.”

               “Yeah, come on guys.  I don’t need a detention today,” He tossed the bag back with another fierce slap, “I’m going to get lunch.  That better be gone before I get back.”

               As Mataro stalked off, he couldn’t help but cackle to himself.  Opening and closing a plastic bag without making a sound was his latest masterwork of the pickpocket craft.  Honoujji hadn’t even been able to teach him that one, he’d just picked it up to sneak cookies without Sukoyo catching him.  Kinzo would wind up thinking he’d just forgotten how much weed he’d had, it had only been out of his sight for a split second.  Still got it, Mataro thought with avaricious pride as he unfurled the overflowing handful of the pale green buds he’d snatched, fitting punishment for being so careless.  Suddenly a hand dropped heavily onto Mataro’s shoulder, and his heart leapt to his throat as he realized he’d been being just as careless.  He turned slowly, expecting to see Mr Neiji glowering over him, but instead he was greeted by a toothy grin and shining sapphire eyes with gear-shaped pupils.

               “Smooth moves back there, bro.”

               “Oh thank God it’s just you!”  Mataro grinned with relief, “You coulda said something, you know.”

               “What, and undermine your authority?  Nah, you take care of your crew’s business on your own, isn’t that right?”  She turned to a friend she’d been walking along with, a handsome senior with swept back hair and a permanent, winning smile fixed across his face.  Before she’d arrived, he’d been the darling of the entire school, a star student who lead of group of upperclassmen known for effectively navigating the worlds of both the honors students and delinquents.  Now he played second fiddle, but second fiddle to Ryuko Matoi was still an accomplishment.  He nodded and replied, “Sure is.”

               “Nah that’s nothing, he’s just an idiot,” Mataro jerked a thumb back at his lunch table.  A couple of his friends noticed and tried their best not to look panicked at the thought of drawing her attention

               “Well, you keep ‘em in line then.  Alright, I’m off, Mako wants to eat outside,” She started to walk away, “But first, the big sister tax.”

               “Aw what?  C’mon, I swiped this fair and square!”  Mataro protested.  In theory Ryuko could have made the same demand of any of this school’s delinquent population – she commanded their respect one and all – but she only ever borrowed from Mataro.

               “So did I.  Later!”

               “Wha-,” Mataro unclasped his hand in surprise, but it was already too late.  Half his score was already gone.  When had she even taken it? “Aghhh, you and your reflexes!  I thought Mako didn’t want you getting high anymore!”

               “Oh, so now you’re an expert on what Mako thinks, huh?”  Ryuko rejoined playfully, “And I thought you had a track meet to stay focused for!”

               “Well I wasn’t gonna – argh!”  Mataro groaned as Ryuko slid off into the mess hall crowds.  She always got in the last word.

 

               The air hadn’t warmed much by the time the track meet rolled around.  This was a disadvantage for most scrawny guys– they felt the effects of the chill faster – but Mataro had found an effective workaround in remaining in constant motion.  He jogged in place between events, tossed a tennis ball around with some other teammates waiting on the bench for their events, and jogged back and forth from the spot on the bleachers where his family was seated.  The stadium was no Honoujji Arena, the bleachers were low and cozy, so with them in the front seats it was easy to talk back and forth.  Barazo and Sukoyo were, of course, very interested in the goings on of the team (especially considering that it was much more wholesome than their son’s traditional pastimes), but Ryuko and Mako didn’t seem to be paying much attention. 

They’d brought along a few friends, upperclassmen who made up their little clique.  Before Ryuko and Mako arrived they probably never spoke to each other; among their number were the school darling Ryuko had been walking with at lunch, two dedicated delinquents – massive meatheads with crude senses of humor, a gorgeous glossy-haired girl whose claim to fame was her starring role in the school musical, and a willowy artist who’d had the courage to ask Ryuko if she could paint her portrait on Ryuko’s first day at Rinne.  Still, chatting with heads huddled together, Ryuko and Mako dead in the center with hands about each other’s waists, they looked so cohesive and close that they could’ve been best friends all their lives.  Mataro had to admit he was a little disappointed that Ryuko and her crew didn’t want to talk – Mako did wave excitedly when he came over but that was it.

               Eventually Mataro’s first event, hurdles, was up.  This one wasn’t such a big deal; a light build was a massive advantage here and looking across the lineup from the other schools he was the scrawniest of them by a long shot.  Besides, compared to the shifting rooftops of the Honou-town shanties this was an easy playing field.  It did take him a minute to get his hair situated though; he’d taken to braiding it rather than getting it cut, but that meant he had to tie it up to the back of his head and not only was there still a risk of it falling but if he didn’t do it right it looked pretty silly.  At the starting block, he did his best to focus in as the noise of the audience started building in anticipation.

               “Let’s go Mataro!”  Ryuko’s voice suddenly rang out, accompanied by a shrill whistle from Mako.  The starting bell rang out, but about half of the other contestants were so shocked that the Ryuko Matoi was in the audience they tripped right out of the gate, rubbing faces to the rubbery red track.  Mataro only got a few steps in before the coach blew a piping whistle and called them all to a halt.  As they went back to the starting block to try again, Mataro faintly heard his sisters talking.

               “Oh no, Ryuko look what happened!”  Mako yelled plaintively, leaning on the railing

               “Ah man.  Sorry!”  Ryuko said as she came up to join her, her entourage following close behind.  This time, he smiled as he took his mark.  There was no way he was losing to these buffoons, not if they couldn’t handle Ryuko’s mere presence.  That alone put him on a whole other level.  She was rooting for him to win, so he would.  That’s what it meant to be the little brother of The Girl Who Saved the World.

 

               ~ December ~

 

               Christmas had always been a big deal in the Mankanshoku household, even when they’d been so dirt poor that they were lucky to have a single present for each of the kids.  That sort of thing didn’t matter, it was more about the spirit of the thing – and the time off of work and school, and all the food, of course.  But now that the Kiryuin fortune was providing them with a cushy middle-class lifestyle they could afford to go all out.  Mataro’s 1st place and best overall competitor trophies from the track championships lost their proud spot on the mantlepiece to a resplendent wreath loaded with golden tassels and shiny red ornaments.  Buying a real tree was out of the question – it was much too warm in Japan to grow enough for anybody but the rich these days – but a large fake that nearly passed for a living plant would do just as well.  When Ryuko’d first brought it in (through the balcony, since it wouldn’t fit in the elevator) they’d had to teach Guts to stop peeing on it, but once they’d solved that problem it glittered with a disorganized mess of ornaments.

               The food too would be a cut above their standard, especially for the main event on Christmas Eve.  Sukoyo had started an entire week in advance, and quickly recruited the rest of the family to help prepare enough croquettes, cookies, roast ham, and other homey delicacies to satisfy even the Mankanshoku’s legendary appetites.  And they would need them too, because it wasn’t just the five of them; quite a lot of the extended family were due to arrive.  How they were all going to fit into the apartment hadn’t been figured out even as the grandparents began arriving, then aunts, uncles, and cousins; somehow it all worked out in the end, but they were down to standing room only by the time Satsuki arrived.

A hush fell upon the apartment as she struggled to work a tall stack of elegantly wrapped boxes through a door that couldn’t be opened fully because there was someone in the way.  A sea of chestnut-haired faces with big, bold eyes were suddenly turned to her.  With all all the happy chatter dying down, she couldn’t help but blush awkwardly.  Everybody had been told she would be coming, of course, but hearing that and seeing the most powerful woman in Japan shuffling through the door with a nervous smile were entirely different things.  Ryuko quickly rushed over to grab the gifts, dispelling the tension with a loud, affectionate greeting that was quickly followed by one from Mako.  Soon enough her gifts were piled up on the stack by the tree, and some semblance of normal holiday cheer had resumed, although Satsuki could swear they were still glancing at her nervously.

 

               The family party turned out quite well.  Until recently most of the extended Mankanshoku family was too poor to travel, so there were many tearful reunions.  Barazo probably spent the entire evening blubbering at the kitchen table with a younger version of himself – a brother he hadn’t seen in years.  Mako tried to introduce Ryuko and Satsuki to everyone, and they turned out to be just as cheery and welcoming as the Mankanshoku’s they already knew, despite being both thrilled and terrified to be meeting such celebrities.  The food was a big hit too; Mako had been in charge of the hors d’oeurves and they were all but gone by the time Satsuki arrived.  When the first course was ready everyone crowded into the kitchen until there really was no room to move.  Even so, Ryuko and Satsuki spent plenty of time leaning against the wall, not knowing how to involve themselves with a family they’d just met. 

               “Hey, what time were you planning to split over to Nonon’s?”  Ryuko asked after the second course.  Normally she would’ve loathed going to the high-class rager going on at the Jakuzure Penthouse tonight, but frankly she was about done with the Mankanshokus and oddly looking forward to a group she could make uncomfortable intentionally.  It wasn’t that the Mankanshokus were ignoring her and Satsuki, more like they were avoiding them out of deference.  Nonon’s friends, scions of the lesser Japanese dynasties, wouldn’t be so shy, in fact they were quite looking forward to meeting Ryuko apparently.  They didn’t know what they were in for.

               “I was hoping to give you my presents, but I would feel odd in front of all the guests, I don’t have anything for them.”

               “Oh, well we were going to open ours tomorrow morning...”

               “I didn’t know that!”  Satsuki said, suddenly looking a little worried, “The thing is, one of my presents really ought to be opened tonight.”

               “I see,” Ryuko said, and when she looked over to the present stack she could indeed see why.  Why else would Sukoyo’s box have air holes?  "Alright, fair enough, I'll get everyone together on the balcony.  After that we can leave whenever ya want."

              

               “You two weren’t too tough to pick for, but I hope you like them anyway,” Satsuki said as she handed large boxes to Barazo and Mataro.  A huge DSLR camera and a new VR console, both things the boys had been gushing about for months.  They were thrilled – not the most thoughtful gifts, but that hardly mattered.  She earned lung crushing hugs for those gifts.

               “And for Mako, well, I’ve gotten you enough clothes and jewelry, so I hope you like this,” She slid over an envelope, which Mako opened with a confused “Huh?”  Inside there was nothing but a small sheet of brightly colored card-stock, “It’s a subscription to a catering service.  Just go online and you can order whatever you want from some excellent chefs, and they’ll deliver it right to you, free of charge.  I’ll keep paying for it as long as you want.”

               “No. Way.  They have these?”

               “Only for the super-rich.  Trust me, even Nonon would be jealous of this.”

               “Coooool,” She giggled, and was already on the caterer’s website, browsing the menu.  It just kept going and going.  Satsuki, meanwhile, was handing over Sukoyo’s gift.

               “Now, I know you always say you don’t want anything -,”

               “- That’s right!  I hope you didn’t spend terribly much,” Sukoyo chirped as she set to work unwrapping.

               “Well, I don’t think you’ll be turning down her,” Satsuki said, and her hunch was confirmed as Sukoyo squealed in delight, lifting aloft a tiny grey kitten.  It mewled and snuffled, staring up a Sukoyo with bright blue eyes like beads.  The balcony rang with the entire family’s fascinated coos.

               “Aww, lookit you!”  Sukoyo cradled her new kitten on her lap, where in yawned and nestled in sleepily, “She’s wonderful.  Oh, I wonder what name will do for her?  Thank you dear, I already love her.”

               “You’re very welcome.  I’ll have someone deliver her food and other supplies tomorrow. And last but not least, Ryuko,” Satsuki hurled a tiny box at Ryuko with little fanfare, which she snatched from the air and unwrapped it in a flash.  An ignition key.

               “So uh, this goes to something, right?”

               “You’ve already seen it,”  Satsuki said, shifting her head out towards the street.  A devilish grin broke out on Ryuko’s face.  When they’d first come out onto the balcony she’d spotted it down on the curb.  Damn that’s a cool bike, wonder whose it is, she’d thought.  Apparently, it was hers.  With a noisy whoop she was over the balcony railing and down on the ground, admiring its shiny red and black paint and smooth, waspy frame.  She’d ridden a fair few motorcycles in her life, but never one so streamlined and fearsome looking.  It was perfect.

               “Holy shit Satsuki, this is an antique!”  She shouted, beaming, and Satsuki responded in kind.  Ryuko could swore she’d seen teeth, for just the slightest moment.

               “Indeed it is!”  She yelled back, “I had it converted to electric though, so don’t worry about not having anywhere to fill it up!”

               “Wow…  How fast does she go?”

               “I have no idea.  Fast.  I’m sure you’ll find out!”  Satsuki said, then added, “Oh, and there’s a helmet in the side-bag for Mako!”

`              “It has side-bags?  Oh shit it does!”  It was so sleek and artfully designed that Ryuko had actually not noticed, “Wow, this thing rules.”  The helmet turned out to a pretty pastel pink and white thing, perfect for Mako.  Ryuko leapt the seven stories back to the balcony to show her, practically shaking with excitement.

               “Ooh, pretty.  Oh, but don’t you want one, Ryuko?”

               “I sure don’t need one.  Bike’ll break long before I do.”

               “Yeah, but you’d look really cool in one.”

               “True, true, but I like to feel the wind in my hair.  Well Satsuki, you’re gonna make a tough act to follow, I can tell you that.  Makes my present look like a joke, but we'll leave that 'til morning, eh?”

               “So, you like it?”

               “Don’t play dumb Satsuki,” Ryuko laughed, hugging her, “I love it.  Now c’mon, let’s get over to Nonon’s.  If you thought Mako and I were coming with in your limo though, you got another thing coming!”

 

               “Okay, what the hell.  Didn’t you tell her to wear something nice?  She looks worse than normal!”  Nonon fumed as Satsuki led the way into her penthouse apartment.  The music was blaring, one of Nonon’s own compositions, and so they didn’t make quite the entrance that Satsuki had at the Mankanshoku’s.  Some of the nearby guests, well dressed young socialites with the faraway look of being totally plastered, did seem be have noticed them though, and they were gabbing and pointing.  Satsuki was a little glad she couldn’t hear them over the music.

               “Hello to you too,” Ryuko snarked as she passed by, “Here’s a coat for ya, miss hostess.” Nonon stumbled momentarily under the momentum of Ryuko’s winter jacket as Mako slipped past her with a shouted greeting and a kiss on the cheek. “And for the record I didn’t mean for my hair to be this messy, but then I drove here on my new motorcycle,”  Ryuko said proudly as Mako began fussing with her hair.  They eventually settled on a spiked up style that showed off all that lovely red underneath.

               “Hang up your own damn coat, you barbarian! I – Oh god, you brought him too?”  Nonon was distracted from her ravings when Mataro suddenly slid in through the front door.

               “He can be surprisingly persistent,” Satsuki said.  In truth she found it hard to say no, especially since his parents weren't particularly concerned about it, “Don’t worry, he won’t be going anywhere near the alcohol, isn’t that right?”

               “Wassup baby, missed me?” Mataro was busy quipping to Nonon, following Ryuko’s lead in agitating her. “Oh, yeah yeah whatever,” He moped when he heard Satsuki, then set off hot on Ryuko’s heels.  Of all of them he was for some reason the only one who’d decided to dress for the occasion, with a thin grey suit and a striped vest that made him look even thinner.  He still hadn’t gotten neckties quite right though, his was more than a little lopsided.

               “Geez, those strays better not make me lose control of my own party,” Nonon muttered to Satsuki after the others had gone.  She did look frazzled, Satsuki had to admit, but on the other hand also oddly energized.  If it can be a performance art, Nonon will find a way to enjoy it.  Nothing to worry about here, she’s got this despite her complaining.  And indeed she did, darting off a moment after to shift the flow of one little groups conversation, then refill the glasses of another, then off to check on the group hiding in the steam of the heated pool on the patio.

 

               The socialite guests at Nonon’s bash were absolutely thrilled to see Ryuko, approaching her in such droves that she quickly ran out of witty retorts to their dumb questions.  She hadn’t expected to feel so under siege by their hands, but after the fiftieth or so selfie she’d taken to nestling on a couch with Mako, hands firmly around each other just to show they were taken.  Things dramatically improved, though, when seemingly out of nowhere Ira’s massive bulk dropped onto the couch next to them, followed by Houka and Shiro on the other side.  The gang was almost entirely reassembled (Uzu was still overseas, a shame because he could always be counted on as the life of the party, although when he was mentioned Nonon said he wouldn't have been invited anyway), and they whiled away the evening almost unaware of the other guests.  When the time for drinking games came around Ryuko wiped the floor with everyone using her power to make herself sober repeatedly, but not before overdoing it an almost puking twice.  Long time since I felt that pain, can’t say I missed it, she thought.

               Mataro looked a little bored and out of place at first, especially since in his suit with his hair cleaned up he could pass for an oddly short 18 year-old and he was critically terrible at responding to drunk women and even one or two drunk men hitting on him.  Satsuki realized then that she hadn’t really noticed him growing older, but Ryuko came to a much more practical realization first.

               “Mataro!  You bored?”

               “Well, no, not that much,” He said, not wanting to look like a wallflower in front of her.

               “You know how to cheat at blackjack, right?”

               “Well, yeah.”

               “They’re playing over there, you know,”  Ryuko gestured over to a card table on the other side of the main room, “Have at ‘em!”  He was gone before Nonon could protest.

               “How does he know how to count cards?”  Satsuki asked innocently.

               “Honou-town rules baby!”  Mako shouted, her face flushed just from the fun of it all since she didn’t drink on principle, “It's not cheating if you don't get caught!”

               It must have been nearly five A.M. when things finally began to wind down.  In that time a great many events had transpired.  They’d been joined by a couple socialite friends of Nonon’s who she vouched “weren’t total asses”, Houka and Shiro had retired to a guest bedroom - or rather been carried to it fast asleep, and Mataro had racked up such a ludicrous pile of chips he couldn’t possibly carry it all.  When the dealer had looked over to Nonon for guidance, Satsuki and Ryuko had instead shot him a looked that clearly said “let my little brother play cards, or else”.  By far the most interesting thing that happened by Satsuki’s recollection was when Nonon had seen off a suitor with a particularly scathing remark (something along the lines of “please, I’ve seen better looking apes at the zoo.  And smarter too.”)  and Ryuko had burst out laughing.  She would never have been so callous if she’d been sober, but it was a difference of degree, especially if she were in an irritable mood.  They’re so much alike sometimes.  No wonder they can’t stand each other.  In the end, though they were all thoroughly exhausted, the sun was rising and it would soon be time to return to the wholesome confines of the Makanshoku apartment for present opening.  This time, Ryuko didn’t protest when Satsuki suggested putting her bike in the Limo’s trunk.

               Nobody said anything on the ride home.  In fact, they were all asleep.  When Ryuko woke up she’d kick herself – she’d been trying to figure out if surviving without sleep was one of her powers.  Evidently not.

 

               ~ January ~

 

               The faint buzz of Ryuko’s phone slowly roused her to waking, despite her body’s protests to let it drift back to sleep.  She rolled over, and the beady glass eye of a stuffed fox pressed up uncomfortably into her cheek.  Mako loved to pile their bed high with stuffed animals and extra pillows – it wasn’t that she was particularly attached to any of them - she just nested like a rabbit lining its burrow.  Ryuko didn’t quite get it, besides, she had something much better.  Mako’s arm was draped over Ryuko’s shoulder, she lifted it as she sat up on the side of the bed and sat for a moment staring at her.  Yeah, Mako was way better than a stuffed animal; Ryuko badly wanted to lay back down up against her rather than venture out into the howling winter wind. 

Pressed up against her, completely suffused in her, Ryuko’s unnaturally keen senses went wild.  She could feel everything:  The tiny peach-fuzz hairs on her arms, the prodding places where her bones lay, the slow sloshing of her blood, the endless grinding of her internal organs.  What a delicate, precious thing it was, this soft, squishy bag that held everything that was Mako.  She’d never shared that observation with her, but she had a feeling that Mako understood it on some level and embraced it.  How else could every little thing about living as that creature fill her with such joy?  But Ryuko couldn’t dwell on those thoughts too long; seeing Mako that way, as just an animal, just a body, tore open a void in her chest.  It was a constant reminder that she wasn’t human, that her bag of flesh was artificial, a puppet for her real self.  Which was… what?  She’d seen enough science fiction to know that things in another dimension were for sure incomprehensibly different, not pleasant for humans.  Monstrous.  Horrific.  She traced a gentle line along Mako’s cheek, feeling it’s subtle rise and fall with her breath and burning with jealousy not only that she would never have to worry about these things, but also that she got to stay nested in bed while Ryuko dragged herself along for another night’s patrol.  Fuck her for looking so cute, too.

“Muhhh,” Mako made a soft mewling noise, evidently not as deep asleep as she’d expected, “going out, Ryuko?”

“Yup,” Ryuko sighed resignedly, “See you in the morning.”

“Ryuko what’s the matter?”  Mako asked, taking Ryuko off guard.  She didn’t think she’d been so obviously lost in thought, but then Mako was known to be perceptive about these things when she wanted to be.

“Oh nothing.  Go back to sleep.”

“Aw c’mon Ryuko,” Mako was sitting up now, rocking Ryuko with both hands wrapped around her elbow, “You can tell me!  You can tell me anything.”

“It’s alright, really.  Let me go, please.  The city needs me,” She went to gently pry Mako’s hands away, but before she could Mako doubled down, throwing her arms around Ryuko’s shoulders in a vice grip.

“No Ryuko!  Tell me!”  She exclaimed petulantly, “You can’t go down there and save people and the first thing they see is you pouting like that!  What will they think, you’re sad that they’re okay?  Tell me what’s wrong, ok?  Is it Lady Satsuki again?” 

“What?  No, of course not,” Ryuko had made the mistake of telling Mako that she had been briefly (yeah, definitely briefly) infatuated with Satsuki in the final days of the war, and her hyperactive imagination had been depicting her pining after Satsuki and formulating contrived scenarios involving the two of them ever since.  Frankly, it was surreal to hear her girlfriend and adopted sister fantasize about her paired up with another woman, who also happened to be her biological sister, but then that was Mako for you, in situations like these she'd decided the labels hardly mattered, “Come on Mako.”

“Nuh-uh!”  Mako rolled back onto the bed, dragging Ryuko with her.  Superstrength aside, she might as well have been a ragdoll in Mako’s arms, and once she was down her back seemed to relax and sag and she could barely imagine how she could’ve managed to sit up just a moment ago.  Mako buried her face in the crook of Ryuko’s neck, pressing her lips gently against the corded skin of her windpipe and continuing, “You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what’s the matter.”

“I – Oh hell alright,” Ryuko said, lifting an arm up to cradle Mako’s head practically involuntarily.  “You remember when I went to see Houka and Shiro’s lab?  Well, they told me some really crazy stuff about my body and where I get my powers from, and all that.  It’s like – I get them from another dimension, do you understand?  I don’t really get it all, but it’s like a whole other universe that’s like overlapped on ours but we can’t see it, and all the weird stuff I can do comes from moving things back and forth between here and there, does that make sense?”

“Details.  Boring.  Tell me what’s wrong,” Mako said breathily.

“Well, it turns out that that’s where my real brain – the real me – that’s where it is.  When they combined me with the life fibers, they took my mind, the part of me that makes me me, and they put it there.”

“Don’t be silly Ryuko, you’re right here, with me.”

“Well yeah, my body is.  But if I’m not in it, then it’s like it’s not really me.  I can’t even imagine what the real me looks like, that’s what Houka said.  And I’ve been feeling pain less, less than I did when I first got my powers.  It’s like I’m slowly realizing that my body really is just a puppet, so it doesn’t matter what happens to it, and – Uff!”  Ryuko was cut off abruptly when Mako, who had been listening quietly to her ranting, suddenly pulled herself on of top of Ryuko, slamming most of her body into Ryuko’s stomach and burying her face in Ryuko’s chest.  It was the classic weighted blanket technique, and Ryuko was definitely not immune to it; already she felt calmer, and sudden contact with all those soft little features even through a nightgown filled her with that deep sense of Mako in a decidedly good way.  Especially when she felt the weight of Mako’s breasts dropping down and pooling on her stomach.

“How about now?  Do you feel like you’re really here now?”  She looked up with soothing affection in her big brown doe-eyes.  “How about now?”  She leaned forward, planting her lips around Ryuko’s shoulderblade right where it met her neck, applying just the right amount of pressure, just a grazing hint of teeth.  Meanwhile, probing fingers dug under Ryuko’s pajama shirt, just a subtle ghosting compared to the crushing weight of Mako’s entire body, but electric nonetheless.  A little noise escaped her lips involuntarily and Mako giggled breathily.  She needed to get out there, but on the other hand she wasn’t going anywhere until Mako was done with her.  And what the hell, what was fifteen minutes gonna cost her?

“How about now?  Are you here with me now?”  Mako asked one last time as those fingers crept downward ever-so slowly.  Her thigh ground up suggestively between Ryuko’s legs until the fingers slipped under her pants where they hung poised so, so gently against Ryuko.

“Y’know, I’m still not sure.  I think I need more convincin’,” Ryuko said slyly, and Mako giggled even louder.

“Now you’re getting it, girl!”  She said enthusiastically and, after bringing her fingers back up for a quick lick they were inside Ryuko in a flash, radiating throughout her body.  With every slight motion Ryuko let out an elated gasp.  She was doing her best to stay quiet for the sake of the rest of the family, she really was, but it just wasn’t in her nature.  This was a rare style for them, so slow, so gentle, so tender; Ryuko couldn’t remember ever being pressed so close together as they were right then.  She strained, letting out a needy, squeaking groan as she pushed her hips into Mako’s hand greedily.  This was supposed to be over quick and rough, so she could get on with her night’s business, but Mako knew her too well.  Whenever that blazing warmth was rising too fast, she took a moment’s pause, shifted her rhythm ever so slightly, and but somehow the lows of these feverish waves were just as electric as the burning highs.  Soon enough Ryuko didn’t even know how long it had been, it was all she could do to stay focused on those beautiful, shining eyes, the fluttering of that little heart, those fast, hot breaths that spread out across her neck.

“How’m I doing?”  Mako whispered.

“I… Ohhh,” Was all Ryuko could manage in response.

“That good, huh?” 

“Don’t… stop,” Ryuko said, as if Mako needed to be told.  She built Ryuko up agonizingly slowly, and as the she started to crest she rocked back her head, hand over her eyes, and let everything else fade out but the warmth.  She could tell she was getting louder but she didn’t care anymore.  Mako apparently did though, and when she reached her shuddering peak she felt lips lock tightly around hers to keep her from screaming in ecstasy, Mako’s free hand cradling the back of her head passionately as she worked her through the climax.  Eventually the glow faded from her muscles, and when she felt their lips part at last Mako had curled up in the curve of her side, stroking her exposed stomach.

               “Ryuko you silly, when are you gonna learn?”  Mako said over Ryuko’s panting, and with all her senses on fire it rung out like church-bells in Ryuko’s head, “It doesn’t matter what your powers are, where you come from, what you really are.  You’re you, that’s what you really are!  You’ll always be you no matter what, and you’ll always be my Ryuko.”

               “Hah… I… I guess I keep relearning that one,” Ryuko said as she came back to her senses, “Mako I… God, I love you.”

               “I love you too, sis,”

               “Eh, could you not say that?  Especially not after you just got done fucking me?”

               “Aw c’mon!  I’m just getting you used to it for when you marry Lady Satsuki one day.”

               “You worry me sometimes, you know that? Putting aside that she’s my sister, which still makes it plenty weird you want us to hook up, by the way, I’m pretty sure she’s straight.”

               “What, you don’t even know that about your own sister?  Nah girl, she is totally into you.”

               “Please, Satsuki isn’t ‘into people’, if she’s ‘into’ anything its ideas and politics and intellectual shit… You know what, let’s not talk about Satsuki now.  Besides, it’s your turn,” Ryuko changed the subject eagerly, sliding a hand up into her nightgown.  As usual, there was nothing underneath it.  Mako’s eyes went wide and she smiled coyly, but she still pulled down the nightgown’s hems to impede Ryuko’s access.

               “Nah, nah it’s alright.  You’ve got a job to do.”  She gave Ryuko a little shove like a cat kneading a blanket before it lays down.  Hesitantly, Ryuko sat up.  It didn’t pain her as much this time, probably just because she was more awake.

               “You sure?”

               “Yup!  I’ve kept you off those mean streets long enough.”

               “Alright.  I’ll pay you back tomorrow.  With interest, of course,” She wouldn’t let Mako use that tired old line yet again.

               “I know you will,” Mako said as she leaned forward to give Ryuko a peck on the wrist, “Now go get ‘em, Ryuko.”

 

~ February ~

 

“Ryuko, it’s me,”

“Yeah Sats, I know.  Contact info and all that.”

“Right, sorry, I forget people use that feature sometimes.”

“Yeah, yeah, weirdo.  What’s up.”

“I’m really sorry to tell you this, but I won’t be able to come in tomorrow.  I’ll try to be there Sunday.”\        

“Oh damn, alright.  Is it because of…”        

“Yes, it is.”

“Alright…  Call me if you’re coming Sunday, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Alright, I’ll let you get back to it, goodbye.”

“Take care, Ryuko,”

               Ah crap, maybe there was something on the news I missed last night, Ryuko thought as she hung up, scrolling over to her phone’s headlines section.  And sure enough there was an unread blurb, with attached video and a flashy clickbait title: *AMAZING!  Lady Satsuki Kiryuin survives third attempt on her life and carries on with her speech! Watch full video here! * 

Ryuko clicked the play button and saw Satsuki standing tall in the center of a stage, illuminated by a soft white-grey light, wearing an unadorned sky-blue gown that had become her preferred garb for public appearances since the end of the war.  The bobbing heads of journalists and members of her new government filled the bottom of the camera frame as she spoke in a proud, declarative voice that was both so similar and so different from the voice that had once been feared throughout Japan.  Although equally strident, this one was filled with hope, passion, and reassurance.

“-Our path to a brighter future need not be painted with blood.  You are part of the tidal wave that grew from a single ripple to transform this country; we can bring that same ripple to all the other nations of the world.  There will be opposition, the powerful and corrupt still benefit from this broken system and will not surrender it easily, and to face them we must embrace a new reality.  We will not be intimidated by -,”

A bodyguard suddenly swooped in from the right of the frame.  Two rough claps echoed through the stadium, accompanied by screams and panicked gasps, and he fell in front of Satsuki with a brief spurt of blood and the thuds of the high-caliber rounds piercing his Kevlar.  For the briefest moment a look of shock and steely resolve could be seen on Satsuki’s face, then the camera shakily panned over to the right into the crowd where a man in a suit keeled over with a gurgle, dropping a bulky pistol onto the ground next to his splayed form.  Dozens of needles protruded from odd angles across his body, and the camera zoomed in as the bodyguards who had fired them emerged from the crowd and gathered him up like a rolled carpet.

“As. I. Was. Saying.”  The camera swooped back to stage, where Satsuki stood unmoved even as her savior was hauled offstage by some of his comrades, groaning softly.  Her voice was even more impassioned now, her hands bundled into fists, and as she lifted one to her heart a stunned hush fell upon the crowd, “We will not be intimidated by their overtures.  We are faced with men now, not monsters.  They can be persuaded, they will be persuaded.  We will show them the righteousness of our new path, the future we can create, and our resilience in the face of suffering and danger.  We will transform them into believers in unity, truth, and peace!  And if even in the face of our resolve they remain unmoved, we will remind them what it means to be survivors of Honoujji!  I have thanked you all already, from the bottom of my heart, for forgiving me for my past and allowing me to do what I can to help.  Now let me also thank you, my friends, for your continued faith in me, in us, in our promise.  Let’s keep working to build a world that doesn’t need people like me anymore.”

 Satsuki exited the stage to a thunderous applause just as the video feed cut off, and Ryuko was left reeling in both relief and terror.  How close Satsuki had come to dying!  It could happen again, Ryuko knew, and next time she might not be so lucky.  But Satsuki couldn’t die now, not now that she was finally free!  Anything was preferable, and Ryuko needed to shout to someone that it wasn’t fair.  She opened Satsuki’s contact and pressed the call button, but all she got was a busy signal.

Later that day she would think better of the urge.

 

Satsuki hung up and turned off her phone, then motioned for Ira to come with her.  It had been good of him to hurry to the capital on such short notice – entirely unnecessary, of course – but still good nevertheless.  It was nice to see such a familiar face after yesterday evening, even if he did come with an endless litany of apologies and letters of resignation from all of the bodyguards who had failed to stop the assassin before he was within firing range.  She had turned them all down, that was entirely unnecessary too, but such shows of devotion were gratifying too.

“Come in with me, if you’d please,” She said, pausing at the door to the detainee’s cell, “I’ll be putting our new premise into action.”

“Of course, but if you don’t mind, would it not be wiser to use traditional methods here?  Getting information from him in a timely manner could be key to locating their ringleaders.”

“On the contrary, this is the perfect time.  I would wait years to prove that deprogramming a member of the REVOCS cult is possible.”

The detainee’s cell was sparse but far from spartan.  His bed was a pleasantly comfortable memory foam, his sink wide and clean, and his desk stocked with pencils and paper.  Presently he sat on the edge of his bed in a state of constant tension, like a stray puppy with paranoia engrained into it from an early age.  The handcuffs were off, but he didn’t seem inclined to violence; he’d probably been shown the futility of that when he first came to.  He might have been reasonably handsome, with solid facial construction and clear skin, but the tension and the crazed look in his bloodshot eyes made him look more sick than anything.  When he saw who had entered his cell those eyes goggled, but he made no move and said nothing.

“Hello, how are you feeling this morning?”  No response, “Do you mind if I take a seat?”  No response.  Satsuki sat down on his desk chair while Ira took up position by the door.  “You know, we haven’t figured out your real name yet.  What am I supposed to call you?”  No response.  “I suppose we could start with… Itsuki Sato?”  She produced the phony journalist’s ID he had used to get into her press conference the night before, examining it as though she was seeing it for the first time.  Part of the technique was to perform nonchalant activities to make yourself seem less threatening, Satsuki was wondering whether it was working but couldn’t parse what his rapidly clenching and unclenching fists meant, “This is very impressive.  Practically indistinguishable from the real thing.  I’d really like to know who gave you this, you know, I’m sure it would make for an interesting conversation.  But what’s even more impressive is how you managed to get a firearm past my security, I’d really love to hear more about that.”

The detainee was proving less than responsive, but that was okay.  The seeds had been sown.  Satsuki stood up, “It might interest you to know you’re the first one we’ve managed to catch alive – all the others were able to finish their cyanide capsules, but my guards were very quick on the draw this time.  So, we’ll be making sure you’re every need is taken care of.  If you’re bored, we’ll provide you with a television and movies, or maybe some books.  If you don’t like the food we’re serving, we’ll provide you with whatever you might like,” She gestured to Ira, “This is Ira Gamagoori.  He will be checking in on you every day.  You can tell him anything.  If you’d ever like to speak to me again, just tell him as much and I’ll arrive as soon as I can,” Ira nodded but said nothing, and in this pause Satsuki strained to think of something else to say before she left.  “You know, we have every intention of releasing you if you can prove that you’re no threat to society.  We’ll give you a chance to start over, if you want it, we aren’t the bad guys here.”  That last bit had been inflammatory by design and it worked, his face contorted with rage and he tried to spit on her, but she was too far away, almost to the door. 

She recognized something very familiar in that defeated but still defiant face:  here was a man who had expected to be dead by now.  Her memories brought back to her what she had supposed would be her last day on Earth.  Reflecting with Soroi on her childhood when it had all began, her final toast with her elites (the first- and last-time alcohol would touch her lips, she had thought).  How had this nameless assassin commemorated his final day?  To him, this place must have no been different from that awful cage where she had lingered for nearly a month in Ragyo’s tender care.  The tables have turned, but this time it will be different, because I have patience and understanding.  Those are things Ragyo could never understand.

               “Fuck you!  You have nothing to offer me!  The Prophetess promised us a future free from suffering and the weakness of the human race!  Your promises are built on lies, there will never be peace, justice, or equality while the sins of human nature still exist!  What is there to hope for in your doomed future besides endless war?!”  He raged, and Satsuki smiled softly.  This was the core of the REVOCS cult’s beliefs, then.  This was the idea they held that she would need to defeat – fortunately it was a radical one, not likely to sell with the general populace.  She walked back over to him, and as he flinch in preparation for a blow she laid a hand on his shoulder.  So close up, she could see masses of bruises beneath his jumpsuit.  She was ready if he tried to swat her hand away or worse, but instead he just looked up in a state of complete panic.

               “Well, luckily for you, you get to live to find out,” Satsuki said with a reassuring smile before exiting.  Out in the corridor she gave Ira some brief instruction on how to deal with the detainee, then set off to her office to finish the paperwork about him and get a head start on next week’s projects.  I have many promises to keep now, it seems.  My promise to Rei, my promise to the people of Japan, my promise to myself, and now my promise to this man that he will see the value of my vision for the future.  The time may come that I have to break them all, but I hope when I do they will see that I at least tried.

 

~ March ~

 

“Fish, Matoi,” Tsumugu said intently, gesturing to the rod and reel she was twiddling lamely.

“Yeah dude, I’m pretty sure there’s no fish here,” She peered over the side into the inky green-brown water with a grimace.  The thin sheen of putrid oil across the surface was almost pretty in the right light, but the smell… normal people must not have been able to detect the petrochemical stink over the sea salt, right?  An algae encrusted milk jug drifted by lazily.

“It will look suspicious if we just sit here and don’t fish.”

“It would look more suspicious for us to be fishing where there’s clearly no fish, I think.  And besides, there’s no-one around.”  It was true.  The featureless expanse of the ocean stretched out, undulating uninterrupted in all directions until it faded into the salty haze.  Seagulls were cawing somewhere, but aside from that the only sound was the smooth lapping of the water on the speedboat’s hull.

“Then give it here,” Aikuro said, “The point of fishing isn’t catching fish, you know.  It’s relaxing.  Not like you’d know anything about that,” He joked.

“You only think I can’t relax cuz I gotta keep my guard up around your stupid ass,” Ryuko shot back, turning out over the water, “Nah, I’ll give it a try.”  She started fussing with the reel hurriedly, anxious not to allow Aikuro or Tsumugu to intervene and show her how.  On her first cast she swung the rod with a large portion of her strength, succeeding only in whipping the line around with a faint woosh to plop dismally into the water some five feet from the boat.

“One smooth motion.  Not too fast. Try again,” Tsumugu said with his trademark bluntness as he leant his own reel into its holder, line trailing out smooth into the distance.  Ryuko listened and obeyed, she’d gotten used to his style of instruction from their martial arts training, and it worked as usual.  The second time she managed to put the hook a good twenty yards from the boat.  It did take her a moment to get the bailing to click back into place, but she still thought it looked pretty good for a beginner.

“There we go.  Now, can we talk?”

“Certainly.  The Kamui, right?” Aikuro said, pulling out his work laptop.  It was the only piece of electronics allowed on this boat during these secret laptops, since it had been custom built by Houka so it had none of the hardware required to access the internet, meaning it couldn’t possibly be hacked.

“Well, yeah, I wanna talk about the Kamui.  Have you guys gotten any further on making it?”

“No, we’re currently waiting on Nonon.  We’d need her DNA to work on it any further.  So, what’s up?  We know you still don’t approve of the project, so lay it on us.”

“Wait, I told you I don’t disapprove of it as much as I do the other one, right?  But whatever, you’re still gonna do it either way so I’ve got some stuff to ask about since I’m the only one who’s worn a bonded Kamui.”

“Well, ask away.  Oh, and you can put the rod down now, you’ll know if you get a bite.”

“Alright.  So, uhh… I don’t think you guys get just what Kamuis are like.  Like, I never fully explained things to you back then.  They do more than just communicate with you, tell you stuff about how you’re body’s doing – they have thoughts and feelings, they’re basically people.  Even Junketsu was like that, it was a total psycho sure, but people can be psychos too.  So when I said that I thought other people should experience it, it’s not because having Kamui powers is just so fun, it’s because Senketsu was like – I don’t know – he just got me, even when we disagreed.  I could hear his thoughts and he could hear mine, so he was more than just a friend, more than even a best friend… Like, I don’t know how to explain it.  It sounds weird when I say it out loud,” She crossed an arm over to her elbow awkwardly.

“Like your perfect other half,” Aikuro said with a nod, “Does that sound about right?”

“I – yeah, I guess.  Where’d you come up with that?”

“Well, we have a hypothesis that when Kamui are made with a human’s DNA their personality mirrors that of their wearer, complements them.  It only makes sense, personality is in part determined by genetics and they both have the exact same genetics.  I’d go so far as to say that they are essentially the same organism, which might help to explain the obvious mental connection between them.  As for the level of consciousness, we had a general idea that they were similar to humans.  Houka had at one point thought they were more akin to Artificial Intelligence -,”

“But I corrected that one, don’t worry,” Tsumugu said, “He just didn’t have as much experience with Senketsu as us.”

“Yup, we had arrived at a similar conclusion about how sentient Kamui are as you.  Sounds to me like you’ve confirmed what we believed about Kamuis.  What about you, Tsumugu?”

“It also confirms to me that if Saiban is incapable of forming that connection with its wearer it’s gonna cause them both a lot of grief, especially if it still remembers when it was first made or still thinks like Junketsu.  I’d say if that happens, it would be better to put it out of its misery.”

“Hold on, you can’t just kill it then!”

“We won’t, not without carefully considering it anyway.  If it’s like when Satsuki wore Senketsu, with them able to communicate but without that bond, then that should be alright.  But if Saiban just turns out to be a Junketsu that can talk?”

“Oh.  Alright, fair play, don’t want something like that running around.  But that’s another thing, by the way, I gotta say I’m surprised how okay you are with all this.  Like, considering this Kamui was what killed your sister, and you like tried to kill me because of that.”

“To tell the truth one thing changed:  we have Emergency Rescue Suction Devices.  If we’d had one on standby we could’ve saved her, now we have good odds of saving the wearer if something goes wrong again.  I would never have agreed to it otherwise.  But I will admit that the connection between you and Senketsu has also made me curious.  I do think it could work again, although I have my doubts that it will work with Saiban.”

“Huh.  I don’t know what I expected of you, that’s – totally logical, as usual,”  Ryuko shifted in her seat.  She was managing to say focused on the conversation, but Aikuro’s rapid typing was making it difficult.  Plus, she kept shifting her view back to the fishing rod to make sure there wasn’t anything happening to it.  “So, do you guys remember that press conference Satsuki gave where she nearly got shot?”

“Sure, as I understand her would-be assassin is in high security custody under Ira’s direct supervision.  What about it?”

“Well, during the speech Satsuki was saying she didn’t want there to be any more wars, and I believe her, but the thing is you all seem pretty much concluded that you’re making this Kamui so you can use it to fight at least the REVOCS guys and maybe also in like actual wars against other countries.  But you know now that Kamui are like people, so I don’t get why you’d do this and not make Goku Uniforms.  Like, I got mad at you before when you were treating Senketsu like a weapon, so why’re you doing it again?”

“It’s precisely because Kamui are more than weapons that we’re doing this.  Goku Uniforms might have some very primitive form of mind, like an insect or a fish, but besides that they are really just weapons.  Shiro and Houka did a lot of testing on that during their time in Honoujji.  They also tend to have an effect on their wearer’s minds after a while, increasing aggression, not something you want.  So this is our gamble – as you know, a Kamui and a well trained wearer makes anything but another Kamui or a hybrid obsolete.  Tanks, mecha, goku uniforms, even overwhelming numbers won't save them.  And we think that we’re the only ones who know how to make a bonded Kamui, the REVOCS cultists might be able to make a Junketsu-style Kamui but I doubt they’d be able to find anyone with Satsuki’s mental fortitude to wear it, so if we’re right on that then our Kamui would be unstoppable and they’d quickly learn not to oppose it.  It might not end their terrorism, but at least it would prevent them from escalating to using Goku Uniforms against us.  That’s why it’s valuable for the Kamui to be sentient:  we don’t plan for it to do much actual fighting, and once its done and we can secure peace on our terms it’s better if it can have some fulfilling purpose, right?”

“Sure, sure, I guess, but what if they do make another Kamui?  Wouldn’t that just lead to crazy escalation?  I don’t know a lot about history, but isn’t that what happened when they invented Nukes in the 1900s?”

“Well yes,” Aikuro said, “But we were hoping that if something like that happened you could act as our ace.  Your only vulnerability is to cross-cutting hardened life fiber weapons, and we’ve kept that so secret I doubt even your family knows about it.  So-,”

“- Oh shit, is it supposed to do that?”  Ryuko abruptly interrupted him as her reel started clicking very quickly.

“You’ve got one!”  Aikuro stood up excitedly, “Set the hook!  Quick!”

“What?  How do I do that?”  Ryuko grabbed the reel with a quick, jerky motion and started fumbling with it.  Aikuro was now standing at her side, getting real into the fight.

“Give the handle one quick spin then start reeling in steadily,”  Tsumugu said, still sitting with his arms crossed.  He was leaning in however, and giving the appraising half smile that he did during practice when she was on the verge of making a breakthrough.

“You gotta feel the fish on the end, tire him out.  Let him run out the line!”  Aikuro shouted unhelpfully, contradicting Tsumgu while also using a fishing term Ryuko’d never heard.  She’d just figured out how to reel in and was now spinning the handle quick and steady, like Tsumugu had suggested.  The rod was bending a little, but nowhere near enough for the line to snap.

“Keep your hands still, focus on stopping the tension on the line.”

“When he goes left, you go right!”  Aikuro made a huge gesture with his hands, laughing with glee as a flurry of splashing tore up the water.

“Just a little slower.”

“Yeah, lean into it!  Oh he’s a fighter alright!”

“Slower.”

“No, let him run it out now!  Okay now reel, quick!”

“Keep it steady.”

“There it is! Just a little more slack then you’ve got ‘im!”

“Keep it steady.”

“Guys!  Shut the fuck up!”  Ryuko shouted, cutting them both off.  They were still smiling, and though Ryuko felt a twinge of annoyance she did have to admit it made her kind of excited to see even Tsumugu getting a a little into it, “It’s just a fish, I think I’ve got this without advice from the peanut gallery.”  And indeed she did, as it didn’t take long for a flashing blob to become visible under the sheen of the ocean surface.  Aikuro was there with the net as it was reached the side of the boat, and he hauled it up to reveal…

               “Whoa, what is that?”  Ryuko said, staring at her catch with a curiosity that overwhelmed her disgust.  The writhing fish was a dull, brown-tan disc-like creature, soft and slimy like canned peaches.   Its flabby mouth gaped in little spasms beneath two goggling eyes that, to Ryuko’s amazement, were on the same side of its head.  It seemed only fitting that something so profoundly ugly would live in such polluted waters.  I’m probably lucky to have gotten anything at all.  Eh, screw marlin, what’s one fish over another? This’ll do.

               “It’s a flatfish,” Aikuro answered simply.

               “No shit,” Ryuko glowered, and he responded with a shit-eating grin.

               “No, that’s actually what it’s called.” 

“What?  What the hell, I mean I guess it’s a fitting name,” Ryuko said as Tsumugu brought out the pliers and started digging the hook out from its lip with a firm hand along its broad side.  “So, what’s wrong with it, it irradiated or something?”  Ryuko asked.

“Nothing, this is a perfectly healthy fish,” Tsumugu said as he extracted the hook with a grunt, “Not a bad size either.”  He offered it up to Ryuko, pinching its lip between thumb and finger, “Wanna hold it?”

“Eh, I’ll pass,” Ryuko said, although she did lean in to get a closer look at it.  The detail of its skin was actually far prettier than Ryuko had expected, like a mosaic of puffy ink blots.  There was a sort of odd pride in that; maybe her ugly-ass fish wasn’t so bad after all.

“You sure? It’s your fish.”

“It’s customary to take a picture with your catch, you know.  I’m sure in comparison you’ll look particularly lovely,” Aikuro said.

“I mean take a picture if you want, but I’m not touching the thing.  I’d just hurt it anyway.”  Aikuro took that as an invitation, and before Ryuko had really reacted he jostled Tsumugu to stand next to her with the fish and snapped a photo with an old-fashioned polaroid camera he’d produced from somewhere, capturing the look of surprise on Ryuko’s face quite wonderfully as the fish writhed.  As it did, Ryuko could swear she saw the inkblots shift, and before she knew it her fish had gone a far darker shade of brown.

“Damn, I’ve never seen shit like this before.  You… you aren’t gonna eat it, are you?”

“No, it may be healthy but its still got too much mercury for us to eat.  Should I throw it back then?”

“Yeah, might as well,” Ryuko said, and she sat back down as it plonked back into the water. 

“Well, looks like you actually got to do some fishing on this trip, how about that?”  Aikuro said, relaxing across the bench as if he’d been the one who’d made the catch.

“Yeah, it’s not too bad. I guess I should admit I was wrong about there being nothing here though.”

“Only flatfish, I’m afraid.  They’re the only things that can take all the pollution from Tokyo.  Now, where were we?”

Ryuko had been thinking about what she’d do if she was asked to fight again since her trip to the lab, and she laid it out for them: “I’ll probably help if you really need it, but I’ll make that decision on my own.  I won’t be ordered around.”  Aikuro and Tsumugu both agreed that it sounded fair, although hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.  In the wake of that dumb little pride she got from catching a fish for the first time Ryuko felt relaxed and not particularly worried about the lab’s projects anymore.  The sheer normalcy of it convinced her that none of the drastic scenarios for the future were likely, and that if they did happen they were gonna try and solve the problem, not make things worse.  So she was a little surprised when Aikuro broached the “making more hybrids” project.  Apparently, he felt the need to apologize for it.

“I meant it when I said the whole thing is theoretical, you know.  Shiro, well, he gets ahead of himself sometimes – not to say it’s entirely his fault – but what you heard is his vision for the future of the project, for now what we’re actually working on is if it’s even possible, any implications of how to use it are in the far future.”

“Oh, you’re still talking about that?  It’s like I said, you guys are gonna do it either way so I’m not gonna worry about it.  At least with this one I know Satsuki will stop you guys from going overboard.”

“Really?  I thought you like this project a lot less than the Kamui though.”

“Oh I still don’t like it, I just wasn’t gonna bring it up.  So, Shiro does want to eventually turn the whole human race into hybrids, just like, years and years from now?”

“Shiro sees this,” Tsumugu motioned to some plastic scrap drifting along across the ocean’s slimy surface, “As the product of human greed and laziness – inevitable – and thinks the best long-term solution is to remove our reasons to be greedy and lazy.  Truthfully, he’s not too fond of humanity in general, you’ll have to ask him about that in person though.  He’s far from the first to have this idea, and in the theoretical sense he’s correct that it is a solution, but there’s plenty more we can do that doesn’t involve completely changing the human condition. Most of our research is focused on more practical methods of solving humanity’s problems, think of the hybrid project like a last-ditch effort if there’s really no other way to make everything sustainable.”

“So he’s got some hair-brained ideas, does he?  Geez, I coulda told you that.  So, what do you guys think?”

Aikuro sighed, “People have been envisioning futures that are wildly different from the present for basically forever; judgement day, colonizing space, genetic engineering, Artificial Intelligence, what have you.  These days most people have given up on those sorts of ideas, but if this turns out to be the one that actually works, then it’s not the worst out of our options, really.  How I feel about possibly living to see it, well, that’s a different story.  But if it doesn’t work out right, then it’s best that we oversee it, so we can stop it before something goes wrong.  That sound about right, Tsumugu?”  Tsumugu nodded in agreement.

“Alright, I suppose that’s fine,” Ryuko said, “One last thing that got me worried though.  The life fibers have to be implanted on a baby, right?  So, you’re sure that they won’t be in any danger?”

“We are as sure as we can be, don’t worry about that one.  We’ve done animal testing and the results are… interesting… but we do know that infants or any species will at least never die from being implanted with life fibers.”

“Uh, alright?” Interesting?  What does that mean? “So long as you’re being careful.”

“Oh don’t worry.  I think if we seriously endangered a child Satsuki would kill us herself,” He said with a chuckle.  “So, does that answer all your concerns?”

“Sure, whatever.  But if I think of something else you’ll make time for it, right?”

“Of course, if you want we can find something other than fishing to do.”

“Nah, fishing’s cool.  Although I’d prefer to try someplace less polluted next time.”

“Really?”  Aikuro chuckled, “I must say I never thought you’d actually enjoy it.”

“Eh, it’s not so bad I guess.”

“Yeah, well you try removing the hook next time,” Tsumugu smiled snidely.  Ryuko smiled back; whenever he used that tone it was a challenge.

“Maybe I will,” Ryuko said, “You think I won’t stick my hands in fish guts you got another thing coming.”

“Ryuko Matoi, you really are full of surprises.  You came out here to chew us out for all our projects and now you’re gonna learn how to fish,” Aikuro said with a laugh, reclining on the bench with his hands behind his head.  A couple extra buttons popped open on his Hawaiian shirt, and Ryuko couldn’t help but wonder how that had even happened. 

“I mean, is that bad?  I told you what I wanted to, and I’ve never gone fishing before.  If you guys feel like you got off easy, remember that if I decide you fucked up I can go wreck the lab whenever I want, so like, whatever, let me fish.”

“Fair enough, although we aren’t planning on fucking up.  Oh hey, your picture’s ready! Oho, take a look!”  Aikuro held up the polaroid for Ryuko’s inspection.

“Ah no!  I look terrible!”  Ryuko exclaimed, thumbing her face where her hair whipped around in absolute disarray and her eyes squinted blearily into the sun.  With her mouth slightly open she looked totally stunned and not at all flattered by the camera.  Aikuro quickly whisked the photo away with a laugh and a shit eating grin.

“Oh I’m definitely posting this one now, c’mon Ryuko have a sense of humor.”

“Nah, you won’t be,” Ryuko said.  The photo was in her hand now, snatched faster than Aikuro could even perceive, and it slipped away into her pocket equally fast.  “I have a carefully maintained online presence of absolutely nothing.  I already know enough perverts in real life, don’t need to give the ones online any ammo.”

“Oh, you’re just embarrassed.”

“Nah dude.”

“Aha yeah, you totally are.”

“Am not!”

“But you are!”

They kept up that exchange intermittently for the rest of the afternoon, much to Tsumugu's displeasure, but somehow still managed to catch four more flatfish before they decided to turn in.

Ryuko only showed the picture to Mako before throwing it out.  Later that evening, Mako picked it out of the trash, depositing it its final resting place: an incorrectly dated page in her scrapbook.

 

~ April ~

 

“I’ve said it before, but I really didn’t expect you to be a country sort of girl,” Satsuki said, lifting her feet daintily over the leaf litter.  Ryuko meanwhile kept pace with noisy scuffing, sending woodchips and browned leaves flying in short little arcs.  The woods they strolled through were far from country; discarded tires and piles of garbage poked up through the underbrush, the thrum of the city was steady underneath the singing birds, and where the bushes were patchy a highway poked through in indistinct grey streaks behind the green. Still, the rustle of the leaves catching the breeze and the cool, damp forest air were things she hadn’t taken the time to enjoy in years. Satsuki had to admit to being surprised that Ryuko had chosen to take time out of her last weekend in Kanagawa to come here, but then if there was a time to be especially contemplative this was it.  Graduation was over and done with -Ryuko had managed to pull her grades up just enough to earn her diploma legitimately – and Ryuko’s school friends had departed with promises to keep in touch.  The apartment felt so quiet with Mako gone, moved into her dorm in Kyoto as of the previous weekend.  With her spot at the table empty the remainder of the family had gone oddly quiet as well, feeling the weight of the momentous change that was unfolding.  By the next weekend Ryuko too would be gone, and then...

“Well for now I’m just trying to get my last taste in, yknow?” Ryuko responded after a moment.  Their conversation plodded along at the same leisurely pace with which they walked, punctuated by long pauses.  They weren’t going anywhere in particular, “not gonna get even this in Tokyo.”  Satsuki nodded in response.  After much deliberation, Ryuko had chosen to attend the University of Tokyo, course of study still undecided.  Although she still wished it were someplace a little less urban, after touring several colleges Ryuko couldn’t help but notice that the students there really were less snobby than elsewhere and seemed to just be enjoying life more.  Satsuki had made the call to the school president herself, even secured a dorm room in one of the well-constructed old halls Ryuko had been particularly taken with.  The school administrators were thrilled that the Ryuko Matoi had decided to come to their college, never even asked about grades, and Satsuki found herself paying a significant amount of hush money just to keep them from crowing about it to the news.  Now all that was left was to move in and see how it went.  “It’s different now, too, now that my senses have all gone supercharged.  I notice things here that I don’t think anyone else does.”

“Oh?  Like what?”

“Well, all these little details.  Like, plastics and metals and other man-made stuff aren’t very interesting to look at up close.  But animals, they’ve got all these little details to ‘em, makes you want to stop and take a second look.  Even things like bugs – I used to think they were gross, right? But now I can see their, like, exoskeletons or whatever and all these little plates they have.  They shine, did you know that?  In the right light,” Ryuko, suddenly feeling awkward talking about something so bizarre so earnestly, put her hands in her pockets and stared up into the trees, “It’s interesting, anyway.” Truth be told it was more than interesting, in fact her improved senses might have been her favorite part of her hybrid powers.  During the war she’d thought they were only good for helping her perceive attacks moving faster than a normal human could process, but now that she’d had the chance to slow down and take a good look, well, everything was so beautiful.

“It is, your powers have given you a very unique perspective.  You could become a very proficient biologist with that, have you ever considered that?”

“What?  Nah, I don’t know anything about that.  I don’t think I’d make a very good scientist, besides.”

“Oh I don’t know, you’ve been doing a lot better in your studies lately.  I think you even surprised yourself.”

“Yeah, and it sucked.  Don’t want to keep doing that all my life”

“Well, if you don’t have any interest that’s an entirely different story.”

“Wouldn’t say I have no interest, y’know.  I like animals just as much as anybody else.  But that’s definitely doesn’t mean I want to be a scientist,” Ryuko said, and Satsuki nodded understandingly.  After so many talks about what Ryuko wanted to study, her decision was that she would have to just try things and see what she liked.  She didn’t get annoyed when Satsuki suggested different possibilities; she had at first, but when she realized that there was no pressure to make a decision behind it, just brainstorming, that went away. 

The path joined up with a low, babbling creek, a glittering trail of thin sheens of water over smooth brown stone that crept along parallel to their trail of packed earth and fresh smelling woodchips.  When they came to a bend where the water deepened, they leaned over to see if there was anything living there.  Satsuki couldn’t see anything, and said as much, but then Ryuko shook her head and pointed out some tiny insects skirting along the surface of the water, gathering up gnats that got stuck on the water’s surface.  They were dull brown creatures, but there was a gracefulness to the way they danced over the water that Satsuki could appreciate.  No fish or frogs though, unbeknownst to them this creek was poisoned with arsenic and industrial runoff.

“I used to go out to places like this,”  Ryuko said as they started away from the bend, “Back when I was in boarding school.  Get away from everything, a little peace and quiet.”

“I can imagine,” Satsuki said.  A sort of unusual thrill came over her as she listened.  Ryuko’s never opened up about her past before, and now she is, to me! She crowed, before something else occurred to her, She’s in an unusually contemplative mood today.  I hope she isn’t too worried about anything.

“Maybe that’s where I get this ‘country-girl’ streak from, y’know?  It’s not like I like the open plains, hell, I don’t think I’ve ever even been on one.  But I do think I like woods like these.  Wasn’t really anybody who knew I would go out there, so it was just my little place.  Heh, one time I got on the bad side of a pretty big group of punks, so I hid out in the woods for a couple days.  Brought a blanket and everything.  They thought I ran away, called Dad and everything, but then I came back when I was ready.”

“Oh really?  Well, what did they say?”

“Well, I got the drop on the kids, kicked their asses.  Then, it was off to another school; I got transferred, I think that might’ve been the third high school I’d been to.  A real dump, honestly.”

“Were you ever at any of them as long as Rinne?”

“Uhh… I don’t think so, actually.  Dad would transfer me whenever I started trouble, other kids got into fights like every week but for me it was just once, and I was off somewhere else.  And even this once, I was actually doing pretty good, and he just came along and off I went.  He never told me why.”

“That must have been hard.”

“Well, by that point I was used to it.”

“Perhaps the Kiryuin Conglomerate was closing in on his trail, or possibly was close to finding you.  I-I won’t pretend that makes it alright, though.”

“Nah, I’m over that.  He had his reasons,” Ryuko lied.  They came upon a point where the path sloped down into a gully so that it flowed right along the side of the stream.  They could have waded in if they’d wanted, or maybe launched a very small boat.  Ryuko paused here.  “I had a hideout in sophomore year that looked just like this,” She said quietly, “Okay, well maybe not just like this, it was deep in the woods so there wasn’t a path to it.  That was better because most people don’t go off the paths.  But the sort of shape of the creek here was very similar”

“Seems like a pretty spot.”

“Oh yeah, it was,” She said, then started with a short laugh, “I actually had a TV and an old car battery to run it down there, and I would steal movies from the store just so I had something to do.  Heh, it's probably still there now.”

“How ingenious.  That must be how you’ve become such a film buff.”

“Oh nah, most of the movies I showed I watched when I was home, not much to do there either. I wound up watching the same movies over and over there because I couldn’t swipe all that many.” 

“Ah.  Makes sense.”  Satsuki said as they carried on.

 

“You know, that was where I found out I was lesbian,” Ryuko blurted quite abruptly, then, surprised that she’d actually said that out loud, she slowed down and glanced at Satsuki, mouth slightly open.  Satsuki too was surprised, she hadn’t expected Ryuko to open up that much, and realizing that her reaction was under scrutiny she looked back with a slight smile.  “Don’t worry, there was another girl, wasn’t just me ogling some movie star,” Ryuko said with a chuckle, deciding to play it off casually.

“Who was she?”  Satsuki asked softly, eyes soft and curious.  Her heart was pounding, thrilled to finally be having a long-overdue heart-to-heart with her sister. Sisters should know this stuff about each other, even estranged ones, even ones who care more about this information than they should.  She couldn’t let that show, though, she was determined to be the perfect audience for what had already deduced was a fairly emotional tale.

“Who was she?  Ah, well, she was in my homeroom, probably my only friend at that school.  Her name was Mai; we were real quiet types together, although she did well in her classes and I just moped around.  Her other friends made fun of her for hanging around with me, but she did it anyway.  One day she came with me out to my hideout after classes were done and… One thing led to another, you know?”

“I can imagine.  Were you – did you – suspect before then?”

“Honestly no.  I always wondered what other girls saw in guys, but I didn’t really think about why.  She was the one who started it since I didn’t know, but I was very much not opposed.”

“You don’t have to go into detail about it, you know.”

“I know, I won’t, I don’t want to,” Ryuko said quickly, holding up her hands, “It’s not an exciting story anyway.  I think we hung out like that a few more times, maybe five or six.”

“So you didn’t feel strange about it, or that you were wrong for not feeling the same way as other girls?”

“Actually, it was more like the opposite.  It was a relief really, because then I could make sense of it all.”

“Not much like mine, then.”

“Why’s that?”  Ryuko said, then suddenly straightened up with a look of red-faced shock, “Wait, holy shit Sats, I thought you were straight!”

“A story for another day,” Satsiki said, smiling, kicking herself for even bringing it up.  Ryuko seemed to register that with just a little “huh”, so Satsuki continued. “So, what happened with Mai?”

“Yeah, that’s where it gets a little heavy.  I got into another fight, got transferred, never saw her again.”

“That’s awful.”

“It’s alright.  The worst part, though, was that it was a fight about her,” Satsuki’s eyebrows registered surprise and sadness, and Ryuko pushed on in a rough voice, “Yeah, she turned down some dude and he didn’t like that very much.  By the way, she woulda turned him down even if she was into guys, dude was a real creep.  Anyway, what was I supposed to do?”  Before she knew it Satsuki’s arms were around her shoulders, face in her hair.  This was only the second time Satsuki had abruptly hugged her like, in fact as far as Ryuko knew it was the second time she had ever done it.

“I’m sorry,” She said with a soft, ragged breath.  Her imagination had carried her away, an entire tragedy played out in miniature over just a couple months.  Just another stop on Ryuko’s chaotic childhood.  No wonder the prospect of college was making her so pensive.  It was shameful that it had taken this long, but she felt like she was finally starting to see why Ryuko was the way she was. 

“Whoa, hey Sats, it’s alright.”  Ryuko said, holding her arms up defensively.  That didn’t last long though, and she return the hug as she continued, “That was years ago.  I’m over all that now.”

“I know,” Satsuki said as they parted, “It’s just a sad story, like you said.  But still, I’m glad to hear it, I’m glad you’re comfortable telling me this sort of thing.”

“You big sap.  If only the others knew.”

“Nonon knows.  She might be the only one who knows more than you.”

“Echh, right, the others besides Nonon, then,” Ryuko said, then, tilting her head with curiosity, “So, in the spirit of such, you sure you don’t wanna tell me yours?  Sisters should know this sort of stuff about each other, right?”

“I’m sorry, but I’d really rather not.  It’s just -,” Satsuki began abruptly with a stricken look on her face, but Ryuko cut her off.

“Nah, you’re fine,” As soon as she’d asked, Ryuko’s mind had filled in the answer for her.  She knew she was no genius, and she was okay with that, but she wasn’t so dumb that she couldn’t fill in dots – who Satsuki had grown up around, what they had been like - and come to the logical conclusion.  If she’d said it though, then Ryuko could have had her turn to throw her arms around her sister and prove she cared.  But if she looked so pained just trying to get out of saying it, then it wouldn’t be right to force it.  So, if she knew, then what was the point of saying it?  Shit like that should be forgotten in the past anyway.

Chapter Text

Thanks to the demands of leadership, both of the Kiryuin Foundation and the remains of the Jakuzure dynasty, the heiresses of these illustrious houses wound up holding their traditional monthly lunch early on a rainy Wednesday morning in February.  This time it had been Satsuki’s turn to pick the restaurant, and she’d settled on a lavish French place in central Kanagawa.  They always ended up in these sorts of fancy establishments, even while joking with chagrin about how spoiled they were.  Still, tearooms like this had their benefits; private tables in secluded nooks, for example, where top secret business could be discussed.  And there was plenty to talk about, it was proving to be an eventful month.  Nonon’s role in dismantling her family’s megacorp was going along smoothly, in essence she no longer had to really do anything about it, just let her underlings follow through on the plan.  What really mattered was her other, more secret role as an ear in on high society, keeping track of reactions to Satsuki’s reformation of the country’s government. 

The return of democracy, along with taxes and regulations and even plenty of outright property seizures, was bound to create some dissidents.  Most understood that it was their position of power and privilege that had allowed Ragyo to go unchallenged for so long, to say nothing of the suffering of their subjects, but others… they would be monitored closely to ferret out any donations to unsavory, anti-government parties.  To know the difference, one had to be well versed in the - sometimes steeped in intrigue and subtly, sometime completely raucous and coarse – gossip and cliques of the upper crust.  Satsuki employed other similar listeners at the galas and corporate offices of Japan, but of course none of them outranked Nonon, and none were in a better position than her to be of use.  She had the fortune, the noble birth, the fame, and something else:  a genuine desire to be surrounded by the world of high-class luxury.  Satsuki must have known, she could read anybody like a book, but Nonon burned with shame at the thought of saying it out loud. 

If only she could replicate Satsuki’s acetic discipline, her genuine preference for the humble and modest, but try as she might Nonon felt at home amidst the snobs, or better yet the other wannabe punks coasting off their family’s fortunes.  What a fraud she was in the face of Ryuko, a genuine gutter rat who’d actually been through something in her time (before the war anyway, that definitely counted as something too); in comparison being anything other than a dainty young lady was just an act for Nonon.  In the battle for Satsuki’s affection, that was the handicap against which she always struggled.  If Ryuko was ever clever enough to point that out in their verbal sparring she would have died on the spot, and on the other hand she would rather die than reveal this critical weakness. At least she was good at keeping up on the high society gossip, and discussion of all the important details she’d overheard carried the conversation through all the way until their food was delivered.  She never questioned exactly why her information was valuable, if Satsuki thought it was then it was.

 

“Well, now that that’s out of the way,” Nonon said between bites of her sandwich, “What’d you think of my latest album?”

“Excellent as always,” Satsuki answered, and Nonon blushed into her lap.  Satsuki always got an advance copy of her compositions, lately mostly electronic music but with unorthodox instrumentation and beats inspired by the orchestral music she grew up with.  Truthfully, they both preferred that more classical style, but with plenty of work to do Nonon didn’t have time to realize her ambition of putting together her own orchestra, not yet anyway.  Still, Satsuki could appreciate the artistry, and had to admit that she did find it catchy.  Too many love songs, though. “I particularly like, er, what was it, the third one?  That starts out with the blaring hornline first thing you hear?  You know the one.”

“I do, I do, I’m very happy with that one as well.  D’ya think I should start putting names on ‘em?”

“It wouldn’t come amiss.  Although I find that sometimes I associate the name of the song with it too strongly and I get distracted from it trying to figure out the meaning.”

“I uh, I mean maybe, but I doubt most people are thinking about it that hard.”  That was Satsuki for you, always analyzing everything.  Ten steps ahead of everyone else, if not more.  But it did make it hard for her to relax and just enjoy some music here and there, she seemed to be worried that she wasn’t enjoying it the right way sometimes. “It’s hard to think of names because my songs aren’t really about anything.”

“Right, if you say so.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” 

“Oh nothing,” Satsuki said with a smug smile, “Just, it’s a lot of love songs, though.”

“Oh, you shut up!”  Nonon’s cheeks were still a little red, but she shot back playfully, “They’re popular!”

“Indeed, they are.  Speaking of which, will you be publishing this one?”

“Eh, I’ll just release it on my website.  Not like I need the money.  And it’s already been leaked, so I might as well.”  She shrugged, “I’ll give it a few more days to build up hype.  Then I’ll drop it.”

“Makes sense,” Satsuki said, then paused to eat some more. She wished she knew more about music so that she could converse more intellectually about Nonon’s craft, but she did have something else to discuss, “So, how are things going besides that?” 

“Oh, fine.”

“Still making time for friends?”

“I – yeah?”

“Really?  You haven’t been by Houka’s in a while.”

“Well, I – I mean –,” Nonon stuttered defensively.  She should have expected this would come up today, “I’ve been busy!”

“Hmm,” Satsuki said simply, then smiled one of her gentle, tired looking smiles.  “Nonon, what’s been going on lately?  I know you and Houka are on the outs, but Shiro hasn’t told me why.”

“Oh geez, he told you about that?  Look, it’s really nothing.  We had a little argument, happens sometimes.”

“But still, he’s your best friend.”

“First off, he’s not my best friend,” Nonon said, and when Satsuki’s eyebrows rose she smiled, “You are!”

“Oh, I – thankyou Nonon.”

“But besides that, don’t worry, we’ll make up eventually.”

“I see,” Satsuki said, then took a sip of her tea, “Any idea when eventually might be?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“I must admit, I do have a motive in asking.  Apparently, when Houka can’t text you he can’t stop himself from texting Shiro even when they’re working right in the same room, and then Shiro gets distracted and he starts texting me and… well, you see how it goes,” Satsuki said with a smile.  Nonon was in full defense mode now, not her strong suit, but the thought of having inadvertently interrupted Satsuki’s important work struck her just as much as if Satsuki had straight up yelled at her.  Not that Satsuki was at all upset. In truth, Nonon’s expressiveness was a source of great amusement to her, a gift that she couldn’t help but revel in and, now that they could talk frankly as friends, occasionally agitate.

“W-What! Hey c’mon that’s not my fault its Houka’s for being addicted to that phone of his!  Besides, he should be apologizing to me anyway!  If he were my best friend, he would have taken my side.”

“There we go.  Taking your side against who, now?”

“Ah shit, I said that out loud?” Is it possible that I kinda wanted to tell her anyway?  Oh well, what the hell, time to come clean. “Well, you got me fair and square.  Against Sanageyama, who did you think?”

“Oh of course!”  Satsuki seemed relieved to have it all laid out, “ ‘The Monkey’.  Why didn’t I think of that?  So, it’s really him you have trouble with.”  Nonon nodded, “If I recall, you didn’t go to his going away party, did you?  Have you two been at odds since then?”

“Ugh, him and his trip.  It’s all anybody talks about. ‘Oh, what country’s he in now? Is he having fun?’ As if I know, or care.  And have you seen what he’s been posting?  I don’t think he’s got a single picture of him at an actual kendo tournament. It’s always in a bar, beer in one hand, some – some random girl in the other!   Sometimes two in the same night!”  She said with a disgusted scoff.

“I’m sure he’s just meeting fans.  He’s got lots of pictures of him with guys and whole groups of fans too – and I’ve seen pictures of him getting drinks with other famous martial artists too.  This must just be what they do to socialize after the tournament is over.”

“Yeah right,” Nonon spat, then, realizing that although they were talking as friends that was still a little rude, she backtracked, “You’re lucky Satsuki, you never had to read this sort of bullshit from guys.  There’s a certain type of dumbass frat-boy jerk you just have to expect to jump on women first chance he gets, and unfortunately he fits the bill perfectly.”

“It surprises me, if I’m being frank, to hear you talking about Uzu like this.  You had your spats back in the old days, but I thought you always made up.”

“Yeah, it probably does.  But - I hate to break it to you – we were never friends.  We were only working together because we had to but believe me I was more than happy to get away from that asshole – which is what he’s always been, by the way.”

“I was there Nonon, I know that’s not true,” Satsuki said sternly, but Nonon crossed her arms resolutely, “But if you don’t want to tell me what’s the matter between you and Uzu, that’s fine, he’s halfway around the world.  But please, make up with Houka.  He’s barely even involved in this, and I know he really wants to hear from you.”

“Okay, fine,” Nonon conceded, and with a nod and a sip of her tea Satsuki moved the conversation on to something else – conversion of the old Kiryuin Manor into a museum commemorating the Life Fiber War.  Satsuki had wanted to torch the place to the ground; the REVOCS cultists had already ransacked it for everything it was worth both in priceless antiques and life fiber tech basically the moment the Cocoon Sphere broke, nothing was left but a gutted monolith.  Nonon was proud to have been – with help from Houka  – the one to talk her out of it.  They’d finally found sculptors to produce replicas of all the Goku uniforms and Kamuis.  However, there’d been a little hitch when the guy they’d hired to do the main statue of Ryuko – a true master, but also a true diva – got into a little fit because Ryuko refused to model for him and especially refused to wear a replica of Senketsu in order to do so.  Ordinarily Nonon would have advised just making her do it anyway, but her mind wasn’t really on it.  So eventually they ran out of things to say, and went back to eating for a while.  Long enough for Nonon to make up her mind.

“You want to know what it’s really about?”

“Um, yes? You mean about Uzu?”

“Yeah… b-but I meant everything I said before, though.”

“I… see?  Nonon what’s wrong?  You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, you know,” Satsuki was looking at her with a curious, concerned glance, but those eyes pierced her to the core anyway.  She must know, right?  Oh, I’m such an idiot.  But if she knows and she’s not upset at me yet, then I guess it is okay.

“Do you remember that time when we were on the Naked Sol and Houka made that ‘get a room’ joke to Sanageyama and me.”

“Yes.”

“Well, it wasn’t entirely a joke.  I mean, it was a joke, but it was based on... We were hiding in Osaka that whole month, right?  Every day they were getting closer, it didn’t look like we had much of a chance.  So, Sanageyama and I… we may have exchanged some words.”

“Oh?”

“A-and a little more than that, too,”

“Really?  Wait – you don’t mean -,”

“- No no - I meant making out!  Saliva, you get it?  I guess that’s what I get for trying to be cute.  We didn’t go all the way with it!” Nonon blurted with a frantic wave of her hand and a beet red face. “We agreed it was just an in-the-moment thing, wasn’t gonna make things awkward between us or affect what we had to do, but… well, I agreed anyway.  You can guess how well that went.”

“I see.  So, if I’m understanding correctly, you and Uza – on the premise that you were going to die soon -,”

“- Yes, on the premise that we were going to die-,”

“-You had a fling, but now you don’t want anything to do with him and he doesn’t feel the same way.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Nonon said quietly, looking down at her plate.  She was going to go on, but Satsuki suddenly sat upright, struck by a bolt of inspiration.

“You’re not over him, are you?”  She guessed, correctly, and in response Nonon wrapped a hand around her temple with a groan and a morose little laugh.

“Fuck me, right?  Of all the fucking idiots in the world, here I am.  I – I’m sorry, I know it’s stupid.”

“Nonon, you don’t have to apologize.  It so happens I understand completely.”

“Wait, you do?  No way.  Who is she?”  Nonon asked, pulling her head up breathlessly.  Now it was Satsuki’s turn to look a little embarrassed.

“Oh, well, I’m not gonna be telling you that,” She said, looking off the side and smiling.  Nonon didn’t dare press the question, the thought hardly even occurred to her, “Not now, anyway.  Besides, I’m over it now, so it hardly matters.  I just know what it feels like.”

“But I don’t want to get over it.  Or at least, I don’t think I do.  I don’t know.  I still mean everything I said before, you know.  He’s such a jerk, I really don’t know why I’m so torn up about it”

Satsuki nodded, “He’s definitely got some maturing to do, that’s an open secret.  But I think he’s able to mature; remember how far he went after Ryuko beat him the first time?  Do you think he would have done that – admitted he’d needed to improve – when we first met?  When he sees something he wants, he’ll do what it takes to get it, so maybe there’s hope for him yet.”

But that’s the trouble.  When he sees something he wants… he should have known what it would take for me to consider him last time I told him off.  But then he left.  The thought made her heart sink, not the least because she was sitting right across from Satsuki, the woman Uzu hadn’t stopped trying to woo all the way up until he sewed his eyes shut (long after he should have learned she was not interested in men). He’d only stopped then because he had found a sort of peace in focusing on his own self-improvement, and though Nonon hadn’t thought much of it then, now, well how was she supposed to compare to Satsuki? “I mean maybe,” She said morosely.  Satsuki frowned.

“You don’t believe that?”

“I don’t know.  I think he’s still the exact same as ever, and obviously I like some parts of that, but there’s just no way I could date someone so irresponsible and inconsistent – not to mention womanizing,”  Satsuki had known Nonon long enough to suspect that the same bad-boy charm that she was railing against was really part of Uzu that attracted her, but she declined to suggest this.

“But you would want to date him, if it weren’t for that

“I-I don’t know.”

"That seems like a pretty important thing to know.”

“Oh geez,” Nonon said, one of her rare outbursts of frustration in response to something Satsuki said, “Not everything is so simple as it is for you.  You could have any woman you wanted, so you can afford to think about all the pros and cons nice and neat.”

“I – um, thank you?”  Oh, if only she knew, Satsuki thought, but she wasn’t about to burst in and tell Nonon all the ways she’d misjudged her situation.

“But a guy like Sanageyama being into a girl like me, that’s a rare thing!” She continued, not mentioning that creeping feeling that maybe she’d already missed her chance.  Satsuki was visibly taken aback by this sudden admission of insecurity.  Words she’d written in her data log of the students of Honoujji Academy came back to her now:  Jakuzure will never admit to a weakness of any kind except in situations of extreme need or emotional stress.  However, she will act on the resultant insecurities at the slightest suggestion.  This, in combination with her deep admiration for and loyalty to me, is the surest method of controlling her.

“If that’s what you really think, then I think you should put him behind you immediately, just so you can see how wrong you are.”

Nonon giggled in embarrassment but was still looking down at the tablecloth (a waiter had come and cleared their plates at some point, she’d barely noticed), “Satsuki, you don’t have to say stuff like that.”

“Even if I mean it?”

“C’mon, our situations are so different, and you know it.”

“No, I don’t, and you need to learn to take a compliment.”

“Okay, fine, um, thankyou.  How was that?"

"More artificial than I expected, but at least you said it."

"Oh gee - you just love acting like you know every little thing I'm gonna do, don't you?"

"Well, I have know you for 83% percent of your life.  So it should come as no surprise.  But please, can we get back to subject at hand?  If I know everything you're gonna do, then I'd say you're gonna feel better after you talk to me about it."

"Ok, fine,"  Nonon sighd, but instead of launching into that they wound up taking another pause in their conversation, in which they both finished their food.  Eventually, Nonon asked “With yours, did you ever feel like maybe it would be nice to just forget it, but then you’d meet her again years later and you’d realize you’d made a huge mistake?”

“No, I can’t say that I ever felt that way,” Not like I’d ever lose track of her again, considering I see her every weekend and plan on keeping it that way.  Which, come to think of it, did help me stop worrying and learn to love her as a sister.  What Nonon really needs is probably for Uzu to come back so she finds out for sure how she feels about him.  “It was more like I didn’t know if I wanted to kiss her or kill her half the time.”

“Yeah, there’s that too,” Nonon said, “Heh, do I ever know that feeling.”  Satsuki had a moment of worry that Nonon would be able to figure out who she was referring to from that, but she was too deep in thought.  “How did you get over your… er… crush or whatever?  It must’ve been after the war, right?”

“Hmm, well I suppose my feelings just changed eventually.  I’m still very fond of her, but other, more important things distracted me and when I came back, it wasn’t the same.”

“Just like that, huh?”  Kind of scary to think something so important could just change like that.  She’s probably not telling me the whole story though.

“But it’s not the same as yours, so I don’t know what will happen with you.”

“I don’t have anything important that I’m up to right now, so there’s that.”

“Well, that might change shortly.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s one more piece of business I have for you.  Come, let’s go someplace more private.”

 

“Holy shit.  Is that what I think it is?”  Nonon asked, mouth agape, coiled up next to Satsuki in the back of the bulletproof luxury sedan she rode just about everywhere.  She’d thought she would find it hard to ignore that thin whine that her sound negation field was projecting around the chassis, but the emerald green dress in the old-fashioned film photo Satsuki handed her held her full attention.  Everything seemed to vanish into that photo, her head and heart pounding in unison.  It was like the feeling of Christmas Eve, if it was tinged with a cloying, panicky feeling.  This couldn’t be real, could it?

“It is.  This is the Kamui that killed Tsumugu’s sister Kinue.  It is currently unfinished as we attempt to convert it into a bonded, sentient Kamui like Ryuko’s Senketsu.  It’s called Kamui Saiban.”

“Holy shit.  So you’re actually going through with it?”

“Yes, this is, hopefully, our answer to REVOCS.  Well it will be, if and when we find someone to wear it.”

“Wh-why are you showing me this?  You don’t really mean me, do you?”

“What do you think?”  Satsuki looked up from the photo, and when Nonon saw the fire in her eyes she couldn’t help scooting backwards, uncomfortable to be in such close contact all of a sudden.

“Hoooooo…”  Nonon trailed off, at a complete loss for words.  Her mind was racing with the possibilities.  She saw herself at the pinnacle, heights of power only three had ever attained before – only one of whom had even been human.  She would be taking Satsuki’s place.  All the spotlights were on her.  The power to level cities, the power to fly, the power to go anywhere, do anything, all of it could be hers if that’s what she wanted.  If that’s what she wanted.  “Are you ordering me to wear it?”

“No, of course not.  With the risks involved, there’s no way I could in good conscience.  And besides that, if you accept, you will be expected to fight and kill if it comes to that.”

“Risks?  It isn’t gonna try and mind-rape me like Junketsu, is it?”

“I hope not, but the fact is we don’t know.  Hopefully, it will be similar to Senketsu and will bond to you as though that was its only purpose in life – which it will be.  But we don’t know for sure.”

“I mean, it killed someone already.”

“If something goes wrong, we’ll have suction devices to pull it off you.  And Ryuko will be there; if something goes really wrong she’ll just rip it off you and destroy it.”

“And what if it were like when Junketsu took over Ryuko and it made me say everything was fine when it really wasn’t?”

“Ryuko and I both have experience with that sensation, I’m confident we can recognize the problem before it becomes one.  Nonon, are your only objections those pertaining to your safety?  You need to consider this very carefully.  If you accept, you will have a responsibility to the entire world – not just following my orders, you’ll be the one in control and consequences of your actions would be in your hands.  Do you want that pressure on yourself?”

“Geez, yeah I know, let me think,” Nonon said.  And she did, staring at the picture as Satsuki looked away.  How could eyes directed out the window still bore right through her? “So why did you come to me?  It’s, I mean, if it’s such a big deal?”

“You’re the best for the job.  Who else would I go to?”

“I – well thanks, but I thought you’d have wanted it yourself.  Or you could have given it to Ryuko, stupid though that would have been.”

“Ryuko would never wear it, to respect Senketsu’s memory, and she doesn’t need it anyway.  As for me, well, I told you I made a promise to myself never to take another life, didn’t I?”

“But, well, look at me, I’ve gotten soft.  I haven’t really exercised in months.  I’m not even sure I was ever strong enough to handle it, especially not now.”

“Then you would have to train harder than you ever have before.  You can do that, can’t you?”

               Nonon thought for a while more.  It wasn’t getting her very far.  Everything logical was telling her to refuse:  the risk that it would just straight up kill her, the responsibility, especially the idea of fighting once again.  Voluntarily stepping up to almost definitely kill people and possibly die herself - she’d felt such a relief when she realized that was behind her – and now how could she go back to it?  Oddly, the thought that came to her first was the people she would be leaving behind.  Not her family, of course, fuck them, but Satsuki and Houka and the others.  Satsuki would blame herself, obviously, and that hurt to think about.  But not as much as Uzu.  He’d better fucking cry for me.  But even in spite of that, the image of her backlit in radiant gold, Saiban’s hems flapping in the breeze, stayed so near she could almost touch it.  That could be real.  All she had to do was say yes.

“If I do this, it’s gonna take over my whole life, isn’t it?  I won’t have time for anything else.”

“Yes, and it could last for years.  And if you believe Ryuko, which I do, more than anyone else, it will change your life in… other ways, too.”

“Yeah, cuz they’re alive, aren’t they?  Will mine talk to me, too?”

“I believe it will, but it’s more than talk.  Apparently, it’s like Senketsu was… inside Ryuko’s mind somehow.  Their thoughts, it seems, were connected on some level.  She said the experience was ‘like nothing else’, if I’m quoting correctly.”

“Really,”  Nonon said with more than a little skepticism.  Ryuko was far from the most reliable source on something like this; call it an overactive imagination, some sort of perverted sentimentality, maybe even straight up mental instability.  Look at who she was dating – Mako, who talked to herself constantly - and you got a pretty good idea where her head was at.

“You’ll have to ask her about it yourself.  All I ever heard from Junketsu were whispers – in my ears, not my head.” 

"Oh so the talking part is definitely real?"

"Yes, I even heard Senketsu just once or twice.  Apparently it could communicate to other people besides Ryuko, but it was really difficult.  It had a silky, calm voice.  I could see why Ryuko liked it so much."

“Was it hard, wearing Junketsu?”

“I won’t lie, every moment was brutal when it was powered on.  Until Shiro tamed it, I could barely control it for twenty minutes at a time.”

“Wow.  I had no idea.”

“Hmmhmm,” Satsuki let out one of her little hum-chuckles, “I’ll take that as a complement to my ability to hold my composure.  But I wouldn’t expect that to be what you experience.  Unless you don’t embrace it, that is.  Ryuko says as soon as she learned to do that it wasn’t just painless, it was really exhilarating.  But you’ll have to ask her about that.”

“It wasn’t exhilarating for you?”

“No, is that surprising?  I had to stay too focused to worry about things like that.”

“Even when you were flying?”

“Oh, that,” Satsuki smiled wistfully, “Ok, I suppose that was… fun, almost.  Looking back, I do wish there had been the time to fly for longer.”

“Because I loved flying in my Goku uniforms, especially the Mk.2 and 3.  It was never nearly as fast as a Kamui, but still.”  I’m not about to say yes just so I can fly again, am I?  No, that’s absurd, I haven’t decided anything.  But the memory of the world stretching out underneath her like a diorama, especially during the battle of Osaka when the ground had been riven by explosions and gunfire as far as the eye could see, gave her goosebumps.  She pulled the picture closely, examined Saiban.  There were still lots of empty and thin patches where the garment was clearly incomplete, but she knew exactly what it would look like.  What it would look like when it powered up, well, that would probably be a surprise until she tried it.

“Ugh, so not my style,” She said.  This was true, Nonon’s preference was either for the baggy and casual or the crisp and skintight.  Today she split the difference with a thick sky-blue wool sweater that hung loose on one shoulder and skinny jeans.  Satsuki wondered idly if maybe she would have preferred a Kamui like Senketsu and Junketsu that was designed to resemble a uniform, not a fancy dress.

“Well, that can’t be changed now.  If it makes any difference, I think you’d look stunning in it.”

Nonon wasn’t really listening.  She’d run through the same thoughts so many times it was beginning to cloy at her mouth.  There was only one conclusion that actually stuck.  She’d sworn that she would see the world from the same heights Satsuki did, but despite her striving there had always been a gap.  The gap between one who was worthy to wear a Kamui and one who wasn’t.  The reverence she inspired, the belief in her vision, the infatuation of… certain individuals…  all a product of what lay in the gap.  Satsuki wasn’t the only one with a vision, but until now Nonon had known that the gap between them was what made it possible for Satsuki to realize hers. Now the gap could be gone, all she had to do was say yes.  Death and bloodshed, responsibility to the world, training all day and night, it meant nothing compared to that.  She hadn’t even considered how long she’d been sitting silently in contemplation until Satsuki reached over to take the photo from her fingers.

               “Ah what the hell.  I’ll do it.”

Chapter Text

“You’ve probably never eaten at the dining hall, have you?”

               “No, I can’t say I have.  Graduate students don’t really have to spend much time on campus, and I in particular am hardly ever in town.”

               “Heh, I sure know that.  Well it’s not that bad, if you just want something quick to eat,” Ryuko suggested, although she really wasn’t interested in eating there.  The idea had been that they would meet for lunch, but since the sisters had spent a good hour just wandering around campus talking, eating clearly wasn’t the priority. “A friend of mine probably got food poisoning from the sushi once, but I can’t get food poisoning, so I just eat it anyway. Tastes fine.”

               “Well that’s not good.  You should report things like that, not let them get away with inferior service.”

               “Ah chill out Sats, not everything has to be a battle.  Sometimes you just want lunch.  Besides, it wasn’t like they meant it.  Shit just happens sometimes.”

               “Perhaps.  Either way, I’d rather not go to the dining hall, just for fear of being recognized.”

               “Yeah, why risk it?  Well then, let’s figure it out on the way back to your place? I have an idea where the paparazzi will never think to look for you.”

              

               The restaurant Ryuko wound up choosing was a sort of general-purpose sushi/ramen/comfort food place, the sort of hole-in-the-wall that locals swore by but nobody else had even heard of.  She’d been right about it being secluded, but Satsuki suspected that she’d actually chosen it just because she was in a sushi mood.  If the way Ryuko was scarfing down her order was anything to go by, her suspicions had been correct.  She seemed to be a regular here, because the lady behind the counter was already writing out an order while they were still saying hellos.  Her interaction with the cashier was also familiar, all she did was slap a couple bills down and carry on her way.  Satsuki couldn’t help but smile at the coziness of the establishment, even though the back of her flimsy plastic chair was all but pushed up against the one behind her.  It was nice to hear the fryers working right behind the counter and the friendly greetings of the regular customers strolling in the doors, the faint rustle of all the posters coating the walls every time the wind swept through.  Ryuko seemed to luxuriate in it too, which only made her feel ever more at home.

               “You know, I appreciate ya coming down here to hang out, but I gotta wonder, aren’t you worried about like,” Ryuko strained to think of a way to say what she meant without getting into secret topics, “y’know, somebody… trying to ‘start something’, so to speak?  Like shouldn’t you have somebody watching your back or something?”

               “Ah I see, yes I know what you’re alluding to.  Let me let you in on a little secret then, which I think you’ll find comforting.”  She leaned in close so that she could speak extremely softly.  Only her perfect intonation kept it from being a whisper, “You’re sitting right next to one of my bodyguards.”

               “Huh?”  Ryuko spun around to the man behind her.  He appeared to just be an average man of fifty or sixty, methodically eating his bowl of ramen while scrolling through the news on his phone.  But he looked up and gave Ryuko a knowing glance and a barely perceptible twitch of a smile.   “Whoa dude.”

               “There are several others in here and on the street, as well as two surveillance vehicles and more up in the buildings.  We are quite safe, I can assure you.”

               “And you always travel like this?”

               “Yes, in my position I couldn’t afford not to.”

               “Even all those times when you came to visit?  And stayed over?”  Satsuki saw the problem now.  Ryuko looked at her very intensely, and she was sure that if she didn’t have to speak softly that would have sounded very accusatory.

               “Well, yes.”

               “Ach! C’mon, what the hell Satsuki?  You’ve had your goons snooping on us the whole time?”

               “Of course I did.  I need them, it’s inevitable in my position.  Surely you’ve realized that by now.”

               “Yeah, fine, but you couldn’t have told us?”

               “What difference did it make?  They’ve never gotten in the way, have they?”

               “That’s not important!  You should tell people if there’s someone watching them when they’re sleeping!  Even if they aren’t peeping on ‘em” She whisper-shouted.  Satsuki scrunched her face up.  She understood that full well, but she hadn’t told the Mankanshoku’s the first time she’d visited because she’d been concerned they might not understand and would ask her not to bring her bodyguards around.  Which wouldn’t do at all.  Now, she was fairly sure they would have been alright with it, but how to tell them she’d already had them under surveillance after the fact?  She was worried that they would take it about as well as Ryuko was right now.  Still, she couldn’t back down, not on something so important.

               “Maybe, but I can assure my security detail would never extend their bounds into your privacy.  There’s only one person to whom their loyalty is deeper than it is to me:  you.”

               “You don’t say,”  Ryuko growled.

               “If you ordered the man behind me to shoot me, he would do so without hesitation.  That is the degree of their loyalty to you.”  Ryuko’s eyes widened a little bit at that, her mouth dropping open just a little bit, with what Satsuki thought was a very becoming curve of the lip.  It reminded her of nothing more than their reunion on the Naked Sol, when Satsuki had been prepared to take a full power punch from Ryuko and Senketsu.  Was she really so fucked up that Ryuko looked more beautiful than ever just when Satsuki willingly put her own life in her hands?  Even though she knew there was no conceivable scenario where Ryuko would seriously give the order, she still nearly broke her composure at the thought.  No, that can't be right.  It's just the way the light streams through the windows here.

               “And if I told him to fuck off and leave me alone, would he do that?”

               “Er, no.  That is the one order which he would never follow.”

               “What the hell.  Where do you even find these people?”

               “Many of them are Honoujji Alumni, as it happens.  The older ones like the gentleman behind you have been in my service for many years.  I assure you, there are plenty of people interested in this kind of security work, if you know where to look.”

               “So you grew up like this, sure, but you still gotta know this isn’t normal, right?  Normal people aren’t comfortable being babysat like this.”

               “Ryuko, you know I have as much sympathy for normal people as anyone else, but you must admit that nothing about us is normal.”

               “Don’t say shit like that,” Ryuko growled, “Makes you sound like the old you.”  Satsuki just raised her eyebrows at that one, as if to say that doesn’t make it wrong though, I mean, look at you.  That would have cut too deep to say out loud though, and Satsuki knew it.

               “Look, if you want me to apologize, I will admit I should have told you sooner.  I’m sorry for that.  But I won’t apologize for my security measures.  If anything, it was irresponsible of me not to assign you all a security detail much earlier.”

               “Fine, whatever,” Ryuko said with a tired looking smile.  Good.  Winning and argument against Satsuki was never as satisfying as it should have been, it always felt like she’d let herself be beaten.  Ending one, on the other hand, was a relief either way.

               “Well, that’s enough about that, then.  Now, how are your classes going?”

               “Oh well um, fine, probably.”

               “Probably?  What does that mean?”

               “Nothing bad, don’t worry,” Ryuko held a hand up defensively. “I just won’t know for sure until after the midterms.”

               “I see.  Are you enjoying them, then?”

               “Eh, most are pretty boring, honestly,” Ryuko said, and then quickly added, “But I’m having a good time here, besides that.  Keeping busy and all that.”

               “Hmm, I’m certainly aware of that,” Satsuki said with a smile.  She had thought it would be her schedule that made it difficult to visit Ryuko and had felt quite guilty worrying that she might be lonely without any familiar faces.  But as it turned out it was Ryuko who was even harder to pin down, running a regimented schedule just about every day.  After classes wrapped up she was invariably partying or hanging out with friends until late in the evening, then she disappeared to patrol the city until dawn, then she slept ‘til noon, and then it was time to start the whole thing over again with classes.  Even her roommate, a mousy girl who frankly seemed terrified of her, barely knew where she was at any time.  That Satsuki had wound up going to her dorm in person just to try and track her down was telling enough.  “And do your friends here treat you like a celebrity? The university has been doing its best to keep paparazzi off the campus, you know.”

               “I appreciate that, I do.  It seems to be working.  Nah, but the folks I know here are really like anywhere else.  Some people are too shy to even look at me, some don’t seem to care much and treat me like anyone else, and everything in between.  I think the best is the ones who mostly treat me normally but, like, respect it just a little.”

               “Is that so?  Why’s that, I wonder?”

               “Well, what I’ve seen is that if they don’t have at least a little respect that’s a sure sign that they’re just an ass.  Like all these guys, they all think they’re gonna be the one to fuck the great Ryuko Matoi. Which, first of all: no, gross,” Ryuko paused so Satsuki could do one of her little hum-chuckles, “Second off, if they really wanted to seduce me, you’d think they’d try being nice for a change.”

               “How troublesome.  I’ve actually encountered men – and women – like that too, believe it or not.”

               “Whaat?  Seriously?”

               “That’s what happens in high society sometimes.  You saw it at Nonon’s Christmas party.”

               “Well yeah but they were fuckin’ hammered there.”

               “Certainly.  But that’s far from rare for many of them.”

               “Alright, alright, fair point.  But still, I try to avoid that kind.”

               “Of course.  And you’re right that there’s nothing nice about it.”

               “Oh you’re telling me, I knew this guy once who - you’ll never believe this – ,” And Ryuko launched into a story about a guy who broke up with the girl he’d been seeing the same night that he started hitting on Ryuko, clearly just because he’d seen her when she entered the club.  She played it off as a comically stupid scenario, but Satsuki could imagine that being treated like a prize to be pursued must have infuriated her. “I mean they’re not all total bad eggs,”  She concluded, “It just seems like guys like that don’t actually like… well, being around people very much.  But they do it anyway.”

               “Mmm.  Speaking of people who like just being around people, how are you getting along without Mako?  I mean, I’m sure you miss her…”

               “Yeah, I do miss her, but she’s only a phone call away, y’know.  We talk all the time – she even came to visit a few weeks back.  And I’ll get to see her when vacation starts up, so it’s not too bad.”

               “No, I mean more not being with her anymore, you know.  Because – you’re not – right?”

               “Nah, I told you before Sats,” Ryuko waved a hand dismissively, “It’s not like that between us.  It’s fine that we aren’t dating anymore because I still get to have her in my life.  I don’t really sweat it that much, she’s happy and so I’m happy, y’know?”  This was all true enough, but what Ryuko was far from willing to admit was that there were certain aspects she had found herself missing terribly.  She hadn’t realized how much she relied on the sensations of sleeping next to a living creature to keep the silence at bay.  It had overpowered her on the first night after Mako left for her college, and she’d laid eyes wide open staring at the ceiling for who knew how long, the emptiness crushing down like the pressure at the bottom of the ocean, until she slipped into unconsciousness from sheer exhaustion.  How had she lived like this before?  Were other people’s thoughts this quiet?  It didn’t feel like she was even thinking them half the time, the same way that when you speak right after waking up you find yourself doubting if you really spoke at all minutes later.  At home she’d brought Sukoyo’s cat (which had for some reason been given the name “chicken bone”) into her room, and the little noises its mouth made and the faint vibrations of the blankets as it purred did the trick.  But at college she quickly found out she needed a solution or else she wouldn't be sleeping at all.  She'd found one sure, but it would've been nice if she didn't have to worry about it.

               “I guess I don’t really understand it, even now,”  Satsuki said, not guessing the further depths behind what Ryuko’d said, “Maybe I never will, but that’s alright.”

               “Well there’s lots of different ways – wait, you’ve never dated anyone, have you?”

               “Come now, when would I have had the time for that?”

               “Yes, well I think if you had you’d see that there’s lots of different ways to feel about someone even in a good relationship.  Oh man, I really oughta take you down to a club sometime, get you some practice.  Cuz, saying this as your sister, you’re a fuckin’ catch, Sats,”  She added in the ‘as your sister’ part just as a hedge to hopefully make it less weird, make it clear she knew there was nothing happening between them.  If it hadn’t been for Satsuki mentioning her own sexuality that one time in the woods, she wouldn’t have thought to do it.  Or if it hadn’t been for this sneaking suspicion that she suspected what really went on in Ryuko's head, somehow.  She said it quietly, though.

               “Oh, well um, thanks,” Satsuki said, coloring up just a little and looking down into her plate.  Very non-Satsuki behaviors.  “I think it’s safe to say I could use the practice.”

               “Well then we’re gonna make that happen sometime.  We’ll dress ya up in something I’d wear, make it a little less obvious it’s you so it’s not the whole “Queen of Japan” thing which probably does you no favors.  Do something with your hair too, not like there’s anything wrong with it – you’re killing the short hair look – but it’s very you.

               “Oh no. My hair’s the one thing you’re not touching, and that’s final.”

               “Wha – c’mon why not?”

               “See this shine?  I’ve been working to keep it this way for years.  A single hair product besides the finest homemade conditioner could ruin it.”

               “Oh yeah, I kinda forgot that most people have to worry about that.  My hair’s not made of normal hair stuff, so it doesn’t really matter.”

               “Oh please, that bird’s nest hasn’t seen a single product in your life and you know it.”

               “Hey!  I’ll have you know that Mako got conditioner for me!  She even tried spiking it up once!”

               “See, this is what I was getting at, how are you supposed to get by without her?”

               “Okay, that’s a low blow.  It might surprise you to know that I was actually the neat one.”

               “Whatever you say, Ryuko,” Satsuki replied with a laugh, “Whatever you say.”

 

 

               When they pulled up in front of Satsuki’s apartment building it was hard not to notice that the street was packed.  Camera flashes were going off before the car even stopped rolling, and Ryuko peered out the window to see a wave of reporters charging in from all sides.  Fortunately, security guards emerged from somewhere and interposed themselves, creating a ring of stony faced, black suited goons between the crowds and them.  Satsuki sighed with an expression that told Ryuko this was all very normal.  When they got out, it became apparent that the crowd extended much further than the reporters.  A sea of wooden scissor blades and adoring, half-crazed eyes greeted her, filling the entire city block on both sides.  Someone closer to the front shouted, “It’s Lady Ryuko!” and without warning the entire crowd exploded with a fearsome noise like a jet engine revving up. 

“Lady Ryuko!”  She heard someone shout.  Even without her supercharged ears she would have picked up some particularly impassioned cries from the din.

               “Mistress!”

               “Savior!”

               “Bless us, Mistress, we beg you!”

               “She – She looked at me!  Did you see?!”  The adoring cultists surged forward, crushing the press and other bystanders forwards until the security guards were straining to keep them from spilling onto the car.  Despite herself, Ryuko took a step back.

               “What the hell!  Did these freaks know I was coming?”  She shouted over the din.

               “No, they’re always camped out here!  They think I’m your high priestess or something!”  Someone tripped in the stampede, and suddenly one of their scissor blade signs was hurtling over the guards.  Without thinking Ryuko snatched it out of the air, and this brief action seemed to drive the throngs even madder.

               “Holy shit!”  Ryuko dropped the sign, “This is fucking nuts!  We gotta go!”

               “Nothing to do but wait!  They’ll get bored or we’ll get the police in to clear things up!”

               “Fuck that!”

               “What do you mean?”  Satsuki asked, and Ryuko glanced over with her trademark fearsome smile.

               “You wanna try something crazy?”

               “What does that – Oh no.”  Satsuki said bluntly as Ryuko hoisted her up bridal style.  From where she was looking, gauging distance, it was clear where they were going.

               “Your place is the whole top floor, right?”

               “Yes, but Ryuko the building is seventy stories tall!”

               “My record is 87, what’s your point?”

               “… Fine, do it,” Satsuki growled.  She would never had agreed under most circumstances, but Ryuko’s grip was as firm as would be expected of a superhuman.  They would get to the top, that wasn’t a concern.  That she was doing this in front of the cameras, on the other hand…

               “Hup!”  Ryuko grunted, and all the shouting of the cultists was drowned out by the blasting of the wind in her face.  So, this is what it’s like to move the way a hybrid does.  The crowd of cultists rapidly receded into red – and – black robed ants as they rose for a shocking length of time.  Satsuki was hardly keeping track of time but it felt like minutes passed as they soared up towards the skyline.  Despite the wind and the weightless feeling in her gut it seemed as though they weren’t even ascending, just drifting in the air.  With each passing floor she could easily imagine them suddenly hurtling back downward to a messy impact on the street below; instead, they somehow found themselves way above the roof of the skyscraper before their descent began, and when it ended it was with the precise one-two click of Ryuko’s sneakers on a wide, smooth patio adorned with hedgerows, tables, and a pool.

               “And that.”  Ryuko said as she set Satsuki down on slightly shaky legs, “Is how I get around now. Whatcha think?”

               “Well, it’s efficient, I’ll give you that,” Satsuki said as she got her footing and strolled over to the doors.  Fortunately, they weren’t locked, and Soroi was there to greet her with a hug and a brush for her tousled hair.

               “Front doors are just a waste of time to me now.  I don’t think I’ve gotten in my dorm by the door once since move-in day.  I’m pretty sure my roommate’s pissed at me for coming in through the window at five AM every day, but frankly I'd make more noise if I used the door anyway. Y’know I was thinking, if Shiro gets his way and in the future everyone’s a hybrid like me maybe one day they’re completely redo all the architecture and just get rid of doors entirely since everybody will just go in the windows.”

               “I doubt it.  It’s the easy route, and frankly, most people are lazy when they don’t have any reason not to be.”

               “But that’s the thing!  I’m not even winded - Hey, Soroi, what’s up? - ,”  She interrupted herself as she followed Satsuki inside, “Now, let’s take a look at your sweet pad, eh?”  Ryuko said, and from the main den she could already tell it would not disappoint.  It was an airy white space that stretched three entire stories up, overlooked by a wide marble stairwell that swept up through the center to landings with doors to at least twenty separate bedrooms, as well as smaller lounges stocked with just as many plush white leather sofas as on the ground floor. The decoration had a unified design, clean and bright with a beachy white and blue color scheme and refined, modern trim and decor.  “Damn, this place puts Nonon’s to shame!”  She said, sauntering over to a TV screen easily as large as the entire floor space of the Mankanshoku’s kitchen and living room put together, “What, did they just drop an entire mansion on top of this skyscraper?”

               “Hmm, more like a skyscraper was built under the mansion.  And I do mean that, this was one of the many properties Ragyo had custom built  - not that she ever actually stayed here, of course,”  Satsuki spat contemptuously. “I’ve had the place redone to fit a more modest taste, as much as that was possible.  Come, I’ll show you around.”  The rest of the penthouse was no less sumptuous.  The kitchens were extensive “- with me here so infrequently, it’s really more her penthouse than mine –“  Satsuki said as she introduced the chef to Ryuko; the currently unoccupied master bedroom was almost as large as the main hall with a  floor to ceiling window overlooking Tokyo bay “- quite a nice view now that Honoujji’s out of the way –“; the dining hall could seat thirty easily “-I don’t know when I’d ever use that-“; and there was even a cozy, out-of-the-way game den with a VR console set up although it had never been used “- you don’t want to know what this place used to be –“.

               “And this is where I sleep when I’m here,”  Satsuki said unceremoniously, opening the door to the final stop on their tour.  All there was in the narrow chamber was a bed, dresser, and a desk.  It was more a monk’s cell than a bedroom.

               “Wooow, fancy,”  Ryuko said, turning back down to the main lounge, “Geez, you took the smallest room here, huh?”

               “Indeed.  I do not stay in downtown Tokyo unless I am needed here for work – I’ve been living in the gardener’s house on the Kiryuin Manor’s ground – so I have no need for distractions when I’m here.”

               “So why’d you even keep this place then?  I mean, you already got rid of the manor.”

               “I found a use for the manor, not sold it.  I’ve sold off many of the other properties I inherited, but this one I’ve still found serviceable for entertaining foreign dignitaries.  It still does go unused though, most of the time.  But I have an idea for that.”

               “Oh yeah, and what’s that?”

               “Do you want it?”

               “Wha – seriously?  What am I supposed to do with it?”

               “Well, live here, if you want.  When you’re out of your current dorm, of course.  The commute would hardly be a problem for you, I’m sure.”

               “I mean sure but I don’t know what I’d do with all this either,”  Ryuko flopped on one of the couches in a nook by the giant TV, “I mean, if I thought I needed a giant-ass penthouse I’d have asked for one a long time ago.”

               “Oh, I’m sure you could think of something to do here,”  Satsuki said, smiling as she sat down across from her.  Ryuko made a shrug as if to say I don’t know what you mean. “Well, don’t be coy with me, I’m quite aware how you spend your weekends.”

               “Oh are you now?  I kinda thought you’d nag about it, not offer me a whole penthouse to party in.”

               “It’s not interrupting your schoolwork is it?”

               “No?”

               “Then I don’t see any issue.  It might be nice to see this place filled with people.”

               “Alright, fine, if you insist.  But you don’t have to keep giving me shit, it’s getting to be a bit much.”

               “This isn’t a gift, really.  Our property is as much yours as it mine.  I’m just suggesting that you make better use of what you already own.”

               “Well, when you put it like that, I can see myself using it occasionally. And maybe I will move in next semester, who knows.  If you just want me to use it throw ragers, that I can totally arrange though,” Ryuko said with a grin. “But you have to come, okay?  And drag Houka and the guys out of their hole too.”

               “I never said you had to.  But you do have my permission.  As for my attendance, I really can’t make any promises.”

               “Aw c’mon.  If I’m gonna move in with you it’s only fair you hang out with me.”

               “But you won’t be moving in with me,”  Satsuki said quickly Is that what I just asked her to do? “More like I’ll be your houseguest every once in a while.”

               “Alright, fine, fine, you can come if you want.  Oh, y’know I’m definitely gonna bring Mataro over here sometime.  He’ll lose his shit when he sees the VR rig you’ve got.”

               “He sure loves those games, doesn’t he?”

               “Well if you ever tried them you’d love ‘em too.  Actually, maybe not.  You’ve done way cooler shit in real life.  But still at least he’s not a junkie like some of his friends.”

               “They aren’t allowed here, by the way.  His friends, I mean. Did you see that video he posted of them smashing all those old TVs?”

               “I thought that was pretty funny!  When the big guy put one on his head and started running around?”  She said with a chuckle, “They’re total idiots, but you gotta admit they know comedy.”

               “Well sure, but do you really want to be cleaning up after them?  These might be the only couches in the world that have never had crumbs in them, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

               “Alright, fair enough.  I don’t really want those twerps running around anyway.”

               “No, you don’t.  In fact I’m kind of surprised you’re okay with them at all.  Aren’t they a bad influence on him?”

               “Oh please, Mataro’s been dealing with bad influences all his life.  And since when’s that my job anyway?”

               “Well, he is your protégé now, so to speak.”

               “Uhh, I don’t think so.  Where’d you get that idea from?”

               “You must have noticed how much he admires you, and –,” Satsuki paused as Ryuko’s phone started ringing.  She stood up as she pulled it from her pocket.

               “Sorry Sats, I gotta take this.  We will finish that topic though,”  Satsuki nodded, and Ryuko started pacing the hall as she answered, “Hey babe, what’s up?”

               Satsuki did a double-take, her heart skipping a beat for no perceivable reason.

               “Nah, I’m off campus for a while, sorry, I woulda told you but I thought you were in class… Cancelled? Nice… Well I do hate to disappoint you but I probably won’t be back for a little while… Yeah, might as well… No, but guess who I’m hanging out with?... No, no, no it’s nobody you’ve met… Nah, not Mako either.  Give up?... It’s Satsuki!... Yes, the Satsuki Kiryuin!”  Satsuki heard an excited squeal from the other side of the line, “Yeah, we’re checkin’ out this kickass penthouse she’s got – yeah I’m definitely gonna drag you up here sometime, this place has everything… Oh yeah, she’s totally chill with it, she basically asked if I’d want to move in here… I haven’t decided, maybe you can help me make up my mind, huh?... Yes, you can help me, I wanna know what you think… I really do!... What?  No, of course not, I told you her and I are best friends now, er, sisters, y’know?... No, I totally think you should meet her… No!  She’s not, don’t be ridiculous… Oho you’d like that, would you?  You’ve got a real active imagination sometimes, you know that?...  A-alright, but you probably shouldn’t talk like that, she might overhear… Yeah, she’s in the room right now actually, wanna say hello?  Yo Sats!  Say hey to Haruka!”  She pressed the speaker button and held the phone up, revealing a contact photo of a scrawny woman with long brown hair pulled up in a messy bun, the kind of eyes that looked perpetually tired, and a demure smile that Satsuki had to admit was simply adorable.

               “Hello Haruka!”  She said, trying to make her voice smile through the microphone, “It’s very nice to meet you!”

               “Oh w-wow, that really is you Lady Satsuki!  I’m so – It’s very nice to meet you too,” The voice on the other side was soft and sweet and clearly starstruck.

               “I must admit I’m surprised.  Ryuko hadn’t told me she got herself a girlfriend.”

               “Oh, well um that’s alright,” Satsuki had meant it as a gentle joke at Ryuko’s expense, the sort she’d expected a nagging girlfriend would find humor in.  Evidently it hadn’t landed.  Ryuko’s glare told her she hadn’t appreciated it either.  Throwing her in hot water, I guess.  Very smooth.

               “Well, you’re more than welcome to come by sometime, I’d love to meet you in person!”

               “I-I’m honored, you’re too kind Lady Satsuki.”

               “Please, call me Satsuki.  I don’t like titles much.”  At this point, with much further deference, Haruka said her goodbyes and Ryuko took the conversation back again.  They chatted for a little while longer, planning out their evening and gossiping, while Satsuki waited in patient idleness.  So she really is over me.  That’s good, She thought sadly.  There was a pang of jealously there, why was that?  Oh, of course.  Ryuko’s told me things about herself she never told anyone else.  Except maybe this Haruka.  But that’s selfish of me.  Without me she wouldn’t have been The Girl who Saved the World, my “training” saw to that, and she wouldn’t have learned how to run her own life after that if it weren’t for me either, but didn’t I do that so she could go off into the world on her own, and isn’t that exactly what she’s done?  Then I can dismiss that feeling; it’s foolish of me to want her all to myself, and even if she has a girlfriend that doesn’t stop us being sisters.

               “Alright, sorry about that, I’m back,”  Ryuko said as she hung up. “Y’know, I haven’t decided if I’ll move in here, but I’ll definitely be stashing Osuzumebachi (this was the name she’d given her motorcycle, after the Japanese giant hornet on account of the stinger-like curve of its body) in the garage if that’s alright.  You ever heard the story of what I have to do with her so she doesn’t get swiped at school?”

               “Your girlfriend seems very nice,” Satsuki changed the topic pointedly, with a nod of her head.

               “Aha yeah, she is.  She’s great.  I’m glad you like her so far,”  Ryuko said awkwardly, lifting an arm behind her head as she sat down, “I probably ought to have told you sooner, I guess.  But I didn’t want to before we were official, y’know?”

               “I see, I think.  So, how long ago was that then?”

               “Well, it’s hard to say, really.  She’s basically been living in my room for almost a month now, but we only talked about it last week.  So… somewhere in there, I guess.”

               “That’s almost the whole time you’ve been here so far.  Lucky you, to find her so soon, I suppose.”  Satsuki meant that too, she felt a glow of pride and envy imagining Ryuko bumping up against this young woman at some bar or party, hitting it off instantly, going home together and that being that.  It’s no surprise.  Who wouldn’t love her?

               “Luck had nothing to do with it,” Ryuko said, “You remember what I was saying before about people who all think they’re gonna be the one to fuck me?  Well, she’s the one who won – in a good way though, don’t worry.”

               “I don’t think I get it.  How can that be in a good way?”

               “Well, I’d say it’s more like she’d seen all about me in the news; she’d already made up her mind about me, y’know?”

               “So she’s dating her celebrity crush?”

               “Well, it sounds bad when you say it that way,” Not as bad as the reality though, Ryuko thought with guilt hanging heavy in her chest, resolving that she wouldn’t tell Satsuki she was dating a woman who seemed to really believe in her divinity.  The lecture she’d get for that one didn’t bear thinking about.  She both liked and needed Haruka too much to feel bad about that. “Nah, you’ll meet her, and you’ll see it’s good.”

               “I never said it was bad.  I’m sure you’re lots of women’s celebrity crush, you know.  It’s just a matter of probability that you met one.  It must make her very happy.”

               “Oh, I hope she’s happy,”  Ryuko said breathily, and Satsuki’s brows curved at the genuine worry in Ryuko’s voice.

               “You sell yourself too short.  I’m sure you’re a great girlfriend.”

               “Thanks, but all I can do is try,”  Ryuko said, and she meant it.  But where Satsuki imagined planning romantic dates and remembering each other’s favorite foods, she had something quite different in mind.  All she could do was try to really love Haruka the way she was loved in return, try to get her to treat her like a normal person, not some sort of Goddess.  Try not to, when they were drifting off in the small hours of the morning (Haruka had completely rescheduled her day so that she could be there when Ryuko needed her to help fall asleep), imagine what it would feel like if it were Satsuki there instead.

Chapter Text

She needed to get even stronger, somehow.  Ryuko had come to that conclusion not long after seeing the press conference assassination attempt that Satsuki narrowly survived.  She wouldn’t be so lucky forever, but Ryuko was an expert at making her own luck and had learned that it paid to be prepared.  If she could be there for Satsuki next time, she would be.  It wasn’t the raw physical strength per se she actually wanted – she hadn’t found a thing she couldn’t lift or punch yet – where she was lacking was speed and reaction time.  Patrolling in Tokyo only made that even more apparent.  Among the megacity’s endless skyscrapers there were so many people in need, an overwhelming number assailing her senses constantly.  She was comfortable with the knowledge that she would never save everyone, she wouldn’t have even be able to patrol Kanagawa without a mental breakdown if she weren’t. But if she were only a little faster, she could save another - even if it were just one more person a night.  And then there were the times when she got there too late.  She never wanted to see that look on another person’s face again, that look that said, I put my trust in you, and now look what’s happened. Maybe it was her fault, maybe people were becoming too dependent on her, who knew?  Who cared?  Such worries wouldn’t deter her.

And on top of all that, she really wanted to fly again. 

Ragyo had claimed her power of flight came from giving herself over to the life fibers, but Ryuko didn’t buy it.  She was sure she could do it too if only there were enough life fibers woven together inside her, and that was something she could make happen.

               And so she found herself parking Osuzumebachi in front of the Research Complex Visitor Center with a newfound determination.  She had to do it, not just for Satsuki’s sake, and there was a simple sort of solace in that.  Like the old days – don’t think, just act.  It was far more comforting than any amount of fretting over her humanity, or lack thereof.  Questions of whether she wanted this obligation were far from Ryuko’s mind as she descended into the secret lab’s depths, idly chatting with Aikuro.

               “What fuck are you doing here?”  A shrill shout suddenly distracted her as the doors opened, and she jerked her head around to see Nonon reclined across a couch, bowl of yogurt in her hand and snarl on her face.

               “I could ask you the same question, pint size!”  Ryuko shot back.

               “Oh joy, here we go,” Aikuro strolled off towards the test chambers with a roll of his eyes.

               “No, moron, you couldn’t because unlike some of us I have actual important business here!”

               “Really?  Because you look like you’re just eating… what is that, Kiwi yogurt?  Ew, the fuck’s wrong with you?”

               “Shut up!  It’s a perfectly good flavor!”  Nonon could tell Ryuko had the upper hand, so she sat up with a smug little smile and pulled her knees up to her chest.  Looking cute was a surefire way to disarm Ryuko, “Now that I think of it, I should’ve known you were coming when they started hiding all the glass test tubes and shit.”

               “What’s that supposed to mean?”

               “Oh my god, do you have rocks for brains or something?  You’re world famous for wrecking shit!”

               “Am not!  Er, ok, well, if I weren’t, we’d all be dead but if that’s where you wanna go with that one that’s pretty weird dude.”

               “Fine then, how about this:  I’m sure you think it’s cool and all that you get to help the guys with their science project, but it’s not.  I, for instance, am not just here to hang out and get x-rayed.”

               “Cool,” Ryuko said, standing with her arms crossed while Nonon stared angry pink daggers into her.

               “Well, aren’t you gonna ask what I’m here for?”

               “Nah, not my business.  Boy, you’d think Aikuro’d be back by now.”

               “It’s the Kamui, idiot!  I’m training to wear Kamui Saiban!”

               “Cool.” 

               “Oh shut up, I know it pisses you off.”

               “Hah! And why would that be?”

               “Oh, maybe because you’re worried I’ll be a better Kamui wearer than you.”

               “I very much doubt that.”

               “I dunno,” Nonon singsonged in a way that drove her shrill, scratchy voice deep into Ryuko’s eardrums, “I think I’ve got a cha-ance.”

               “Nah sis, see I never told Satsuki this because I didn’t wanna burst her bubble, but there’s no way a shrimp like you could have what it takes to wear a Kamui. Heh, even if you managed to synchronize, you’d never have the strength to get it to move.  You’ll go totally stiff like that Ogure chick.”

               “Oh please like you ever trained!  I’ve been going for months now so I think I’m good.  And once, I do synchronize – well – you know you never learned how to fight properly.”

               “I beat you.”

               “With Kamui deflection bullshit!  No, you set us down to some good old-fashioned swordplay and we’ll see who comes out on top.”

               “Seriously?  Didn’t think you’d have the balls.  But what the hell, you’re on,” Ryuko rolled up her sleeves with a fearsome grin.  It wasn’t that she was really thrilled about the opportunity to beat the crap out of Nonon, but she was just so fun to antagonize.  And something about her just really got on Ryuko’s nerves sometimes - it wasn’t even just the constant ribbing.  Still, she was almost remorseful at the idea that schooling her might shut her up for good.  But then, on the other hand, she’d been training with Tsumugu for almost a year now, and if Nonon was good enough this could be a chance to practice against a different fighting style.  “I’ll kick your ass right now!”

               “No, you’ll wait to get your ass handed to you until I’m done enjoying my kiwi yogurt, thank you very much.”

               “Fuck that, y’know I’ve got shit to do too -,”

               “Ladies, that’s quite enough,”  Houka suddenly cut in, emerging from storage with Shiro, “You’re welcome to beat each other up as much as you want, but do it on your own time, please.  And if you would, do confine your shouting to the test chambers – these hallways produce quite excessive echoes.”

               “Oh hey Houka, Shiro, what’s up?”

               “Same old, same old.  Well, except your friend here has moved in with us for Kamui reasons, as I believe you were discussing.”

               “Sounds about right.”

               “It’s been a while, Ryuko.  Not still mad at me, I hope?”  Shiro asked with a smile.

               “What?  Nah, I had a good long talk with our Nudist Beach boys about that, we’re cool.  You’re still insane though.  It’s just school’s been keeping me busy is all.”

               “Well, that’s all for the best then.  And how is it going, if I may ask?”

               “Alright, pretty fun actually, dunno why you guys dropped out.  Still don’t know what I’m gonna study or nothin’, but I’m not failing anything which is good.  I got a girlfriend too, so that’s cool.”

               “You got a girlfriend?”  Nonon cut in incredulously.

               “Now, now Nonon,” Houka began.

               “Nonon I don’t know what you even think that’s supposed to mean.”

               “Figure it out, or you can phone a friend if you really are that dumb,” Nonon pushed off the couch and hastened over to put her half-finished yogurt back in the fridge, “Well, I guess it’s time I got back too it.  The thought of you and some poor girl, well, I’ve lost my appetite.  Even if you are probably making her up.”

               “Hey, fuck you too!”  Ryuko shouted at Nonon’s back as she skipped off to the test chambers, “I’ve got pull, bitch!  I’ve got plenty of pull!”  Once she was gone Ryuko turned back to Houka and Shiro with a laugh, “Well, my closing remarks weren’t the best,  but I got in a few good ones here and there.”

               “Is this some kind of game then, between you two?”

               “Not at all!  Can’t show any weakness!”  Ryuko said.  Well, it kinda is like a game though, at least for me.  If Nonon really does hate my guts though, I definitely don’t make things any better.

               “Quite,” Houka said tersely, “Well, now that she’s out of the way, what brings you down here?”

               “I wanna try absorbing more life fibers,” Ryuko said simply.

               “Really?”  Houka and Shiro’s faces, by habit calm and composed, registered shock much less than most.  Ryuko could tell they hadn’t expected this though and wondered if their deadpan expressions were something that had rubbed off on them from Satsuki or just how they’d always been.

               “Well, yeah.  C’mon, I know you want to see what’ll happen.”

               “I think we’re just surprised by the sudden change in heart.  I mean, I am,” Shiro nodded in agreement.

               “Well, I’ve been thinking, if it does make my powers better, I might as well right?  After all, I do use ‘em pretty often.”

               “I see,” Houka had pulled out his phone and was quickly scrolling through something, “Well, I would like a chance to observe this phenomenon.  Shiro?”

               “Oh yes, definitely.  We want to make sure we’re making Saiban so it has the absorption capability, after all.  We can begin now, if you’re ready.”

 

               “So, do I just take the lid off or what?”  Ryuko said, leaping up onto the metal top of one of the life fiber storage pods, some fifteen feet off the ground.  Houka and Shiro looked up from the desk they’d pulled over, which they’d covered with computers and odd little scanner-antennae in a haphazard manner.

               “If you want, but you won’t be able to put it back on.  You should be able to absorb everything in here, though, so go for it.”

               “Really?  Er, how much of the stuff is in here?”

               “Oh, several thousand yards.”

               “Whereas you have, if our records from your last visit are accurate, somewhere over one million yards inside you,” Shiro added, “This container holds less than 1% of your current life fiber content.”

               “Okay, that can’t be right!  How do they all fit inside me then?”

               “They’re infinitely thin, remember?  In theory there should be no limit to how many a vessel such as yourself or a Kamui can hold.”

               “Oh yeah, you did say that, didn’t you,” Ryuko said, idling trying to find a good grip on the lid, which wasn’t easy because it was perfect dome, “So what, will this make me about 1% more powerful?”

               “Perhaps, perhaps not.  Power from life fibers doesn’t appear to be nearly that linear, but there’s only one way to find out.”

               “Right, you guys ready?”

               “One moment,” Houka said with an extended finger, his mouth hidden by the collar of his lab coat.  There was a video-gamey pinging noise from one of the sensors, and he gave a thumbs up. “Alright, you may begin.”

               Ryuko tightened her grip on the smooth metal of the pod’s plug.  Her fingers dug into the metal with a faint screeching noise.  She couldn’t see the life fibers inside her pod from this vantage point, but the drifting strands across the room looked calm and peaceful. The cool blue light that suffused the room might have had something to do with that, though.  Am I really gonna do this?  Yeah, fuck it, I guess I am.  Besides, these fibers will actually be less of a threat once I’ve absorbed them.  The lid slid up with a rubbery “thoop”, and Ryuko popped off the pod, grabbing the smooth surface of the glass rim and planting her soles on the side like a monkey, releasing the lid gently.  It slammed into the concrete floor with a loud gong noise as Ryuko hoisted herself back up.  The fibers recoiled like eels at the exposure to the open air, but they didn’t seem to mind Ryuko’s hand as it plunged in.  Shiro hadn’t been kidding when he said that the pale blue solution was electrified – dozens of tiny blue-white whips of electricity flicked off the surface and adhered to her arm, crawling across her skin as though she were a tesla coil.  Her hair stood on end and she felt a dull tingling racing across her body, but whatever pain it caused wasn’t strong enough to register to her.  She wrapped a fist around one of the larger cords; as expected, it compressed to less than nothing in her grasp, a mess of tendrils extended from her hand and drifted lazily.

               “Ok, here goes,” She pulled the end of the strand out of the water, held it up to her red streak, and… Nothing.  An uncomfortable pause passed as her face contorted in frustration and a faint growl passed through pursed lips.

               “Um,” Houka said, “It’s not working?”

               “Obviously,” Shiro gave him a gentle elbow in the ribs,  then turned back to Ryuko, “perhaps there’s some conscious method to it that you aren’t currently using, some manner of focusing on it?  Can you remember any difference between your current mindset and when you accidentally absorbed that one strand last time?”

               “Hmm, maybe, let’s see.  Well, I was pretty pissed at you guys then, but I’m kinda annoyed right now and I feel like getting angrier isn’t going to do it.”

               “Well, why don’t you try for a little longer.  There’s no rush, they won’t try to escape or anything.”

               “Alright,” Ryuko said, and turned her attention back to the life fibers.  They reminded her of a sea anemone, and she remembered what she’d heard about the fibers appearing to grow or shrink so that they stayed the same size no matter how near they were to one’s eyes.  She lifted the frayed end of the cord all the way up so that it was right in front of her eyes, intertwining with her red streak.  Still nothing.  Dammit, I guess this is a total bust.  What the hell, maybe this is a sign that it was a stupid idea.  Still, she kept staring at the fibers for a moment longer, admiring their strangeness.  Maybe the strangest part was how the individual strands that made up the cord funneled into her balled up fist, almost like liquid.  After maybe a minute, she felt something odd.  A faint breeze played across her thumb, right up by the end of the cord.  What the hell?  Is there like a loose thread tickling me or something?  She lifted her free hand to brush at it.  The moment it made contact with the tendrils, another much stronger feeling took over.  Cool, clear spring water poured in through her forehead.

               “Whoa!”  Shiro shouted, and Ryuko snapped open her eyes with a startled gasp.  When had she closed them?  More importantly, she hadn’t moved her other hand at all, and if she had she would’ve lost her gripped and fallen.  And more important even than that, the cord of life fibers had changed.  There was no longer any division between it and her red streak.  One continuous band flowed from the tank to her hairline, chugging along steadily, maybe an inch or two disappearing into her each second  “How did you do that?”  Ryuko dropped down from the pod and stood looking up at the fibers.  They folded along the rim of the glass, but kept on coming even when pulled flat like taffy.  The refreshing sensation lighting up Ryuko’s scalp didn’t stop either.  Every hair was vibrating in place, suffusing her with a sensation like a concentrated shot of caffeine.

               “Well, that was nuts.  But hey, I think you were right.  All I had to do was focus.”

               “You did more than that,” Houka said, “Nervous system scanners indicate that you briefly entered some sort of meditative state that allowed you to interact with the fibers.”

               “Sure, I guess.  Call it what you want, but it was pretty fucking weird,” Ryuko said casually.  Inwardly, however, she was still reeling.  Slipping into that state had been too easy, too relaxing, too out of her conscious control.  It didn’t sit right.  Should’ve known the things would try and hypnotize me.  I feel like I’m back to normal now, but what if I’m not?

               “Would it be possible for you to describe the experience?”  Shiro asked, notebook in hand.  Ryuko did her best to tell it exactly as she remembered, but the “third hand” feeling stopped her up a bit.  It was hard to describe how exactly it had worked, especially when she didn’t remember it correctly herself.  It did feel familiar to what had happened when she absorbed that one life fiber, as well as when she’d absorbed all the life fibers from the Honoujji Defcon System, but she’d been sure she’d be using her real hand.  At least, she was sure she’d been trying to use it.  Obviously, she had some kind of incorporeal ability to interact with the life fibers, but how had she activated it?  She had no idea, and when she told Houka and Shiro as much they scrunched up their faces.

               “Well, there’s one way to find out: do it again.  See if you can disconnect yourself and then reconnect, or speed up absorbing this pod and we can get you another,”  Houka suggested.

               “Alright, I’ll give it a shot, but I don’t know how to do that.  Oh, and that’s another thing, I don’t know how to make it go faster either.”

               “Well, I suggest you figure it out, because at your current rate you’ll be here until at least nine o’clock before it’s all gone.”

               “Wha-are you serious?”  Ryuko sputtered, but she knew he was right.  It was easy to see that the rate wasn’t remotely fast enough compared to how many life fibers were left floating in their solution.  But she could figure out a way, she was sure.  She’d absorbed way more from the Honoujji Defcon System in just an instant, but then the adrenaline from fighting it probably had something to do with that. “Well, I guess I’d better figure something out, because I’ve gotta get back downtown by five.”

               The next half hour or so consisted of Ryuko attempting to replicate her prior feats of absorption.  The first thing that she had to master was making the incorporeal “third hand” come back.  This took her a while to figure out since it seemed to come most easily when she wasn’t looking for it.  The first time she felt it while in a totally normal state of consciousness was actually in the middle of a conversation about college; it slipped away then, but the next time it came back she cut herself off mid-sentence and quickly slashed a hand through the fibers flowing into her hair.  The invisible karate chop cleanly intersected them, and those left on her side quickly swam up through her hair and out of sight.  Shiro and Houka scribbled down notes as the cord seemingly severed itself.   After that it wasn’t nearly as difficult to figure out how to replicate the feat, reattaching and severing the cord multiple times so that the scanners could get a good reading on it.  Who knew what they were doing, but her scientist friends seemed very excited at the results that were pouring in through the monitor.

               “Alright, this is getting better,” Ryuko said when she tried grabbing the life fibers and found that she could, dragging them around through the air in experimental loops, eyes wide open.  She still couldn’t figure out how to control it without picturing herself using her real arm, so for the moment her left arm hung limp and numb at her side.  But then, if this was going so well maybe that would get better with practice.  She even allowed herself a satisfied chuckle, noticing that while she did feel quite lightheaded, she didn’t seem to be seeing anything that wasn’t really happening.  “Damn, am I good at this or what?  Er, guys?”

               “Without any further data there’s no way to tell if you are refining this ability at an prodigal rate or a completely average one,” Shiro said without looking up from his screens.

               “Something fun going on over here?”  Ryuko said, walking over to look along with them, fibers trailing after her.   But there was no way she was going to get anything out of the impenetrable wall of data scrolling across the computers, a monochromatic jumble of numbers with no labels and no clear pattern. “Oh, nevermind.”

               “This one is showing the changes in your hair’s structure, to see what the life fiber absorption looks like on a molecular level.  Well, not exactly molecular, they don’t have molecules, but you get the idea.  Very small.  And this monitor is showing a number of different readings about the life fibers themselves.  We’re testing a hypothesis that the individual fibers have a sort of attraction to being absorbed, as if they want to be integrated into a larger consciousness,”  Houka explained

               “Oh yeah, that sort of make sense.  It feels like that might be true, actually.”

               “If we can prove it, that would go a long way to figuring out what life fibers are:  if they’re like single cells with no self-awareness until you put them together in the right arrangement, or if each individual one is capable of thought on some level.”

               “I always assumed they were able to think.  I mean, I kinda thought there was some kinda ‘hive-mind’ bullshit going on.”

               “I see,” Shiro started scribbling down notes, “Do you have any specific examples of this?”  He looked up very seriously, clearly expecting a detailed analysis.

               “I dunno, geez, look how ‘bout this if I think of anything, I’ll let you know.”

               “Alright.  In that case though can you please return to your place, so the scanners can see you.”

               “Y’know, I was wondering about something else,”  Ryuko said as she complied, “You said before that there was no limit to what I could absorb.  But then Senketsu, well, when he died… I think he said that Shinra Koketsu was too much for him.  So – a-and I know you weren’t there, and all that – but what do you make of that?”

               “Well, I -,”

               “- And I’m not just saying this for the shoulda-woulda-coulda or whatever, ok?  You want the new Kamui to absorb life-fibers, so you can power it up, and it would suck if you accidentally killed it by going too far.”

               “Well, I’m going to stand by what I said before,” Shiro continued, “More likely it’s something specific to the unique powers that Kamui had, maybe Senketsu didn’t have any way to contain the energy from the ‘Absolute Domination’ power.”

               “Remember when I tried to collect data on Shinra Koketsu?” Houka addressed Shiro, who responded with a nod, “It shorted out my Goku Uniform right out.  That thing was definitely not normal.”

               “No, and we won’t be trying to make another, no use for it.  And even if it wasn’t that, Shinra Koketsu had an absurd amount of life fibers – more than a billion, enough to go from the earth to the moon and back if you stretched it all the way out.  I don’t think we’ll ever try using that much ever again – in fact that’s more than -,”

               “-Oh, got it!”  Ryuko interrupted him suddenly, and with one of those odd keening, wind-whipping noises that they sometimes made all the life fibers left in the pod suddenly pulsed brilliant crimson and mobilized.  Whipping like flames, the writhed all throughout Ryuko’s hair, bathing her face in a glittering veil.  And, as quickly as they’d sprung up, they were gone, siphoned off into Ryuko.  She let out a ticklish giggle as the boys scrolled across their data furiously.

               “I don’t understand it, you clearly figured it out, but there was no significant change in any of the readings.  What did you do?”  Shiro asked.

               “Well, it’s funny,” Ryuko chuckled, face flush as though she’d been running, “All I did was imagine a fishing rod instead of a hand, and I could just… reel ‘em in, I guess.”

               “That’s… Ok, sure.  And how do you feel now?”

               “Great,” Ryuko said emphatically.  Moving her left arm for the first time in minutes, she felt a sensation like firecrackers soaring through its muscles, dispelling the pins-and-needles and leaving behind a limbered relaxation.  And a coiled spring tension that rippled throughout her body.  Without a word of warning she sprung off the floor in a blur of motion, zipping up to the ceiling where she turned and kicked back off, landing on the ground with a grin.  She was still in complete control.  All doubts were dispelled, so long as she didn’t hit whatever upper limit might exist, she was certain there wasn’t any danger.  But… her face fell as she realized: “Eh, it doesn’t feel much different than before.  One percent isn’t enough to make a meaningful difference, I guess.”

               “Well, we do have more,” Houka said with a sly smile.  Ryuko was usually such a recalcitrant test subject, it was nice to see her enthusiastic for a change.

               “You read my mind.”

 

               “Homey,” Ryuko snarked as she strolled out onto the floor of the test chamber that Nonon had set up as a makeshift gym.  Aside from all the exercise equipment scattered around and a simple fighting ring constructed from smooth wooden floor panels and racks of wooden practice weapons, it was an exact replica of the stark chamber where Ryuko had been experimented on last time she’d visited.  Amazing, there’s five of them basically living here now, they could buy whatever they want to spruce things up, and the place still looks like a fuckin jail.  She shouted that thought over to Nonon but got no response.  Between the pounding of the treadmill and electronic music so loud it bled out through her headphones, she didn’t even notice that Ryuko had come in until she stepped up in front of the treadmill, tracing a lazy finger along the controls.  Nonon’s eyes went wide as she pressed the “speed up” button with a mischievous smirk.

               “No no no,” Nonon muttered urgently, hurrying to mash the “slow down” button in response, “No no no no no GODDAMMIT!”  She threw her hands up and leapt off the treadmill, getting up in Ryuko’s face, “The fuck is your problem!”

               “What?”  Ryuko threw up her hands as if she didn’t know what Nonon was talking about, but her teasing smile said otherwise, “I thought you said I should drop by and we’d settle things the old-fashioned way?  Or were you not serious about that?”

               “Hah! I thought you weren’t serious about that.  Eh what the hell, I’m warmed up, I’ll school your ass right now.  Get ready.”

               “I am,” Ryuko shouted from the fighting ring, already holding a bamboo shinai.  The moment Nonon agreed to fight Ryuko had dashed over faster than the human eye could process, plenty fast enough to produce a rush of wind that nearly knocked Nonon’s headphones off her head altogether.  It had the intended effect, Nonon looked terrified. “You coming?”

               “ ‘You coming?’ Yeah yeah, you think you’re so cool, don’t you?” Nonon snarked as she walked over to the weapon rack, looking like she expected Ryuko to jump on her the moment she turned her back, “Er, you are gonna keep yourself down to human levels, right?”

               “Mostly human, yeah, otherwise what’s the point?”  Ryuko said as Nonon chose a weapon, “Quarterstaff, huh?  Kinda like your marching stick.”

               “You mean baton, you dunce?  You sure you’re holding your sword the right way?”

               “Holy shit that thing’s taller than you!”  Ryuko exclaimed with a burst of laughter.  That was probably normal for a quarterstaff, actually, but Nonon seemed annoyed by it anyway.  With a huff, she took her place across from Ryuko, “Well, you ready to go?”

               “You know it,” Nonon said, but she barely managed to block Ryuko’s first overhead swing as she hurtled towards her.  From that point on they were in full motion.  Nonon danced around on spritely little feet, dodging Ryuko’s slices with exaggerated, dancelike motions.  She was definitely better with the quarterstaff than Tsumugu was, twirling it around and throwing in attacks with both ends in quick succession.  Ryuko might have even left her a few openings with her reaction speed down to human levels, if it weren’t for what she’d learned with Tsumugu.  Only once she’d actually tried fighting without her hybrid advantage did she realize she’d been relying on her speed and strength to make up for a fighting style that mostly consisted of swinging in wide, brutal arcs with no regard for anything but battering her opponent.  That must’ve been why she never even came close to beating Satsuki.  But now the Shinai was loose in her hand, moving only as much at it needed to.  If she had been frustrated when Tsumugu first instructed her to hold back, now it was all paying off as she met Nonon’s dancing quarterstaff strike for graceful strike.  But as many times as their weapons met, neither managed to land a hit for ten minutes before they skidded apart.  Nonon’s skin was beaded with sweat by now, having played defense for most of their fight, but there was a grim sort of smile on her face.  She had come very close to hitting Ryuko.  Ryuko too was smiling despite herself.

               “You have gotten better,” Nonon said as she resumed her ready position.

               “You’re no slouch either,” Ryuko replied.

               “Thanks.  Ready for round two?”

               “Lemme just grab a new Shinai,”  Ryuko said, pointing to the noticeable dent forming in the middle of hers,  Nonon nodded, but when Ryuko came back she’d instead was instead carrying a bokken: a slightly curved wooden weapon more along the lines of what she was comfortable with.  She like the way the opponent’s weapon could slide off it at the right angle, leaving them wide open.

               “Hey, dontcha think that’s a little too heavy?”

               “You’re using a quarterstaff.”

               “Yeah well you won’t get hurt by it.”

               “Well neither will you if you don’t get hit.”

               “You’re fucking impossible.  If you break my ribs and put me out of commission Satsuki’s gonna tear you a new one.”

               “You think?”

               “Duh, I’m her top investment right now.  You must understand that my being ready for my Kamui is the number one priority now, right?”

               “Is it?” An idea was forming in Ryuko’s head, “Well if that’s the case this is all wrong.”

               “Uh,” Nonon looked around, “What do you mean?”

               “Take off your clothes.”

               “W-what?  Argh, what the fuck is wrong with you!”  Nonon’s face contorted with sudden fury and she instinctively threw an arm over he chest.  Ryuko resisted the urge to laugh and stared at her unflinchingly.

               “You wanna learn how to wear a Kamui properly?  This is important.”

               “Yeah right!”

               “Seriously?  After everything we went through you still aren’t comfortable with nudity?”

               “Not around you, ya pervert!”  Nonon shouted with a waving fist, “I’m not giving you anything to fuckin’ ogle.”

               “Oh right, like you’ve got anything to see.  I dated Mako, y’know, Mako?”  She waved across her chest to indicate the disparity in curvaceousness.

               “Fuck you.”

               “Ah geez, alright look I’ll do it too,” Ryuko put down the bokken and started tugging off her t-shirt, despite protests from Nonon, “Remember how embarrassed I was when I first put on Senketsu?  If you think it’s gonna be any better for you you’re mistaken, unless you can prove you’re comfortable getting naked.”

               “And why’s that?”

               “I really gotta lay it all out for you?  C’mon you were there.”

               “Yeah, you do, if you’re asking me to undress in front of you.”

               “Alright, fine,”  Ryuko said with a huffy sigh as she continued to undress, “Look, I can’t prepare you for what it’s like to have a Kamui in your head, but I can prepare you for what it’s like to have one on your body.  When you synchronize with a Kamui, you are naked, it is your skin.  Unless you can see it that way, you’ll never be able to draw even half of its full power out.  It’s totally different from a goku uniform.  So, take your clothes off.”

               “Seriously?  Alright fine, fine I’ll do it,” Nonon said, and finally caved and began removing her exercise outfit.  Ryuko couldn’t help but laugh inwardly at how much of a fight she’d put up, despite already wearing such form fitting clothing.  But at the same time, she couldn’t help but notice that she did show significant improvement in muscle tone from back at Honoujji, especially in the abs and thighs.  Lotta core strength for such a tiny girl.  Makes sense she moves around so much while fighting.  Maybe she is taking this seriously, after all.

               “Underwear too.  You don’t get to keep that when you transform,” Nonon swore under her breath, but complied.  In short order they were both fully nude and ready, although Ryuko could see the goosebumps on Nonon’s skin, the tension in her shoulders.  “Now I’ll show you a thing or two about wearing a Kamui.”

               Ryuko began the second round with the same furious full-frontal assault as last time, and they were off again.  Nonon held her own but was still on defense, backpedaling and scooting around Ryuko, hands trembling each time she blocked Ryuko’s bokken – a much heavier weapon than the shinai.  Ryuko pressed her advantage; Nonon was good enough that she didn’t deserve a handicap, and sooner or later there would be an opening.  Nonon was starting to get less creative with her dodges, and reusing the same moves made her predictable.  Ryuko noticed that she wasn’t using one of her better tricks – dropping flat on her back and essentially breakdancing back to standing to avoid a mid-body slice – clearly because the move would’ve been too racy without any underwear.  That was a disadvantage Ryuko could capitalize on.  Next time, when Nonon scooted backwards in response to a slice Ryuko followed it up with a brutal jab-kick to the gut that send her sprawling with a pained yelp.

               “Ahh,” She groaned as she sucked air back into her lungs, “What the hell!”

               “That loosen you up?”

               “The fuck are you talking about!”

               “I’m sure the first thing Tsumugu told you when you started training with him was that you’ve gotta stay loose in a fight, right?  Right?”

               “Duh.  That’s martial arts 101.”

               “Well, your shoulders are in your ears,” Ryuko yanked her own shoulders up in demonstration, “Am I really that intimidating?”

               “It’s cold in here.”

               “Get used to it.  Let’s go again.”

               “Fuck you,” Nonon blurted, eyes burning.  How fucking humiliating, but what had she expected?  She didn’t stand a chance against an inhuman living weapon.  Ryuko’d played her like a chump, and now her abdomen was cramping with the pain of her admonishment.  When she looked up, she expected to see Ryuko taking a photo to document the moment, or at least laughing.  Instead, she was stalking forwards with her sword arm tucked behind her back penseively.

               “Hey, get up.”

               “You can go, okay? You’ve made your point.”  A vice grip settled on her chin, hoisting her to her feet despite every effort on her part to go completely limp.  She thought her jaw might break as Ryuko lifted her face-to-face, so close that Nonon could see little sparkles of red light in her hair, feel her breath, hot as a furnace but totally steady.  She hadn’t even broken a sweat.

               “You gonna cry?”  Ryuko growled, “You plan on acting like this every time you get licked?  Consider this your second lesson:  Get the fuck back up.”  She set Nonon down but got no response as she was both massaging her jaw and gaping at the sudden change that had come over Ryuko.  “You know how many fights I won when I wore Senketsu that started off well for me? Maybe two.  That’s what you signed up for; you’re gonna get your ass handed to you.  Hell, I never even beat Satsuki, or Ragyo, or even Uzu in a fair and square fight.  There’ll always be someone stronger and faster than you, even if it’s just me.  So this shit’s not gonna fly, got that?”  For once, Nonon didn’t have a retort ready.  She just squared up, quarterstaff at the ready.  “That’s more like it.”

               The next round went much better.  Ryuko wasn’t sure if what she’d said enraged Nonon or inspired her, but all the tension cleared up and her gracefulness was back in full force.  She even managed to make Ryuko backpedal a couple times, and when she did the grim smile came back.  Finally, after maybe another fifteen minutes or so of furious dueling, Nonon finally managed to land a hit: a fearsome blow right across Ryuko’s knuckles.

               “Cheap shot,” Ryuko said with a chuckle as they parted, “nice.”

               “You’re just saying that cuz it didn’t hurt,” Nonon replied, smile now fixed on her face.  She couldn’t admit it, but she was having fun even despite her recent admonishment.  Her training with Tsumugu was usually centered on teaching her new techniques, it wasn’t that often that she got to just duel with no rules or restrictions.  How did I forget how fun this is?  Ryuko was right, I was being soft before.  Not next time, though.  “That would’ve cracked a human’s knuckles clean open.”

               “Then you’re lucky I’m fighting fair today.  But by all means, cheat as much as you want.  No rules in a real fight.”

               The fourth round was even better.  With due permission to cheat, the first thing Nonon had tried to do was mash Ryuko’s foot into the floorboards, but Ryuko was too fast and she got her bokken down in time to aim a crushing blow at Nonon’s shin.  Nonon managed to deflect that, and, with a lack of modesty that completely disarmed Ryuko, she pivoted directly into Ryuko and threw her elbow backwards into Ryuko’s gut.  That connected with a thud that nearly knocked Ryuko off her feet; the moment she felt Nonon’s bare ass on her thigh she was too mortified to mount any defense.  Despite herself, she had to laugh as they separated.

               “That shit wouldn’t’ve work half as well if I weren’t gay.”

               “Uh, duh, that’s why I did it.”

               “Try that on a guy and you’ll have him beat before your elbow even connects.”

               “Really?”  Nonon shot back slyly, “You looked pretty beat yourself.”

               “Hey, don’t harass me, troll doll, I got plenty of ammo to shoot back.”

               “Back to this huh?  And I thought we were finally playing nice.”

               “Hey Snake!  Did Ryuko leave yet or… Er, what the hell?”  Houka trailed off as he opened the door into the test chamber.

               “It’s Kamui training!”  Nonon shouted reflexively, face coloring beet red.

               “You wouldn’t get it,”  Ryuko, on the other hand, was not just unfazed but deeply entertained by the slack-jawed confusion evident on Houka’s face and in the half-moons of his eyes that were visible above his glasses.

               “Evidently not.  Whose idea even was this?”

               “Ryuko’s.  Apparently, this is supposed to make me better at synchronizing with my Kamui.”

               “Hmm, and is it working?”

               “It will,”  Ryuko said, “I’m showing her what I wish I knew before I put on Senketsu.  Well, not everything cuz that’d be a longass list, but the stuff about Kamuis, y’know.”

               “I see.  Well, don’t let me stop you,”  Houka pulled out a notebook and started writing something down.  He didn’t seem to have anything more to say so Ryuko and Nonon got back to work.  They didn’t notice when the door opened again a few minutes later.

               “What on Earth is going on in here?”  It was Shiro this time, and by all evidence he was just as stunned as Houka had been.

               “Some new training idea that Ryuko came up with.  Seems that fighting naked simulates the experience of wearing a Kamui.”

               “How interesting.  I’ll get some popcorn.”

               “Dinner and a show, eh?  You sure know how to treat me.”

               “I swear to god, if this is all you have for dinner again, I’ll hide your motherboard until you eat.”

              

               Somewhere in their eighth round or so, Ryuko was suddenly distracted by the vibration of her phone.  Nonon hadn’t noticed it, and Ryuko wouldn’t expect her to, considering it was all the way across the ring in the disheveled heap of her clothes.  So she disarmed her with a dainty super-strength tap that sent the quarterstaff flying at just the right angle sail out of her hands harmlessly.

               “Sorry, I gotta take this.”

               “Wha – how the hell do you have cell reception down here?”

               “I’m on the wifi, duh.”

               “Why did you let her on the wifi?”  Nonon rounded on the boys accusingly, and they looked up from their laptops with a shared shrug.

               “She was persistent,”  Houka said.

               “And very bored,” Shiro added.

               “And relax, I installed our cybersecurity software, see?”  He turned his laptop around to show a display of all the internet activity going on in Ryuko’s phone, “Nobody is monitoring this call.”

               “Hey Mataro, what’s up?”  Ryuko asked, trying to ignore all the chatter in the room.

               “Whatever you do, don’t mention the Kamui!”  Houka shouted casually.  Stunned silence echoed from the other side of the phone.

               “Houka what the fuck.”  Nonon looked like she didn’t even know how to process that slip-up.

               “Way to go,” Shiro added.

               “Oh shit, shit.  Here, look see?  The call’s totally secure, it’s just Mataro.  And at this time of day he’s probably home from school, and the Mankanshoku’s apartment is under surveillance at all times,”  Houka blurted all that out urgently.

               “Yeah, but he still heard that,” Nonon’s shrill voice cut through the air even more than usual.

               “I’m just saying it could have been a lot worse!”  At this point, Ryuko leapt across the room to stand in the corner by a rack of weights, where the argument wouldn’t distract her as much.

               “Hehe, ahhh, not much, what’s up with you?”  Mataro finally asked.

               “Oh, y’know.  Busy week, had a big project to turn in for my art class.  It turned out like shit, but I think it’s good enough for class.”

               “Well, don’t show it to Mom, or else she’ll want to keep it.”

               “Hey man she can have it, I sure don’t want it.  I was just gonna give it to a friend to sell online like I did last time.”

               “No shit.  That net big bucks?”

               “Oh yeah, I paid for the dude’s college.  Fuckin’ weirdo religious types bought it though, of course.”

               “A new ‘holy relic’, eh?”

               “I guess…”

               “Well, look at it this way, it’s gotta be a funny scene, all them bowing down to a half-assed watercolor of a lamp or some shit.”

               “Pfft, yeah no kidding.”  In actuality, that picture had been a very detailed pen and ink portrait of Mako.  With her senses and extraordinary precision, drawing was something Ryuko could do very well, even if the artistic sensibility was developing a bit slower.  She’d really tried to bring out that special quality in Mako that made her feel so, well, alive was probably the right word.  However, although it looked exactly like her, Ryuko still thought it felt too inanimate.  It was enough to net her an A+, though.

               “Beats some fat old priest’s toe bone or whatever, anyway.  Hey, um, change the subject, I wanted to ask you something.”

               “Sure thing, ask away bro.”

               “Well, it’s about the party you and Satsuki are throwing at her place in Tokyo.  I was wondering if I could bring a guest.”

               “Ah geez dude, I’m really sorry but I don’t think this the right place for your pals.  It’s gonna be like semi-classy, cuz it’s Uzu’s return party.  It’s not that I don’t like ‘em, but I doubt they’d clean up well enough.”

               “No no no, not them,” Mataro said, then got a little quieter in a conspiratorial way, “A girl.”

               “Oho, why didn’t you say so?”  Ryuko’s tone changed entirely and a grin broke out across her face. “Yeah dude, of course.”

               “Oh, okay cool,” He chuckled with relief, “Thank you.  She’s dying to meet you y’know.”

               “Well, I hope I don’t disappoint,”  At this point Ryuko checked the time for the first time that afternoon. 4:05.  She could make it back to central Tokyo in time if she beat the traffic.  “So, you got anything else?  I kinda gotta get going right now, but you can always call me later.”

               “Nah, you’re good.  See ya later, sis.”

               “Bye bro, luv ya.”

               “Same.”

               “Alright, I’m back,”  Ryuko announced as she landed back in the ring, “But I do have to go now.”

               “About time, we’ve got to get started on dinner around here,”  Nonon said in reply.  Apparently, they’d gotten done berating Houka - he sat there hunched into his laptop, looking much chastened.  Ryuko didn’t get it, as far as she understood Houka was the one who made up all their security rules in the first place.  If he wanted to break them that was up to him, he knew the risks.

               “Before I go, I’ve got one more quick thing to show you, Nonon.”

               “Uh, alright,”  Nonon grabbed her quarterstaff and squared up.  Before she even knew what was happening, Ryuko was behind her, the tip of her bokken lightly pressed between Nonon’s shoulder blades.  Houka and Shiro watched with nonchalant expressions as, despite her best, red faced efforts, Nonon was completely flattened to the ground.

               “This is your final lesson for the day:  This is just a tiny taste of my true strength.  If you had Saiban, maybe you’d stand a chance.  Maybe.  Think on that.”

               “Let me up you brute!”  Nonon grunted, her voice distorted as her cheek was pressed into the floorboard.  Ryuko complied with a laugh.  Only a minute after that she was departing, changing back into her clothes and making sure to wring a promise out of each of them that they would come to her party.  When she was up the stairs and Nonon had clothed herself, she set off after her.

               “Hey wait!”  She called when she spotted Ryuko in the hall.  Ryuko tilted her head at her quizzically. “I, uh, I wanted to thank you,” She said hesitantly, “You - I think you were more helpful than I expected.”

               “Don’t worry about it.  Besides, I’m not doing it for your sake, think of it as a favor to Satsuki, alright?”

               “Oh, alright then.”

               “But what you said before is right.  It’s too important that you be a good Kamui wearer.  A lot of people are counting on you, so you’d better think about what I said.”

               “Sure thing,”  Nonon said as Ryuko departed for good, and she meant it.  That hadn’t been just a demonstration of Ryuko’s hybrid powers. It was a challenge.  Now I know what I’m training for.  Satsuki had told her that ideally, she would just be a weapon of intimidation.  Maybe there would be REVOCs people with goku uniforms or even Kamui that she would have to bring to justice, but maybe not.  This was concrete, though.  When I can defeat Ryuko at the full extent of her power, that’s when I’ll know.  That’s when my training will be complete.

Chapter Text

               “Yo, Troll doll!  Short stuff!  Pint sized!... Ugh, Nonon?”  Ryuko called over from the poolside, where she dangled her feet into the water.

               “What is it, Matoi?”  Nonon responded, smiling smugly when Ryuko was forced to use her name.

               “C’mere,” She unwrapped her arm from Haruka’s slender shoulders and gestured with a demanding finger.  Meanwhile, she took a swig from the glass of gin in her other hand, not even looking at Nonon, who put her hands on her hips defiantly.

               “What?  Why?”

               “C’mere,”  Ryuko insisted, a little louder this time in case Nonon hadn’t heard over the pounding music.  Nonon groaned and complied, and as she walked over with a nervous eye to Mako and Ira splashing around in the pool. Ryuko smiled a tipsy little smile.  “I wanted ta assk you somethin’”

               “Oh geez, what could it be?”

               “Oh ummm – first – Nonon, meet Haruka Naganohara, my girlfriend.  So you see, sshe is real after all.”

               “Yeah, hey it’s nice to meet you, I’m -,”

               “- And this is Nonon Jakuzure, Haruka.  She makes music or something, you’ve been on her website, y’know, Regalia Music?”

               “Wait, you’re Regalia?  Holy shit!  I love your music!” Haruka beamed up at her with a giddy laugh.  She’d been bubbling since Ryuko had first introduced her to Satsuki when the party was just getting started, and everybody was a movie star to her now, even people Ryuko just thought of as part of the gang like Fukuroda and Hakodate.  As for meeting an actual famous musician, well, Ryuko could swear she could actually see her head spinning.  Even if it was thanks to Nonon, Ryuko was glad she could provoke such joy in Haruka.  She was filled with a new type of affection for her family of weirdos, seeing them through different eyes.

               “Aw, thanks!  That’s why I do it, y’know.  And no, Ryuko, this doesn’t mean you get to have good taste by proxy.”

               “You look tense, gurl,” Ryuko proferred her glass to Nonon, “Have a drink.”

               “Ew, I’ll keep my lips far from your spittle, thanks.”

               “Fine, I have the bottle right here,” Ryuko grabbed it for her.  It was far from swill, a very expensive brand.

               “You’re just drinking this shit straight?”

               “Of course,” Since Ryuko had gotten better at controlling her resistance to drugs, she had begun drinking liquor exclusively.  There was no risk of overdrinking, and if she overcompensated and got fully sober, she could quickly get back to the level she wanted, “C’mon princess, it won’t kill ya.”

               “You absolute barbarian,” Nonon said, but she took a quick pull anyway, sputtering as it stung her throat. “Nah, I’m mostly just worried about getting in the crossfire from these goofballs splashing around in the pool,” She gestured to Mako, who was scrambling up Ira’s brawny shoulders and jumping off directly onto Mataro and his date.  The ensuing splash fight was really not to the taste of Nonon’s and Satsuki’s high-class guests who were clustered around the pool in staid conversation, but a couple of Mako’s friends from college quickly piled in.  Ira had been staunchly opposed to the whole thing on the premise that it wasn’t safe without a lifeguard, but of course Mako had solution for that:  he could be the lifeguard!  Somehow that made it all ok.

               “Yeah, you’re dressed pretty cute today, ain’tcha?”  Ryuko asked, and Nonon colored up.  It was true though, she had spent an unjustifiably long time pulling together her current outfit: a thin, form fitting silk blouse with sheer, lacy sleeves, complemented by a short black pencil skirt with barely visible floral patterns embroidered with a slightly glossier black fabric.  She looked every bit the sophisticated business-lady, especially with her earrings made of real pearls.  Nonon wondered if Ryuko had any idea whose benefit it was for.  She hoped not.

               “Do you have something to ask me, Ryuko?”  She asked sweetly, then suddenly turned her voice sour, “Because I was on my way to help Satsuki, y’know.”

               “She told me a funny thing once, Satsuki did.  She said all this,” Ryuko flicked a hand into Nonon’s hair before she could pull back, “Was natural color.  Like, you’re some kinda weirdass albino or somethin’.  So that’s my question, is it true, I mean?”

               “What?  Yeah, of course it is!”

               “Seriously?  You’re not pullin’ my leg?  Cuz I was sure –,”

               “Pink eyes, fucker!”  Haruka suddenly looked horrified when Nonon swore in Ryuko’s face – you didn’t just call the great Ryuko Matoi a “fucker” – but before she could say anything, she saw Ryuko grin through it and realized that this was their normal form of interaction. “You ever seen someone with pink eyes before?”

               “Those aren’t contacts?”

               “It’s called hypomelanism, and yes it’s a real thing.  Yes, I really do have naturally pink eyes.”

               “You hear that?”  Ryuko chuckled, giving Haruka a light elbow in the ribs, “Nonon’s got pinkeye!”  Haruka burst out laughing despite herself, and quickly put a hand over her mouth to in a vain effort to hide it from Nonon.

               “I’ve had just about enough of this,”  Nonon said as she turned to go.

               “W-wait, can I see?” Haruka asked, and Nonon complied with a shrug, leaning in quite close until her face was practically in Haruka’s hands.  Those tired-looking eyes stared into hers with an excited, energetic curiosity.  Nonon saw them dip down into her blouse – just once, very, very briefly – but they were mostly transfixed studying the pale, rosy details of Nonon’s irises.  Remarkable restraint compared to some people I can think of.  “Wooow, that’s so pretty!”  Haruka gushed with a sweet smile.  Nonon’s tongue stumbled on her thank-you, it wasn’t every day someone complemented her on her disorder.

               “No, don’t,” Ryuko muttered, “Don’t give her that.”  Haruka frowned at Ryuko in feigned disapproval and giggled lightly, but still ran a hand through the ends of Nonon’s hair until she stepped back.  The last thing I need right now is Ryuko’s girlfriend coming on to me, or even seeming to. “Ah shit, looks like I’m gonna have to come up with something new instead of Troll Doll now,” Ryuko continued.

               “Honestly, I’m surprised you’d concede that.”

               “Well, I can’t go around making fun of you for something you have no control over, can I?”

               “What?  You make fun of my height all the time!”

               “And you didn’t drink your milk when you were a lil’ kiddie.  That’ss your choice.”  Even from sitting down, Ryuko still managed to reach up and rustle the hair on top of Nonon’s head.  She scoffed and quickly waved out of the way so Ryuko couldn’t ruin her hairdo any further.

               “Alright, alright!  Geez, I think I’d rather you call me Troll Doll, at least it’s a little more creative than just going after my height for the millionth time.”

               “But that’s also about your height too.”

               “No, it’s obviously about the hair!”

               “Well, Troll Dolls are tiny little things, ain’t they?”

               “Oh my fucking god!  I’m leaving now.”  Nonon began to storm off, but turned back before she was too far away, “It was nice to meet you Haruka.  I hope you’re a good influence on this one, for both our sakes.”

               “Oh, it was very nice to meet you too Lady Jakuzure!  A real honor!”

               “Call me Nonon, please,” Nonon said as she faded off into the crowd with a smile.  Oh, I am definitely gonna be good friends with her.  That’ll really piss Ryuko off.  And she seems nice enough too.  Nonon was so tickled by that devious idea that for a few minutes she completely forgot the reason behind the whole party.

 

               This steam is gonna be murder on my hair, Satsuki thought, pulling yet another tray of dumplings out of the industrial-sized steamer the penthouse’s kitchen came equipped with.  It was being put to good use today – the dumplings were going fast.  That was no surprise, it was Sukoyo’s recipe after all, and though it was just good homey food when coupled with a little garnish and some cute bowls of dipping sauces it looked like gourmet.  She had no time to start moving the finished product onto platters, though.  A ding from an oven on the other side of the table told her a row of kebabs needed to be turned over, and then it was over to check on one of the chef’s assistants who was pulling a large box of various meats from the walk-in freezer.  Apparently, all was well there, so Satsuki sent him on his way with a breezy wave of her hand.

She had tried to convince the penthouse’s live-in chef to take the evening off, but the cheery, grandmotherly lady insisted that she go all-out for the first real party to be held there.  Eventually, Satsuki had managed to talk her down to just handling the dinner, while Satsuki saw to the appetizers and Sukoyo took care of desserts.  What that really meant was that Satsuki wasn’t supposed to actually do anything but oversee; there about twenty assiduous young assistants and apprentices on the kitchen staff who could handle the grunt work.  But she got impatient, and rather than be snappy she decided to take care of it herself.  Satsuki Kiryuin could follow a simple recipe, right?  So far, the guests were saying it all tasted great.  That’s what they were saying, at least, but who really knew?

               “Wow, you’re sure cooking up a storm in here, huh?”  Nonon asked as she wandered into the kitched, with a gesture to the various platters that completely covered the tabletop.  The dumpling trays Satsuki had just finished with were the final piece; between shrimp cocktails and puff pastries and some kind of Italian thing with meat, cheese, and bread there really was no room left.

               “Well, we’ve got what, almost a hundred guests out there?  That takes a fair amount of food,”  Satsuki kept working as they talked, handing off platters to the waiters and waitresses that trickled through, exchanging empty ones

               “Still, their appetites’ll be spoiled before we even get to dinner.”

               “I doubt that.  We won’t be having dinner until our guest of honor arrives, and I have assurances that he will be fashionably late.”

               “Of course,” Nonon groaned, pretending not to notice Satsuki raising her eyebrows.  She plucked a little pastry off the nearest plate and sampled it, but her face immediately scrunched up the moment she bit into it, “Eeuch!  What the hell Satsuki this is like all lemon!”

               “Those are for Ryuko.”

               “Seriously, she actually like these?  Fuckin’ weirdo,” Nonon dropped the rest of her ill-received pastry into the trash can with a scoff.

               “Her digestion works differently from ours, it’s only natural that her tastes would be different as well.”

               “Ugh, well at least you didn’t make too many of ‘em.  Speaking of which, when are you gonna be done in here?”

               “Eventually.”

               “Well, why don’t you c’mon out with me?  It’s no party without the lady of the house, y’know.”

               “They have Ryuko, don’t they?”

               “All she’s doing is getting drunk by the pool; trust me she’s no good for the job.  C’mon, lots of people to meet – some scientist friends of the boys just turned up, there’s a bunch of Mako and Ira’s friends who are pretty nice, - oh – and I just met Ryuko’s girlfriend, she seems very nice.”

               “We’ve already been introduced,” Satsuki said curtly

               “Well, what about those fellows from Australia you invited, the diplomats, I don’t think they’ve been shown around yet.”

               “Nonon, you’re in the way.  Please, either do something helpful or move,” Satsuki shooed her away from the oven with an angry hand wave and began pulling the kebabs out, depositing them on a fresh platter.

               “Alright, alright, fine.  Geez, what’s gotten into you tonight?”

               “Nothing.  I’m just overworked here.”

               “Nah, something’s pissed you off.”

               “I said I’m fine!”  Satsuki snapped, “Shouldn’t you be more worried about yourself tonight, hmm?”  The look of hurt on Nonon’s face made her realize what she said, and Satsuki straightened up with a sigh and an exasperated hand gesture.  “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.  Maybe I do need a break.”

               “Yeah,” Nonon said pointedly, and Satsuki removed her apron and started cleaning up her hair.

               “So how are you doing, then?  With our, uh, our guest of honor.”

               “I don’t know, how should I be doing?”

               “I don’t know.  You don’t seem to be freaking out though, so that’s a start.”

               “Yeah, sure.”

               “You are nervous, aren’t you?”

               “Yeah, a bit.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, y’know.  You make it out like I’m a lovesick damsel.”

               “I’m sure he’s just as nervous to see you as you are.”

               “If you say so.”

               “I’m sure of it,” By now Satsuki had finished arranging herself and was ready to return to the party.  Her hair hadn’t turned out as bad as she’d expected, sure there were some loose strands here and there, but her trademark sheen was unblemished. “He asked for you, you know.  When I called him to make arrangements.”

               “Really?”  Nonon asked, betraying maybe a little more excitement that she’d been intending.  It had been months since she’d given the problem of Uzu much thought, the Kamui training had been a good distraction, especially once Ryuko had started dropping by regularly which certainly at least doubled its intensity.  But it hadn’t gone away.  Satsuki nodded, and as they turned to go, they heard the click of high heels in the hallway.  Nonon peered out the window of the kitchen doors and let out an involuntary squeak. “MK alert!” She whispered urgently.

               “Wonderful,” Satsuki said with a sarcastic thumbs-up, and Nonon stepped out of the way just in time as the doors flung open.  The young woman who stepped through cut an imposing figure, nearly as tall as Satsuki and just as statuesque, indeed they looked remarkably alike.  The only meaningful differences in their overall appearance were that the newcomer was a natural blonde and that she was dressed to the nines, with a regal gold-and-white gown and jewelry adorning every inch of bare skin, even including a net of garnets flashing through her hair.  Likewise, their faces were quite similar, but where Satsuki’s features funneled to her bold cobalt eyes and pointed chin, the newcomer’s features drew almost down onto her nose, making her face seem very thin by comparison.

               “Cousin!”  She shouted with the declarative, velvety voice of a noble-lady, and Satsuki drew a smile as they embraced.

               “Minazuki!  So good to see you!”  Satsuki said.  This was Minazuki Kiryuin, Satsuki and Ryuko’s closest surviving blood relative and current eldest of the Kiryuin clan.  She was from a lesser branch of the house on Ragyo’s side (Soichiro also being a distant member of the Kiryuin clan, which wasn’t too rare consider the clan had married into itself frequently since at least the Edo Period), and during the life fiber war had been in control of the Kiryuin Conglomerate’s Hokkaido offices.  After the war, well, that was probably why she was here right now.

               “Oh, it’s been quite a while, hasn’t it?  But then goodness knows some of us do love to keep busy!  I must say though even I didn’t think you such a workaholic that you’d play kitchen at your own little soiree,” The words spilled out of her mouth at a shocking rate.  Satsuki pounced on the first lull to speak

               “Well, I go where I’m needed, that’s not too surprising is it?  Here, have you tried these?”  She proffered a beef and shrimp kebab, “The marinade is a custom recipe that my personal chef and Sukoyo collaborated on.”

               “Mmm,” Minazuki chomped down on the first hunk of beef and ripped it off the skewer, nodding that it was indeed good. “Err, Sukoyo?  Who is that?”

               “Oh, I’m sorry, what was I thinking.  Er, Sukoyo Mankanshoku is the mother of Mako Mankanshoku, who fought with us in the war.  They’re the ones that adopted Ryuko Matoi, you might have heard of them on the news.”

               “Ohhh but of course.  And now I suppose you’ve elevated them, and I’ll be having to kiss this yokel woman’s hand and call her lady, eh?”  She joked with an elbow prod to Satsuki’s side.  Satsuki couldn’t help but scowl, even though it had always been her policy to feign friendliness with Minazuki.  For her part, Minazuki just laughed, “Oh I’m sorry, yes, I suppose we do owe them a lot.  But what a reversal that is.  Your mother, may she burn in hell, had this Lady Matoi girl’s father killed, so she went off to kill you, and now you’re cooking with her adopted peasant mother!  If you remove the whole middle part, it’s like – what? – how did this happen?”

               “Things do work out in strange ways sometimes, don’t they?”

               “Oh, you know she’s a lesbian too?  That’s what I’ve heard anyway, but I bet you know better than me.”

               “I – well – yes, she is.”

               “And?”

               “And what?”

               “Well c’mon,”  Minazuki smiled a grin that broke her face just a little too wide, “You must’ve at least thought about it, right?  C’mon, we’re cousins, you can tell me about your predilections.”  At this point, Nonon made the tactical error of shifting a foot, and Minazuki turned around at the noise, “Oh dear, I didn’t notice you, Miss… er… Jakuzure?  My apologies.”

               “It’s fine,” Nonon sulked.  Minazuki had been convinced that her younger cousin was dating Nonon for years now, and apparently, she hated the idea enough that nobody could convince her otherwise.

               “Either way, surely you’ve considered it.  I mean, how could you not?  The girl’s face is everywhere you look these days – not a bad looking one, not that I’d know anything about that. What about it, Miss Jakuzure?  Wouldn’t you agree this Lady Matoi’s ‘smokin’?”

               “I-uh-I,”  Nonon sputtered, waiting for Satsuki to intervene.  I will not stoop to having this conversation with this woman, she swore to herself, although he lips failed to form words more from discomfort than resolve.

               “Of course not!  The thought never entered my mind!”  Satsuki said, doing her best to maintain composure.  Minazuki gave her a sly glance with raised eyebrows.  Nonon, on the other hand, averted her eyes, but from the exchange she picked up one interesting detail.  So, she doesn’t know Ryuko is a Kiryuin.  Well, she did want us to keep her personal history away from the public, not our fault.  Still, it must look pretty suspicious to Minazuki that Ryuko is moving in here next semester.

               “Sure, sure.  Oh, but, speaking of things working out in strange ways, it’s been a while since I checked up about getting back to work with the Conglomer – er – Foundation.  I mean, it’s not that I dislike the consulate, but being out of the family business I just feel like I’m spinning my wheels, y’know?  Oh, and of course about getting my dear little brother out of jail.  So, how’s progress?”

               “Well, on the first count, I did tell you I’d let you know when an opening you’d be interested in was available,” She wasn’t pulling from a large range there. When the Conglomerate had first been converted into the Kiryuin Foundation, Satsuki had offered all her surviving relatives who weren’t collaborators with Ragyo positions that suited them; it would have looked heartless to let them hit the streets.  But Minazuki hadn’t been at all pleased by the low-level managerial jobs Satsuki sent her way, she wanted a position at least as prestigious as her former, deserving or not.  So, she would have to wait quite a while. “As for your brother, I am afraid that’s really not up to me anymore.  He was tried by a jury; his fate now rests in the hands of the appeals court.  That’s how things work now,” Minazuki’s younger brother, on the other hand, was a far more clear-cut case.  He had worked for REVOCs and was a high-ranking member of Ragyo’s doomsday cult.  He would rot in prison until he repented, started confessing some useful information, or perished.  But Minazuki hadn’t been informed of any of this, she didn’t work for the Kiryuin Foundation science branch or the military, so she knew nothing about why he was imprisoned since they were the only people informed of the REVOCs cult's existence.  Frankly, Satsuki doubted she would care if she did know.

               “Yes, but you made all that stuff up, so couldn’t you just… y’know?”

               “That would defeat the entire purpose.  This is all in the interest of fairness, you understand,”  Minazuki stared at her with glowering eyes that said that she would never understand.

               “Oh sure, sure.  Hey, look, I was just asking.”

               “Well, you can look forward to the appeals court, that’s what I have for you for now.  But listen, if you ever need anything, you just let me know.  The Foundation will look after you.”

               “Of course, of course.  Well, as much as I love our little chats, I do think I’ll peruse your assembled guests now.  Who knows, maybe I’ll run into Lady Matoi.  I’ll be sure send her your regards, since you seem happy to stay cooped up here all night.”  With that, Minazuki Kiryuin vanished out through the doors, leaving a fuming Nonon and a Satsuki who seemed to visibly deflate with relief.

               “I do not like that woman,” Nonon declared, and Satsuki nodded.

               “I’ve told you, she had no idea of Ragyo's plans.  There’s video evidence of her being captured by a COVER in their conquest of Japan, she was clearly terrified.  Have Houka show you if you don’t believe me.”

               “No, I know that.  I meant I just don’t like her.”

               “Yeah, I know.  It seems when your relations aren’t trying to destroy the world, you just have to find some way to get along with them.”

               “Nah, you had all mine arrested, remember?”

               “Okay, fine, if your relations aren’t trying to destroy the world or operating slave-labor sweatshops you have to get along with them.”

               “There ya go.”

 

               It was about half past seven when an excited buzz swept though the guests who crowded the penthouse’s glittering, lamp-lit great hall and puddle-spattered patio.  The guest of honor was coming.  Uzu Sanageyama, the greatest swordsman who’d ever lived, master of the mind’s eye, who’d talked back to His Imperial Majesty of America and got out alive, who’d singlehandedly saved hundreds from a raging brush fire in Spain, and who’d had all sorts of adventures all across Europe and Africa to boot.  Even though nobody knew exactly what “on his way” meant, people began crowding around the elevators the moment Satsuki made the announcement.  This was Ryuko’s cue to haul herself out of the pool and check her phone, and sure enough it buzzed not long after she got to it.

               *Yo I’m down by the front doors.  Ready whenever you are* the text read.  She replied:

               *Dropping down RN**One dramatic entrance coming up*

               *Hell yeah*

She gave Haruka a quick peck on the cheek and told her that she’d spotted something weird going on down on the street and that she would be back before Sanageyama arrived, then dove headfirst off the side of the patio, hurtling down to the street below.  Campfires were burning, her followers staking out the building as they always did, so rather than land on the ground she dropped onto a streetlight like an enormous bird.  Nobody noticed, nobody except a man more than twenty yards away in the evening gloom, leaning up against the wall by the doors to the building’s lobby.  Even though his back had been turned, he straightened up and smiled.

               “Long time no see,” Uzu grinned as Ryuko vaulted over and landed on soft, bare feet.  She left sopping, chlorinated footprints on the red carpet. “I see you’re as sharp as ever.”

               “Man, you have no idea.  How’s it going, you crazy bastard!”  She said as she gave him an exuberant hug.  She hadn’t given a thought to how dripping the pool had left her until he let out a surprised little noise. “Ah shit, well that was smooth of me, huh?”

               “Nah, it’s cool, it’s just a gi,” He spread an arm to show the tough black fabric of a traditional Kendo uniform, the sort of rough canvass material water didn’t get into too quickly.

               “Huh, so it is.  Hey man, why are you wearing a gi?  And you oughta take off these sunglasses, you look like you’re still blind.”

               “People expect a Kendo master, so here I am!  I’ll give you that the glasses gotta go, it’s gonna be too dark for ‘em soon anyway.”  He tucked them into his collar, revealing gigantic, moony grey eyes,  “Alright, we gonna do this shit?”

               “Yeah, it’s about time, folks’re waiting.  C’mon, I’ve got a good spot lined up.”  They picked their way in between tents and wandering acolytes in their red and black robes.  Fortunately, with her hair matted down by the pool and a nondescript black one-piece bathing suit she didn’t fit the globally recognized image of Ryuko Matoi, and they’d also been careful not to say each other’s names.  Nobody recognized either of them, although one cultist did ask what the party at the penthouse was for.  As soon as they’d shooed him off, Ryuko stopped and told Sanageyama this was the best spot.  The plan was quite simple:  Ryuko stood behind Uzu and wrapped her arms around his chest, underneath his armpits.  He grabbed onto her arms for dear life, as if he was suddenly having second thoughts.

               “This isn’t gonna mess up my hair, is it?”

               “Dude, are you fucking kidding?”

               “Oh. Alright.”

               “You want like a hat or something?”

               “Nah, I’ll deal. We’ve wasted enough time already… Alright, I’m set.  Boost me, baby!”

               And with that, Ryuko sprung off the ground with a gust of wind.  Rocketing up to the penthouse had become second nature as she got used to hanging out there frequently.  She’d had plenty of time to consider the idea of dropping someone off on the patio, to map out the trajectory just right so their velocity at impact would be quite low.  She remembered the diagrams from her physics class – no idea what the numbers were supposed to be, of course – but the image of the arc was clear in her mind and she gave Uzu and shove at just the right time.  With a grunt, he soared the last couple yards on his own while she continued upward until she reached the roof.  Just before Uzu landed on an emptied patio, Ryuko heard a voice from inside.

               “Hey!  Look over there!”  It was Mataro, pointing to where Uzu was about to land with impeccable timing.  With all the guests crowded around the Penthouse’s main elevator expectantly, his shout drew nearly one hundred turned heads, followed by shocked gasps as Uza slammed down on to the patio on one knee, arms at his sides, striking a mighty “superhero pose” and kicking up dust and leaves and puddles of pool water.  As he stood up and brushed his flowing, if slightly messy, green-black locks out of his face, the partygoers surrounded him and barraged him with so many cheers and questions that he couldn’t possible address all of them.  He didn’t even manage to shout a “what’s up!” over the racket.  Eventually Ira and another tall gentleman hoisted him up and carried him inside like the star player of a football game. 

Uzu couldn’t help but chuckle to himself over the roar of the partygoers and the music.  His entrance had worked perfectly, there wasn’t a single person on the premises that didn’t know that, but there was still one piece left – ah, there she was, by Satsuki’s side as always, and – uh oh.  Nonon had fixed him with a furious scowl, the only one he could see in the entire room.  But it was the only one that mattered.  What had he been thinking?  Of course she wasn’t impressed by his little trick, what would she call it, “pompous showboating”?  She probably thought the gi looked stupid, too.  Shame suddenly seized him, but then he was in too deep now, and there was a crowd expectantly waiting.  He’d do better next time.

“Alright everyone!  I’m Uzu Sanageyama, for those who don’t know, back in Japan at long fuckin’ last!  And let me just say this is one hell of a welcome!”  After Ira and the other fellow set him down, he stood on the back of a couch to address everyone.  The young folks let out a roaring cheer, noble and commoner alike, and since there were maybe five people above thirty in the entire building it was very loud cheer.  Nonon turned to say something to Satsuki, then set off towards the main dining hall.  “Now, I ain’t goin’ anywhere tonight, and I hope y’all aren’t either!”  he continued, “But first, let’s eat, cuz I’m fuckin starved!”

While all this went on, Ryuko slid off the roof back onto the patio, smiling to herself at the success of the plan.  Mataro was the only one who hadn’t gone in to see Uzu, and he waited expectantly until she’d returned to the ground.

“Great work bro, exactly as planned,” she grinned.  Mataro had been the only one in on their plan except Satsuki, who had insisted on being consulted for safety reasons.  He nodded in response with a smile.

“Thanks, if there’s one thing I’m good at it’s drawing attention to myself.  So, ya hungry?”

               “Not really, honestly.  I ate a lot of appetizers, and you know how I am about food.”

               “Then, would you mind talking for a sec?”

               “Sure, what’s up bro?”

               “Nah, I meant like… talk privately… y’know?”

               “Oh, um alright.”  Ryuko said and set off for that out-of-the way game room.  A confusing sort of excitement settled on her.  She already knew what this was gonna be about.

 

               The whole gang was finally reassembled, filed up and down the main dining table with a seemingly unconquerable cornucopia of food sandwiched between them.  The table was wide enough that both Satsuki - the host - and Uzu - the guest of honor - could share the head of the table, and there was a great deal of good-natured arguing over who should get to sit nearest to them.  That was no surprise, before his departure Uzu had acquired a reputation as “everybody’s best friend”, and by and large it was fitting.  He had an interest motorcycles and sports cars to share with Ryuko, a childhood spent on the streets for Mataro (although neither of them had taken their seats yet), bodybuilding and fitness for Ira, men’s fashion for Aikuro, martial arts for Satsuki and Tsumugu, video games and pop culture for Houka and Shiro, and of course food and just generally having a good time for Mako.  So everybody wanted their chance to catch up with him – well, almost everybody.  Nonon didn’t join in the bickering, she just took a spot and helped herself to the food.  Still, Uzu could see plain as day that she kept sneaking glances over at him, even when his back was turned.  They didn’t seem to be angry glances, and Uzu tried very hard not to get distracted from his current conversation.  Shit, shit, shit.  Is this good or bad?  Despite having had plenty of practice talking to women over the past months, he felt totally disarmed.

               “I think the worst one was Swedish – not because it itself is that difficult,” He was saying to Aikuro, “Mostly because I basically had one plane flight to learn it, and also up until then I’d been in Latin language country – Spain, France, Italy, y’know.  But man it was worth it, though.  The food, the sights, oh, and you should’ve seen the women… er…,” Aikuro didn’t seem to notice the panicked way he looked over to Nonon, or the way she looked back, “Well, it was nice, y’know.  I don’t think it beat Switzerland, but it was up there.”

               Meanwhile, Satsuki found herself in an uncomfortable conversation of her own.  Even though she hadn’t taken her place yet, everyone had ceded a seat near the head of the table to Ryuko; it seemed like the thing to do.  As a result, the nearest person to Satsuki wound up being her date, Haruka, who bounced into her seat looking equal parts excited and terrified.  Not wanting her to be left out of the conversation, Satsuki started off just by asking her what she studied in college.  It wasn’t long though before her stumbling, noncommittal responses, constantly second guessing if she was saying the right thing, grated on Satsuki’s nerves.  This woman isn’t strong, Satsuki thought, already not really listening to her, Ryuko could never respect someone who can’t look a person in the eyes when speaking to them, I know that.  Mako had taken over when Satsuki started phoning in her responses – it turned out Haruka was from a town in East Kanto where the Mankanshoku’s had stayed briefly before going to Honoujji, and they reminisced about local landmarks and such – but Satsuki cut in with another more serious question about Haruka’s aspirations for the future.  Again, her response was disappointingly vague and filled with breathy “I don’t know”s, Sure, she’s pretty, but she’s got no ambition, no drive, Satsuki thought, momentarily forgetting that Ryuko herself was still trying to figure out what she would do with her life, or that she sometimes had her own doubts about her direction.  Anger burned in her chest.  I don’t understand it.  You aren’t special, I don’t know you, nobody knows you.  Why would she give up Mako, the best friend she’s ever had, for you?  What do you have that she doesn’t?  What do you have that I don’t?  Oh no.

               Satsuki realized where her line of thought was going much, much too late.  Nausea seized her, and she set down her chopsticks.  She couldn’t even look at her plate, she couldn’t look at Haruka, or Mako, or Ryuko’s empty chair, or any of them.  Nobody even noticed the sudden change that had come over her. And if they had what would she even say?  If Ira or somebody had asked what was wrong, the words escaped her, she who had practically wrote the book on deception at the meagre age of five.  “Oh, sorry, it’s nothing.  I just realized that I still have this sick infatuation with my own goddamn sister.”

               Fortunately for her, a new distraction presented itself, when Uzu stabbed down a fork angrily.  He had been talking quietly to Nonon for a minute or two, but if Satsuki had been paying attention she might have noticed the billowing tension that lead to this outburst.

               “Well, I’m sorry for trying to liven things up here!  Y’know, some people actually like having fun every now and then if you hadn’t noticed, your highness!”

               “And all I’m saying is that maybe if you acted like an adult you wouldn’t have to lam it across the entire United States cuz you flipped off their emperor!  But no, evidently that’s still beyond you,” Nonon shot back.  Now all eyes were on the two of them, even some guests at the smaller tables throughout the dining hall were looking at their beet red faces.

               “Oh, right, because adults always call everyone bitches and storm out when they don’t get their way, right?  That’s very mature, huh?”

               “Like you have any right to lecture me about that!  You lost once – just once – and you blinded yourself!  You’re the king of overreacting and you know it!”

               “Oh yeah?  So, what would you call what you’re doing right now?”  Nonon gasped hoarsely at that and in a flash she stood up and stormed out, clearly hating to prove Uzu right even as she retreated out into the main hall with glassy eyes.  For an uncomfortably long moment silence reigned.  The side tables resumed their conversations first.

               “Sooo… when’s the wedding?”  Houka quipped dryly, although Shiro was the only one who laughed.  Uzu buried his face in his hands with a stifled groan.  What the hell was wrong with him?  He’d done it again. 

It was another few minutes until Satsuki felt like everyone was roughly back to normal, although the mood was still understandably tense.  Once she was comfortable with it, she stood up. “I’ll go check on her,” She declared to no-one in particular.  She’d lost her appetite anyway.

 

               “You alright?”  Satsuki asked, and Nonon looked up with surprise from the sofa where she nestled herself, over in a reading nook with a small fireplace.  Despite the summer heat she’d thrown a blanket over herself, and she looked very small and frail underneath it.  That red cheeked, distraught look – was she crying?  No, but it was a near thing. 

               “Oh, hey,”  Nonon said quietly, pulling up her legs to make room for Satsuki to sit.

               “Do you wanna talk about it?”

               “That asshole.  You see?  It’s exactly what I told you.”

               “Well, then I guess you know now,”  Satsuki said slowly, making sure she was recalling exactly what Nonon had told her, “So, if it’s just a physical attraction, and you two really don’t get along, you can move on from it.”

               “No no no! Satsuki that’s not it at all!  He’s soo great sometimes, so nice, but then it’s like this and he’s like a completely different person!  Fuck him, I can be fun too, right?”  Satsuki didn’t really see that much inconsistency in his behavior, he clearly wasn’t bipolar or anything, but she had to admit that the two of them tended to play off each other in a less than loving manner.

               “Are you sure you aren’t making too much of this?  He’s just gotten back after being away for so long, it’s gotta be very emotional for him.  Maybe he’ll be more his usual self once he settled in.”

               “See, here’s the thing.  Right before he left, he kept asking me out, right?  But I didn’t want – he’s gone after so many girls, right? – so I told him if he really cared he could show it by cleaning up his act.  Be someone I’d actually consider dating.  He didn’t like that very much, and now, you see… He didn’t do it.  I fucking blew it.”

               Satsuki consider for a moment telling her how he’d hung his head when she’d stormed off, but she couldn’t quite get the words outs.  Something told her it would be wrong to give Nonon false hope – really, she had no idea what was going on inside Uzu’s head.  Sometimes people were so predictable, everything she’d accomplished was based on her ability to know what people were going to do months before they did it, but when it came to matters of the heart there was a brick wall she just couldn’t peer over.  Fraud that I am, sitting here giving out relationship advice when my love life’s, well, how it is.

               “And now it’s all out there.  All our friends know, and some random people too.”

               “Not Ryuko, though.”

               “Yeah,” Nonon said with a chuckle, “That’s an upshot, I guess.  Otherwise I’d never hear the end of it.”

               “Where did she run off to, anyway?” If only she’d been there.  I bet none of this would’ve happened if Ryuko was there, somehow.

              

               The game room was secluded, sure, but it also was filled with computers and TV screens.  Before Ryuko even let Mataro speak, she hurried around and unplugged everything she could see.

               “So, is it true?”  Mataro ambushed her with it the moment the door was closed.  Ryuko sobered herself up all the way in a flash.

               “Is what true?”

               “C’mon, you know.  The Ka-,”

               “Hey!  Shit hold on don’t say the word.”

               “Alright, alright.  But I gotta know.”

               “Do you?  Because what you’re suggesting’s pretty serious.  If it were true, this would be top-secret shit.  So why would I tell you?”

               “If it weren’t, you would have just said no,” Mataro said with a triumphant grin.

               “I -,” Ryuko pursed her lips in frustration.  He had her there.  But why?  Why did he care so much?  There could only be one reason. “What do you wanna know?”  She said in her best, most serious monotone.

               “It’s not what I want to know,”  Mataro said, even more serious. When had his cheeks thinned out and become so strong and defined?  Maybe it was just the lighting.  Or maybe he actually has grown up a little.  Maybe...

               “I want in.”

               Ryuko couldn’t help but smile.  What a monumentally bad idea.  Well, he was her protégé, after all.

               “Hell yeah.”

Chapter Text

It started with a text conversation between Ryuko and Houka:

               *Hey, you up?*

               *Always*

               *Something important*

               *Really*

               *Yeah**You fucked up**I’m bringing Mataro by the place*

               *Oh shit**Yeah, I hear you**Should I bring the others?*

               *Yeah, definitely**Sats too*

              

               And so she found herself down in the messy break room of the secret lab, tapping her foot anxiously as all the deciding voices assembled.  Houka, Shiro, Aikuro, and Tsumugu were there of course, then there was Nonon, as the future wearer of a kamui (although Ryuko thought that was a pretty tenuous reason for her involvement).  And then, as their de facto overseer, Satsuki.

               Ryuko hadn’t seen Satsuki since Uzu’s welcome home party, when she’d been in such a sour mood. Actually, it was since the morning after that.  She had stayed the night in her cramped quarters, and because she’d had maybe one glass of wine the entire night, as usual, she was up early helping the guests who had crashed there find their stuff and get on their way home.  By the time Ryuko and Haruka stumbled out of the master bedroom she was the only one there except Soroi and the house-staff, but she hadn’t wanted to stay and chat.  Which was a shame, because Haruka had told Ryuko an intriguing story about an argument between Nonon and Uzu about which she was excited to gossip, but she’d hardly been able to ask about it before Satsuki poured some tea into a travel mug and set off, saying she had lots of work to do.  And when Ryuko had offered to carry her off the patio to ground floor she had shuddered.

 It was a slight thing, maybe even imperceptible to the human eye, but Ryuko noticed.  Had she blacked out and done something regrettable, or worse, said something Satsuki didn’t want to hear?  She didn’t think so, and when she asked around later everybody conceded that she’d been pretty coherent all night, even Nonon.  But in the two weeks that had followed Ryuko hadn’t been able to pin Satsuki down for lunch and hadn’t seen her around the penthouse, even though she knew she was in Tokyo for business quite frequently.  She had even turned down a Saturday mountain-biking excursion, and she loved those!  To make everything worse she’d been worse about responding to texts too, sometimes it took hours, and this frustrated Ryuko to no end.  And now here she was, bent over a coffee table piled high with physical paperwork and laptops, studiously bustling though what looked like mind-numbing work.  She’d barely even said hello, and although she’d given everyone the same treatment that didn’t make it sting less.  And when Ryuko tried to strike up a conversation she gave only noncommittal, nonverbal answers. C’mon, talk to me.  I’m fuckin’ dying over here.

Oh, and Uzu was there too, although as Ryuko quickly found out he wasn’t part of their little meeting, he was just there for a tour of the lab.  It had been under construction when he left, and he was one of the few people given security clearance to see it, so he figured he might as well.  Esteemed diplomats ought to be well informed about their own country’s secret projects, right?  Plus, he’d heard that all four scientists and Nonon were practically living down there, which was such a strange setup he couldn’t help but be curious what they were up to.  When everyone was gathered, he pulled up a chair and asked why everyone was looking so damn glum.

“Well, as I understand it, Mataro accidently overheard some discussion of Kamui Saiban, courtesy of Houka here-” Aikuro summarized, and Houka hung his head in continuing shame. 

Uzu’s eyes went even wider than normal and he whispered to Shiro, “The new Kamui’s gonna be on the tour, right?”

“-And you didn’t feel comfortable lying to him about it, so now you’ve brought him and his parents here to fully let him in on it, is that right?”

“Well, there’s… a bit more to it than that.  He, uh, he wants his own Kamui.”  The room went dead silent as Satsuki stopped typing and looked up with the sort of stormy expression the old Satsuki frequently wore.  Everyone else registered surprise to some degree except Houka, who nodded slightly like he’d seen it coming.

“I’m sorry, what?”  Nonon blurted.

“A-and I think he’d be a good Kamui wearer,” Ryuko continued, eyes glued on Satsuki.  Oh, she was not happy about this.  Which was why it was important that they got everybody together; someone would agree with Ryuko and together the stood a better chance.  Nobody spoke, and Tsumugu made a hand motion that she should continue, “Now look, he’s still just a sophomore in high school, so like I don’t mean you’re gonna start working on it right now.  But he’s willing to train nonstop, that’s gotta be an advantage, starting out so young, right?  And he’s the best kid on his school’s track team by a long shot, fights way above his weight class, and we all know he can take care of himself in dangerous situations.  I mean, he was there for the whole thing, so he knows what the stakes are, how serious this shit is.  More that you could explain to someone who wasn’t there.  Plus, we talked about it a little, so he knows what to expect in terms of the whole synchronization deal and the telepathy and everything.  And remember how much of a little creep he was back then?  Well, maybe not cuz none of you would’ve hardly know him, but he’s like way more mature now.  He’s got himself an honest-to-god girlfriend and most of the kids at his school think he’s a pretty stand-up guy.  I-I dunno I feel like that’s all I gotta say,” Ryuko finished reciting the mental list she’d been working on and crossed her arms resolutely.

“Well, if nobody else’ll say it let me be the first to point out what a fucking stupid idea this is.  All this shit I’ve gotta do is not for kids.  I thought you’d get that since you’ve almost killed me at least once a week.  Plus, I do not want that twerp running around here.  He’ll just get in the way,” Nonon said dismissively.  That tone of voice always irritated Ryuko, but then, it was supposed to.

“Wait, hold on, you’re gonna wear the new Kamui?”  It was Uzu’s turn to be shocked now, and he put a far more incredulous tone on the question than he’d meant to.

“As a matter of fact, I am.  And you’re not even part of this conversation, so either buzz off or quit it with all the moronic questions!”

“Now hold on, if this is something that’s on the table why am I not being considered?  You all know I’d be good for it!”

“Oho no!  It’s always just been more and more power with you, always on the lookout for your next strongest opponent!  We make you a Kamui and we’ll be back to the stone age in a year!”

“That’s just not true and you know it, Nonon,” Uzu wisely reigned himself in before he lost his temper.  Stop looking at me like that, he shouted internally, what, what was so wrong with just asking? “I’ve seen so much shit out there – we’re gonna need more than one Kamui to start bringing these people to justice.  Satsuki, c’mon, how ‘bout it?”

“This is all quite unnecessary,” Shiro intervened before Satsuki could.  “We have already discussed this and decided should the creation of another Kamui be necessary – and it probably will be - Aikuro is the best choice to be its wearer.”  Aikuro did a little bow, and when Uzu opened up his mouth to protest he shut it for fear of being rude, “He’s already an accomplished soldier and secret agent and, as we all know, has long since overcome his hold-ups with nudity.  Or maybe never had them in the first place.  So, synchronization should be no problem for him.  Really, he’s the ideal candidate.”

               “Stop that now, you’re gonna make me blush,” Aikuro said with a chuckle, “Well, what can I say?  It’s not something I’d planned on but if it comes to that I’ll be up for it.”

               “Back on the matter at hand,” Shiro continued, “In the case of Mataro I must admit I’m intrigued.  Mako was noted - several times – to have a very strong connection to life fibers, a heightened level of compatibility over even Ryuko.  It’s possible the same is true of her brother – that it’s genetic – and I’d very much like to find out.  What do you think?”  He turned to Houka.

               “Oh, yes, and besides that I can attest that what Ryuko said about his maturity is true too,” Houka weighed in, then explained, “We play VR games together a lot, so I spend a lot of time with ‘im.  He’s getting a lot more responsible”

               “How the hell do you have time to play video games with all this?”  Nonon snarked with a gesture around the lab.

               “There’s just two things that I do.  My work here, and video games.”

               “You definitely do more than two things,” Shiro said dryly.

               “You are undermining my point.”

               “Erm, I also think training the kid’s worth a shot,” Aikuro added, “Starting out so early, it’s a great opportunity.  We could teach him right.  Who knows, he might even turn out better than any of us.  And if things aren’t working out, we can always bail.  It’s the training that’d take years, the actual construction of the Kamui would probably take, what, a few months?”

               “A few months to half a year, yeah,” Shiro said, “Although we still aren’t quite there on figuring out how to do it yet, so there’s that.”

               “Well, there you go.  So long as he understands that it’s just a trial thing, I don’t see an issue with it.  Tsumugu?”

               “If he really wants it, let him pursue the training on his own and come back in a few years,” Blunt as ever, but Tsumugu hadn’t said a thing yet so he’d been weighing things up internally, “You’re suggesting we promise a fifteen-year-old kid that level of power.  I wasn’t happy about relying on you all back then when you were teenagers, that’s no secret, and I don’t want to do it again.  Even if his heart is in the right place, it will lead to a sense of entitlement.”

               Shiro nodded that he saw the point and opened his mouth for a rebuttal, but Satsuki spoke up before he could, declaring, “We will not be moving forward with this project, I forbid it.”

               “But Satsuki!”  Ryuko whined, but Aikuro cut her off.

               “With all due respect Satsuki, this is a question for the Research Complex to decide.  Now, you should have a say since he’s family, but you don’t have the authority to outright veto it.”

               “We agreed that any Kamui wearers would be integrated into the military, placing them under my jurisdiction, remember?  So yes, I think I do have the authority.  Ryuko,” She said, turning her attention away and leaving Aikuro to mull that over.

               “Yeah?”

               “I can’t believe you would even suggest this.”  No no no, why don’t you get it? Ryuko felt a burn of panic and guilt.  “Your own brother?”

               “Hey, it was his idea in the first place!”

               “And you went along with it.  I won’t permit our brother to be put in danger like this.  Don’t you want him to be able to live a normal life, Ryuko?”

               “I mean, sure, but -,”

               “Have you considered what would happen to him once he became too old to wear the Kamui?  If he even survives that long.  His whole life the consequences of his actions would haunt him – the celebrity, the people he killed, the enemies he made.  He’d never be safe.  It’s no easy thing, trust me.”

               “But shouldn’t that be something for him to decide?  Look, can we just bring him down here and let him talk?  You’ll see, he knows what he’s in for.”

               “We can’t bring him down until we decide what we’re gonna do with him, because if we send him away with nothing we can’t risk him talking about what’s down here.  And we can’t talk in the conference room, it’s theoretically possible for someone to listen in,” Houka said cut in to explain, “That’s the unfortunate thing.”

               “Even if he thinks he knows, he’s still just a boy.  He’s not ready to make rational decisions about this.”

               “C’mon, he’s older than any of you were when you first started.  Hell, you were a toddler when dad told you everything.  Why’s this gotta be any different? And don’t give me any of that ‘we were special’ crap!”

               “That’s true, but I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” Satsuki said, then when Ryuko raised a skeptical eyebrow she stumbled, “Er, well, really I would with that and much worse on her.  But that’s just a figure of speech.  The whole point of what we do is so that others won’t have to be subjected to that kind of life.”

               “But you just said you’re objecting because he’s you brother!  Don’t you think that’s a little unfair, huh?  Why should he get a free pass, especially when that isn’t even what he wants?  He wants to help, most people in his place wouldn’t even go that far.”

               “That’s not the only reason and you know it!  And what about you?  Surely you realize he’s trying to emulate you.  I didn’t take you as so prideful that you’d swallow that flattery.”

               “Yeah, that’s rich coming from you!  And what, am I such a screw-up that my own little brother shouldn’t look up to me?  Who cares why he does it if something good comes from it!”

               “That’s enough!”  Tsumugu intervened, “We’re getting nowhere with this.  I understand your concern,” He said to Satsuki, “And yes, I would say he’s too young to be put to this.  But you must admit that it does look a little hypocritical to forbid him when we’re considering recruiting Kamui wearers from outside our circle if it comes to that.”

               “It’s.  Not.  Happening.”  Satsuki growled.

               “How about we put it to a vote?”  Tsumugu suggested, “C’mon now, let’s get in the habit for when we disagree about other more important things down the line.”

               “…Fine,” She conceded, but glared out at everybody with a look that dared them to vote against her.

               “C’mon, you’re gonna vote on it without even talking to him?  Let me get ‘im, please.”

               “I’m afraid not, we just can’t permit him down here without a reason.”

               “Alright, alright.”

               “Ok then,” Aikuro said, and cleared his throat, “All in favor.”

               “Aye,” Houka, Shiro, and Aikuro said in unison.

               “All opposed.”

               “Nay,” The response, this time from Satsuki, Nonon, and Tsumugu.

               “Okay, now what?”  Ryuko said while everyone else sat there pondering what to do about the tie.  “I-I guess I’ll be the tie breaker?” 

               “No,” Aikuro said with a sigh, which was fortunate because both Satsuki and Nonon looked like they were about to blurt something angry “I don’t think that would be fair since it’s your idea.  I guess we’ll have to defer it.”

               “Why don’t we have Uzu do it?”  Nonon suggested.

               “Wait, seriously?”  Uzu exclaimed.

               “You wanted to be involved, didn’t you?”

               “If you don’t feel qualified to weigh in that’s alright, but I don’t have an issue with it.  You’re part of our inner circle, you should act it, right?” Aikuro said.

               “I mean, sure,” Uzu said nonchalantly, but to himself he admitted that he was stuck.  She definitely wanted him to vote her way, but if he did, wouldn’t that set a precedent of being more likely to turn down potential Kamui wearers?  That might bite him in the ass later.  And what was the actual right choice, putting himself aside?  He wanted to believe in the kid, after all he wasn’t much younger than the rest of them and if they could rise to the occasion then so could he.  Plus, he had to admit it would be cool – the beginning of the next generation – it stirred the imagination.  But if he died, not only would that be rough on its own, but Satsuki and Ryuko and Mako and their parents would all be devastated.  He couldn’t shoulder the blame for that.  Seven pairs of eyes bored into him.  Nonon’s, Ryuko’s, Satsuki’s.  He knew which he could afford to disappoint more.  After a long moment, he spoke, “Nay, sorry Ryuko.”

               “Ah, that’s alright,” Ryuko said, deflating a little.  “Boy, we’re real democratic around here, aren’t we, coercing the electorate,” She muttered.

               “What’s that supposed to mean?”  Satsuki asked.

               “Oh, nothing.”

               “Well, that settles that,” Aikuro said breezily, trying to tone down a bit of the tension.  For his part it was a relief to be done with it either way; it was an interesting opportunity sure, but he wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. “Sorry Ryuko.”

               “Yes, I am sorry Ryuko, I didn’t mean it as -,” Satsuki began.

               “Nah, nah it’s alright.  Not your fault, I get why,” Ryuko moped.  She couldn’t sell it.  Hell, whatever was making Satsuki so distant lately might have been the same thing that made her react with such hostility.  It was a bitter pill, letting him down, only more so because if it had been someone else instead of her it might have gone through.  If Houka had just slipped an application across Aikuro’s desk or something. More even than before she needed to know what had happened between her and Satsuki. “Well, who’s gonna tell him?”

              

               Meanwhile, Mataro paced furiously around the presidential conference room, nervously glancing at the spot on the wall the elevator had disappeared into.  He had long since made up his mind, and now the waiting was agonizing.  It was all the more so because try as he might he couldn’t fully imagine what was going on down there.  They were discussing it, but what were they saying?  In his imagination it was all very arcane; there was a long wooden table in a dark room, Satsuki was at the head – of course – Mr. Mikisuki at the other side, they called the meeting to formal order, everybody had businessy little folders in front of them.  Ryuko probably worded the question very carefully, and then… what?  They would go back and forth in debate, sure, but he just couldn’t begin to guess who would say what.  It was enough that before long Sukoyo was asking him if he really had to keep pacing.  Both she and Barazo had no real idea what was going on, Ryuko and Mataro just told them there was an important question they wanted to ask at the lab and that they should come along.  Neither of them had anywhere to be, so they came along without a fuss and were idly talking about a TV show they’d been watching together lately.

               Mataro was debating with himself what he would say if they agreed, trying to come up with a response that covered all the bases that would be expected:  humbled, dutiful, determined, excited.  It would be a historic moment, he thought, even though it would happen in the confines of a secret lab beyond the sight of the world.  He had to be ready.  But then there was also the possibility they would say no.  He almost didn’t really believe that, but to be reasonable he had to accept that it could happen.  And if it did, he didn’t know what he would say.  What he would do next, on the other hand…

               Eventually the elevator reappeared, and Mr. Mikisuki stepped out.  With a somber look he motioned for them all to follow him.  On the elevator ride down, he gave his standard speech about security and not telling a single soul what they saw here, but when the doors opened Mataro couldn’t help but wonder what there was to tell about.  All the break room’s doors were closed, all the monitors switched off – this was the workaround to avoid showing him anything he need not see – so what he was left with was a dingy, messy little hangout.  Maybe I underestimated how much time they spend down here.  The assembled group did look sufficiently serious though (except Nonon, who was on her phone), and one way or another Mataro could tell they were prepared to give him one hell of a talking to.

               Once they took their seats, Mr. Mikisuki - with the help of Mr. Kinagase, Houka, and Shiro - began explaining what the secret lab was, before moving on to Mataro and the Kamui.  They went about it in the most roundabout way possible, for the benefit of his parents, and not only did it frustrate him, but it also filled him with anxiety – wouldn’t they have just flat out said if they’d accepted him?  For their part Barazo and Sukoyo didn’t seem all that surprised or concerned even when the heard that Mataro had asked if he could wear a Kamui.  But that was probably because it was immediately followed up by:

               “However, after due consideration, we have decided to decline.  Sorry sport.”  In the pause that followed, everyone looked to him for a response.  Ryuko was still looking quite despondent, clearly feeling responsible.  Satsuki, on the other hand, looked sorry but not nearly as much.  This was probably her doing, Mataro thought, and really, he couldn’t blame her.

               “Oh, alright.  Do I… ah… do I get ta know why?”

               “Mainly that you are too young both to be trusted with this responsibility, as well as to be ethically subjected to this experimental technology.  Also concerns for your safety, obviously.  I can go into more detail if you want.”

               “No, that’s alright.  Thank you for your time.”  But he wasn’t done.  Someone who aspired to wear a Kamui couldn’t be held back by such a simple setback.  He stood up, “Yo, Uzu, now that you’re back I was wondering if I could take Kendo lessons with you.”

               “Uh, okay?  Sure, I’ll be opening up my dojo pretty soon.”

               “I’ll pay full price, of course, don’t worry.”

               “Not necessary, little dude,” Satsuki had been about to turn her attention back to her laptop, but now she was staring at him with her mouth slightly open, clearly wondering with some alarm if he was really doing what she thought he was.

               “Mr. Kinagase, I’d like to start tagging along to Ryuko’s martial arts training with you, if that’s alright.”

               “It’s always been open to you, but I’ll warn you we don’t cut newbies slack.”

               “That’s fine by me.  And, Mr. Mikisuki?”

               “Yeah?”

               “If you’re not too busy I’d like to set up some sharpshooting lessons with you sometime.”

               “I think we could work something out,” Aikuro responded with a sly smile.  He gets what’s going on here.

               “Oh, and Houka?  Or Shiro either one, if I could maybe get some tutoring sessions with one of you that would be great.  Math ain’t exactly my strong suit.”

               “Er, sure.”

               “Excellent.  Nonon?”

               “Oh goody, my turn.  Whaddya want, kid?”

               “A schedule of your workout routine, that’s all.”

               “Oh.”

               “Here, I’ve got it,” Houka said, “I’ll email it to you just as soon as I edit the secret stuff out.”

               “Thanks,” Mataro said while Nonon groaned.  Now the last one, “And, uh, Satsuki?”

               “Yes?”  Satsuki asked suspiciously, shooting a glance over to Ryuko.  She was chuckling to herself and shaking her head, pleased by Mataro’s determined reaction but just as surprised as the rest of them.  She definitely hadn’t put him up to this, it was his own idea.  So this was the path he had chosen.  Mataro continued, “I need some cash to buy a treadmill and a weight set.”

               Despite herself, Satsuki’s lips formed into a soft smile.

Chapter Text

“Right though here,” Shiro said, scanning his fingerprint and watching as the doors to the Kamui’s dimly lit containment room slid open.  The light spilling in from the life fiber-holding pods threw a stark light onto the odd operating table-like apparatus in its center.  Uzu squinted for a minute until he could see the outfit, stretched out across the table.

               “Alright, I’ll admit it, this is pretty cool dude,” Uzu said with an appreciative whistle as he entered the containment room.  The doors started to close behind them, but before they did, he turned back and called, “Well, you coming?  Sheesh, yer like a stray dog!”

               Nonon gave a little squeak and hurried up.  She’d been following behind at what she’d mistakenly believed would be a comfortable distance; why, she wasn’t sure.  It just didn’t feel right that he see Saiban without her there.  Only Satsuki, Ryuko, and the scientists had done that (it didn’t occur to Nonon that that was the full list of people who’d even been in the secret lab).  She caught up and was about to offer a retort when Shiro launched into some babbling explanation.

               “Now, as you can clearly observe there are large parts missing, we are currently in the process of re-stitching all the fabric layers in the shape of Nonon’s genetic code, everything except the core framework will eventually be replaced but we keep the original parts we haven’t replaced yet where they are so that we can make sure everything connects and also to keep the quantum state of the in-progress threads relatively stable…”  Uzu wasn’t really listening, studying Saiban was much more interesting.  He had surmised that before they started working on it the Kamui was being held in the display case on the wall, and sure it would have looked a little more impressive there rather than splayed out with all those spidery little mechanical arms hanging over it, but he could fill in the blanks just fine.  There was no doubt about it, Saiban was a clear upgrade over the previous models.  Senketsu had been suitably spiky and intimidating when activated, sure, but it’s base form was… not bad, really, but raggedy and youthful looking – it could’ve passed for a school uniform after all.  On the other hand, Junketsu was radiant, perfectly tailored, exactly the right look for Satsuki.  But the old Satsuki, the one that was a monster of her own creation, the one they were trying to grow beyond needing. 

Saiban was nothing like that, sophisticated, vibrant, regal but not malevolent.  A fitting garment for one who would soon be known the world over, who would become like a goddess on Earth.  Maybe it was his shingantsu, maybe it was how much time he’d spent around life-fibers, or maybe the thought that this was Nonon’s Kamui – the Nonon who was once his Nonon and would be again someday - was making him think stupid things, but Uzu could swear he could feel a radiant energy rising clean and golden from the slumbering consciousness within it.  Maybe he was just finally going crazy.  They said that happened to anyone who stayed in America too long, after all.

               Shiro had left the room.  He’d of course noticed that long before Shiro was out the door, but Nonon looked like the unkempt little scientist had stabbed her in the back.  Silence filled the containment chamber, along with a sort of pressure that closed up behind Uzu’s ears.  He would have loved to attribute that to the Kamui’s presence - the dull, half closed eyes across the patchwork dress staring at him.  But that would definitely be crazy.

               “So, that’s you, huh?”  Uzu asked slowly.

               “Yup,” Nonon’s answer was terse; she didn’t roll her eyes but from her tone Uzu thought she might as well have.  That didn’t matter though, it had been a stupid question.  Staring at the Kamui, he thought of plenty of other stupid things to say: It’s gonna look amazing on you.  With this, nobody will even hold a candle to you, not Satsuki, not even Ryuko.  Sure, you’ll have to kill some REVOCS cultists, but everyone will see you how you really are.  But that wouldn’t do.  Once it would have been easy, or if it were just some other girl, but that didn’t work with Nonon.  She’d only laugh at him, or worse, get in his face.  Instead, what came out was:

               “Since when do you wear green?”

               “Shut up,” Nonon replied with a groan.  She didn’t fire back with a retort of her own, though.  Maybe it made her nervous, there was a lot of responsibility coming with this, after all.  Maybe he should remind her how during the war, when they’d been forced to hide in the ruins of Osaka, she’d been the only one who never visibly broke down, never despaired despite her constant bitching.  How that was when he realized how special she was.  But it just – it didn’t seem right.

               “Hey I – I mean, it is pretty cool.  Do you think it will be able to fly?”

               “How would I know?  Doesn’t really matter – so long as it gives me superstrength and speed and bulletproof skin it’ll get the job done.”

               “Oh.  Yeah, that’s true.  I just kinda thought, y’know, since you loved flying so much.”

               “That’s not what’s important.  All that matters is that we crush the REVOCS people or get them to back down before they become a threat to the public.”  Uzu was right though, and she had been wondering that anxiously since she first saw Saiban, but there was no use sharing something so earnest with him.  It wouldn’t lead anywhere, he was just toying with her now.  She wanted to leave, but she couldn’t.  Well, she wanted to, but this was her room, she couldn’t retreat.  And her feet were stuck in place by a kind of sick curiosity about what he would say next.

               “Really?  I kinda hoped you be having more fun with it.  That’s what I’d do.  Make the most of it, right?”

               “And that’s why I’m doing this, not you.  A Kamui is not a tool, I know, but until we solve this problem, I have to think of it that way, and of myself as back to being a soldier.”

               “Talkin’ like Satsuki now, I see,”  Uzu said with a little more hostility than he meant.  Nothing really was wrong with replicating Satsuki – frankly you had to a little bit to get things done sometimes.  But he was disappointed, disappointed that Nonon seemed so nervous and down even when she had this truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right in front of her, disappointed that she wouldn’t even indulge him in a friendly conversation.  What’s going on between us?  What do you want from me?  I’m not going anywhere, but I just wish I knew.

               “And why not, she’s right.”

               “And Mataro too, I suppose.”

               “What’s that supposed to mean? “

               “You don’t have to do exactly what she wants anymore, you know.  She won’t hold it against you.”

               “Oho, that’s rich coming from you!”

               “What’s that supposed to mean?”

               “What do you mean ‘what’s that supposed to mean’?  You and I and everyone else all know you only voted no because that’s what you thought I wanted you to do!”

               “Well yeah, you were the one who suggested I vote!  Obviously, that’s what you wanted!”

               “That’s what I’m saying!  You’re the hypocrite here for saying I shouldn’t vote how Satsuki did!”

               “So, you did vote that way for her?  If you wanted someone to vote yes, why didn’t you do it rather than try to get me to guess what you wanted?”

               “Why would you vote yes, though?”

               “What?  Isn’t that what you wanted me to do?”

               “Voting yes is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”  A slight exaggeration on Nonon’s part, she’d be berating Houka and Shiro about it for weeks, but she got why they’d done it.

               “So you admit you would be mad no matter which way I voted?”  Uzu wasn’t sure how they’d even started arguing, it just started and all of a sudden, they were shooting back and forth so fast it was all he could do to keep up his end.

               “No, obviously not, don’t be stupid!”

               “Then what is it?”

               “Urgh, look, just think for yourself, is that so hard?”

               “How the hell do you know I didn’t think for myself!  You clearly have no idea what’s going on in my head!”

               “You just told me you were trying to figure out how I wanted you to vote!”

               “Yeah, I thought about who I was more okay with disappointing!  You should consider yourself lucky I chose you over Ryuko.  And y’know maybe I shoulda chose her because I always have a great time hanging out with her and you’ve been being a real bitch to me lately!”

               “Lately?  Well how would you know that if you won’t fucking return my calls!”  That brought a stunned, slightly panicked expression from Uzu, and Nonon paused from whatever she’d been about to say as he quickly yanked his phone from his pocket.

               “…Wait, you’ve been trying to call me?”

               “Wha-I-uh, not since you’ve been back.  You dropped off the face of the Earth for a while back there!  People were wondering where you’d gone, ok?”

               “Yeah, I know, I was under orders not to contact anyone but secure numbers, Satsuki and Ira mostly, but if I’d known it was you…,” He scrolled through a list of missed calls, and then turned the phone around to show her, “… Is one of these you?”

               “… Yeah, that one,” Nonon pointed to a phone number, “New SD card.”

               “Shit…” Uzu said, “Uh, I guess I’m sorry.”

               “It’s – it’s ok,” Nonon sighed, and then they lapsed into silence for a moment.  Nonon rested her arms on the operating table and plonked her head down on her hands.  Normally Uzu found it difficult to guess the thoughts in that pretty little head, but now she seemed… relieved? And embarrassed, definitely embarrassed.  He quickly looked away and put his eyes back on the Kamui.

               “… This is kinda stupid, huh?  Toying with the kid’s future just for… whatever the fuck this shit is we’re doing,” Uzu said, hoping that she would help him define what was going on between them.

               “Yeah.  It was maybe a little dumb of me.  But you just sped up the inevitable, Satsuki was gonna get her way eventually.”

               “You think you’re gonna apologize to him?”

               “Fuck no!  It was still an idiotic idea on his part. And idiotic of Ryuko to go along with it, although that’s hardly off-brand for her.”

               “I dunno… honestly, I think he could do it if we really set him down to it.”

               “You just see you at his age in him,” Nonon said, and usually something like that would’ve come out in a vitriolic screech, but now it was a neutral observation with a hint of vague amusement.  It was the most thrilling sound Uzu had heard in weeks at least.

               “Not so.  He seems like he really wants to improve and become worthy of it, and he believes he can do it.  Back then I just wanted to fight and prove I was the best.  The only similarity is the confidence.”

               “…Well, you proved you’re the best,” Nonon said, still not looking at him, “Now what?”

               “First off, I still never beat Satsuki, and Ryuko’s on a whole other level now.”

               “Oh they don’t count.  Normal people.  And before you say there’s nothing inhuman about Satsuki - I know.  But you know what I mean.”

               “Yeah, no kidding… Hey, what’s it like to fight Ryuko, now that she’s fully awakened?  Houka told me you were training with her.”

               “It’s like fighting a bear.  You can’t hurt her, and she’s a lot faster than you’d expect.”

               “That’s-heh-that’s a nice analogy.  I won’t tell her you said that.”

               “I’ve said worse to her face.”

               “Fair enough.  Well, maybe when you put this on, you’ll be able to catch up.”

               “Maybe,” Nonon muttered, still lost in her realization that maybe Uzu did still care and it had been her that had messed things up all along. After another long pause, she said, “…It might try to kill me when I put it on, y’know.”

               “What?”  Uzu exclaimed, “Kamuis can’t do that, can they?”

               “Satsuki nearly died when she put Junketsu on the first time.  It tried to crush her.  The only way she got through it was by sheer force of will.”

               “Yeah, but this a good Kamui, like Senketsu.  He didn’t hurt Ryuko, he would never!”

               “Shiro didn’t tell you?  This is the Kamui that Ryuko’s father was making before he made Senketsu.  The one that killed Tsumugu’s sister.  They’re trying to make it into the type of Kamui Senketsu was, but it might not work.”

               Uzu sprung back from the table.  Suddenly the energy he sensed from Saiban took on a totally different aspect; a roaring, seeking, malevolent bonfire.  All it would take was one blade of dry grass for it to burn everything down.  Crushed to death… what a horrible thing to say.  He didn’t want to picture it, but there it was.  It was time to leave.  Maybe it would be okay.  But Uzu didn’t want that thing looking at him anymore.

               “That had better not happen.  I mean, you’ll find a way to make it work, right?” He said as he turned to go.

               “I’ll try.”  Nonon said, voice small to keep it from breaking.  He’s worried about me!  All this time I thought he didn’t care, and it was my fault all along!  God, what an idiot I’ve been.  But what am I supposed to do now?

 

It was on the Friday after Ryuko and Mataro’s trip to the secret lab that Satsuki found herself staying at the penthouse again.  This time it was for a meeting with her research advisor for her dissertation, but that had been early in the morning and now, in the late afternoon, she was merely sitting on the couch in front of the gigantic main TV, drafting up plans for some new police protocol and listening to an audio recording of a sociology paper she would be citing in her research.  At this hour the penthouse was usually empty save for the staff, so she was quite surprised when Ryuko leaned over the back of the couch, right in her light.

               “Hey, er, sis, what’s up?”

               “Oh, Ryuko.  I thought you’d be out by now.”

               “Nah, not yet, the gang’s gone down the block for dinner.  Tonight’s thing is down by campus – some social club hosting a party.”  The “gang” were some of Ryuko’s college friends that she had talked into moving into the penthouse.  The first night she’d spent there, even with Haruka, the place was so empty and cold she could barely stand it, but it hadn’t been hard to fill in quite a few of the dozens of guest rooms.  Now the penthouse buzzed with life, a tight knit crew of kids who crowded around Ryuko like pilot fish to a shark, “But that’s not til eight, so they’ll probably be pregaming there until then.”

               “Hmm, I see.  Not joining them?”  Ryuko was clearly going out sometime that evening before her routine hero work, she was dressed in what Satsuki had come to recognize as her typical party-wear.  Her favorite bomber jacket had been replaced tonight by a heavy, slightly frayed green-tan jacket with lots of pockets and a canvassy look – it looked like army surplus to Satsuki.  Beneath that she had nothing but a low-cut white tank top which Satsuki was not looking at.  Same short navy-blue skirt and loose white trainers as always, though.

               “Sure, eventually.  But actually, since you’re here I kinda wanted to talk to ya, if you aren’t too busy.”

               “I think I can make time for that,” Satsuki patted the couch as though trying to coax a dog to sit on it, and Ryuko vaulted over the back in one smooth motion, settling in lightly as though she weighed less than a feather.

               “Les put somethin’ on,” She muttered to herself, scrolling on her phone for a moment before flicking up and throwing her selection up onto the TV screen.  It clicked on and immediately began the opening credits of a movie, evidently some kind of action-adventure flick.  It seemed to have a feudal Japan setting, which Satsuki could appreciate.  “You ever seen this one before?”  Ryuko asked, leaning back casually.

               “No, I can’t say I have,” Satsuki said, setting the binder she’d been writing in down on the coffee table and taking off her headphones.  “But didn’t you want to talk?”

               “Sats, c’mon.  We both know if I didn’t distract you first, you’d keep right on working and miss half the shit I said.”

               “You’ve got me there,” Satsuki said with one of her signature hum-chuckles.  Once, she had claimed that she could keep multitasking through a movie, but after trying it she found it just wasn’t the same.  Even though Ryuko and her did usually end up talking over the movie anyway. “I guess I’m done with work for the moment,” She turned to Ryuko, and waited for her to ask away.

               “Did I do something ta piss you off?”  Ryuko launched right into it, “Like, at Uzu’s party or somethin’?  Cuz it’s been real hard to get ahold of you lately.  But like I don’t think I blacked out or did anything too bad.  Did I say something stupid to some important guest, like maybe those Australian dudes?”  The concern was evident in Ryuko’s voice – it had been three weeks since this started, and she was beginning to get really worried.  So, you have noticed.  I’m sorry Ryuko, I didn’t mean for this to hurt you.  But I can’t tell you that staying away is the less painful option.  Or maybe it’s just less painful for me, maybe I’m just being selfish.  I don’t know.  If only I could just trust myself.  If only I could just tell you.  But you’d be so disgusted if you found out.  It might be selfish, but I couldn’t take that.

               “Oh, no no Ryuko it’s nothing like that!”  She exclaimed, “I’m so sorry, it’s just all this work.  It’s been terribly busy lately.”  Yes, thank God for the work.  It’s always there, never done, never judges, never asks hard questions. “I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about it.”

               “Oh, phew, that’s a relief.  Ya had me scared there!”

               “I didn’t mean to, really.  It was thoughtless of me.  Next time things get busy, I’ll tell you, I promise.”

               “Nah, don’t sweat it. It sucks but now that I know it’s just the work,” Ryuko said with a dismissive wave of the hand.  Did she buy it?  She seems to have. If she’s convinced I’m not angry with her, that’s enough.  But she should know I could never stay angry with her. “Honestly, I was worried about it back with – y’know Mataro’s thing, at the place?  Can I say that?”  Ryuko asked a little more casually, now that her main fear had been assuaged.

               “Yes, that’s vague enough.”

               “Cuz I was thinking like you might be takin’ something out on me, and that wouldn’t be fair to him.  Not askin’ you to rethink your decision, and now I know that wasn’t what was going on.  But like, I just wanted to make sure.”

               “No, that had nothing to do with it.  Although I’m sorry for making you worry, too.  I didn’t want to crush his dreams, foolish though they are, but at the same time I couldn’t put him in danger.”

               “Yeah, I understand that.”

               “And I’m not upset with you for that either, you know.  Sticking up for him.”

               “Oh – oh yeah okay good.  I’m not either.  Stupid thing to fight over.”

               “Well, it is a serious matter.”

               “No, it totally is.  I’m still a little disappointed.  But it’s not wrong to disagree, so I don’t blame any of you.”

               “Good, and I -,”

               “Except Nonon, she can get fucked,” Ryuko cut in with a halfhearted screed, “Cuz all she thinks is that he’s just a punk kid who can’t handle it, not tryin’ to protect him at all.”

               “That’s not true.  If anything, she takes the risk even more seriously than the rest of us.”

               “Yeah, sure.”  The opening credits on the movie were long since over by this point, and they quieted down so they’d have some general idea what was going on.

               “There’s a selfish part of me that wishes I was the one to suggest it,” Satsuki said after a few minutes, hum-chuckling at her own foolishness.

               “Wait, hold on what?  You’ve gonna have to explain that one.”

               “I still wouldn’t want it to actually go through, of course.  But it’s always me who has to be the nag, the ‘no fun’, ‘no, you can’t’ one.  I’ve done enough of that, haven’t I?”

               “Aww, Sats that’s not true!  You’re tons of fun! Besides, he came to me because he found out about it through me, that’s all.  So like it was the specific situation.”

               “Yes, well I would have had a responsibility to turn it down then if I’d been thd one he came to.  You don’t have to worry about that.”

               “Now that’s just negative thinking, Sats.  At least, I think that’s what that’s called.  Anyway, you don’t hafta do anything you don’t wanna.  I had my doubts too, you know.  But I went through with it anyway, because I wanted to help him.”

               “Hmm, I only wish it were so simple,” Satsuki said breezily, but Ryuko gave her a sad look that told her that had come off more down than she meant.  After another pause while a fight scene happened (with Satsuki’s knowledge of various martial arts she quickly deduced that the actors had no idea what they were doing), she asked, “Why did you help him, then?  Because you said you had doubts.”

               “Well, it’s what he wanted, I felt like I should help.”

               “And that’s good of you, I – that’s what a big sister should do.  See that’s what I mean, I’d like to be the cool big sister who encourages him sometimes.”

               “Sats that can totally be arranged though!  If you’re having trouble thinking of things he’d like to do I can help you with that.”

               “Maybe, but that’s besides the point.  I just thought you’d have a much stronger reaction, because you’ve been so adamant you want a normal life.  You have to admit, it’s nowhere near normal.”

               “That’s not what he wants, y’know?  Like, he’s gotta live his own life.  And it’s better than him just joining the army, you’ve gotta admit.  Although I don’t really think he’d do that.”

               “Hmm, I see.”

               “But also, it’s like I said once, I’m gonna have to get involved again.  There’s gonna be some kind of problem only someone like me can solve,” Ryuko said, keeping it vague both so no one listening could conclusively prove what she was talking about and because she wasn’t entirely sure what kind of problems there would be.  “When that happens, I just thought I’d appreciate it if I were surrounded by friends and family, right?”

               “I suppose so,” Satsuki said, “And you’re alright with that?”

               “Heh, alright is a strong word,” Ryuko replied, “But I guess at this point I’ve accepted that I’m not getting away from it.  I’ll just have to squeeze in a little normal life in between all the drama that happens.”

               “You’ve given this a lot of thought, haven’t you?”

               “Oh, much more than I’d want, believe me,” Ryuko said with a chuckle, “I’ve got lots of other more fun stuff to occupy myself with.  But it’s kinda important.”

               “Well, I’m glad you see it that way, because I’m sure we will need you one day,” Satsuki said, then, “What does that mean to you - ‘normal life’?  I’ve never asked.”

               “Oh, just the sort of stuff everyone wants, I’m sure.  Nice little house someplace, a career or at least something to keep busy with, married, probably, having everyone over for the holidays, y’know.”

               “Married?”  Satsuki said with a curious smile and a sudden pang in her chest.  How can she talk about that so casually?

               “Well yeah, if I met the right person.”

               “And – uh – do you think Haruka’s right?”

               “I – honestly I dunno,” Ryuko said, and it was indeed the truth.  She could see it, she could put up with her without much trouble at all.  It might even be nice – Haruka’s dream was to be a mangaka, but not just any old sketcher, the mangaka who everyone would agree told stories that were real art, not just frivolity – and Ryuko could see them with a messy little studio with lots of big bright windows.  Coming in with breakfast in the morning.  Getting a halfhearted scolding about getting crumbs everywhere.  She could be happy with that.  But there was so much else in the world.  And it wasn’t perfect.  Perfection was unattainable, at least for her.  “Look, I’m not rushing into anything on that one.  Gotta make sure she can handle me, right?  Like the whole ‘at my worst’ thing?  Because let’s face I can be a real monster sometimes,” She said with a chuckle.

               “Really.”

               “Nah I’m just playin’, c’mon.  Seriously though, I think it’s too early on to say.”

               “Yes, perhaps,” Although Satsuki didn’t like or understand all this trepidation from Ryuko’s about her feelings.  After all, she knew her own feelings, right?  Maybe not, but that was her fault for being a deviant, not how it should be.  So, she said something to force Ryuko’s hand, “But you – you love her, right?”

               C’mon, why’ve you gotta ask me that?  I don’t even want to know the answer. “She’s great -sweetest, nicest girl I know – but to be honest I -,”  Ryuko cut herself off.

               “Yes?”

               “- I’m not sure yet,” Another noncommittal answer, more dissatisfaction for Satsuki.  But at that same moment, looking at the warm, calm smile on Satsuki’s face – she looked happy just to be with Ryuko, and that was enough – Ryuko knew that the real answer was no. 

               “Well, I suppose there’s no reason to rush.  I certainly won’t tell you to when I have no plans for that myself.  In fact, I doubt I’ll ever be married.”

               Ryuko looked at her sadly again, “Man, you really need to get laid.”

               “Oh no, it’s not that.  It’s just, with everything that happened with Junketsu… It’s not very good conversation, I’m afraid.”

               “Oh yeah, Mako told me a little about that.  It’d be rough to remember it, I’m sure.  Hey, if you ever want to talk to me about it -,”

               “- No, it’s alright.  It’s over.  Wait, you don’t remember when you were under its control?”

               “Nope!  Not one bit, except the bit Mako saw – I can kinda see that, but it’s fuzzy.”

               “Well, consider yourself lucky then.”

               “Sure,” Ryuko said, and dropped the matter when it was clear Satsuki didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

               “… And what about children?” Satsuki asked after another long pause.  Ryuko shot up in her seat with an uncomfortable smile.

               “Huh?”

               “Children.  You didn’t mention it before.”

               “Seriously?  I – I mean, I wouldn’t even know where to begin!”

               “Well, let’s say you did meet the right person.  Would that be something you’d want?  I mean, it’s no big deal – everybody knows Houka and Shiro have no intention of adopting or anything.”

               “I don’t know Sats, really I don’t have any idea.  On the one hand, that’s a whole other deal than getting married.  Like, it’s different for them, nobody has any expectations because they’re so focused on their work.”

               “Well, nobody has any expectations of you either.  Er, I don’t mean that in the bad way.  You know what I mean.”

               “Yeah, I do don’t sweat it.”

               “And as far as the rest of the world is concerned you could do basically whatever you want, you know.  We’re not like most dynasties, nobody’s expecting heirs.  And you in particular, you could just about get away with anything.”

               “Sure, but honestly, I’ve barely thought about it,” This was the truth, too.  The first time it had even occurred to her she’d be staring at Sukoyo’s cat late one night during that last week before she started college, missing Mako and missing Senketsu even more.  Right before she finally managed to fall asleep, she was musing about how Sukoyo sometimes seemed to love that cat more than her natural children, let alone her adopted ones, and – Holy shit that could be me one day!  I could be someone’s mom!  That realization filled her with the same panic worrying about her future always did, stronger even than usual. How was this even possible?  Someone should have noticed that she couldn’t be trusted to be a mom, hell, she was about to become an ordinary adult, and nobody’d stopped her yet.  If Senketsu were still here, this wouldn’t be a problem at all – he was the half who’d gotten all the nurturing instincts.  She couldn’t even keep a goldfish alive.

               “That’s alright, I was just curious.”

               “Like I didn’t even think it’d ever be possible – until like, what, a year ago I thought I was gonna be a washed-up punk coasting off dad’s money for my whole life.”

               “I can understand that.  I’d always assumed that – if I even survived – I wouldn’t be able to get the story out and I’d be hunted for murdering Ragyo until authorities caught me.”

               “Yeouch, that’s fuckin dark Sats.  But like, if this is the kind of problems we have now that’s a good thing, right?  I mean, if I’d known that it would turn out like this, I don’t think I’d have been so angry all the time back then.”  Being real, the only thing I really regret is that Senketsu is gone – not like that’s not a big deal.  Oh, and that I had to find out this one’s my sister.  But what the hell, so long as she’s still here, that’s enough, right?

               “Hmm, and wouldn’t that have been nice for me… It really did change everything, didn’t it?”

               “Well yeah, what did you expect?  Still, it’s kind of odd to think that – if any of our gang does have kids – we’ll be telling them stories about Honnouji, huh?  War stories, like.  They’ll never fully get it, but then that’s good too, right?”

               “That’s why it’s so important we take care of our adversaries now, so that they don’t have to live like we did.”

               “I hear ya.  Although being real, any of our kids would be for sure strong enough to take whatever life throws at them.”

               “Oh really?”  Satsuki asked playfully, “Even Nonon’s?”

               “Would they inherit the weird hair thing?  I mean, they probably did genetic tests on ‘er.”

               “I don’t know.  It’s supposed to be incredibly rare.  Maybe it’s a recessive trait.  But you’re dodging the question.”

               “Okay, okay, I’ll throw you for a loop here, you ready?  I think she’d be a good mom.”

               “Really? I do too.”

               “Yeah, god she’d be such a nag, I can see it now.  But they’d get their homework done on time.”

               “I think so too, but you know, I just can’t picture it.  I have an easier time imagining you with children, actually.”

               “Seriously?”

               “What, is that so strange?”  Satsuki had a clear mental image of it.  They’d be little monsters – obviously there was more than one – and even Ryuko would have trouble keeping control of them.  But they’d be adorable little monsters; same unruly black hair, same toothy grin, same bold blue eyes.

               “I mean, I can see it… but nah,” Ryuko shook her head.  “I’d be a shit mom.”

               “Oh, you sell yourself too short.  You know what I think?”

               “No, what?”

               “I think if you had half as much faith in them as you have in Mataro you’d do an exceptional job.”

               “Yeah, well, a lot of good that did.  Er, not to reopen that book.”

               “Oh, I don’t know, you might be surprised.”

               “What’s that supposed to mean?”

               “You spoke for him, before, but now he’ll have the chance to represent himself.”

               “You’re really not gonna be more specific than that, huh?”  Ryuko said, and though she should probably have been mad that Satsuki hadn’t been up-front with her she felt excited.  It was like Satsuki was giving her a present.  Satsuki always gave the best presents.  She always knew what people wanted.

               “No.  But worry not, you’ll see if anything comes of it.”

               “That’s alright,” Ryuko said with a happy chuckle, sliding a little closer.  “Wouldn’t be Satsuki if you didn’t have some secret project,” She said wistfully, “I’m looking forward to seeing the results.”

               “See, look how you’re smiling now!  That’s what I meant – that’s why you’d be an excellent mom.”

               “Aw,”  Ryuko went a little red.  “Why can’t you go embarrass someone else!”  She joked.

               “You just make it too easy.”  At this point, Ryuko hushed her up for a while because a good part was starting.  The movie was good, Satsuki had to admit – there were surprisingly deep themes about conflicting loyalties that she found resonant – and she was almost surprised when the afternoon had been whiled away and Ryuko powered down the TV.

               “Alright, I’m off.  That was a lot of fun, Sats – just what I needed after this fucking week,”  She said as she stood to go.

               “Yes, thankyou for showing me that film, I’ll admit I was impressed.  At times.”

               “No you goof I meant our little chat!  I like talkin’ to ya, y’know?”

               “Oh I – I appreciate that,”  Satsuki said with a heart-melting smile.

               “I feel like I can be real with you, y’know?  You get me.”

               “Well, what are sisters for?”

               “True enough.”

               “Although, I think I must apologize – I’m not going to be able to be the kind of sister you want, not always, anyway,” Satsuki intoned sadly.  For though she too had loved talking to Ryuko, she couldn’t ignore the unusual burning in her chest that had been growing throughout the conversation.  It felt like she was in some strange new place, everything seemed surreal and cramped.  The only solution would’ve been to get closer, that’s what the burning told her, but there was only so close she could get.  For a moment she really did contemplate finishing that apology by saying, because I’m in love with you, and letting that be the end of it.  She’d never again be able to spend such a pleasant afternoon with her, but she’d be rid of the burning feeling.

               “What, because of the work?  Aw Sats don’t beat yourself up, it’s okay!  You’re doing really important things out there, and that does matter.  It’s like I said before, we’ll fit in the good times between all this mess, right?”

               “Right.”

               “And besides, anything you gotta do so Hououmaru doesn’t kill you when she gets out is worthwhile.”

               “Ah yes, thanks for reminding me.”

               “Hey, that’s important too.”

               “Hmm.  Can’t argue with that.”

               “Alright, well, goodbye Sats, hopefully I see you soon.”

               “Take care, Ryuko,” Satsuki called back, and Ryuko opened the door onto the patio and was gone.  The white marble walls of the penthouse glittered in the evening light like ice.

 

               Mataro was bubbling with excitement as the chauffeured sedan deposited him in front of Uzu’s new dojo.  The dojo itself wasn’t new at all – an old, traditional building with walls of wood and stucco and well-maintained gardens, it looked out of place amongst the monotonous, blocky condos of outer Tokyo.  What was new was Uzu’s ownership of it.  Technically it was a partnership with another Kendo master he met on his travels, a master who realized two things:  that the unbeatable young martial artist who was also one of the Heroes of Honnouji deserved a fitting dojo, and also that it would be very profitable to go into business with him.

               Inside, the dojo was also quite well decorated, with a wide-open practice floor, a large, bubbling fountain with koi, and racks with a variety of weapons besides the traditional shinai all across the walls.  It was also quite empty, official classes and open practice wouldn’t start until the afternoon.  Mataro had gotten excused from school today just so he could come in for his private lessons bright and early.  It was cool to be there on his own so early, not as cool as the fact that he was there to learn sword fighting but still.  In most families as the youngest he would be the last of the kids to learn how to drive a car, but instead he was the last one to learn sword fighting.  Sure, Mako’s was more whacking people with a baseball bat, but she had good technique, so it counted.  Either way, even if he couldn’t persuade them to let him wear a Kamui, he was still psyched.  But where was Uzu?  Mataro considered shouting out for him, but before he did a voice rang out like a bell and froze him in his tracks.

               “Mankanshoku!”  He knew even before he turned around that it could be nobody else.  Before him, adorned in a plain white gi and faded navy blue hakama, was none other than Satsuki.  Ah shit she looks pissed.  Why is she here?  I thought she was okay with this. That’s a look I haven’t seen on her face in a long time.

               “Oh, uh, hey Satsuki.  Do you – do you train with Uzu often?  This is my first time here.  It’s pretty neat, gotta say.  Do you uh, do you know where he is?”

               “Uzu is in his shingantsu chamber,” She said curtly with a nod to a door on the far end of the practice floor.  “Meditating.  He won’t be joining us for today’s lesson.”

               “Wait.  Hold on.  You -,”

               “What’s the matter?  Were you expecting a world kendo master?”

               “Ah, no, it – it’s fine, really.”

               “Well perhaps you would be interested to know that I am the only one he has not yet defeated.  Only I have mastered a method of complete bodily control that makes it all but impossible for him to predict my movements using either tengantsu or shingantsu,” She said proudly.

               “I’m sorry, sorry I – um,” Satsuki seemed determined to put him on the backfoot, channel her old self to intimidate him away.  But she was his adopted sister now, and he was sure it was all just some sort of elaborate test, “Can you teach me it?”

               “Can you learn it?”

               “I don’t know.”

               “Then no.”

               “Wait, wait.  What I meant was that I will try my best.  Is that alright?”

               “Better.  So, you wish to learn what the elites and I learned on our mission?  I’m sure I needn’t say why you want this.”

               “Yes, yes.  Please, I’m sorry about before.  Please teach me.”

               “Don’t apologize!”  Satsuki shouted, and threw two objects across the practice floor to him.  A Shinai and a black cloth blindfold.  Mataro instinctively reached for the bamboo sword first.  “No,” Satsuki reprimanded him, “Blindfold first”.  While he complied, tying a nice snug knot right below the braid in his still growing hair, she continued, “Uzu will endeavor to teach you shingantsu – you cannot learn tenganstu without his unique eyes, but with appropriate training anyone can develop their other senses, their oneness with the world, their mind’s eye.  He will begin tomorrow, but for today you will make the first step.”

               “Sounds good.  Ready,” He said as solidly as he could.  Holy shit, shingantsu!  This is fucking awesome.  I’m sorry I doubted you, Satsuki.

               “No.  You are not.  Stand up straight, up now,” He complied – he’d barely even realized he’d been slouching, “Several things need to be made clear between us.”

               “Uh, okay.”  Now that Mataro couldn’t see her, she allowed herself a grim smile.  So, it seems I’ve still got it.  I can still bring the monster out.  Maybe a little too easily, but that’s a matter for another time.  Mataro knows I’d never really kill him – otherwise he’d have run screaming a long time ago.  He was turning to face her as she paced, trying his best get used to relying on his ears.

               “One!  When we are here, we are no longer brother and sister, Mataro and Satsuki.  You are Mankanshoku, I am Kiryuin.  I am not here to teach you, but to strike you down.  You are just a boy with aspirations too big for him – I will show you the depths of your error.”

               “Okay,” He nodded.  Whoa.  It’s like a movie.  His hands were trembling, “I won’t let you defeat me, I’ll learn anyway.”

               “Two!  There is only one possible ending here: you will fail.  There is no way I will allow you to realize your ambition.” Oh. “If you were to succeed, it would only be by becoming better than any of us.  But that is impossible.”  So there’s a chance, she’s just toying with me.  I knew it would be hard - the hardest thing I’d ever done - she’s just trying to make me realize that.  Mataro had to believe that.

               “Three!”  She shouted even louder, and not from where Mataro had been expecting.  He jumped a little. “If you ever remove that blindfold, that will be the sign that you have given up.  Your lessons will be over -,”

               “- Wait, what?”

               “Are we clear?”

               “Hold on a moment!”

               “Are we clear?”  Satsuki boomed, somehow only a few feet in front of his face by the sound of it.  Mataro felt like he could sense a pressure radiating off her into the air. It was terrifying

               “I – yes?  I guess?”

               “Good.  Let’s begin,”  Satsuki said, voice harder than ever, and before Mataro even knew what was happening her shinai connected with his temple and sent him sprawling to the ground. Things didn’t get any easier from there.

Chapter Text

August, 2065

 

“Your lunch, Itsuki,” Ira nodded curtly, opening and closing the door to the cell with a curt nod and a sterile plastic tray in hand.  The prisoner who had attempted to assassinate Satsuki at the press conference glared back at him.  He’d put on some weight during his stay, a product of the greasy foods he tended to demand from them, but since he’d been thin to begin with, he wound up looking quite a lot healthier than when his internment had begun.  Aside from that, however, not much had changed; he had stopped shouting obscenities at Ira the moment he entered the room, but the only information he’d given was that Itsuki (the name from his phony ID) was his actual first name, which wasn’t especially helpful because it was quite a common name, but Houka eventually tracked him down. That wasn’t of much use either, unfortunately – he’d trawled through the old REVOCs data they’d taken from Ragyo’s tower, but they’d used codenames for everyone who was involved in the cult and puzzling out who was who took some time.  “As requested, fried fish, takoyaki, pork dumplings, and miso. How are you today?”

“How am I?  How do you think I am?”  Itsuki groaned, hardly looking up from where he reclined across his bed, “I’m bored!  All I’ve got is this TV and these books!”  He gestured to his desk, the flatsceen and stacks of DVDs and novels on it looked like they hadn’t been touched in a while, but Ira did take them all out twice everyday and give them to a team of technicians to make sure they weren’t tampered with in any way.  “If you’re gonna just keep me here forever could I at least get some games or something?”

“The always-online limit on most consoles makes them a violation of our network security policy.  I could have someone look into making an offline model, but it would take a while.  You’ll just have to make do for now,” Hearing that, Itsuki scrunched up his face and scoffed like a disgruntled teenager. “I’m.  Sorry.”  Ira said through gritted teeth.

He wasn’t sorry.  It would take Houka all of three minutes to build the prisoner an offline VR console, but why should he?  Ira had asked Satsuki if she would just assign Itsuki to someone else – he knew himself well enough – but she was as careful as ever about keeping the truly important secrets amongst the smallest number of people possible.  It had to be him.  But there were days when he didn’t know if he could even speak to the would-be assassin, if he could even stop himself from beating him within a minute of his pitiful life.  What kind of world was it where he had to talk to a madman who’d attempted to murder Lady Satsuki – want it or not she was the only one who deserved the title – every damn day. 

One had to wonder why she was so determined to see this oddly soft-hearted plan through. If they’d taken Nui or Hououmaru or someone prisoner back then, would they have received the same merciful treatment?  Of course not.  It made sense considering her hopes of turning over a new leaf, but that could wait.  The fight wasn’t over yet.  They could get soft when it was done. Maybe she was getting tired, looking into the future and seeing that the fight might not be over for a long time and just wanting to be done with it.  Maybe, but that was the antithesis of everything he’d ever known about Lady Satsuki.  Maybe he just didn’t know her that well, really. Or maybe this would really work.  Maybe it would've worked if someone other than him was implementing it.

At least it was just a few minutes out of his day, and in the end maybe it was better than the alternative.  At least this way when Mako asked how his day was he didn’t have anything reprehensible to hide.  But Ira knew that if the order came down that he was to torture Itsuki, he'd start the waterboarding with a certain amount of relief.

It didn’t help that he was such an unbearable asshole.

“Ugh!  C’mon, you gotta give me somethin’!”  He whined, glaring at Ira challengingly.  It’s almost as if he’d rather torture to this, maybe because that would at least confirm him in his belief that we’re the evil ones.  I guess that denying him that is how this is supposed to crack him.

“Well, think of something without internet and you can have it.  But you know, if you’re really that bored, I can think of a way you could potentially shorten your stay.”

“Go to hell.”

“Will there be anything el – oh,” Ira interrupted himself as his phone started ringing.  He dug it out to see a contact photo of Mako with an open-mouthed laughing grin, much too close to the camera.  He was about to text that he was busy, but then he remembered one bizarre instruction that Satsuki had given him: it’s okay to answer your phone in front of him if it’s part of our inner circle.  In fact, I’d recommend it.

“Mako!  How are-,”

“Iiiiiraaaaa!”  Mako shouted into the phone exuberantly, not at all worried about seeming impolite.  Truth be told, Ira found it oddly endearing when she interrupted him.  Most people were too intimidated to do that, “Big news!”

“Oh? What could that be?”  Ira responded with a chuckle.

“I passed all my finals!  I got the scores back and looks like they aren’t kicking yours truly out just yet!”

“Excellent!  All those late nights paid off.”

“Yu-huh.  And thaaanks for staying up with me, even though you’re soooo wicked busy,” Emphasis hers, Ira made a point of never complaining about work around Mako.  She refused to be burdened by such things, and it was nice sometimes to allow himself that too.

“No need to thank me, it was my plea -,”

“But wait!  That’s not the big news!”

“Wait, what?  But I thought-,”

“Nah, nah, I saw the craziest thing online today!  Ryuko and Satsuki are on Dragonball!”

“Huh?”

“I’m not kidding!  In the new season they made characters that are, like, exactly based on them! They changed the names and all but you can tell it’s them. Ira we have to watch it!”

“That show’s still on the air?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Isn’t it like eighty years old by now?”

“I dunno, probably.”

“Some things never change, do they?”

“Now, look, I know it’s dumb and normally you would never, but do you think just this once…”

“Oh, no, I completely agree.  That’s something we ought to see.  I’ll pick up some ice cream on the way home, we’ll make a night of it.”

“Yus! Yus yus yus yus,” Mako sounded like she was melting on the other side of the phone.  Ira started to break from chuckling to full blown laughter, and for a moment he was aware of Itsuki’s eyes boring into him with a mixture of contempt and confusion.

“Er, one question:  what is this show about? Is it bad that I don’t know?”

“Spikey hair?”

“Oh good, you don’t know either.”

“Nuh-uh!  It’ll be a little adventure!”

“Sounds fun.  Well, if that’s it, I’ll be-,”

“Actually,” Mako said, slightly more serious sounding, “I did have something I wanted to ask you about.”

“Oh?”

“It’s pretty important… maybe I’ll just wait ‘til you get home.”

“Well now I really want to know what it is,” Ira said, also dropping to serious.  There’s not many things she could be asking about this way.  Shit, I don’t think I forgot a condom anytime recently, but you can never be too sure.  Most girls would have started out with a question like that, rather than finals and TV.  But Mako wasn’t most girls.

“Okay, fine… Ira, can we get a dog?”

“A – a dog?”  He breathed a sigh of relief that also helped hide how totally off guard that took him.

“A big dog!  Cuz I’ve had Guts, like, since I was little but he’s just a little thing.  I wanna get like big ol’ shepherd or a hound-dog or a terrier!”

“I think a terrier is a small dog.”

“Ira can we? Please?”

“Of course, but where would we put it?  They need lots of room to run, you know.”

“We could buy a house!”

“A-a house?”

“Yeah, we’ll just ask Satsuki for the cash!  She won’t mind unless we get too fancy.”

“Sure, but, well, don’t you think that’s moving a little fast?”

“You-you don’t want to get a house with me?”

“That is not at all what I meant.”

“Hmmm… Okay!  Maybe it is better if we talk about it tonight though.”

“Maybe.  Well, if that’s all, I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

“Okay!  Goodbye!  I love you!”

“I love you too,” He said, and hung up.  How amazing was it that those four simple words were so easy to say now?  They’d nearly choked in his mouth the first time.  He gave Itsuki one glance and, not seeing any change in his expression, turned to go.

“You really are a monster,” Itsuki spat suddenly.

“Excuse me?”  Ira turned back around, looming over the prisoner where he sat.  Itsuki instinctively curled his arms over his chest for protection, but he was undeterred.

“You gonna marry that girl, huh?”

“Well, I was pla-,”

“You ever gonna tell her how many people you’ve killed?  How many people you’ve ordered killed without even seeing them?  The horrible things you did at that place?  You think she’d still marry you if she knew?  You think she’d still say, ‘I love you’, if she did?” Here he did an impossibly annoying imitation of Mako, “Of course not, but do you care?  Why can’t you just admit it, you people are vultures!”

That was it.

“For your information, she already knows.  Better than you ever will.  That ‘girl’ is Mako Mankanshoku – yes, you know that name – she was there the whole time.  She saw  me beat and kill people.”

“So, she’s a monster too.  Good.  You deserve each other.”

“Is that what you think?” Ira’s hands were shaking.  He could just not allow this man, or anybody else, to believe that about Mako.  It was even worse than when someone insulted Lady Satsuki.  He’d never felt this fiercely before. “You couldn't be more wrong.  She was a no-star.  She mouthed off to me, multiple times.  I could have even ordered her killed, and I would have been none the wiser.  But you know what?  She wasn’t afraid.  She would never hurt a fly – just one time we coerced her into fighting Ryuko, and she couldn’t bring herself to land the finishing blow – but she stood up to me anyway.  Nobody else would dare, not even Ryuko when she didn’t have her Kamui. But she didn’t care.  She knew somehow I wouldn’t kill her, not if she was right.

“No.  You’re lying.”

“Why would I lie!  Unless you confess you aren’t leaving this prison until the day you die!  Who cares what you think!  No, what I’m saying is the truth.  I was a monster, you can’t hurt me with that.  But she saw something in me – what, I may never know – maybe that I did have my own code of honor, maybe that if I had a choice, I wouldn’t be doing this, maybe just she likes very muscular men, who knows.  But she knew somehow that I could be better than that.  And now that it’s all over with I have the chance to prove her right.  But no matter what, you need to believe that she’s not like that.  Because she’s the most remarkable woman I know, and I know Lady Satsuki and Ryuko, pretty high bar.  And if you can’t see that, then you really are fucked in the head for good.”  Rant over, Ira tried to reign himself back into control.  He didn’t realize how white his knuckles had gotten, gripping onto the metal footboard.  Itsuki looked like he didn’t even know how to process what he’d just heard.

“I’ll be going now,” Ira said with a terse shake of his head.  Nobody would ever know what he’d just said, so nobody would ever be able to tell if it was good or bad.  But it felt good.  He’d had to do it.

“Wait!”  Itsuki suddenly burst out.  “I thought of something I want.”

“Yes?”

“A chess set.”

“I’ll bring one down tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”  Whoa.  That’s a first.  Ira was at the door now.  He was about to knock to let the guards outside know he was coming out, when Itsuki spoke again. “I’ll need someone to play with too.”

“Will you now?”

“She said you were at my beck and call, didn’t she?  C’mon, I thought I was important or something, you don’t have time to play one game of chess?” Still an asshole though, I guess.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Ira said with his trademark officiality, but as he left the cell, he somehow found himself smiling.  Holy shit that worked?  That did the job?  Lady Satsuki is gonna have a field day.

He arrived at his and Mako’s apartment that night with a huge bouquet and several gallon tubs of ice cream.

 

As per his schedule, Ira arrived at 6 a.m. the next morning with Itsuki’s breakfast (waffles and strawberries) and the chess board.  The prisoner didn’t seem too eager to see him at first, but after he’d eaten, he quickly cleared off his desk and set things up.  He sat on the bed, Ira hunching his broad shoulders over the desk chair.  He went first.  They were well into the game before either of them spoke.

“So how many people have you killed, then?  Just out of curiosity.”

“You think I’m going to just tell you that?”  Ira was doing his best to keep cool and casual, as much a that was possible.  The fact that he was finally so close to the breakthrough that Satsuki’s new, gentle method of imprisonment had promised was motivation enough to keep him temper under control.

“C’mon, weren’t you the one who said I was never getting out of here?  Believe me, I’ve given up on escape by now.”

“… I believe the total came out around one hundred-fifteen, just for how many I killed myself.  Most of those were during the tri-city raid. But I probably ordered the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands.  It’s difficult to count because many no-stars died of their wounds from No-Tardies days after the fact, and at times we leveled sections of the Hono-town slums that were getting too overgrown and nobody kept track of how many people were living there.”

“Oh.  That’s not quite as many as I thought.”

“It’s a lot.”

“And that’s all necessary sacrifices, huh?”

“Maybe, maybe not.   The world seems to have decided they were.  We could have done things better, but we had a lot to manage.  And the Goku uniforms, they sort of exert this influence on you, make you more aggressive.  Sometimes it didn’t even feel like it was me doing it.”

“Ohh, so it’s the Goku uniforms’ fault, huh?”

“I didn’t say that, but still.  I’m sure you don’t care to hear this, but they are evil creatures by nature.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Itsuki said smugly, and very quickly and confidently made a move that left one of his bishops completely exposed.  It took Ira two turns to notice and capitalize on it.

“I will.”  They played on in silence for a while.

“So, Mankanshoku’s the little brown-haired chick who adopted Matoi, huh?”

“That’s the one.”

“How’s that workin’ out?”

“You mean the adoption, or?”

“Not the adoption.”

“… It’s good.  We decided we will get the dog.”

“Never had a dog.”

“And we will rent a house in the suburbs, see how we like it.”

“Huh.  And uh, how is she?  Just out of curiosity,” The prisoner asked slyly.

“She’s doing well.”

“No, like, y’know, how is she,” He chuckled.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“C’mon.  Y’know.”

“… Are you trying to get under my skin?”

“I dunno.  Maybe,” Ira knew he was, why wouldn’t he be.  Uzu or someone similar would have come up with a witty comeback that would have left them both in stitches, but Ira’s wasn’t capable of producing any juvenile retorts.  Still, this was progress, even if he hated it, and even if it wasn’t as fast as it could’ve been with someone more charming.  He noticed that Itsuki was fiddling with his pieces, picking up a couple of them, moving them back and forth, then putting them down where they started again.

“What are you doing?”

“Shh…”  Itsuki looked really stumped, then after a moment he said, “I’m trying to remember how to castle.”

“Is now a good time to castle?”

“Whatever.  I’m losing anyway.”

“Well, to castle, you just… uh…”

“You don’t know either, do you.”

“Not as such, no.”

“Oh wow, we both suck at this, don’t we?”

“It would appear so…”  Ira said slowly, letting out a little chuckle despite himself.

“Boring game anyway. Next time bring a deck of cards or something.”

 

“So Mankanshoku, your girl, she the one who broke Ryuko free from Junketsu?  I’m right about that, aren’t I?”  This was in the second week after Itsuki had first asked for the chess board, and they had cycled through playing cards, checkers, back to chess, and now they were playing Go.  Ira knew how to play Go, so this wasn’t so bad.

“That’s right.  She succeeded where only she could have.”

“I thought those two were dating, though.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“Some tabloid, not too long before I wound up here.  Didn’t seem right, though, because they’re like adopted sisters?”

“Well, actually, they were together for a short while.  But they parted on good terms when they went to college, been planning on it for a while.”

“Isn’t – isn’t that kind of weird to you, though?”

“Weird is the new normal, haven’t you heard?  No, it’s different with them.  Ryuko was her first real friend – people actually thought she was mentally unstable back at Honoujji, can you believe that?”  He said with an appreciative chuckle.

“Uh, okay…”

“Anyway, it’s only natural that they’d be so close.  Even today I doubt I’ll ever be as close to Mako.  But that’s alright,” no sense in being jealous at Ryuko for that.  No sense in being jealous at her for anything, their lives were so different – both in upbringing and aspirations - that drawing comparisons was just unreasonable.  “Hasn’t impacted my relationship with Mako or my friendship with Ryuko.”

“Hmm. You know it’s stupid but part of the reason I doubted it was just Mankanshoku doesn’t look at first glance like the type to be, like, bi or whatever she is.  Matoi though, she has the look about her.  Tell me, she is a goddess, right?”

“What?  Of course not, she’s just a normal young lady.”

“Oh.  So she doesn’t have powers like Prophetess Ragyo?  I thought I heard somewhere she did.”

“She does, from the life fibers she was fused with.  Super-strength and -speed, enhanced senses, regenerative powers, she’s got ‘em all.”

“Oh, then there you go, she’s a goddess.”

“That’s not what a goddess is.  I can assure you she’s no more supernatural than you or I.  What are you looking so smug for?”

“It’s sort of funny.  She can do whatever she wants, right?  You can’t be mad she’s closer to your girlfriend than you, can you?”

“I’m not.  They’re family.”

“You could never be angry with The Prophetess, either.  Goddesses still always get their way, I guess.  I was just thinking, doesn’t sound like much has changed out there, after all.”

“Ragyo killed people who questioned her.  It’s entirely different.  I can assure you there are plenty who have disagreed with Ryuko.  I don’t, is all.”

“Maybe.  Food for thought.”

“Maybe.  But have you ever considered how strange it is that Ragyo was completely committed to the life fibers’ will, and Ryuko is the exact opposite?  Their powers come from the same source, don’t they?  How do you explain that, if she is a goddess?  Some food for thought for you.”

They played in silence for a while longer.  Itsuki was a quick player, he didn’t take his time before making a move.  He wasn’t bad, but he was frequently distracted from the game.  As Ira was leaving, he broke the silence again.

“Oh, I thought of something else you could bring.”

“Sure.  What’ll it be.”

“Have you ever heard of La Chanson de la Couturière?”  Itsuki suddenly had Ira’s full attention.

“Harime’s book?  I’m aware of it,” As Grand Couturière, Harime had been something of a high priestess for Ragyo, as well as her premiere producer of new life-fiber devices, personal assassin, and some kind of fucked-up lover.  She would’ve been quite the prodigal young lady, if she hadn’t been evil personified.  The book itself was something Houka and the other scientists had been bugging Satsuki about for a while – the snippets they had were just insane ramblings, but word had it the complete text had details on all her most secret and monstrous inventions, as well as a complete breakdown of the REVOCS ideology. 

That could be helpful, because even after daily conversations with Itsuki Ira still hadn’t figured out if they’d been deceived into believing that the Cocoon Sphere was some kind of gateway to heaven, or if they really did understand that all it would’ve done was reduced the planet to space dust.  If they were somehow okay with that, it might make Satsuki’s plan to show them that they’d been duped and get them to surrender somewhat difficult.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any copies of it just lying around,”  Ira said.

“Heh, I figured.  Well, what if I told you where you could get your hands on one?”

Ira turned around with a sly half-smile.

“I’m listening.”

 

The next day, Mako and Ira went down to the pound to pick out a dog.  They wound up leaving with two.

Chapter Text

August 2065

               “Move up to the command post.  Gun box spawning in there in 30,” Houka muttered, calm and detached.

               “That’s the big one in the middle?”  Uzu asked, dropping his alien avatar down into the trench next to Uzu’s bird-headed monstrosity, momentarily safe from a hail of technicolor lasers flashing overhead.  This was Solar Flare: Warmaster, one of Houka’s favorite VR shooters, and in what had become a routine since Uzu’s return the two of them were squeezing in a few rounds after evening Kendo classes wrapped up.

               “No, that’s just a bunker.  Here, I’ll lead, you cover fire,” an oddly cute lizard-man poked its head over a mound of red earth a few yards down – an enemy player – but Uzu’s crosshairs were already on it.  It quickly became a bloody stump amid a hail of blue plasma.  Everybody was some kind of unusual alien in this game, not like it mattered since they all had to conform to an approximately humanoid shape because there were humans controlling them.  But it did help tell at a glance what role everyone was supposed to fill – Uzu was playing as a thing with lots of plate armor and thick, leathery skin who aced breach-and-clear assignments, whereas Houka’s avian fellow was a well-rounded trooper with lots of gadgets, an ideal squad leader.  The rest of their squad was dead, again. They didn’t wait up for newbies. 

Another lizard guy, a little faster, made it down into the trench.  Didn’t save him though, Uzu’s aim was good, his reflexes better.  He would have quit the game in self-disgust if he hadn’t been good, he’d seen actual combat, so this should be a cakewalk.  Even so, it had been a learning experience at first.  Tengantsu didn’t work on a world projected into his eyes by screens on a helmet.  Shingantsu didn’t work when his body was back in the console in his apartment, held in place as he sprinted around on a treadmill by a mess of “smart wires” that plugged into the VR body-brace attached to him.  But he had gone in for the custom fitting since he didn’t have much to do these days when he wasn’t at the dojo. As a result, the back brace that ran along his spine was so ergonomic he kept it on while lazing around at home sometimes, the arm and leg bands tracing the backs of his limbs were just the right length, and overall, he didn’t even notice the brace and the wires were there.  But without his unique abilities he was on the same level as everyone else.  Combat training and raw athleticism made him far better than the average player, but he had to admit he was still nowhere near as good as Houka.

“Keep up,” Houka said curtly, “They respawn so fast here it doesn’t even matter.”  He had something better than raw skill – knowledge of the game systems and maps.  He knew where everything was gonna be before the match even started, exactly what every player in sight was going to do.  Uzu wondered where the fun in it was for him. Houka didn’t seem too impressed by the dropships blowing up in midair above them, the shockingly realistic alien corpses staining the ground with their purple blood, or any of the other spectacles of this surreal extraterrestrial battlefield that so enraptured him.  He just seemed to be trying to see how efficiently he could win. “Don’t shoot your grenade launcher in here either, or we’ll be fucked.”

“I know.”

“You remember that one time a tank rolled over us when we were down here, and you shot a grenade at its belly and it bounced off.”

“Yeah,” Uzu said with a chuckle, “Rubber grenades, eh?”

“This is it,” Houka directed them into a shiny synthetic bunker on the edge of the woods, wherein they wasted no time clearing the enemies who had been obliviously staring down their sights in the direction they’d been expecting the attack to come from.

“Okay, this looks like all the other ones.”

“No, see how the lights on the panels are red?  And three, two, one… There we go,” A large crate of weaponry suddenly phased into existence by one of the walls.  Uzu moved to check it out, but suddenly a glowing green grenade dropped in front of it.  Another enemy was barging through the doorway, late to the party, a hulking close-quarters specialist like Uzu’s avatar.  It would take more than that to stop him though.  With a grunt of exertion, he pushed up and back off the treadmill, transitioning into a full backflip to land atop a computer terminal.  Even with the game audio blaring he could hear the smart-wires hard at work, detaching and recoupling at lightning speeds to avoid getting tangled as he contorted his body, as well as pulling him forward so the whole flip ended up happening in place over the treadmill pad.  The feeling of his body’s motion not lining up with what he was seeing was a little odd, it caused motion sickness in some people, but it didn’t stop Uzu from returning fire even before he landed.  Taken off guard by the sudden acrobatics – bulky aliens weren’t supposed to move like that – the enemy player didn’t stand a chance.

“Cool!  I call sword!”

“It’s yours, obviously,” Houka was fishing around in the crate, choosing for himself a souped-up laser rifle and a missile launcher.  As Uzu brandished his energy sword dramatically one of their squadmates respawned nearby.  They tried to tell him to wait a moment, but he grabbed the first gun he saw from the crate a ran off into the forest.  “He’s gonna have fun,” Houka said sarcastically.

“What now?”

“Now we hold position in this general area until enough of our teammates push up that we can take the next point.”

“Cool, I’m gonna get choppy down in the tunnels.  You want in?”

“Pass.  Enemy armor up here to kill.  Take a backup weapon though if you’re going it alone?  Fusion pistol?”

“Sure, whatever,” Uzu grabbed a pistol from the crate – he did like these, they packed a punch and were great for point blank blasting – and ran off with it in his offhand, leading with his sword the way only he knew how.

“So, how’re you settling in to your new place?”  Houka asked as Uzu entered the sewers, methodically disassembling two terrified bird-heads.  He saw that Houka had taken them off squad-chat and into private-chat, so they weren’t playing too serious anymore, just talking.  This was Uzu’s favorite part, when Houka wasn’t gunning for a particular objective they could just mess around and make conversation.

“s’Okay.  Like everything’s great, when Satsuki said she’d take care of me I did not expect her to go so hard.  Like have you seen it?  I’ve got a bar, the bathtubs basically a jacuzzi, I mean I am livin’!”

“But…”

“But like I know I’m gonna end up spending more time over at Ryuko’s anyway.  I mean, they’re always up to something.”

“Hmm, so is your complaint that you don’t have a roommate or just general FOMO?”

“I dunno.  Both?  I feel like the housekeeping gals are judging me for leaving my shit everywhere.  I shoulda told Satsuki I didn’t want a maid, but now I can’t fire them…”  He whined, aware that he was making too much of something so minor.  Houka wouldn’t mind.

“Heh.  Foul bachelor lifestyle, huh?”

“Don’t fucking remind me.”

“You know, you should ask Nonon about that.”

“Whu.  What?  About what?”

“Well, she’s living in a big empty penthouse too, y’know.  Since Satsuki had her family arrested and tried for human trafficking.”

“No shit.  How’d I miss that?”

“It’s no big deal.  She didn’t like them much to begin with.  I’m just saying she’s in a similar situation.  To be honest, I don’t think she likes going back there very much – she spends most of her nights with us, y’know?  Must be lonely, hers is even bigger.  Us and Satsuki are too busy to spend that much time with her, and she won’t swallow her pride and go hang out with Ryuko.  But she probably knows a thing or two about living on her own in a big, fancy house, right?”

“Hmm.  Interesting,” truth be told, that was much more than interesting.  Uzu would be chewing on that tidbit all night.

“Hey, how fast can you get back up here?  It’s a madhouse.  Fifteen of our guys showed up and they all brought grenade launchers.”

“But I was just starting to get a good killstreak going!”

“Oh I can assure you there’s plenty to chop up here.”

“Alright, I’ll be there in a mo’.”

 

Nonon was restless.  This was the time of day when, after a long duel with Ryuko, she would return to either her penthouse or her quarters in the lab, shower, and go right to bed.  Today, however, Ryuko had decided that she needed to go in to classes.  Apparently, she’d missed quite a few this semester and had to at least make an appearance, if only so Satsuki didn’t nag.  She’d shown up just long enough to drink up a couple pods of life fibers, and no amount of shrill taunting could convince her to stay.  It was oddly difficult to fall asleep without the force of exhaustion hurrying the process along.  She paced up and down the main hall, trying to find something to distract herself. 

When Nonon first gave up on sleep and meandered out into the hall, she did so in the gloom of moonlight filtering through the windows.  But that wouldn’t do, and within minutes all the lights, even the chandeliers, had been switched on.  Then came the dining hall lights, then the foyer, the game room, great room, guest bedrooms, conservatory, library, even the patio.  Every shadowy doorway she came across meant a new light-switch to turn on, and with nothing better to do she went around and started turning on lights in rooms that weren’t even in her way.  She even found a couple burnt-out bulbs and again, with nothing better to do, she tried to change them.  But she couldn’t find the extra lightbulbs. 

Eventually there were no dark rooms left in the entire penthouse, so she flopped down on the nearest couch.  She thought it was an interesting place to be because it wound up being in the conservatory, where she almost never went.  But then she started feeling a little hungry, so she had to go to the kitchen and get a snack.  She’d thrown out everything unhealthy in the house when she started Kamui training, so yogurt would have to do (not that she didn’t like yogurt, but at the moment she’d really felt like some cookies would hit the spot).  But then she was cold, so she had to go back to her room and get a sweat-jacket.  There weren’t any there, though, because since she spent five or more nights a week at the lab, she’d moved most of her clothing there besides fancy stuff.  So she just grabbed a blanket.  Now Nonon was finally ready to… scroll idly on her phone, as it turned out.

She knew exactly why the penthouse produced such agitated, unpredictable actions from her.  It was the first place she’d ever lived in entirely alone, as an adult.  For most, that would be a college dorm or a small apartment, but the effect was the same if not even more amplified by all the luxury.  She had to make the most of it, nobody else would.  That was really the only reason why she even bothered with infrequent visits to her penthouse or the family mansion, it would have been much more practical to just stay at the lab all the time.  Well that and if she didn’t get to sleep on her silk sheets every so often, she’d probably go crazy.  Before she’d started her Kamui training Nonon had also felt this same compulsion, even worse then because she’d had more free time.  She’d wasted hours dragging her audio editing computers to a new room and setting it all up before she settled down for the evening to write some music.  It had been a while since she’d had time for that, but her fans would forgive her, right?  Probably, and they’d better, really, they had nothing to complain about because it was all free.

“Ooh, text message,” She hummed (Nonon talked to herself almost any time she was alone).  All semblance of relaxation vanished, however, when she saw who it was from.

*You know I just realized I never had a housewarming party for my new place* The message from Uzu read, and Nonon wanted to scream.  What the fuck was she supposed to do with that?  On the one hand he really might want a nice innocent chat – no, who was she kidding of course he didn’t.  Somehow this led to “D’ya want to come over?”.  And the worst part was she’d have to say yes.  She hated to give him that, but she’d been waiting for this message for weeks now.

*So?  You could have people over literally whenever* She could have been much snarkier, but she held back.  I was under orders not to contact anyone but secure numbers… but if I’d known it was you…  Those words had come back to her at least twice a day since Uzu and her had talked in Saiban’s chamber.  He would have violated Satsuki’s own security procedures – unthinkable for her former elites – just to let her know he was okay.  That was nice, really in retrospect the whole thing was really quite nice. 

But she’d had another realization too, besides that he was still into her despite being terrible at showing it.  That realization was that if she wanted a boyfriend anytime soon, she was stuck with him.  Nobody who hadn’t been at Honoujji would do.  Even if some ideal man, a carbon copy of Uzu or even better, and also a respectable adult, started hitting on her at a bar or somewhere it just couldn’t work long term.  How could she be expected to live with someone who couldn’t see Saiban, who would never understand that whole part of her life?  At this point, there was no way she would give all that up for anyone.  He had her over a barrel.  Maybe I’m lucky, and he feels the same way.  Oh who am I kidding, I guess at this point so long as I’m not just another piece of ass to him I’ll take it.

*Well sure, but I don’t want to just trash the place**like some people we both know*

*ugh, don’t even mention that bitch.  I’m trying to have a relaxing evening at home*

*anyway, what I was gonna do was ask Satsuki or someone to help me host*

*Or someone?*

*What?*

*I know that means me, don’t tiptoe*

*Fine, yeah*

*and you know what, I’d appreciate if you dropped all the pretense*

*What pretense, I’m serious!**If I’m gonna have people over here I want to do it right*

*I seriously doubt you’d go through the trouble*

*You try me*

*I bet you’re just saying this because you think it’s what I want to hear*

*Oh really?**And why would I do that?*

*Because you’re working up to asking me over, aren’t you?*

*Do you want to come over?*

*Yeah, okay*

 

*Aaaaah Uzu just texted me and asked me to come over and I said YES!**Aaaaa whatisgoingon* Houka chuckled as he read the message from Nonon, pushing his laptop away and sitting up.

               *Oh shit*

               *Yeah I know!*

 *Did you just get booty called?*

*OMG shut up you bitch**You had something to do with this, didn’t you*

*Whaaaaaaat?*

*Oh you put him up to this**You’re so dead*

*hehe**Shit that makes me sound really guity*

*wonder why*

*honest truth?**I just mentioned you while we were playing games**Anything that happened after that was entirely his idea*

*Right*

*But you’re really going*

*I’m so fucking dumb**why am I like this about boys**well, him particularly*

*hasn’t even taken you to dinner smdh*

*Oh shit you’re right!*

*pardon?*

*Imma make him take me on a real date instead!  See how he likes that!*

*Wow**sock it to ‘em sis*

*Alright, well you just keep your creepy, longass fingers out of other people’s business from now on, got it*

*my fingers aren’t THAT long*

*thanks for the good idea though*

*Will report back in later*

*Roger that**have fun tho seriously*

When Nonon stopped responding, Houka laid back down and started typing out a message to Shiro:

*Operation Matchmaker is a success*

*I’m right down the hall you know*

*And I’m very comfy*

*You’re the worst**Maybe now you get to work on finding a bride for our fearless leader*

*hey, the point was to get rid of the distraction to Nonon for the sake of her training**You really think Satsuki needs that*

*Please, you’re having way too much fun with this to use that excuse**I think you’re just intimidated by the challenge of finding someone worthy of her*

*Nah**Well maybe a little**but Ryuko said she’d take her out clubbing one day**wouldn’t want to step on her toes*

*Fine fine**Hey you busy I’ve got something to show you?**New gadget I synthesized from the hardened life fibers*

*bring it here I’m trying to sleep*

*That’s singlehandedly the dumbest thing you’ve ever said*

 

*Alright, change of plans* Nonon typed out – slowly, because she was trying to do her hair at the same time.

*Wait, what?* Came Uzu’s response.

*If we’re going on a date then we’re actually going on a date*

*We’re going on date?*

*Is there something wrong with that*

*No!**Jesus of course not*

*Good**I already called my chauffer so we’ll go someplace near yours, ok?*

*Where?*

*anywhere, you pick* What a moron.  That was the man’s job.  Even if he didn’t know where to go, he should know that it was time to start looking.

*Alright, I’ll find someplace you’ll like*

*I would hope so*

 

“Uzu, hello!  Nice to hear from you.  Although I wasn’t expecting a call at this hour.”  Even through the phone Uzu’s hypersensitive ears could pick up a pot boiling on the stove.  A bit of a late dinner, but then Satsuki had probably just gotten home from work. And who was he to talk he was going out for dinner (well, second dinner) at 9pm too.

“Hey Satsuki, sorry I can’t chat long.  I got a quick question for ya.”

“Oh, certainly, ask away.”

“Uh, so, where is Nonon’s favorite place to eat in downtown Tokyo?”

There was a moment of near silence on the other side of the line.  Near silence, because Uzu could hear her hum-chuckling softly to herself.

“Well, if I’m being honest, most of the time she gets distracted by street food, or cheap pizza -,”

“-But that’s not -,”

“-But that’s not what you want, I know,” Satsuki said at almost the same time.  “Hmm.  I’m sending you the address to a place we went to for one of our monthly lunches.  She keeps saying we need to go back there.  It’s Thai and Malay food, and pretty pricey.  But your wallet can take it.  If you can’t get a reservation just mention me or Ryuko, in fact your own clout might be enough by now, feel free to try it out.”

“Yeah, that’s perfect.  Thankyou!”

“You’re welcome,” Satsuki said, and before Uzu got out his goodbye, she added “Oh, and Uzu?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m happy for you.  I’d tell you to treat her well, but I don’t think you need to be told.”

“You’ve got nothing to worry about there.  Alright, talk to you soon, goodbye.”

 

The ride over, after picking Uzu up, was mercifully short.  I must have been the nerves, but they just couldn’t keep conversation up.  Uzu almost even told Nonon how nice she looked a second time, as if it hadn’t been the first thing he said when he got in the car, but caught himself just in time.  Oh man, we aren’t on the same page at all, they both thought at different times, please, this had better not have been a huge mistake.

That all changed when Nonon saw where they’d arrived, and her face lit up with joy.

“Oh my god how did you know!”  She whispered excitedly as they were led to a table with a window view out onto the skyline, surrounded by the jealous glares of a long line waiting for seat assignments, “And how on Earth did you get a reservation on such short notice?”

“You think I’m gonna give away all my secrets so easily?”

“Well, it could be useful to know,” She said teasingly.

“Call it a little diplomatic skill I picked up on my travels,” He said mysteriously, examining the menu, “now, is this place gonna live up to the hype?”

“Are you gonna bitch about spiciness?”

“I would never!”

“Heh, I’ll take that challenge.  But you’ll love it.”

“Sounds good to me,” Uzu said, smiling.  After the waiter had taken their drink orders, he asked, “So, er, what’ve you been up to lately?”

“Really?  I think you know.”

“Just that?  I mean I dunno it’s been a couple weeks you could have hung out with friends or something.”

“Could’ve, but I didn’t,” Nonon said, and Uzu nodded appreciatively as if to say he approved of taking it seriously.  See, any other guy would be asking me where I was going off to all the time, wanting me to spend more time with them when I really just can’t.  I can tell him, and more importantly, he gets it.  It’s what he’d be doing if he were in my place.  “Nah, it’s been pretty dull but that’s how it’s gotta be.  What about you?”

“My new dojo’s finally ready to go, we had our first classes, what, two weeks ago or so.”

“Oh yeah, I haven’t been down to check it out yet.”

“That’s alright, I didn’t expect you to.  Honestly, I don’t even have time for guests, it’s a madhouse.  And I only teach the advanced classes!”

“Well, yeah, obviously, did you think people wouldn’t line up around the block for you just for the fame?”

“I mean, yeah, I suppose.  Um, you don’t mean like I’m ripping them off or something, right?”

“What?  No that’s not what I meant.  You’re just cashing in on all the shit we’ve done now, it’s only fair.  I did it with my music, Houka and Shiro got their Nobel, Satsuki with her – well, her everything.  It’s only fair you take your turn.”

“At this point the only one’s who haven’t are Ira and Ryuko. 

“But he will, and she doesn’t want it or something.”

“Well, does she, or doesn’t she? I dunno,” Uzu said with an intriguing lilt in his voice.

“What do you mean?”

“Here, you’ll appreciate this – her girlfriend, so I’ve heard, was like her biggest fan even before they met.  Celebrity crush, y’know?”

“No way,” Nonon said with a giggle.  Uzu had quickly sensed that ragging on Ryuko was one of Nonon’s favorite forms of gossip, and so long as it was good natured, he didn’t mind.  This one sounded a lot worse in retelling than it was in reality, so maybe that made it better.

“I mean its just what I heard.”

“No shame on that girl I swear!  That’s classic her.  Takes whatever she wants.  But you don’t feel like you’re ripping anyone off, right?”

“Nah, nah.  I do kinda wish I could teach the normal classes too, but there’s just no time.  But they’re all taught by guys I’ve coached, so really it’s okay, they’re very good.  Oh, but you know what my favorite part of the dojo is?  It’s when Satsuki comes in some mornings for her private practice.”

“You beat her yet?”

“No!”  He exclaimed with evident frustration, “Holy shit what’s up with her?”

“I know!  I fought her a couple weeks ago and I couldn’t get through her defense once!  That backhand ri-,”

“-backhand riposte!”  Uzu exclaimed at the same time, “Yeah what the hell.  Like the whole tengantsu-shingantsu this is like – if I can see something coming, I should be able to avoid it right?  But I just never see it coming!”

“Well I’m amazed at how you even hold your own against her!  I mean, I think my defense could use work compared to yours, I’ll admit that.  But like how do you do it?”.  For the next half hour or so their conversation exclusively revolved around swordplay.  Both of them were relieved to find that, with the help of a few glasses of wine (they didn’t get carded – friends of Satsuki Kiryuin never got carded), it went more than smoothly.  It was like they were picking up right where they left off, the year of separation since the end of the war completely forgotten.  Just like those evenings they’d spent staring out into the sea, ruins of Osaka at their backs, drinking in the sunset and each other’s presence because at any moment a COVER might show up on the horizon and then they’d be fucked.

“Here, here’s the one you want,” Nonon pointed to an item on Uzu’s menu with a smile while the waiter was taking their entrée orders, making sure to ghost over his hand, “It’s my favorite, for sure.”

“Ooh, three fire icons, spicy.”

“Exactly.  So, here’s the challenge.  You finish the whole thing, and you’ll have gotten further through it than me.”

“You’re on!  And, uh, what do I win if – when – I finish it?”

“Besides pride?  I’ll think of something,” She smiled coyly.  The entrées themselves took a shockingly short time to come out – they must have been preparing plates of the more popular dishes on an assembly line – and for a while neither of them talked as they enjoyed their food.  But Uzu couldn’t help but notice that Nonon was staring wistfully at his food.  Oh yeah, she’d said it was her favorite, didn’t she?”

“Oh, fine, fine, I’ll take the L.  You go over, I’ll go under, alright,” Nonon beamed as they swapped plates.  That was victory enough.

“God, we’re so fucked up, aren’t we?”  Nonon said suddenly when they were about halfway done.

“Hmm? what do you mean?”  Uzu said when he finished his mouthful.

“I was just thinking, we’ve known each other for like, what, four years?”

“Four going on five, yeah.”

“Fourish years, and still besides your preferred opening stances and how you do your left-flank feint I know nothing about you.  Like, what’s your favorite movie, did you have pets when you were growing up, where’s your dream vacation, nothing.  Like what did we even talk about back in Osaka?”

“We didn’t talk very much,”  He said with a chuckle, and she giggled too.

“True, I guess.  But like, I don’t even know what kind of music you like, and that’s kind of my business.  Just how you fight.”

“Oh yeah, totally,” Oh wow, she actually wants to know about me! “I mean, if we’re being honest, I had to ask Satsuki to find out about this place so like I’m right there with you.”

“So that’s how you did it.”

“She says hi by the way.”

“Cute.  I used to think you never asked just because you didn’t care, but I see now that’s just the sort of violent assholes we are, huh.”

“I mean, I guess so.  So, do you want to go first?  Or should I?”

“Huh?”

“Well, there’s one way to fix that, isn’t there?  Well, c’mon, I’m all ears.”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

“Nonon, you know I think you’re great and all, but let’s face it, you love talking about yourself.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“Well lucky for you, I’m a pretty good listener.”

“That’s gotta be the corniest shit I’ve ever heard,”  Nonon groaned, but she started anyway.  And honest-to-god first date’s gotta be a little corny, I guess.  Mother would be so proud.  Ha!  She would be til she found out it was with a nameless orphan gang leader!

 

A few hours, a second bottle of wine, and a few orders of roti later, Nonon’s chauffer was pulling up in front of Uzu’s building once again.  In the seclusion of the back seat, he’d seen fit to throw a casual arm over Nonon’s shoulder, and when he stood to go, she pressed back into the seat

“So, uh, what’re we doing now?”  He asked, face flushed both from the wine and her proximity.  Whatever perfume she had on smelled good, sort of vanilla-ish, and this close it was overpowering.  How well this gamble had turned out!  What had he been so worried about, again?  Oh, right, all that nasty stuff Nonon had said last time he asked her out.  But that was months ago, and if she apparently didn’t care about it anymore, he didn’t care.

“Hmm, before that, we’ve got to talk about what we’re doing in general, okay?”  She said, demanding as ever.  She looked so cute, though, that he couldn’t help but lean in and give her a quick peck on the lips.  She didn’t seem to mind though, leaning in almost imperceptibly and letting out a quiet “oh”.

“Does that answer your question?”

“Shut up!”  She said, suddenly a little flustered, “Uh, look here, you can’t just charm your way out of this!”

“Can’t I?”

I’m being serious.

“Yeah, I – uh, sorry.”

“Look, do get why I turned you down back when you first asked me out?”

“Sure, you wanted commitment, and I thought I had that, and you disagreed.”

“Well, really I just wanted you to stop doing things that pissed me off.”

“Oof, tall order.”

“Maybe.  Maybe I was being unreasonable.  But you do really piss me off sometimes.”

“Sure, but it’s all in good fun, right?”

“No, not the teasing.  The other stuff.  Responsibility and shit and yeah commitment too, y’know, acting like an adult.”

“Hey, if you’re going at someone for immaturity it should be Houka or someone!  Sheesh, what the hell do you expect; I have a business now, you know, sounds pretty adult to me!”

“Will you let me finish!”  Nonon returned shrilly, then took a breath to calm herself, “I was gonna say that I realized that maybe I was expecting more from you than what I really wanted.  I don’t need you all cleaned up, although if we’re together now I am gonna work on that, fair warning.  I think I asked for that from you as, like, a sign that you cared about me.”

“Oh, Nonon,” He said wistfully, “shit, I wish you’d told me, I’d have done it!  I thought you were just saying you weren’t into me for those reasons.  But did you really think I didn’t want you then?  Because I tried to make myself very clear.”

“Uzu, how many of your female club presidents did you flirt with at Honoujji?  How many did you end up actually hooking up with?”

“Uh, a few.”

“Right, and how many since then?”

“Not as many. None – well, almost none – when I was in Europe.”

“So do you see why that kind of talk might seem a little hollow coming from you?”

“Yeah,” He said with a sigh, “I – I can get that.  I’m really sorry, that – that all was a mistake.”

“It’s in the past, I think we both got carried away.  And besides, looks like you have cleaned up your act, anyway.  What are you laughing about?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Uzu smirked, he hadn’t really been laughing, but he had thought of something sort of funny, “It’s just, under it all you’re a very traditional girl sometimes, aren’t you?”

“A traditional girl who could kick your ass, but sure, keep it up.”

“No, no, it’s cute, own it!  I think it’s just kind of funny how I’ve never realized that ‘til now.”

“Nothing traditional about maybe wanting us to be exclusive.  Is that doable, you think?”

In response, Uzu kissed her again, longer this time.  Such soft lips, such tiny, dainty hands on his cheeks.  And those eyes, those miraculous, shimmering pink eyes that told him plain as day, I’ve missed this just as much as you.  Nonon always thought her unique eyes and her hair were ugly – why, Uzu would never understand.  He wanted to punch whoever’d put that stupid idea in her head. “I’ll do whatever it takes so long as I can do that again.  Besides, if I can have you what would I need another girl for?”

“Jesus, you are corniest human known to science.”

“You love it, c’mon.”

“Yeah, I can work with that.  So, are we agreed?”

“Of course we are! What, am I gonna say no now?”  Nonon’s arms were around his torso in a flash, head pressed on his neck up to his chin.  Only the knowledge that the chauffer was still there and probably waiting to go home and relax stopped him from staying there all night long.

“Then it’s official: we’re giving this whole dating thing a shot.”

“If Houka and Shiro can manage it then so can we, eh?”

“Heh, I won’t tell them you said that.”

“I appreciate that,” He said with a smug smile, as though it needed to be said.  “So, what then are we doing now?  You wanna continue this conversation somewhere more private?”

“Heh.  Totally honestly though, you played yourself with that.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.  I’m way too stuffed for anything fun right now.”

“All the rotis, huh?”

“Why-oh-why did we order three whole plates?”

“Well, don’t worry about it.  But, er, if you weren’t too full, you’d be down?”

“I – I could be persuaded,” She murmured into his chest.

“I can work with that.  And honestly that’s good because if I don’t lay down right now I think I might burst.”

“Hmm.  Wait, so despite that if I said I wanted to fuck you’d’ve done it anyway?”  Nonon said as they disentangled themselves.

“Well yeah.”

“You get points for enthusiasm, I’ll give you that.”

“Well, do you wanna come up anyway?  Literally have coffee?”

“Definitely.”

 

Sleep found them leaned on each other on the couch in front of a blaring TV.  The next morning Houka had to call Nonon, Uzu, and Uzu’s neighbor just to find someone who would answer and tell him she was calling in sick that day.  Ryuko seemed very disappointed, although she pretended she wasn’t.

Chapter Text

September 2065

 

               I can hardly believe this is really happening, Satsuki thought as she examined her outfit in the floor-to-ceiling mirror in the Kiryuin Penthouse’s master bedroom.  In her years of manipulating human behavior, she had learned that many people would say over and over that they were going to do something but never get around to it unless forced.  How had she thought that Ryuko could be one of those people – that she wouldn’t make good on her promise to take Satsuki out to Tokyo’s nightclub scene with the express purpose of finding her a date?  It wouldn’t work, though.  Satsuki had known that since the moment she suggested it months ago in that sushi shop.  I hope she isn’t disappointed, but no matter how this goes – good time, bad time, somewhere in between – I can’t possibly see how I leave this night in a relationship of any kind.  Especially not a one-night stand, heaven forfend.

               “Lookin’ good there, Mei,” Ryuko smiled as she strolled out from the bathroom, where she’d been helping Haruka get ready, “Whaddya think?”

               It took Satsuki a moment to respond, unused to the fake name as she was (which made it good practice, if annoying, that Ryuko insisted on using it constantly). “Hmm.  Well, it depends on if you think I look like Mei Sugimoto, your friend from high school, or Satsuki Kiryuin, as seen on TV.”

               “Well Mei, I still see Satsuki, y’know, so I don’t think I’ll be a good judge.  Yo, Haruka!”

               “Yeah?”  Haruka leaned her head out, damp hair still spilling everywhere.

               “Mei – is the disguise complete? Help me out here I can’t tell.”

               “Oh, you look beautiful La – er – Satsuk – er – Mei,” She said, and Satsuki felt the urge to scoff at her stumbling.  She couldn’t look a “noble-lady” in the eyes even when she was dressed down to fit in with clubgoers.  How had Ryuko and her even hit it off to begin with, how was she even brave enough to talk to Ryuko? “I don’t think you’d look like you to someone passing on the street.  But what do I know?”  Surely you must know something though, right?

               “Hmm, I suppose that will do,” Satsuki replied, and in truth she did find the outfit convincing.  With open toed sandals, a bunch of Mako’s spangliest bracelets, a big gold necklace, and a careful dash of dark, glossy makeups she would never usually touch (most days she avoided makeup entirely) she didn’t look like the Satsuki Kiryuin people would be familiar with from the news, although looking at herself she still saw Satsuki, not a new person.  But what really completed it was the dress:  classy but not fancy, it used a minimal color scheme – just grey with red highlights - and fit her just about perfectly.  The short, lacy hems and open shoulders were comfortable and let her skin breathe, perfect for the humid late-summer night.  And with such a deep cleavage complete with little ruffles and red accents in just the right places she knew she would draw a lot of attention – mostly from men, sure, but still.  “I really must thank you though Ryuko, it’s really come together.  It’s not exactly your style, nor is it mine, but it suits me, I think.  This dress, particularly - what designer is this? I’ve never seen one quite like it.”

               “Hehe, you’re welcome,” Ryuko said, reaching up behind her head nonchalantly.  “Oh, you wanted to try putting your hair up, didn’t you?  Uhh… crap my hair ties are in my bag downstairs.  Haruka can you run get it?”  She said, in a tone that immediately implied she didn't expect any protest.  “On the table in the den.”

               “Sure!”  Haruka said enthusiastically and scurried off with her hair still hanging in damp cords and her shirt half-buttoned.

               “She’s getting it?” Satsuki asked skeptically.  She hadn’t expected Ryuko to order her around like that – in her brief experience with them as a couple Ryuko asked almost nothing of Haruka, preferring to avoid relying on others as much as possible, as always.  But then Ryuko was acting oddly energetic, even for her.

               “Ah, she doesn’t mind. So, you like the dress?”

               “Oh yes, very much so.  It’s a new look for me but I think it’s quite nice.”

               “Heh, good, good,”  Ryuko said with an awkward chuckle, “You were asking about the designer though?  There’s – uh – there’s a funny thing about that.”

               “Oh?”

               “Well, ah, the designer… it’s me.  I made that.”

               “Wait, you?  Ryuko I… when did you learn how to do this?”  Satsuki said with a shocked, breathless little laugh.

               “Intro to Fashion Design; it’s one of my new classes this semester.  I’m taking it with Haruka – just kind of an art elective, she thought it sounded fun.  Apparently, I’m pretty good at it.”

               “But the semester just started a couple weeks ago!”

               “Yeah, so?”  She snapped, then corrected, “Well, I mean, we move pretty fast.”

               “That may be so but this is far beyond an introductory level,” Satsuki said, admiring the stitching.  If she didn’t know better, she’d easily mistake it for the handiwork of a master seamstress.  And yet as far as she knew before this class Ryuko hadn’t touched a sewing machine once in her life, let alone made clothing by hand.  Maybe she’d repaired her own clothing when she was on her own, but judging by the shape of the what she was wearing when she arrived in Honnouji, probably not.

               “Nah, nah.  Well, when they saw I was doing well they said I could make something bigger for my first project,”  It was almost as if she couldn’t decide whether to be utterly humble or brazenly proud.  With Ryuko there wasn’t really a middle ground.

               “I see.  And the design itself?”

               “Mine too.”

               “I should have expected as much – it’s quite unique.”

               “It just sort of came to me, it’s nothing really,” she said with a casual shrug, but the look on her face was less than casual.  It was the same sort of lost-puppy expression that Ryuko’d worn a few times before, that brought up an urge in Satsuki to throw her arms around her and reassure her that everything was alright.  As if the dress had drawn itself from her of its own accord, and she didn’t know whether to love or fear her new creation.

               Satsuki understood the turmoil that crossed Ryuko’s face, because something similar was playing in her chest.  Nobody could be such a prodigy – gaining both technical proficiency and artistic eye in just a few weeks.  It wasn’t natural, and although by all accounts she was very impressed with the end product, it scared Satsuki.  Ragyo, their mother, she’d been an amazing designer too – only Harime was better.  Was it in her blood?  Were the fibers telling her how to shape the cloth somehow?  That look on her face told Satsuki that Ryuko was just as aware of how eerie it was and no closer to any answers.  She didn’t know what to say, so finally she came right out and said it.

               “So, is this something you might be interested in studying?  Making a career out of?”

               “Uh, I guess?  I don’t know, it feels wrong to have a talent at this and like, not use it.  But…”

“…It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, all things considered?”

               “You can say that again.”

               “Tell me though, do you enjoy it?  Because if not, then there’s no point even if you are gifted.”

               “Honestly?”  Ryuko said quietly, as though she didn’t want herself to hear it, “I love it.  I really, really love it.  I don’t even know why.  Maybe it’s just nice to be good at something for once.”

               “Oh Ryuko,” Satsuki sighed sympathetically, but Haruka’s footsteps echoed up the stairs, and suddenly the spell was broken.  Ryuko beamed as her girlfriend returned with her handbag and gave her an appreciative kiss.  She concealed her true mood quite quickly.  Like a real Kiryuin, I suppose, Satsuki thought appreciatively, but then, Oh no, that’s real.  Stop, you aren't supposed to  make her smile like that!  Try as she might, Satsuki couldn’t accept that this woman was the one to brighten Ryuko's mood.  Especially not when she seemed much better at bringing out her anxieties instead.

               No, this evening’s mission would end in failure.  How could she be satisfied with anything less than being the one whose presence alone made Ryuko smile?

Chapter Text

“Okay, we’ll start out at Typhoon Mary’s, see if we can’t get Mei here a date, then after a while we go down to S-Tier Rebuilt, meet Uzu and Nonon, they put on some of her songs, we play it by ear from there, got it?”  Ryuko said to everyone in the limo, making sure they all knew the plan.

“Actually, it seems Uzu and Nonon won’t be in attendance tonight,” Houka said without looking up from his phone, “She’s just texted me that they’re staying at the place overnight, practicing.  So we don’t have to leave Mary’s until you’re all good and ready.”

“For the best, really, she should be maximizing her time spent training anyway,” Shiro said with an appreciative nod.

“Aw damnit,” Ryuko sighed, “Wait, you know they’re gonna have sex down there, right?

“Oh gosh, do you really think?”  Mako gasped with a scandalized giggle.  Even though she didn’t drink, even though Ira wasn’t free on account of work, she was still there tagging along for the fun of it.

“Frankly, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t.  I just hope they duel a little too,” Houka responded, also laughing a little.

“Gross.  Still, it’s good that we can stay at Mary’s as long as we like,” Ryuko declared.  She was genuinely disappointed though, Uzu was always a good time, and she found herself oddly looking forward to seeing what Nonon was like trashed on fruity cocktails.  Maybe even see what she could get her to do once she was blacked out.  Something scandalous on video would be excellent to hold over her head when she sobered up. 

And hey, you couldn’t spend months practicing martial arts and swordplay with a bare-naked woman and not wonder how those amazingly toned legs might feel in other contexts.  She’d known much more adamantly straight women who became bicurious with a little alcohol in them.  Haruka wouldn’t mind obviously, and Uzu probably wouldn’t either.  Apparently, this was the sort of mood she was in that night, ready to get out there and drink some booze, break some rules, test the limits of some friendships, probably break some furniture too.  She had already taken a couple shots of vodka from the limo’s mini bar; it hadn’t hit yet but the wait wouldn’t be long.  Messing with Nonon would have to wait though, but she’d find another outlet, she always did.

“I’m sorry, but why is Typhoon Mary’s preferable to the other club you mentioned?  I’m not familiar with these venues.”

Mary’s is a club for women like us,” Satsuki nodded; that made it plenty clear. “Haruka and I go there all the time. Won’t get much unwanted attention from guys there.  Also, it’s not too upscale, people are mostly pretty down-to-Earth.  You’ll like it, trust me.”

“I see.  But Houka, Shiro, you’ll be alright?  This isn’t a place where they’d be uncomfortable, is it?”  She addressed the first question to Houka and Shiro, the second to Ryuko.

“Please, you don’t have to worry about us,” Shiro assured her.

“Although we appreciate your concern,” Houka added.

“We’re just here to chill out, doesn’t matter where,” Shiro nodded.

“Mhm!  And last time I was in the city we all went to Mary’s and we had a great time!  Although you were both still on your phones too much!”  Mako exclaimed exuberantly.

“See, nothing ta worry about.  But I still think you should see S-Tier too, since you’re kinda the reason it even exists.”

“Oh?  How’s that?”

“It used to be in a real shady part of town, right?  It had close down because of all the gangsters and stuff.  But now that the city’s gettin’ fixed up they can reopen.  That’s why it’s got the Rebuilt in the name.  It’s also supposed to be like the best in the city, but you can judge that for yourself, eh?”

“Yes I’d like to.  Well, it sounds like you’ve got everything planned quite well, I supposed I’ll follow your lead.”

“You’ve got nothing ta worry about Mei, we’ve got this down to a science.”

 

Typhoon Mary’s turned out to be exactly what Satsuki had expected.  Blinding lights, deafening electronic music (although not quite as deafening as the “whoo!” Ryuko had let out as she barreled through the door), and the overpowering scents of weed and alcohol filled the dance floor and bar and spilled out through open floor-to-ceiling windows onto the street.  Satsuki nearly staggered when they first entered.  And the patrons.  Cut-off tank tops that covered less skin than the bras underneath, glitzy dresses that left not a single curve to the imagination, the shortest of short-shorts.  And what was underneath them, well, Satsuki instantly felt a wave of discomfort as she fought conflicting urges to stare and to respectfully tear her eyes away. She couldn’t discern what the right thing to do was.  Dammit how can this disarm me?  I’ve spent years holding my own in Ragyo’s ruthless court and here I am at a loss in a happy little nightclub?

It wasn’t that every one of the throng of young women who packed the club to standing room only was so gorgeous, or even so scantily clad, but still.  When had she every had so much raw female sexuality so brazenly shoved in her face?  Were their eyes on her too?  Usually that wouldn’t have been a problem, but today, in her disguise, she was just waiting for the moment someone recognized her for who she really was.  It wasn’t so long before something else was shoved in her face:  An icy, almost opaque lemony-yellow cocktail that was held in Ryuko’s offering hands.  Well, one of her hands, the other being firmly wrapped around Haruka’s middrift.

“I took the liberty,” She yelled over the din. When Satsuki stared at her, confused that someone was trying to talk to her in this environment, she grinned and yelled, “Look, I know you don’t really want so much alc, but you’ll like it.  It’ll look more natural if you go around holding a drink anyway, even if you don’t finish it.”

“No, that’s alright, thankyou,” Satsuki said, quickly grabbing the glass.  She gave it an experimental sip.  It was sweet and extremely lemony, but not enough to overpower the liquor, which must have been quite strong.  Ryuko must love these, Satsuki thought, and decided that it wasn’t at all bad.  She kept sipping.

“Cool, cool,” By this point Houka, Shiro and Mako had secured a table not far from the bar, where they’d run into some people they’d recognized: a few lesbian women who seemed to know Ryuko from college and two couples, one gay and one straight, who were there to hang out with them.  Everyone said friendly hellos, as much as that was possible with all the noise, and Satsuki got a chance to practice with her alias.  The couples including Shiro and Houka and Mako (who wanted to make it clear she was spoken for) all took their seats, but when Satsuki went to take a chair Ryuko stopped her, saying, “Hold on Mei, don’t you want to mingle a little bit first?”

“Oh I um… I guess?”

“Here, tell ya what, I’ve got some friends I wanna say hi to before I maybe introduce ‘em to ya, so why don’t you go stand over by the bar for a couple minutes and I’ll check up in a few?”

“Sure?  Well, I just, on my own?”

“I mean, you’re sure to attract attention.  I just thought since this is your first time, maybe it’d be easier being hit on than the other way around.  But you can do what you want, trust me Mei someone interesting will come your way.”

“No, I’ll try the bar,” It would be nice to have something structured, almost like a job to do.  A sentry posting.

“Alright, well if it sounds good to you.  You got your story straight?”  Satsuki nodded in response.

“Great.  People know who I am here, the regulars don’t give a shit that I’m famous, so you can mention me if it comes up.  In fact, I bet someone’s probably already noticed us over here talking.  Oh, and Mei?”  she added, so quiet that for a moment Satsuki doubted she’d heard it.

“Hmm?”

“Quit looking so worried, alright?”  She smiled, “There’s no pressure to match with someone your first time, just think of it as practice.  It’s supposed to be fun, y’know?  Going out, meeting new, cute people.  Just relax, okay?  I know you're the last one who needs more stress.”

“Yes, I’ll try” Satsuki cursed herself for the weak, uncertain response.  Ryuko was right, of course, everybody was here to have a good time and if someone started flirting with her, they wouldn’t be too upset by a rejection.  But still, it was so new, and Satsuki knew Ryuko would be disappointed with herself if she didn’t deliver.  Even though Satsuki had never said she wanted a date, much less a girlfriend.  She must feel so at home here, she’s probably had some great memories here.  So of course she’s got some expectation that she can turn this into a wild sexual escapade for me, or maybe even a relationship.  She couldn’t tell if she wanted to feel so at home in a place like this, or just wanted to leave. 

How was she already almost halfway done with her cocktail?

Chapter Text

t


“That any good?”  Satsuki nearly jumped when a loud voice cut in unexpectedly from the right.  A tall, voluptuous young woman with short black hair and a winding dragon tattoo on her arm was suddenly leaning on the bar next to her, smiling charmingly very, very close to Satsuki’s face.  It took her a moment to realize that the newcomer was asking about her nearly empty cocktail.

“Oh, it is indeed.  It’s very sweet though, not for everyone. I’m afraid I don’t know what it’s called, a friend gave it to me.”

“Well, I certainly don’t mind sweet,” The woman said, then, “Yo pops, I’ll take one of what she’s got!”  The bartender, a gruff old biker-looking dude who all the regulars seemed to look up to like a father or older brother, nodded amiably, “Er, do you want a refill?”

“Alright,” Satsuki replied, aware that she was probably sending out the vibe that she was interested.  But it had been a couple minutes of lingering at the bar and while she didn’t think she had a problem with running out the clock not talking to anybody Ryuko had reassured her she’d attract attention.  She’d been terrified that she was scaring people off with an unintentionally severe expression.

“Make that two!”  Her new companion followed up. “So, who’s this friend of yours?”

“Oh, well, um, It’s Ryuko Matoi, actually.”

“Oh woww, so you do know her! I had a suspicion.  And that makes you…”

“Mei Sugimoto.”

“Oh darn, nobody famous,” Satsuki felt a moment of panic, wondering if that was a subtle way of saying that she knew exactly who she was.  But as she ran through her mental checklist, she saw no signs that this woman was hiding anything.  Well, except that she liked what she saw.

“No, I’m afraid not, sorry to disappoint,” The plan Ryuko had proposed was that Satsuki lie about her identity until she hit it off with a girl, then as soon as they were somewhere private reveal who she really was and see how they took it.  No reason to lie any longer than necessary to keep word from spreading that she was there. 

It would be so easy to get that far; this girl, with her cowgirl crop-top and ripped skinny jeans that outlined some very appealing curves, seemed confident and vivacious, at home in her sexuality.    If Satsuki wanted, she had no doubt she could end the evening back at the penthouse with her, grabbing one of the guest bedrooms, shedding the crop-top, the jeans, Ryuko’s new dress.  But then, what came next – what she almost certainly expected – No, that wouldn’t work.  She just couldn’t fathom how the next step would end in anything but distaster, and for a moment panic clawed at her chest.  She’d have to find a way out of this conversation.  Lost in thought Satsuki realized that she had completely missed the woman’s name anyway.

“Mei, huh?  That’s cute, short and sweet.  So Mei, how do you know “our lord and savior”?” She asked, then: “Er, you aren’t one of those who think she’s a goddess, right?”

“Oh goodness no.  I went to high school with her, in Kanagawa.  I’m just in town visiting, I go to school in Kansai.”

“Oh yeah, makes sense.  I met her right here, actually.  Or rather, right over there,” She pointed over to the other side of the bar with a little chuckle. “So you probably know Mako too, huh?  I met her a couple times”

               “Yes, I do.  I’ve just been meeting some of the others tonight though.”

               “Man, if you thought she was wild before just wait until you put the two of ‘em together.  But I doubt I need to tell you that.  I bet you’ve had more than enough of ‘em – if I had to guess you’re a library kinda gal, aren’t you?”

               “Quite the contrary, I find their antics charming, even if I can’t always keep up.  But I’d say you’re right about me, though.  How’d you know?”

               “Oh, it’s just something about you.  You kinda look like this one English teacher I had back in middle school,” She said in a conspiratorial, low voice, and Satsuki immediately jumped to the conclusion that that English teacher must’ve been her first crush or something.  I’m her exact type – or wait, is that exactly what she’s trying to get me to think?  Her instincts at manipulating people told her this was an elaborate scheme to seduce her, but she couldn’t believe it.  They were just having a casual conversation, weren’t they?  Unbeknownst to even herself, in focusing more on trying to sus out what her new companion was up to she had completely handed the reigns of the conversation over to her and was on the edge of her seat, peering into her sparkling, vibrant grey eyes.  “Plus, you’ve kinda got this weird, old-timey way of talking sometimes.”

               “Really?”  Satsuki exclaimed, suddenly self-conscious.  Talking like ordinary people was something she was still working on. “I – I’m sorry I guess I didn’t notice!”

               “Nohoho, it’s okay, it’s okay,” She chuckled, with a reassuring hand wave that happened to graze of Satsuki’s arm.  Her fingers were very warm. “I kinda like it, I dunno.  Ah, here we go!”  She said as their drinks arrived, and after sipping it, “Mmm, that is good.  Looks like you have’t steered me wrong Mei.”

               “Oh good, good that’s a relief.”

               “So, what’s life like over in Kanagawa, huh?”

               “Honestly I haven’t been there long, I’m actually from right here in Tokyo,” This was part of the story Satsuki had worked out.  Much easier to answer questions about somewhere she had actually lived.

               “Really?  Me too!”

               “We left a couple years back, when… you know… Honnouji.”

               “Oh, yeah.  I’m glad to hear someone made it out though.  This city was a real shithole back then.”

               “Mhmm, you can say that again,” Satsuki said.  My city, a shithole?  She thought, No, I already knew that.  Still it’s odd to hear it right from the mouth of someone who lived under my rule.

               “Yeah it was rough, we weren’t so lucky. One-stars got my dad within the first year for spreading anti-Kiryuin propaganda.  I had to drop out to support Ma, but we got by.”

               “Oh my god, I’m so sorry!”  Satsuki gasped, and she meant it.  She was flush with a peculiar mixture of guilt and relief.  Oh god, I ruined this woman’s life, didn’t I?  This could never work out, I could never reveal my true identity to her.

               “It’s alright, It’s alright, really, that’s all in the past, right?  And don’t worry I’m not jealous you got out, not like it’s your fault or anything.  Just how it happened, eh?”

               “Yes, sure, of course,” Satsuki blurted.  Now she was looking in earnest for a way out of the conversation, but she somehow felt now like she’d gotten too deep into it.  Everything she thought to say seemed either too rude or like it wouldn’t be enough to dissuade her.

               “Now, you’ve really got to tell me what it’s like being friends with Ryuko, I’m really curious.”  The conversation went on for a while longer, and though the initial pretense was gossiping about her celebrity friend each question found a way to be more about Mei, pushing the limits of the alias and forcing Satsuki to make things up on the fly.  Having to think on her heels probably made her seem even more shy and self-conscious.  But at least some of them, about things she liked, foods and movies and hobbies and such, were things Satsuki could answer honestly.  And with each new detail came a subtle new compliment, sometimes so subtle even Satsuki didn’t recognize them for what they were at first.  It was as if she was saying, “I appreciate that you’re so smart, I wouldn’t be this subtle if I thought you wouldn’t notice”.

               And all the while Satsuki’s discomfort grew.  She actually did find “dragon tattoo lady”, as she had childishly labelled her in her mind, quite likeable.  But she was barking up the wrong tree, and Satsuki didn’t know how to tell her that.

               “Yo, Mei, what’sss up!”  A new voice suddenly cut in:  Ryuko, thank god!  She was noticeably drunker than when Satsuki last saw her, waving a handle of whisky around like a toy.  But with the blush on her face and that wolfish, lopsided grin Satsuki suddenly forgot all about the woman she’d been talking to for the better part of twenty minutes.  She just didn’t come anywhere close, how had Satsuki forgotten?

               “Oh Ryuko, good to see you!”  She greeted her warmly, and before she knew what was happening Ryuko’d thrown an arm across her shoulders.

               “You’rre the best, y’know that?  I jusst wanted come over, let you know,” At this point she noticed Satsuki’s companion, and Satsuki thought she spotted a momentary, suspicious squint of her eyes.  She seemed to become marginally soberer.  “Hey, how’s it goin’?”  She said, not unfriendly, but not friendly either.

               “Hey Ryuko. I’m alright, you?”

               “Fine, fine.  Hey Mei, I gotta take a leak, you come with real quick?”

               “Oh uh, sure,” Satsuki quickly said, all too happy to get out of there.  But she did give her companion a look, sort of asking if it was alright.  She shrugged.

               “Yeah, go ahead.  It was really nice to meet you Mei,” She said.

               “Yeah, you too.”

               “You think maybe I’ll see you later?”  She said, with a leading tone that suggested that she was expecting a yes.

               “Maybe,” Satsuki replied, more coyly than she meant.

 

               In the mercifully empty bathroom Satsuki let out a massive sigh of relief.

               “Oh, thank you for coming along when you did,” she said.  Ryuko didn’t really seem to be listening

               “I said, I’d come check up on you, didn’t I?  Sorry I interrupted, but I think you’ll thank me,”  Ryuko by all indication didn’t actually have to go to the bathroom, because all she did was check her face in the mirror and take a pull from her whiskey.

               “Did you hear what she said, about living in Tokyo?”

               “No, but listen, that gal?  You didn’t want her anyway.”

               “Why, what?”

               “Serial womanizer’s what she is, been with just about every regular here.  Expert pickup artist and you fell right into it.  She’s nice and all, but all she wants you for is one night, trust me.”

               “Well, she didn’t seem that bad to me,” Satsuki said tersely. something about Ryuko’s tone, the way she was coaching her like she was some naïve damsel, was annoying her.  Where were you fifteen minutes ago then, huh?

               “Woah, hey, Mei, chill out.  I mean, if what you want’s a roll in the hay then go back out there, not tryna judge.  I just thought that somethin’ more long term would be more you.”

               “No, you’re right,” Satsuki sighed, “But that doesn’t matter; she told me something important.”  Satsuki laid out for Ryuko everything she’d heard about “dragon tattoo lady”’s life during her reign.

               “Shit,”  Ryuko said, “That’s rough.”

               “I can’t ask her or someone else like that to forgive me, can I?”

               “Shit, no that wouldn’t fly.  Aaalright so I guess that rules out anybody from Tokyo.  Probably Osaka too.”

               “Kind of hard to find people you haven’t wronged when you ruled the country with an iron fist,”  Satsuki moped, hoping Ryuko would concede and they could give up this endeavor.

               “There’s that negative thinking, Sats!”  said, giving her a reassuring pat on the shoulder.  “I’ll introduce you the next one, alright?  I can wingman for ya, I’m not too shabby at it.”

               “Sure, I think I’d appreciate that.”

               “Don’t sweat it Mei, you’re doing great,” She switched back to the alias as she opened the door back into the pounding music of the dance floor, “Just fly casual and it’ll be fun.  And hey, the night’s still young, who knows what’ll happen!”

Chapter Text

She’d expected Satsuki to be picky – frankly it would’ve been weird if she wasn’t – but this was getting ridiculous.  It must’ve been eight or nine girls that Ryuko had introduced her too by now and she’d yet to show any interest in them beyond the first couple minutes.  Sure, she handled small talk just fine, but sooner or later her eyes would glaze over and by then her interest was lost no matter how Ryuko tried to turn the conversation around.  None of them could disarm her like her first encounter at the bar had.  Maybe it was a mistake to tear her away from that.  Maybe she should just turn her loose to get hit on by whatever charmer thought they could handle her.  But she’d kind of suspected that Satsuki would rather be the one on the attack.

               It was frustrating, that was for sure.  It sucked when a college acquaintance gave her a fiercely dirty look as Satsuki meandered off.  She’d spent quite a lot of energy hyping her up, telling her that Mei was one of the coolest people she’d ever met, only to have her mutter into her drink and look like she’d rather be anywhere else.  And as much as there were times when she felt a burst of joy when Satsuki rejected someone, thinking, good, she wasn’t worthy anyway, the girl needed dating practice.

               But on the other hand, she couldn’t say it wasn’t fun.  There was a thrill to the manic activity, dashing around the club looking for more single young ladies she could fleece to be Satsuki’s next reject.  She’d ask people she knew from college or from some other party if they’d brought a friend who might be interested, and it was gratifying that relying just on that she could reach just about every patron.  It was like she could see in her head the web of connections between everybody forming. Look at all these friends I’ve made, and some of them didn’t even know I was so famous when I met them!  Of course, the entire time she kept drinking, and as the haze of alcohol combined with her constant activity she couldn’t think of what she’d do if Satsuki hit it off and her job was done.

               What’s funny is how she thinks dating is something totally different from the rest of life, Ryuko kept thinking to herself, like she usually fearless but now it’s totally different.  I used to think that too, I told myself I’d figure it out later, and now look, I did figure it out!  Well, kind of, kind of.  She needs to know it’s not such a big deal, it kills me to see her moping about it.  Although she does look so cute when she’s unconfident, makes me want to go over and give her a big hug and tell her everything’s okay.  It’s just so funny though, so unlike her.  It really is a foreign concept to her, totally different from the rest of life.  She had to keep thinking about why this was necessary, to stop that feeling that this was a terrible idea and she shouldn’t give Satsuki away like this.

               And to not feel guilty about pulling Satsuki away from that first girl that she met at the bar.  That was the closest she’d come to an actual connection.  Not that what Ryuko’d said was untrue, she really wasn’t a long-term relationship kind of girl.  But that wasn’t why she’d intervened, she’d seen that it looked like there was something there and then all of a sudden, her feet were taking her over to them.  Stupid drunk Ryuko that wasn’t your place to say anything!  But if she hadn’t, what would she have done?  (Ryuko still hadn’t fully processed that Satsuki had actually been dying to get out of that conversation)

               She’d gone outside with Haruka to take a break and smoke, and as the cross-fade started to kick in she spotted Satsuki through the window, wandering around and looking lost.  They made eye contact, Satsuki said something Ryuko had no chance of hearing, and on a whim Ryuko leaned over and blew her a little kiss, an exhalation of smoke coming with it and dissipating into the breezy night air.  Satsuki’s response, stammering awkwardly with a tremulous smile, left her struck with an overwhelming feeling of something.  It was like lightheadedness, but good, invigorating, exactly what she’d needed. 

What Ryuko didn’t see was how Satsuki seemed to visibly flinch when Haruka threw her arms around Ryuko’s waist and turned away when Ryuko responded in kind.

 

“There you are!  Ah!  Have you been smoking?”  Mako suddenly shouted in Ryuko’s ear, cutting through the blur.  They were still out on the sidewalk – Haruka had gone inside a while ago, Ryuko wasn’t sure how long- but Ryuko had stayed to finish her blunt and give a fellow who’d recognized her an autograph. 

Ryuko’d never managed to finish the autograph (no pen), but he got something much better:  the story of how he saw the Ryuko Matoi blitzed out of her mind in front of a lesbian bar in downtown Tokyo, which would go viral over the next couple weeks.

“Mako!  Hey!  You havin’ fun?”

“Well yes, but don’t change the subject!  I thought you said you’d stop for me!”  Mako whined.  Her face glistened from the heat of the club as she crossed her arms and pouted.

“Mako, c’mon.  That was back when we were dating.  But it’s no big deal anyway,” She had to focus and squint, but Ryuko was pretty sure she wasn’t slurring her words right now.

“It is so!  It’s a nasty habit.”

“Sheesh, for a doctor’s daughter you don’t know very much about it, do you?”

“Yes, of course I do!”

“I bet you don’t even know what it feels like,” Ryuko taunted playfully. Mako seemed to think they were actually having an argument but Ryuko thought her determination to stay straight-edge was oddly funny, if annoying at times like these.  Either way, she wasn’t having a serious discussion about it now.

“Yeah, I do!”

“Oh really?  Well you can tell me about it then,” Ryuko leaned on the wall.

“Well, uh, it makes you high.”

“Mhmm?”

“And you get dizzy and it makes you think that doing really stupid things is a good idea.  Hey, what’re you laughing about?”

“Well, I think doing stupid things is a good idea all the time.”

“Ryuukkooo!  Stop making fun!”  She pouted, but under it Ryuko could tell she was softening.  As if she could ever stay mad, at anybody.

“Look Mako, you don’t really know anything about it, but that’s okay.”

“I just think you’re setting a bad example for Mataro and for your girlfriend.”

“She’s a grown woman Mako, and he’s almost an adult too.”

“I knowww… But still.”

“It’s really not a big deal, but if I can’t prove it with words…,” She reached into her jacket and pulled out the little purse-like bag she kept her weed in these days.  “There’s only one other way.”

“Ryuko!”  Mako gasped, scandalized.

“All it does is make you feel relaxed, I promise.  You won’t get addicted, you won’t get sick, and then you’ll know.  Just this once?”

“…,” Mako made a little growly noise in her throat for almost a full minute, “Just this once, okay?”

“You’ve got it.”

“Okay then, for science.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Alright!”  Mako seemed oddly relieved.  She leaned in close as Ryuko rolled a blunt for each of them (something she’d picked up from upperclassmen long before she actually tried smoking herself), and although she protested that she didn’t need one all to herself Ryuko insisted that she needed enough to really feel it and she accepted that.  When it came time to actually light it though, she hesitated just a little, looking up at Ryuko with those huge doe eyes ablaze with the multicolored lights of the club.

“Don’t worry, I’m here to look after ya,” Ryuko said reassuringly, and Mako made a little “Mmm” noise and leaned in to the lighter, pressing her shoulder up to Ryuko.  God, she was so soft.  Haruka was always very warm, but a bit bony in some places.  Satsuki, probably, was too muscular to be anything but firm.  But Mako, you could just sink into her, and in the haze of the cross-fade clouding her mind and the thoughts of women and romance that had been occupying her all night that was all Ryuko could think about for a moment.  And she only leaned in further when Ryuko tried to show her how to take a drag properly.

After a few minutes Mako took a step back, saying, “Whoo!  Can we sit down?”  and before Ryuko knew it they were leaned up against the brick wall near the window, stretching their legs across Ryuko’s rumpled army surplus jacket.  Mako seemed a lot more comfortable now, arching her back a little and holding the blunt between index and middle fingers like she knew what she was doing.

“What?”  She giggled when she saw Ryuko smiling at her.

“Oh, nothing.  You look very sophisticated right now.”

“Sophisticated?  Sitting on my phanny on the dirty sidewalk like a junkie?”

“Nah, you look like an old-timey lady with one a’ those long cigarette thingys.  I’m tryna say it’s cute.”

“That’s sweet.  You’re sweet.”

“When I want to be.  But more importantly – how’re you feeling?”

“Oh, weird.  I feel like I’m floating at sea, but I’m not dizzy.” She seemed pretty giddy too – she hadn’t stopped giggling to herself for several minutes – but she didn’t report that.

“So, good or bad?”

“Ooh, that lady had the prettiest dress, did you see that?”

“Mako?  Focus?”

“Oh, right!  It’s weird, I told you!  But I don’t feel bad, so maybe that’s good.”

“That is good.  But I knew you wouldn’t hate it.”

“Mmm,” She hummed, then paused for a while, “… Thank you for letting me try it, and not being too pushy.  I hate when people are push and are like ‘you have to do drugs now!’.  Makes me feel like their tricking me.”

“Of course.”

“… I wish we could spend more time together now,” Mako said a few minutes later in a confidential tone, “It sucks being off at college without my bestie!”

“Aw, Mako… but you know you can call me whenever you want,”  Ryuko said, brushing a loose hair off Mako’s cheek.  It wasn’t like they didn’t talk on the phone almost every day already.

“Noooo!  That’s not good enough!”  She moped, shuffling in a little closer until she was practically supported by Ryuko’s shoulder alone, heads pressed together.

“Mako…”

“I miss you,” She said sweetly.

“Yeah, I miss you too,”  Ryuko responded with a chuckle and, without really thinking about it, reached around the arch of Mako’s back and back across her chest.  She felt the weight of her breasts drape across her forearm.  And the sudden increase of her heart rate.

“Ah!  R-Ryuko what’re you doing?”  Mako’s face suddenly went red and flustered.

“Oh, ah, I don’t know, sorry!”  Ryuko stopped her hand before it crept under Mako’s shirt, waving her other arm around frantically.  What was she thinking?  She was used to Mako’s body being as good as hers – it felt so familiar, so right.  Maybe on some other night she wouldn’t have done it, but for a moment there she just needed that physical contact.  And now she was paying for it.  She tried to pull her arm back around, but Mako curled up around it and looked up at her with a glint in her eyes.

Don’t do that Ryuko!  I didn’t mean I missed you like that!  I have a boyfriend now, and you have a girlfriend.  Who isn’t me!”

“Yeah, I know, I know.  I didn’t mean it like that either.  I’m just stupid,” Mako was making that little growly noise again, as if to say, “I know you didn’t, but you still did it anyway.  And I’m not saying I didn’t like it, but it’s still bad”

“No, you’re not stupid!”

“No, I definitely am.  Agh, forget it, this was a bad idea, let’s go back inside and pretend this didn’t happen,” Ryuko managed to free her arm and started to stand up, but Mako grabbed her by the shirt, jerking her harshly.

“No no no no!  Don’t be mad!”

“What? How could I be mad?”

“W-we were having such a good time and I ruined it!”

“You didn’t do anything Mako that was my fault!”

“I just shouldn’t have said anything,” Mako pouted.  Ryuko figured the weed might be making her more emotional.  If that were the case, Mako would be livid at her come the morning, as much as that was possible for her.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“But I killed the mood!”

“Nah, nah, see?  I’m not going anywhere.  We can sit here as long as you want.”  Ryuko settled back down to sitting, and Mako relaxed her grip on Ryuko’s shirt.

Mako looked at her again for a long while before saying, “Okay… I can tell you anything, right?”

“Uh, of course?”

“… sometimes I feel like you and Ira are gonna tear me in two.”

“But I told you that I was okay that you were leaving me, right?  You don’t have to feel bad about that.”

“No, you can’t decide that!”  She said, and then, after a pause, “Ohh, I feel kinda tired now.  I’m sorry I yelled at you before.”

“Mako that is A-Okay.”

“It used to be just you and me against the world, and now we have all these great new friends.  But I still feel safest when I’m with you.  I mean, I also feel safe with Ira, but, well, he’s… you know, I told you.”

“Yeah.”

“But he wasn’t with us then, even though he’s great.  And then I feel bad because you went off on your own and I know you get lonely sometimes and then I think maybe Haruka’s not treating you right but then I think I’m stupid for being jealous when I have a boyfriend who I love but then I still wish I could see you every day like we used to but them I’m afraid I’d fall in love with you again and I wouldn’t want him anymore and-and -,”

“ – Mako, Mako,”  Ryuko smiled,  sheesh, remind me not to put drugs in this girl’s system again, she said to herself, she’s run through giddiness, sappiness, and paranoia in record time. “I know.  I get it.  Here, I have an idea.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Let’s just start spending more time together right now, okay?  We’ll just sit here, relax, not think about this stuff.  Like old times.  We’re out here to have a good time, so let’s worry about it later.”

“You mean that?”

“Yeah.  Don’t worry, I don’t mean we’ll do anything.  It doesn’t count as cheating if we don’t do anything.  And if you still feel like you’re being unfaithful it can just be our little secret, okay?”

“What?  He’s my boyfriend I’m not keeping secrets from him?”

“Right, right, of course not.  Well then you can tell him the truth, that you spent a while catching up with your bestie and even though you used to date nothing happened.”

“… Well, I don’t want to get up just yet…”

“Well then, do we have a deal?”

“Sure!”  Mako said, and in a very Mako fashion all the tension suddenly evaporated from her and she smiled that radiant little beam of hers.  They sat there for a minute or two people-watching before Mako suddenly rolled over.  Ryuko’s hyper-senses went haywire and starting firing off at random when she got enough liquor or drugs (or both) in her system so it took her by surprise when Mako was suddenly on her hands and knees, eye-to-eye with her, their noses less than an inch apart.  “You have the most special eyes in the world, did you know that?  Nobody’s eyes look just the same as yours.”

“Mako, what’re you doing?”  Ryuko asked, betraying a little worry in her voice.

“Does snuggling count as ‘doing anything’?”  Mako asked with her trademark bubbly innocence

“I don’t think so.”

”Good then!  Just don’t try to touch my boobs, okay?”

”I would never!” Ryuko acted scandalized, but Mako just looked confused.

”But you just did.”

”That’s the joke Mako!”

“Ohhhhhh!” she exclaimed, then held up a finger very close to Ryuko’s left eye.  “This is gonna sound stupid but... can I touch it?”

”My eye?”

”Well yeah.”

”I don’t see why not.”  Ryuko said, and Mako gently moved her finger down until it was resting on the glossy surface of the lens right above Ryuko’s uncanny, gear shaped pupil.  She didn’t have anything to worry about - most people would’ve found this quite painful and instinctively pulled their head away, but a minor pain like this was nothing to Ryuko.  She let Mako draw a circle across her cornea.

”Man, eyes are very weird, aren’t they?” Mako observed.

”The windows to the soul, they say.”

“You’ve got a pretty soul, Ryuko,” Mako said as she lifted her finger away to show she was done with that, turning around so that she leaned back across Ryuko’s chest, hips in between her legs.  It was a position both of them were very used to and they slotted together with months of practice behind them. “Ahh, nice and comfy,” She sighed as Ryuko rested her head on her shoulder and started rolling herself another blunt.

 

That was how Shiro found them, some amount of time later that Ryuko couldn’t even begin to guess, and as he leaned his head out the door to spot them his eyes narrowed with an inscrutable reaction.

“Oh, uh, there you guys are.”

“Shiro, what’s up?”  Ryuko answered.  Mako looked like she was almost asleep – she wasn’t, but they hadn’t been moving much.

“Well, I think Satsuki seems just about done here so we’re gonna move on to S-Tier now.  I already called our driver.”

“You drunk?”

“I’ve had a few.”

“Okay, well keep an eye out, lightweight.”

“Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ryuko shoved Mako off a little roughly and stood up.  Mako whined but was quick to follow.  “Did, er, did Satsuki ever find anybody she was interested in?”

“… No…”

“Ah damn.  Well, get ‘em next time, eh?”

Shiro walked off with a shrug.  She thought that meant he wouldn’t tell anybody how intimately they’d been nestled – not that it mattered much, Mako would tell Ira the truth and Haruka wouldn’t dare question if they were in an open relationship or not.  But he might tell Satsuki, which wasn’t great.  She’d probably construe it as cheating, emotional if not literally, and if Ryuko had to guess being seen as a cheat just might be enough to jeopardize her respect.

Chapter Text

Ryuko could tell Satsuki was impressed by S-Tier Rebuilt by the appreciative smile that crossed her face as they entered and the visible release of tension across her shoulders.  It was impressive, that was true enough, an upscale joint if Ryuko’d ever seen one with smooth counters of real stone, plush upholstery that was probably stained by spilled drinks (it was impossible to tell with all the bright lights), and tropical aquariums filled with seaweed and other tasteful decorations that filled the expansive, multiroom club with a lush, jungley green, the alabaster of smooth tropical sands, and spashes of brilliant silver and gold.

“You like?”  Ryuko asked as she came back from the bar to the gang’s table with drinks aplenty.  They had brought along the friends they met from Mary’s – it had been a tight squeeze in the limo but since plenty of them wanted to dance and mingle a small booth was enough for those who felt like getting off their feet.  This included Mako, who had been hit with the munchies hard (no surprise, all things considered) and was already tucking into a platter of various fried snacks.

“I think I do,” Satsuki smiled back.

“Good, I’m glad you’re impressed with the place you saved,” Ryuko said this quietly so nobody who didn’t know her true identity could hear.

“I can’t take any credit, really.  If anything, I saved it from myself.”

“Sure, whatever, but hey, remember, as much as you’ve got that you can’t go around talking about it, okay?  It’s enough that they all know I’m here,” They’d had to call ahead and go in through a back entrance to avoid paparazzi, and people were still spotting Ryuko.  Most respected her privacy, but some asked for selfies or autogrpahs, and Ryuko did not want Satsuki’s experience ruined by that.

“I know, I know.  I shouldn’t have to remind you I’m very careful,”  Ryuko responded by slapping her forehead in mock frustration and mouthing “duh”.  Satsuki chuckled, and asked, “So what do I do here?  Should I go mingle, is there anyone you know here?”

“Hold on, first,”  Ryuko slid over a shot glass, “Snagged that for you, Mei.”

Satsuki frowned, “Oh, no I don’t think that’s a good idea.  I already had a couple cocktails, and I just want a few drinks, okay?”

“Well, one extra’s not gonna kill ya, I just think you should have at least one drink here, just to commemorate.”

“Alright, but this is it, okay?  I can already feel it,” Satsuki drained the glass, and immediately scrunched her face up in displeasure.  “Oh!  What on Earth is that?”

“Rum!”

“Rum?  It tastes dreadful.”

“That’s part of the fun Mei!  Now c’mon, let’s go exploring!”
               After that, things began to get pretty hazy.

 

One thing Ryuko remembered doing was staring eye-to-eye with a very large, intelligent looking fish with orange and black patterning that was meandering about in the largest aquarium.  She was cooing at it, trying to draw it over with her finger.  She was laughing about it with another woman, but didn’t recognize her at all - she looked European.  Then there was a memory of recording Mako and Haruka and Houka out on the dancefloor.  Houka actually knew what he was doing and was a remarkable talent at it, while the girls fell all over each other giggling.

Then, a bit later, Ryuko was leaning over the DJ booth, the DJ smiling amiably at her as he went about his job trying to pretend the world’s most famous woman wasn’t drunkenly shouting for his attention.  Not that he didn’t talk to her, but…

“Yo!  DEEE-JAAAYY!”

“Yes Lady Ryuko?”

“Don’t Lady me!  I ain’t no fancy lady I don’t want anybody treating me any different, okay?  That’s official!”

“What can I do for you then, Miss Matoi?”

“That’ss better!  No wait!  You don’t need the miss either.”

“You want me to call you just Matoi?”

“Er, Matoi, Ryuko, I don’t know man.  Look, do you take requests?”

“Sometimes.  What would you like to hear? I’m sure I can put it on.”

“Couldja put on some Regalia for us, pretty please?”

“I have a Regalia song on the up-next already – they’re always a big hit.”

“Nah, nah, nah, I mean like a lot of Regalia, like a whole album or somethin’.”

“Oh, uh, alright, why not?”  Ryuko hung out with him until the first song came on, then grinned and gave him a thumbs up.

“Hey, y’know her real name?  Of course you do, everybody does – it’s stupid how she has that stupid fake name.  Well Nonon she’s a real good friend of mine, probably one of my best friends.  We get on each other’s nerves all the time, but then I was thinking to myself ‘we spend so much time together and y’know what?  We have a pretty good time’ so even though she’s a total bitch she’s fun and I like her a lot and she’s very talented and one day she’s gonna be famous.  Even more famous.  Oh, and there’s a funny thing, little secret trivia for you – ,”  Ryuko might’ve stood there for quite some time  talking at the overwhelmed DJ if it weren’t for Shiro suddenly materializing.

“You should do something about Mei, she’s had way too much,” He said plaintively, “I wanted to take her home but she’s too strong for me and she doesn’t want to go.”

“Seriously?  But it’s so early!”  Ryuko whined.

“No, it is definitely not.”

“Ugh.  Where is she?”

“Over by the bar,”  Shiro pointed, and yes, Ryuko could see Satsuki, clutching to the bar for balance with carefully concealed desperation.  She was standing next to a couple, seemingly in conversation.  Except her mouth didn’t stop moving once.  Ryuko focused in her superhuman ears to hear what she was saying:

“Nah, it took me a while to be comfortable with it but it’s definitely girls for me.  But, like, I can appreciate the male form, y’know?  Like, if I see like a handsome movie star or something I can be like ‘now there’s a handsome man – I’d put up a poster of him in my room’.  But having sex with ‘em?  That’s just too far, sounds gross to me.  That makes sense to you, right?”  She directed that question at the man of the couple, but went on before he could answer, “It’s different for Ryuko though, I think she just things… things… bleh,”  She stumbled over her tongue, and Ryuko couldn’t help but notice that the cadence of her voice, so relaxed and gossipy like how “ordinary” women talked among friends, was something she had never heard from Satsuki before, “she thinks that all men are disgusting.  Like she doesn’t trust any of them.  But like it makes sense, she used to be homeless and ran with pretty rough crowds, so there was probably lots of prevents tried to molest her or whatever… and that’s not even mentioning her father.”  Oh dear lord what is she saying! Ryuko sobered herself up in a flash.  Not all the way, but enough to handle things.

“Point taken,” She said quickly to Shiro before darting off, reappearing at Satsuki’s side.

               Five minutes and three broken barstools later Ryuko had managed to drag Satsuki down to the limo.  Someone captured a video of the moment when, as Ryuko wrapped her arms around Satsuki’s waist to drag her off, she received a nose-breaking elbow to the face and shrugged it off like it was nothing.  This would become a much watched, much reported on clip, with people speculating on who this mysterious drunken woman that Ryuko had dragged off was.  Some commenters quickly suspected that it might be Satsuki, but most brushed that off as idle speculation.  At first, anyway.

 

               On the ride home Ryuko discovered something new:  she hated being the soberest person in a room.  She’d put Satsuki over on one side of the main couch that ran along the length of the limo and sat herself down on the other, but she’d quickly scurried over to Ryuko’s side anyway and was chattering with no pauses for response, same as she’d been for the last half hour.

               Ryuko was trying to figure out how much she’d had, count up the number of different drinks she’d seen in Satsuki’s hands.  It didn’t seem like a lot, but then there had been plenty of times that Ryuko’d lost track of her.  What was also weird was that her speech and pronunciation still seemed to be just about perfect, save for the change in tone and cadence.  She never stammered, barely slurred a word, the only reason Ryuko could tell she was drunk was that she was acting so unlike her usual self.  That and the balance, she really was having trouble standing at all.  Still, she had to be a real lightweight to be this sloppy even if she’d had a few more drinks than Ryuko counted.  I guess I can’t tell if she’s gonna be sick to her stomach, but I do know she’s gonna be miserable tomorrow morning.

               “So… you never did find anyone interesting, did you?”  Ryuko eventually asked, interrupting Satsuki’s ramblings.

               “Huh?  No.”

               “Damn, that’s too bad.  I’m sorry Satsuki, I really thought it would work.   I thought they’d be all over you,” Never mind that there were a lot of girls that were interested in her, and that it was Satsuki who did all the rejecting.  Ryuko didn’t really remember that.

               “Ss’Okay,” Satsuki murmured, “I didn’t want them anyway.”

               “Wait, seriously?  But – but I thought -,”

               “I mean – no wait, I mean, listen.  I was against this idea from the beginning.”

               “Oh no, Satsuki why didn’t you say something?”

               “Because you looked so excited!”  She exclaimed sadly, “I don’t want to be out all night, I don’t want to get drunk, I’m not like this.  That’s you, not me.”

               “It’s okay, you don’t have to.  I’m sorry, I won’t drag you into going out again.”

               “I was kind of hoping, though,” Satsuki said, alternating between a small, meek voice and gushes of words like she couldn’t talk fast enough, “I was thinking, if I were more like you, maybe I would get what I really wanted – it was a longshot, I don’t know what I was thinking.”

               “What you really want…,” There was something oddly provocative about that phrase to Ryuko, “Which is?”

               Satsuki stopped to make a loud sniffing, hiccupping noise, “Ryuko, what does it feel like to be in love?”

               “In love?”  Oh god, where is this going? Ryuko’s mind istantly went to visions of a teary confession that she’d imagined many times.  But that couldn’t happen, right?  No, that’s impossible.  But it’s so close, just say the words! “I-I don’t know!”

               “But you were in love with Mako, right?”

               “Well, it’s different with Mako!”

               “You alllways say that!”  Satsuki whined.

               “Well it’s true!  With her it’s like, there’s no barrier.  I can say anything, do anything, and she’ll never get upset because she knows how I really feel,” I guess tonight I actually got that proven to me all over again. “Maybe that is love, I dunno.”

               “…Oh.  I’ve never felt anything like that.”  What Ryuko could never guess was that Satsuki was reliving all the turmoil of feelings that she’d felt for Ryuko since she’d accepted that her attraction wasn’t going away, and what she found dismayed her.  She didn’t feel secure in anything she might do, more like the exact opposite – obsession over whether Ryuko would approve, what she would do in any situation.  Even my deviant fantasies aren’t right.  I guess that’s not love, just obsession.  It’s so strong sometimes, like I just wish I could be her.

               “Well, what about the elites, your closest friends?  Or our family?  I mean, it’s not the same, but…”

               “I don’t want to have sex with them! I don’t want to marry them!  No, it’s not even close to the same.  What’s the difference there?  I don’t know but I know it’s there.”

               “It’s, it’s, ah hell, I don’t know.  Doesn’t seem too different to me.”

               “I just though maybe it would work, just a chance that I might feel something.  Because I want to, I feel like if I had a girlfriend, I’d be able to fall in love with her.  It’s so easy for everyone else.  You fell in love right away, didn’t you?  But what if I just never do?”

               “You’re nineteen Sats.  I’m sure you will,” Ryuko said, both amazed and deeply uncomfortable with playing the consoler, the level headed one, for Satsuki of all people.  “It’ll happen one day.  You’re not a monster.”

               “You mean if I can’t feel love I’m a monster?”  Satsuki asked, looking at Ryuko with some alarm.  She was practically crying now, lost to her inscrutable drunken thoughts.  Ryuko kicked herself internally – she hadn’t meant for that to be taken seriously.

               “No, no that’s not what I meant.”

               “But what if I can’t?  I feel like if I did, then that’d be the last thing I need to do to live like a normal person. It’d be so nice to have somebody.  But there’s nobody who’ll do.  When I looked at those girls and I thought about it, it just wasn’t right.  I don’t want to say it because they seemed nice but when I see them all I see is weakness.  They - they just aren’t like us, what do they know about anything?”

               “I – I mean I don’t really think that’s fair Sats.”

               “They haven’t seen the things we have they haven’t done the things you and I have.  How – I don’t get it, how are you in love with Haruka?  You’ve been to space, you wore Senketsu and you had that special bond nobody can understand but you, and she’s just some girl.”

               “Maybe when you go to space and you see the whole world you realize that we’re all just some girl.  I’ve never been special Sats, it’s just my luck any of this ever happened to me.”

               “No.  You were always special.”

               “Well whatever.  The point is that you’re not gonna get a girlfriend any sooner with that mindset.”

               “You know how old I was the first time I had someone killed?  Eleven.  That’s me, that’s my life.  But now it’s over, and I – I can’t tell anybody I don’t know what to do now.  How could they understand?”

               “You can tell me.  Sats I understand, we’ve talked about this before, right?”

               “But what can you do about it?  It’s not your job.  I wish I could find someone like you who I could date.  But maybe they don’t exist.”

               “… Like – like me?”

               “Yeah.  Strong, dependable, knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to take it, isn’t afraid to tell you what she thinks.”

               “That’s what you think I’m like?”

               “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway.  I’m not gonna find her this way – let’s face it, I’m a complete novice.  I can’t go into those bars I feel like I’m gonna get a sensory overload and I always feel like I stick out.  I don’t know how to talk to anybody.  You know, I’ve never even kissed anybody before.  I’m probably terrible at it.  But I couldn’t bear some ordinary girl telling me that, I’m sure of it.”

               “I – I mean the only thing you can really do is practice, right?  Not just the kissing I mean, all of it.”  There was something about Satsuki’s tone, which seemed oddly casual after her outburst moments before, that was deeply agitating to Ryuko.  She’d better not be – oh God, she is!

               “But you’ll be honest with me, right?”  Satsuki lurched clumsily forward.  Her hands found Ryuko’s hips with a rough vice-grip.

               Ryuko saw it coming a mile away.  And she knew damn well why she didn’t do anything about it.  But what could she do?  When their lips collided her brain abruptly stopped functioning.

               The past year, as far as Ryuko was concerned, had been some sort of karmic payback from God or the universe or whatever for a lifetime of getting shit on constantly, to saying nothing of the living hell of Honnouji.  So it felt like some sort of reminder that life was indeed unfair that this, which should have been the capstone, what it had all been building towards, just – it just wasn’t right. 

When her thoughts rebooted after a couple seconds Ryuko was faced with the realization that fantasizing about your gorgeous long-lost sister shoving her tongue roughly, passionately, and yet somehow still precisely down your throat was all well and good – but that in practice it was a whole different beast.  Not that it didn’t feel exactly how she’d imagined – better actually, oh God, it was like lightning, who cared about the noxious rum taste on her breath – but considering that Satsuki was drunk off her ass, definitely didn’t mean to be doing this, and might or might not remember it in the morning it couldn’t be anything but catastrophic.  She pulled away as soon as they paused for a breath.  Which wasn’t very soon.

               “Whoa!  Whoa Sats hold up!  Please,”  Ryuko tried to shy away, but somehow her legs were under Satsuki’s body and though she could’ve freed them without much trouble doing it without hurting Satsuki was another story.  She’d been right in her previous guess, though:  every inch of Satsuki’s musculature was amazingly firm, and it drove Ryuko’s hyper-senses wild.  She could feel each ab shifting individually.  Wow, she’s so strong.  I could never compare, I just cheat with the life-fibers.

She was reminded of the first time they’d crossed blades, not long after she arrived at Honnouji. She’d been unafraid then even though she didn’t have a single life-fiber on her and Ryuko was wearing Kamui Senketsu.  She was like an angel of death, an otherworldly being.  And now look at them!

Satsuki looked like she’d been punched. “Oh no…”  She murmured, “I’m dreadful, aren’t I?”

               “What?  No, Sats you’re fine, really, but look you just can’t – Mmmm!”

               “Good,”  Satsuki said – and she was back on top of Ryuko.  This time she managed to go even longer without pausing, she seemed desperate, aware that Ryuko would try to stop her any moment now.  I’m going to do something bad, Ryuko thought to herself, I’m going to assume she’s not gonna remember this tomorrow and just go with it for all it’s worth now.  No, but what if she does?  I’d be ruined!  Aghh, this is so fucked up!  Despite herself, when Satsuki finally had to breathe Ryuko pulled herself away much more fiercely and scooted back a few feet.  Satsuki acted like she was surprised and let out a pathetic whine.

               “Jesus Sats this is not okay!  It’s me, your sister?  We – you – we can’t be doing this!”

               “Ryuko please,” She tried to come nearer again, “I’m supposed to be someone else tonight, right?  Just let me, just this once.  Just this once.”  For a moment, Ryuko was sure she was about to let her in for round three, but she resisted the urge.

               “No!”  Ryuko backed up even further.  Now she was nearly falling off her seat.  “C’mon, think about it!  It – it isn’t right.”

               That seemed to bring Satsuki back to her senses a little, and she said in a voice close to tears “Don’t be mad, Ryuko.”  Second time tonight I’ve heard those words.

               “Don’t do that again!”  She snarled, and Satsuki nodded dejectedly  They sat in silence for a time while Satsuki slowly gathered herself up into a little ball.  Ryuko tried to distract herself from what had just happened by listening to the noise of the traffic sweeping by.

 

Eventually Satsuki broke the silence with an absolutely pathetic noise like a cross between a chuckle and a sob.

               “We’re really awful, aren’t we?”  She groaned, “Our mother and father were cousins – that’s not even unusual for our family – then our cousins, brother and sister, I think they fuck each other –,”

               “ - Wait, hold on what? - ”  Ryuko tried to interrupt her, but it was no good.

               “And then our mother raped me and Nui and Rei – they count they’re like our stepsisters – and probably you too when you were in Junketsu -,”

               “WHAT?!”  Ryuko shouted now so loud that the driver called over the walkie-talkie to ask if everything was alright (not that he got an answer).  Not that she didn’t suspect that, but to hear it said so plainly when Satsuki would’ve never – and now she couldn’t get the image out of her head.  But Satsuki wasn’t phased.

               “And now here I am trying to make out with you!  I guess it’s only to be expected.  We’re like the modern-day Hapsburgs, huh Ryuko?”

               “I don’t know who the Hapsburgs are, go back to the part about Ragyo raping you!”  Ryuko yelled quickly.

               “Ohh Ryuko, you’re lucky you’re so cute because you are just sooo dumb,” Satsuki said with another choking laugh sob, “My only sister and she’s an idiot!”

               “Yeah, alright.”  Ryuko growled and went back to staring out the window.  So much to think about – and she didn’t want to think about any of it.  Even though she should have been overjoyed by some of it – her lips would never forget – she would think of her family’s track record with incest and the answer became clear.  They couldn’t replay the acts of that devil of a woman – no matter what either might want to do they must never be like her.  They were already enough like her.

               They took the elevator up to the penthouse, and Ryuko plopped Satsuki into her bed without saying goodnight.

 

               Later, when everyone else got back, Ryuko was still awake.  She dragged Haruka into their room almost before they’d said hello – even if they were basically in an open relationship, there was only so far Ryuko could go without feeling a little unfair to the girl.  And besides, the nights events had left her with certain unfulfilled urges that Haruka could help with.

               Not long after she found herself splayed out across her bed, Haruka’s head between her legs, and everything felt back to normal.  In that delirious, dreamlike moment right after climax images of Satsuki and Mako and Haruka all swam before her eyes, and she had no idea what to make of them.  They might as well have been raw globs of paint, pure colors, for all it mattered to her then.

               But when she pulled Haruka up afterward to cradle her in her arms, she couldn’t help but laugh at how stupid she’d been.  Look at her, her life was full of beautiful women, beautiful women who wanted her and whom she drove crazy.  And there were even more out there for the choosing, so easily if she wanted – most boys and boy-like men who fantasized about saving the world would eagerly anticipate the rewards:  money, fame, women.  She could take or leave the first two, but Mako had taught her that no matter what she had to be honest with herself, and she knew that she would take the women, thank you very much.

               So of course, even with so many women to choose from of course she was pining after Satsuki – she was the forbidden fruit!  It was so simple that she really did laugh out loud, and Haruka turned over and asked her, “What’s so funny?” with a cute little grin.

               “Oh, nothing.”  Nothing indeed – it all made so much sense now.  Not that it would stop her pining, she’d probably never stop, but having an answer why made it a bit easier. Now she knew for sure, the right thing to do was keep it to herself and not give in to this family curse.  She could live without fucking just one of the many women in her life, no problem.  And then, as she drifted off with relief passing over her, she also realized the simple, brutal answer as to why she’d been in such a bizarre mood that night:  she’d just been horny!  It was so obvious, and when you said it like that so vulgar, that she was chuckling to herself all over again and had to come up with a funny story for Haruka to stop her from asking again.

               I guess even as whatever I am now, I can’t get away from the dumb lizard-brain desire to get fucked.  That’s stupid.  I’m stupid.  But at least now I know, she thought just as sleep overtook her.

 

               The next morning Ryuko rose early, feeling refreshed and energized as she usually did these days after a night of drinking and recreational drug use (it seemed that when she went to sleep, she lost the ability to voluntarily keep the drugs in her system and her body instantly deleted them all).  She started her morning out by making a pot of coffee, jumping off the balcony to see if she could fly yet (not yet), and then playing laptop games until someone else woke up.  Today it didn’t take all that long for her to detect a set of footsteps approaching the spot in the main hall by the TV where she’d set herself up.  It was Satsuki.  Well, time to face the music.

               “Satsuki!  How, uh, how are you?”  She did not look very well at all.  She should have still been sleeping, but of course even a hangover wouldn’t stop Satsuki.  It was a good thing she didn’t seem to have noticed her hair yet because she would be livid with snarl it had gotten itself into.

               “Never.  Again.”  The words were clearly intended as a “Honnouji style”  declaration, but they didn’t have the same weight when Satsuki seemed afraid to open her mouth lest more than words come out.

               “Jesus Sats here,”  Ryuko stood up, all concerns of whether Satsuki remembered the limo ride home momentarily banished from her mind.  The girl needed help. “Sit down, have some water, you’ll feel better.”

               “No!  I don’t want your – ohh God, I don’t -,”  Suddenly she was clutching at her stomach, struggling to stand on trembling legs.

               “Yeah, c’mon now,”  Ryuko put a hand on her back and slowly guided her down to sitting, then scurried off to get Satsuki a glass of water.  She returned in a flash to find Satsuki taking deep, steady breaths to try to stave off the nausea.  A greedy hand quickly took the water, and Ryuko sat down once again on an armchair this time, leaving the couch open so Satsuki could lay down.  Which she eventually did.

               “I cannot believe you,” Now that Satsuki was feeling marginally better she had the opportunity to be mad, and she took it, “I told you very clearly I just wanted a few, but no!”

               “Sats, I didn’t know how bad it was until way too late, okay?  It was… It was like you flipped a switch and went from fine to stumbling all over the place.”

               “Please, you couldn’t resist, could you?  This is how it always is at these places, huh, you can’t just say you’ve had enough it’s always more, more, more!  And you just let them wring me dry!”

               “Sats, Sats please you gotta believe we would never force you into something like that, you know we tried to look out for ya.  It was an honest mistake, we didn’t know how quick it would go once you had a few in ya.”

               “… Maybe I believe you… maybe…”

               “Yeah, it was at S-Tier right when they put Nonon’s music on and we saw that you weren’t doing so good, so I called the ride right away and got you home, alright.  We took care of ya as best we could.  Mistakes happen, right?”

               “Wait, when did that happen?”

               “Well, I’m not sure exactly, a little after we got to S-Tier.  No, that’s wrong, it was a bit later.  Maybe around one?”

               “No, I mean I don’t remember that at all,”  The look of dawning comprehension on Ryuko’s face prompted a look of rising terror on Satsuki’s, “Ryuko, I didn’t – I didn’t black out, did I?”

               “Well, I mean, I don’t know for sure.”  Ryuko’s heart soared.  I’m in the clear!

               “Oh my God,”  Satsuki said in oddly calm tone, which she quickly abandoned, “I BLACKED OUT!  Ohhh,”  She buried her face her hands, “I can’t believe it!  How could I have been so stupid?”

               “Hey I, I mean, It’s happened to me plenty of times before, it’s really not a big deal so long as you don’t do it too often.”

               “Not a big deal?”  Satsuki tried to stand up, but settled for sitting, “I don’t remember what I said, Ryuko.  I could have said anything!  National secrets, insults to world leaders, who knows!  Or someone might have me on video doing something that would ruin my public image!  Do you know what the consequences of this are?  You’re playing with people’s lives here!  Our nation’s future.  And I didn’t even have much fun!”

               “Yeah, I get it, I’m sorry.  I won’t let it happen again.  But I think you’re fine, I don’t remember you saying anything too bad.”

               “We just can’t be that careless.  You may not like it, but it’s the truth.”

               “Okay Satsuki, I understand.  I’m sorry I dragged you into that.  I’ll make sure never to put you in that kind of situation again.”

               “Okay…  I’m going to sleep here and try not to think about this for a while.  Can you go someplace else?”

               “Sure,” Ryuko gathered up her laptop and began to leave. “Hey, uh, Satsuki?”  She asked, “Do you remember anything that happened after you blacked out last night.”

               “No, of course I didn’t, I blacked out.”

               “Okay, just checking.  Sometimes people kind of dip in and out y’know?  I just wanted to see if that’s what happened to you.”

               “I’ve never heard of such a thing.  That’s not what happened to me.  Why, is there something important you wanted to see if I remembered?”

               “Ahaha nope!”  Ryuko hoped her face didn’t look too red, but that one hit pretty close to the mark,  “Just curious is all.  Well, that’s fine, I’ll be going now.  Do you want anything?”

               “No, just get out…,” Satsuki sighed, “I’ve talked enough already.  Maybe I’ll feel better, later.”

               “Okay, I hope you do.  Yell if you need anything.”

               “Never again, Ryuko, Never. Again.” Satsuki called out right as Ryuko was about to enter the game room.  Something about the inflection sounded very specific to Ryuko.  She couldn’t help but imagine that Satsuki was talking about the one memory Ryuko wanted to make absolutely sure she no longer had.  Or did she want her to remember?  This is why it’s probably for the best if I never kiss her again, or even come close to realizing that fantasy in real life.  I want to be able to be honest with myself, and this whole thing's just made that way too confusing.

Chapter Text

October 2065

 

               Minazuki couldn’t believe it.  The appeals court had failed them.  She’d acknowledged that it was the logical outcome, but that didn’t mean she could accept it.  Even while a jury full of nobodies passed the sentence to a judge who’d barely scraped by in a back alley before the cocoon sphere she’d held out a foolish hope that somebody would come and save them, make this all go away.

               But instead she was left gaping in her seat at the defense block as her dear Takamori was led away to a life in prison.  Not even two years ago this would have been unthinkable.  She’d given her testimony – dressed in her finest, told them that whatever they thought of Lord Takamori he was certainly not evil – but they must not have believed her.  Her!  It was as if she was already tainted, the jury had already decided against her.  What had she ever done to them, she didn’t even know any of them!  Maybe they believed the rumors about the two of them, or maybe they believed she was in on it – which was worse?

               And the accusations against Takamori, they were so absurd.  Well, not all of them were entirely fraudulent – cruelty to his former subjects, for example – but that didn’t mean they were valid.  After all, if they were every lord and lady in the country would be behind bars, especially Satsuki.  Satsuki.  Her and that little Jakuzure bitch and her spider, the Iori boy.  They’d be the first with their heads on the block.  Oh, that would be real ironic, easy to see why that didn’t happen.

               But some of the accusations were just beyond the pale.  Takamori, conspiring with Ragyo to destroy the world?  It made no sense.  He was always smiling, even when they were just kids he was always happy, well behaved, mild mannered.  Mistreating the commoners here and there, sure he might have done that, but it hardly mattered, he loved life and he saw the beauty in things.  What could he hate in the world that he would wish to die so young?  And look at him up there, Minazuki knew what a guilty person looked like and it wasn’t him.  Guity people accepted the sentence, saw the defeat coming and took it without surprise.  When they pronounced the sentence, Takamori looked broken.

               He hadn’t cried though.  She’d had to do that for him.

               Sitting there in that dismally drab countroom with the cracking paint and the warping wooden judge’s stand, being stared at by all these commoners who had come together to condemn him, condemn them, Minazuki felt like a page from a history book come to life.  The French Revolution, the Bolsheviks, the Secession of the Tristate Commonwealth.  She would be next.  And they all saw her, they and all the reporters outside, ruining her mascara with tears.  Her air of command, cultivated over a lifetime, crumbled with them.  But she wiped them away on her own.  She had nobody left to do it.

 

               She retreated out into the hall, clicking along past the flashing cameras as fast as her high-heels could carry her, and at last she managed to catch up with them.  His slumped shoulders only rose a little when he saw her, his smile had none of the usual luster.

               “Oh, Takamori,” She blurted, on the verge of tears once again, and tried to throw her arms around him.  The buzz-cut, stone-faced guards (they all looked the same, just like Satsuki’s One-Star shock troopers used to.  Where did she find these people?) were quicker though, and smoothly and quietly raised arms to stop her.  They did halt to give them one last chance to speak, though.

               “Sister dear,” Takamori murmured, “I’m so sorry.  It – it really pains me you have to see me like this.”  He motioned as best he could to the sandy brown stubble creeping across his face, the loose, pale skin that had once been smooth and tan, the dark circles under his shining blue eyes.  Prison had not been kind to him thus far.

               “That doesn’t matter.  At l-least I can see you.  Takamori, how did it come to this? I tried to tell them, but -,”

               “I know, but it doesn’t matter.  She won is all,”  He chuckled mirthlessly, “She’s made quite a habit out of that, hasn’t she?”

               “You don’t mean…”

               “You know who I mean, I’m afraid.”

               “But-but why?  Why would she betray us like this?”  Minazuki struggled to wrap her head around it.  She knew Satsuki had been only to happy to abandon the rest of the Kiryuins for her new family, but she’d been hoping for months that someone would explain why.  Theirs was an ancient and noble bloodline, Ragyo aside, and now far too many of its members were aging and frail.  The young Kiryuins now numbered less than ten, and they needed her.  So why, why would she let the line die?  She didn’t believe Satsuki’s newfound love for “the people” for a minute, she knew her better than that.

               “Mina, please don’t say that too loud.  Listen, I’ve got one day left until they ship me off to the super-max.  If you want to know what this is all about, please come to the prison.  It’s going to be out last chance to talk freely.”

               “…  Okay…”  Minazuki nodded.  And just like that they were off again.  She took the moment before the reporters caught up to wipe away her tears again, straighten her back, try to recapture her iconic haughty glare.  Then she set off for home with new resolve.  So, Satsuki was up to something, her suspicions had been right.  And now she had to know.  If Marie Antoinette had been warned about what was coming for her, she’d have done something about it too.

 

               For the first hour, they talked about nothing important.  How the relatives were, how the estates (the ones they didn’t have to sell) were doing, and other such nonsense.  Minazuki almost couldn’t stand it; she’d been waiting since the early morning since Takamori didn’t give her an exact time.  And when she’d seen him for the first time, well:

               “What have they done to you?”  She’d asked with a gasp.  Dark bruises knotted up on Takamori’s forehead, there was swelling above his right eye and a long cut on his nose.

               “This?  It’s nothing, I did it to myself.”

               “I don’t think I can believe that.”

               “It’s true.  I was introduced to my new warden today, one Ira Gamagoori.  Let’s just say I got a little carried away.”

               “Oh. My. God.  So it’s true, they really are sending you to the super-max.”

               “I’m afraid so, it doesn’t look like it’ll be a picnic.  They say Gamagoori is quite the psychologist, wears his victims down slowly.  Not just beatings either, they say he has… other means,” He said, with a grim sort of fire in his eyes like it would be quite cool if it was someone other than him going in there.  Maybe he thought she would find it inspiring, his manly self-sacrifice.  Stupid man.  She wanted him out, weak or strong, that was what mattered.

               “But you won’t let that happen, will you?”  He wasn’t getting out though, so she could at least get some solace from believing that he would stay strong to the end.

               “He’s got the rest of my natural life to try, so who knows.”

               “And this Gamagoori brute… I suppose he’s in on it as well, isn’t he?”

               “In on what?”  Minazuki and was taken aback when Takamori looked at her with seemingly genuine confusion.  Then he went on, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, have you had to sell any of the horses up at Mayfeather Hollow yet?”  and she got it.  She wasn’t stupid, it was obvious when you thought about it that there were security cameras.  So she had to wait, wait an hour until Takamori abruptly interrupted her.

               “For the next five minutes,” He said, “there will be a system reboot for the security cameras.  It’s a very lucky thing it’s Inamuta’s day off, he would never allow such negligence when it came to a high priority prisoner.  Still, not a lot of time so I’ll be quick.”

               “Okay.  Please.”

               “My arrest, imprisonment, and my defeats at both the normal and appeals courts have all be carefully orchestrated by our dear cousin.  But I’m sure you knew that already.”  Minazuki nodded. “What you don’t know is why.  On the news they call all the changes in our country a “people’s reform” – getting commoners back into the government and restoring equality and democracy.  But make no mistake:  all the levers of power are completely in the hands of Satsuki Kiryuin and her inner circle.  My arrest was part of a shadow purge of everybody with the legitimacy to oppose her rule over the masses.  The Takarada heir is in her pocket, has been since the Tri-City Raid, she exiled the rightful inheritor of the Jakuzure dynasty in favor of her little puppet -,”

               “- that bitch, I should have known -,”

               “- The story is the same for all the other houses.  And now she’s going after her own blood,” He spat.  Terror gripped Minazuki.  It was her worst fears come true.  She’d hoped Satsuki was just plotting to use this as leverage against them, offer Takamori his freedom in exchange for their undying loyalty.  It’s what she would do. But this… just… how could she be so heartless?  Was she really such a monster, like mother like daughter?

               “But I thought her goal was to save the world, wasn’t it?”  It clearly wasn’t, but Minazuki needed him to go on, explain what it really was.

               “Oh please, you’ve known her as long as I have.  Tell me, do you really believe she’ll be satisfied now?”

               “… No.  No, she wants it all, doesn’t she?”

               “Ragyo was only a stepping stone for her, and you know what her endgame is – her flag flying in every city across the globe.  Do you think it’s an accident that the first thing she did after the crisis ended was get world leaders to absolve her of her war crimes, while the memory was still fresh? Why, what do you think the purpose of those lunatic followers of the Matoi girl are for?  They’re to spread discontent and revolt in the masses around the world, prime them to accept Satsuki’s rule.”

               “Of course.  So, Matoi’s in on it too? I don’t know what I expected,” When she’d met The Girl Who Saved the World at a party back at the start of the summer, she’d seemed nice but… a little off.  Just the same as Satsuki, she’d been nice but a little off too, as a child.  Until she started on the Honnouji project.  Then things had gotten worse.  And now that it was all over Minazuki had been wondering, eyeing her with suspicion, trying to see if she really had changed or if the megalomania was still there under the surface.  She believed Takamori, of course.  People didn’t change.

               Takamori chuckled mirthlessly, “You’re catching on.  Okay, not much time left – so I’ll just say this:  the girl’s a living weapon – not human -,”

               “- Not human?”

               “She’s the same kind of thing Ragyo was, an artificial human made using life-fibers. She was designed for warfare, that’s the whole of her purpose.  You think she can rest easy now?  That’s like expecting a dog not to chase cars.  And she has Satsuki’s ear closer than anyone else, if you know what I mean.”

               Minazuki nodded, grimacing in disgust.  She’d suspected the rumors about them for some time.  So, you’ve taken a new lover, have you Satsuki?  I thought you were trying to destroy life fibers, not bed them.  “So, why tell me all this?  I mean, what can I do?”

               “Is it not enough that I want you to know what’s coming?”

               “I suppose.”

               “Well, even if it is that’s not all,” Takamori smiled, the first smile he’d put on that seemed genuine except the one he’d given her when she first entered the visiting room.  “Out of all the charges against me that led to this, there is one that is true:  I am a member of a secret organization dedicated to opposing Satsuki’s tyranny.  I would like for you to meet with them, continue my fight.  Of course, that’s only if you’re willing,” Minazuki nodded furiously – there was no other choice! “Good.  I’m going to pass you a note with an address where you can meet an associate of mine.  Memorize it, then destroy it.  I will warn you, we do use life-fibers in some of our weaponry.  That’s all they’re good for.  But if you’re comfortable with that then please travel there.  Any time will do; they’ll find you.”

               “Okay.  I’ll do it.  For you.”

               “Thank you.  There’re just a few seconds left to the reboot now so it would be best if we went back to small talk for a little while after that before you left.  But – one last thing, Minazuki– I love you so dearly.  Please, promise me you’ll think of me as I was before.”

               “I – I will,” She stammered, “I love you too!”

 

               She waited at the spot – an abandoned warehouse on the edge of Tokyo bay – for hours in the dimming light.  Fortunately, she thought to bring a few security guards because the neighborhood wasn’t exactly the safest.  Roving bands of young men wandered by, and she could only tell the ones that were part of Satsuki’s new police force from the gangsters if she could see their needle guns – the most omnipresent symbol of the new order.

               She was starting to get worried that she’d come too soon (she’d basically headed straight over after meeting with Takamori) when an unmarked black van pulled up down the block.  At first, she was a bit hesitant, but a relieved smile broke on her face when a familiar figure exited.  A portly, jowly old man with deep bags under his eyes and a toothbrush moustache.  He gave a low, formal bow when he reached her, and she waved a hand telling her security guards to calm down.  Then, just in case one of them might be a spy from Satsuki, she dismissed them.

               “I know you!  You’re Tajiki Kuroido, former steward to the main Kiryuin line!”

               “Lady Minazuki,”  He quavered reverentially, “It is good to see you once more.”

               “We all thought you had passed away.  It is a relief to see you alive and well,” She motioned him to stand.

               “Circumstances with your cousin have made my safety less than guaranteed in public.  I only wish I could have returned to the rest of the family sooner.”

               “That’s alright, my brother has informed me.  So, I have come to fulfil Lord Takamori’s wish that I continue his fight.  I trust there is a place for me in your organization.”

               “My lady, you have nothing to fear.  Please, if you’ll accompany me.  We have already prepared a seat befitting of your stature.”

               “Excellent,”  Trembling with a mixture of excitement and relief, she followed him into the van, where a tray of cocktails was already waiting for her.  “I’m so glad to find this wasn’t a false lead, Kuroido.  I feel… I feel like this is the path I should have taken from the start.”

               “I hope we do not disappoint.  My lady, it is with great pleasure that I welcome you into REVOCS.”

 

               Meanwhile, Takamori Kiryuin smiled to himself in his cell.  He didn’t have any outside communication with the rest of REVOCS, but he didn’t need it.  He knew that at that moment Minazuki was moving along the path, fulfilling her destiny.  His dear sister might not understand now what lay ahead for her, but she was smart.  She’d figure it out, understand why it was all necessary.  She would become their greatest champion.  Satsuki would never expect it, all her plans would be laid to ruin at Minazuki’s hands.  She would be the one to end Matoi’s reign before it began, and avenge Mistress Ragyo.

Chapter Text

October 2065

 

               It was a lucky thing that Ryuko was a light sleeper even with Haruka there, or she might have missed the scratching noises from her balcony in the small hours of the morning.  As it was, the sound was unmistakable – there was someone out there.  She sat bolt upright.  The scratching stopped.  A shadow froze behind the shades.  A normal human could never have perceived it, but for Ryuko there was no doubt left, she knew what was happening.  They’re here to kill me.

               She didn’t hesitate.  Off the bed, through the sliding glass door with a deafening shatter, her hands found his neck in an instant.  The struggle was brief.  Ryuko held the man off the ground, and though he groaned through his mask he still had the resolve to thrust a dagger into her heart, soaking the balcony in blood.  Of course, she didn’t flinch, but there was another one coming, this one right down onto her skull.  An offhand slap crumpled his arm, sending the knife clattering away.  Haruka was shrieking, clawing the sheets up in a paltry defense.

               “Capsule, capsule, capsule,” Ryuko muttered desperately, squeezing the assassin’s jaw until it popped open with a crack and a strangled howl.  He flailed about with the arm that still worked, stabbing her chest over and over again.  Fountains of hyper-pressurized blood sprayed across the room, but the wounds closed, and Ryuko still didn’t react.  She remembered a line from Satsuki about how these guys usually had a cyanide capsule in their mouths in case they got caught, and… there it was!  A blur of fingers whisked it out from between his tongue and gumline as blood began to pool there.  Momentarily satisfied, Ryuko released the assassin and he collapsed across the bloodstained floor, moaning pathetically.  She crushed the capsule in her palm and stared at him.  Then the reality of the situation hit her.

               That was the moment when the door slammed open and in burst Satsuki, pistol in one hand sword in the other, eyes wild.  She was in time to see Ryuko gingerly slide the knife out from her belly and turn towards her with wide eyes.

               “Ryuko!”

               “I – I got him,” Ryuko said softly, but the panic stricken look on her face filled Satsuki with indignant rage.  With her mind still clouded by sleep and shock she really believed for a moment that her worst fears had been realized.  She couldn’t tolerate it.  No.  This does not happen to Ryuko Matoi.  Not in her own home.  Not under my watch.  Not ever.

               “Bastard!”  She stalked over and planted a mighty kick right into the man’s chest, curling him into a fetal position.  That didn’t stop her from launching another one, and another one, “Who sent you!  I want names, now!  Who!”

               “No!  Stop!  Ryuko make her stop!”  Haruka shouted desperately from her perch on the bed before breaking into panicked sobbing.  The doorway was filled with Ryuko’s friends, the other tenants, who were struck silent by the scene.  “He can’t talk, his jaw!  Please!  She’ll kill him!”  Ryuko wasn’t listening though.  Well, not to Haruka, anyway.

               “Three more.  I hear them,” She vanished off the balcony.  Satsuki gave the assassin one last brutal kick before tossing her weapons to the ground with a seething, “Ughh!”.  In the time it took her to do that Ryuko was already back, scrambling over the balcony somehow with a body in each hand.  Both were clad in the same all-black bodysuits the first one had been wearing.  One was obviously dead – foaming at the mouth – but the other was limp with no signs of major injuries.  Ryuko tossed them to the ground without ceremony, explaining, “That one got to his capsule so that’s it, this one I knocked out.  There was another, but he fell, wasn’t pretty – uff!”

               “Ryuko!  I thought -,” Satsuki threw her arms around Ryuko and pulled her close, clunking their heads together.  After that shock, it felt so safe in her arms that Ryuko just wanted to go right back to sleep then and there.

               “Sats, chill out, I’m alright,” Ryuko said with a weak smile.  It took nearly a minute, but Satsuki breathed a sigh of relief. “Didn’t even hurt.”

               “Of course you are,” She smiled, “what was I thinking?”  She didn’t even know herself, and when she came to the awareness that Haruka and the rest of Ryuko’s friends were watching she burned with embarrassment.  Satsuki Kiryuin was always in control of the situation – now she had to make up for that burst of overwhelming protective instinct and take charge.

               “Aw, I got blood all over your, ah, your front,” Ryuko said as they parted, revealing a blotchy, roughly Ryuko shaped red stain all along Satsuki silky nightgown, as well as a few scraps of her pajama shirt that decided to hang on.

               “It’s fine,” Satsuki said, clearing her throat and addressing the onlookers at the door, “Alright, nothing more to see here.  Return to your rooms, my security team is already on their way to secure the building,” Then, as they began to depart, she turned to Ryuko, “You broke his jaw, not to mention what you did to his arm.  He’s no good to us for now, nor is the man who died.  Still, you did manage to secure one of them alive and unharmed.  This is good, he may confess to us who sent him.”

               “Yeah, sure, sure,” Ryuko looked distracted, “Hey Haruka can you run get some... the cleaning lady or something?  Maybe call the carpet vacuum guys?”

               “What!”  Haruka cowered, tears still all over her face, “I-I’m not going out there!  The-there might be more!”

               “Haruka!”  Ryuko shouted, “God dammit I said I got them all!  Go!”  Haruka responded by glaring at her, sheets pulled up to her mouth.  Satsuki, however, had understood that Ryuko wanted to say something to her in private.  She leaned over the bed with a gentle smile.

               “You kept your cool even when I didn’t,” She looked Haruka dead in the eyes with a glare that said make no mistake, this is an order. “You’re tougher than you look.”

               “Whu?”  Was Haruka’s only response.  Satsuki brushed her cheek, smearing tears together across it.  She tried to pull away – in that moment she was ten times more terrified of Satsuki than the assassins.  She’d seen a side of Satsuki she’d only heard of before, and it terrified her.  And the way she and Ryuko had stood there, foreheads pressed together, practically breathing into each other’s mouths, dripping with blood, it was bizarre and… uncomfortably intimate.

               “It’s been a rough night for all of us.  Would you please help Ryuko out?”

               “O-okay,” Sufficiently coerced, Haruka finally got up and crept from the room.

               “Now, what is it?”

               “Well, look,”  Ryuko held out her hands, “Their knives, do you see?”

               Satsuki did see.  Glossy black like obsidian, their knives glinted blue and white in the dimly lit room. “Hardened life fibers. Two per-person.  They knew your weakness.”

               “If they’d gotten to me, then they really could have done it,” Ryuko said in a quiet voice.  Her face burned with shame, thinking about all the times she’d jumped through the jaws of death before.  What was one more?  Just because she’d thought she was safe now, that she was beyond being killed, didn’t make in any different, did it?  I didn’t realize just how comfortable I’d become believing in my own immortality.  I want that back!

               “Oh Ryuko,”  Satsuki pulled her in for another deep embrace, rubbing a hand across the back of her head.  Normally she might have been surprised at how shaken Ryuko was, but at this late hour she didn’t need to.    She just wanted Ryuko to feel better.

               “Stop that.  I’m fine,” Ryuko muttered.  But she made no move to leave her sister’s arms.

 

               “These delays are unacceptable,”  Satsuki fumed, pacing back and forth in the lab’s break room, “Ira has provided us with the location of one of their bases.  We should have Nonon down there right now counterattacking, but you tell me we’re still months from Saiban’s completion.”

               “We could always send the conventional military,” Shiro suggested.  He was the only one up at this early hour that Satsuki had chosen to pay a visit.  He’d already been apprised of the situation – his computer had popped up an alert about it not five minutes after Satsuki’s security team had arrived at the penthouse and taken the assassins away.  This was good, though.  Satsuki was used to talking strategy with him; he could keep up, if not outpace her.

               “No, if they can make hardened life-fiber blades then their technology is likely well developed enough that even with Nudist Beach technology victory is not assured.  I won’t throw away men’s lives on a mission with high odds of failure.”

               “And that would certainly let the news out about REVOCS, which we’ve been trying to avoid this whole time.”

               “Where are they getting the funding to make such strides?  If it were wealthy supporters in the country, we’d know by now.”

               “We believe America and Russia.  They see us as a threat, and likely hope that internal strife can eliminate us before they have to get their hands dirty.”

               “Nothing to be done about that for now except dismantle REVOCS as fast as possible.  Well, what about Ryuko?  I don’t think it’s a good idea, but…”

               “… She’s still not as powerful as we’d like, not yet anyway.  She could do it, maybe.  But this may have been bait intended to goad Ryuko into attacking, so they may have a trap to capture or defeat her.”

               “They do know her weakness.”

“I am so sorry for that.  I don’t even know how they would know.”

“It’s fine.  Ragyo must have left them with more data than we thought… No, it wouldn’t work.  I think she’s still too shaken, anyway.  Understandably,” Satsuki shook her head in frustration, “She shouldn’t have to live like this!  We’ve turned her home into a fortress – constant in-person security patrols – she doesn’t deserve this.  But what can I do?  You know as well as I do, we have to protect her at all costs.”

“Personal matters aside, she’s still to important to the hybrid project to let her risk herself in the name of comfort.”

“That is a personal matter, for you.”

“Humanity’s future is a personal matter?”

“This is getting off topic…”  Shiro was so dispassionate sometimes that even Satsuki couldn’t understand how he functioned.  “They knew our security well enough to slip through without disabling or triggering the alarms.  That means there must be a mole.”

               “It is bad… If they’re confident enough to attempt something like this…”

               “But for the moment our security is good enough; we must play defense.  We can survive.  I’ll double bodyguards and surveilance on the Mankanshokus, Ira’s and your families, Houka’s mother, anybody else they could use to get to us.”

               “I appreciate that,” Shiro said.  His parents knew very little about what he was up to, and he didn’t want to scare them unnecessarily.  Down here he was quite safe, but if they got held hostage…

               Satsuki smiled, a strained little smile, “I’m only telling you this because you’re my oldest friend, Shiro, but I’m not ready for this.  Look,” She held out a handful of her lustrous hair, “I’m only nineteen and already I’ve got grey threads.”

               “Well, that’s not stress, that’s genetics.  And technically they’re not grey, they’re white.”

               “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

               “It’s not working?”  Shiro said, smiling thinly.  Satsuki hum-chuckled a little bit.

               “I was expecting a least a year or so more to plan our next move.  A little down time isn’t too much ask, is it?”

               “If it’s any consolation, I think you’ve done an admirable job picking up from a plan with an endgame you weren’t intending to survive.”

               “Hmm.”

               “… We could try the beasts, you know.”

               “Would it work?”

               “I’d say odds are about the same as using the army.  But at least this way we wouldn’t be putting anybody’s lives at risk.”

               “… Show me…”

              

               Rippling grey fur over lumpy, misshapen bodies.  Long spindly legs and lashing, whiplike tails.  Mouths full of serrated teeth that seemed to be fused together.  Skin crisscrossed by scars that glowed with a faint light from inside.  These wolf-sized creatures that stalked about not five feet from Satsuki’s face (although one of those feet was completely filled with bulletproof plexiglass) were like nothing she had even seen before.  Monsters.

               “And these,” she murmured, “Used to be rats?”

               “Yes.  When implanted in newborn animals life-fibers will not kill the host, but accept it and hybridize with it.  When this happens to non-human animals they will they attempt to rapidly transform the creature into a suitable host.  But with humans, they spent millions of years evolving the species into an ideal form; attempting the process within the lifespan of a single rat produces… well, things like what you’re seeing.  We’ve been calling them hybrid beasts.”

               “I see.  And the bones you have in storage, those are from hybrid beasts made with other animal species, by REVOCS, aren’t they?”

               “Indeed, we recovered them from Ragyo’s tower at the end of the war.  We’ve got lions, buffalo, crocodiles, eagles, even a small whale.  General trends seem to be about a hundredfold increase in body size, development of weaponized body parts, and increased intelligence and aggression.  We only kept the small animals alive because we couldn’t transport the others safely.  About five of these are from REVOCS, we made the other fifteen here to test the premise.”

               “And they have powers similar to Ryuko, or another human hybrid?”

               “Similar.  Here, I’ll demonstrate,” Shiro pressed a button and a hatch in the ceiling opened; a large slab of meat was lowered on a cable from its dark recesses.  Instantly the rat-hybrids were aware of it, and when it was still more than thirty feet from the sod floor several of them sprung at it with flying leaps, latching on and digging into it like vultures, kicking at each other and chittering.  Within seconds the slab was reduced to shreds which rained onto the ground, allowing the others to quickly scoop up their fill.  Satsuki watched with interest despite the gruesomeness.  Such savagery, and yet they cooperate and make sure they’re all fed.  I’d expect nothing less of a creature created from the life fibers.

               “Oh dear, one’s making a break for it,” One of the smaller rat-hybrids was scrambling up the cable towards the hatch, it’s legs wheeling about like a spider’s.  It didn’t get far before the cable disconnected from the meat and quickly whisked back up – too fast for it to hold on.  Its escape foiled, it dropped back to the dirt with a dull thud, but moments later got up, completely unhurt.  “They have enhanced strength and speed – nowhere near that of a Kamui, a hybrid human, or even a three-star uniform – and also regeneration.  However unlike Ryuko’s theirs is fortunately not infinite; you could gun them down with enough conventional rounds, and Nudist Beach needles will quickly stun them.  Still, I have no doubts that if you threw them at the REVOCS base they would tear their way through until they died or killed everyone inside.”

               “So they could be trained?”

               “Only rudimentally.  Say, to attack specific targets.  It’s an impresice instrument, but at this point they are expendable, we aren’t making more.  Unless you wanted more, that is.”

               “Tell me, is the implanting process painful?”

               “The implanting?  No, it doesn’t seem to be.  The transformation, on the other hand…”

               “I see…”

               “So, what do you think?”

               “I think they should all be put down.  They’ve suffered enough.”

               “With pleasure,” Shiro nodded with a grim smile.  Houka would be thrilled – he pitied the things, and understandably so.  It would also be nice to get the kennels back to use for other things.  “Our enemies won’t be so humane, you know.”

               “I know.  We will have to inform Nonon that she may face enemies such as these.”

               “So, what will we do for now?”

               “For now?  We must bide our time and accelerate work on the Kamui.  You should begin phase two:  construction of bonded Kamuis for Aikuro, Uzu, and any other member of our inner circle who wish to wear them.”

               “Yes, certainly, but…”

               “… is it time or manpower?”

               “Both?  I don’t think the four of us can get all that done efficiently.”

               “Well, you’ll have to find a way, won’t you?  This can’t be the most difficult thing I’ve asked of you, can it?”

               “Frankly, without my tailor’s regalia, putting a man on mars would be simpler.  Relying on the robot arms to do the knitting is a serious handicap.  If only we had the ability to work with the life-fibers directly, but – wait, we know someone who does, don’t we?”

               Satsuki saw where he was going and smiled, “And she’s been showing prodigal skills in her fashion design class lately.”

               “Hmm.  Ryuko Matoi, seamstress for the next generation of Kamui?  How fitting.  Would she agree to it?”

               “I have a good feeling.”

 

               Most group meetings at Ryuko’s penthouse were pretty relaxed affairs.  Maybe two housemates were having a tiff that needed to be resolved, or maybe something had gone missing and everybody needed to help look for it.  Whatever the reason, the problem would be solved in five minutes tops and then they would order delivery.  Not today though.  Today they had to deal with the events of last night.

               “Look,” Ryuko addressed her gathered friends.  She’d increased their numbers over time, now there were twenty-six of them (which was still only two-thirds of the bedrooms filled).  Rich and poor,  from Tokyo, greater Japan, and even other countries, they came from all walks of life, united by Ryuko.  There were even a few couples, some of whom had met each other because of Ryuko, and that made her glow with pride.  They all looked at her seriously and expectantly as she went on, starting to choke up, “I wish I could tell you that shit like that won’t happen again.  But I can’t promise that.  It’s dangerous to be around me, that’s just the kind of life I have to lead.  So I understand if you – if you feel like you can’t live here anymore.  I – I just wanted to say that, and to not feel bad, and I’ve had a great time with you all and I-,”

               “Ryuko, you don’t have to do this,” One of the girls, captain of the school’s volleyball team, said gently.

               “Huh?”

               “We already talked about it.  None of us are going anywhere.”

               “You – really?”  Ryuko asked tremulously, and they all nodded in agreement.  After today, Ryuko had been sure the penthouse would be lifeless and empty again, but they – they didn’t care about the danger!  In truth, none of them would ever forget the sight of Ryuko, dripping with her own blood, pulling the knife from herself without even a wince.  How the red in her hair twinkled with a million little lights, blending into the mesmerizing colors of the city skyline behind her.  You didn’t just run away from something like that. Amazing things were happening here.

               “Yes.  We thought, well, what kind of friends would we be if we left now?”

               “You guys…,” She said, bursting with gratitude.  She wouldn’t be abandoned again, not now, maybe not ever again!

               “And besides, I wanna see what happens next!”  One of the guys exclaimed as he stood to give her a hug.  Some of the others laughed in agreement, “I mean, it’s gonna be somethin’, you have to admit.  You with that knife, you were like the terminator!”

               “Hey, c’mon now,”  Ryuko chided, although she was smiling too, “This is serious!”

               “I know, I know.  But still, you were awesome!”

“And Satsuki too holy shit - such a badass,” Another guy said, “Although, remember how I asked for her number once?  I don’t think I want it anymore.”  That got some laughs too, and Ryuko found herself chuckling too.  How nice it was to have friends like these!  Now that the tension had been broken, she went around to all of them and thanked each personally with a tight hug that left them sputtering.  Soon, some of them wandered off to play games, someone turned the TV on, and Ryuko was asking the volleyball captain if she wouldn’t mind ordering some pizza for everyone (on Ryuko’s dime, of course).  It was like nothing had changed, except that below it all the rumble of the carpet vacuum working hard to scrub out Ryuko’s blood was audible from upstairs.

               The only one who looked even a little unhappy was Haruka.  She’d never seen Ryuko so vulnerable or scared before, never seen her seem to need another person.  She realized that day that underneath her powers Ryuko was just as human as anyone else, and she just didn’t know what to make of it.  What she did know, what worried her even more, was that when Ryuko was at her most vulnerable it had been Satsuki she turned to, not her.

              

              

              

Chapter Text

October 2065

~~~~

               She’d expected to die that day.  Counted on it, actually.  Blind fury drove her to rush Satsuki with her knife, but there was a brutal, simple logic to it too.  She would kill Satsuki, and the Mankanshoku girl if she had time, then Ryuko would burst in and kill her.  If there was one regret she had then, it was that she wouldn’t have time to savor the look on Ryuko’s face, one final “fuck you” to the girl who had taken everything from her.  But then Satsuki had done something insane.  She should have seen it coming.

               And now here she was, almost a year and a half later to the day, taxiing down the Tokyo Airport runway in a commercial airliner, pursing her lips in a vain effort to fight down the nausea brought on by all the low swings and skips of the gigantic plane.  She’d only been on an airliner once before – Ragyo insisted on private jets and helicopters only – and the experience had been about the same.  A mental note that commercial flights didn’t work for her.

As the other passengers rose to disembark, she couldn’t help but watch them.  She’d never really looked at people before but now it seemed to be all she did.  If only they knew that if this inconspicuous little woman had gotten her way back then, they would all be dead.  Once, she might have said that it wasn’t death, just oneness with the life-fibers.  That they told their underlings that some portion of their identity would survive because they were lost fools, just as lost as everyone else, and didn’t understand that the self was meant to be shed to fulfill their destiny.  Now, well, she knew better.

These people had uniformly dull, worn out faces, even most of the children, but that was to be expected – they’d just been on an international flight for nearly a full day.  Still, underneath that there was a sort of eagerness, a drive.  Probably just to get off the plane.  No, it was more than that.   They all had places to be, something that drove them halfway around the world.  Family, business, vacation (as much as one could vacation these days), frivolous things, she would have said, once.  They cared, so that made it important, and the importance was the key.  Which was why she was even more eager to escape the stifling cabin than any of them.  She had the most important job of all.

~~~~~

“Rei Hououmaru,” She thought she was mistaken at first when she heard her name, but there was Satsuki in the flesh, with Jakuzure at her side and a subtle flanking of bodyguards posing as airport patrons around her (Rei only even noticed them because she knew what to look for).  She had never thought she would describe Satsuki as down-to-earth, but it fit now – from the way she’d been casually chatting with Jakuzure to her subdued wardrobe to even the subtle shift in her posture.  It was all a reminder that she was different now.  Had she always been like this, hiding it from Rei like she hid so much else?  No, they’d grown up together; Rei had no doubts that she had loved the trappings of power, loved to feel better than the rest of humanity.  Now, she was just one in the crowd milling around the exit doors.  Nobody even recognized her, their nation’s de facto ruler, but in fairness that was probably because whenever she appear on TV she always wore the exact same gown.

“Lady Satsuki,” Rei bowed.

               “Please, call me Satsuki,” She smiled, “How was your flight?”

               “Not great, but bearable.”

               “Hmm.  I am sorry for the… just bearable accommodations.”

               “Oh, no that’s quite alright.  I understand,” Using commercial flights instead of private was a necessity, Satsuki didn’t want to draw any attention to the fact that Rei was back in Japan.  Or that she was hiring her as her personal assistant.  It was just bad optics, to be seen in public with an old enemy who also conspired to destroy the world.  Not that people would turn on Satsuki just for that, really it was more for Rei’s protection against harassment, death threats, and worse.  There were plenty who still saw her as the enemy.  She couldn’t blame them.  She didn’t believe people could change either, until she saw it with her own eyes.  “And how are you, Miss Jakuzure?”

               “I’m good,” Nonon piped with a nod, “And you can call me Nonon.  I like your hair.”

               “Oh, well thank you,”  Rei fluffed one of her buns – deep brown now, not lavender, “I thought it was time I went back to the natural.”

               “Nonon will be playing a key role in some of our… er… higher level projects,” Satsuki commented, and Rei picked up – mostly from the uncertainty in her tone – that she was talking about life-fiber research.  Satsuki had told her way back during the Geneva Trials that there were plans to continue the work, trying to develop new Kamuis and the like, but she still seemed to expect Rei to disapprove. As if Rei didn’t know better than anyone alive how far you could go with life-fibers, where the line was.  But then she’d be nervous too, considering that part of Rei’s job was to put Satsuki down if she ever went beyond that line.  Went beyond that line irredeemably, that is, because she knew Satsuki’s heart was in the right place.  All Rei had to do was make sure old habits didn’t die hard.  Sounded simple when you forgot that the future of the country and possibly the world depended on Satsuki becoming the leader she needed to be.

               “Well, I’m sure you’re tired,” Satsuki said, noticing that Rei was spacing out a little, “We’ve got a car waiting to take you to your apartment.  Don’t worry about your luggage – we’ll have someone see to it.”

               “Oh, no, it’s alright.  Actually, I’d kind of like to start working now.  What is it here, twelve?  I think I can make it until the end of the day,” Satsuki’s eyebrows rose in surprise, but Rei wasn’t planning to back down on this one. “I’ve read all the files, I’m ready.”  She’d actually read a lot more than what Satsuki had sent her, poring over books on economics, sociology, history, anything to fill in all the gaps in her knowledge.  Rei’s skills, as far as she knew, were purely in the practical, the administrative realm.  Ragyo would never leave the big-picture to anybody but herself, so now that Satsuki was expecting her advice on such matters she had to brush up. 

Not like there had been much to do in Geneva anyway.  Between visits with her psychiatrist she was basically cloistered in a hotel.  A nice hotel, but still.  She was ready, she was tired of people treating her like an old, finicky landmine – ready to explode at the slightest provocation.  It was well past time to do something productive, be a normal person for a change.  And besides, she didn’t want to go to her new apartment just yet.  Her single suitcase contained all her worldly possessions.  She had nothing to fill the empty rooms with.

               “Well, we certainly can accommodate that,” Satsuki said with a smile – not that she gave any outward sign but Rei could tell she was a little nervous about this, maybe hoping to put it off another day, “although I must warn you that our first order of business today is lunch with the director of our Aeronautics Research division – not exactly in-depth work.”

               “That’s quite alright with me.”

               “Well then excellent,” Satsuki said, turning to go, “I’m sure you’ll still find this meeting very interesting, Hououmaru.”

               “Oh please, call me Rei.”

               “Hmm,” Satsuki made one of her trademark closed-mouth humming chuckles.  That’s a noise I think I’ll be hearing often.  She seems much better than the old Satsuki, not to mention my old boss.

~~~~

               “So, what’s on the docket for this afternoon?”  Satsuki asked, scooping up a dainty mouthful of rice from her bento box.

               “We’re working through lunch today?”  Rei asked, not at all because she was upset by the concept, just to make conversation.  This was in the third week after Rei’s return to Japan, and the two of them had settled into a comfortable routine.  They sat across from each other at Satsuki’s wide desk, and unless the day was particularly busy or they needed to leave the office lunch was about the only time they took a break from seemingly endless paperwork, meetings, phone calls, and other such tasks.  And then Satsuki would go home and do more.  Promises and visions for the world’s future aside, it was nice to know Rei was there for a reason – Satsuki really needed a personal assistant.  How had she managed to make it as far as she had without dropping?  It was amazing, really.  She was like a moving statue – tireless, constantly serene.

               “Well, we can make a dent in the easier memorandums, can’t we?  Ryuko invited me over for dinner and a movie night, so I’d like to close out a little early,” Satsuki explained (“a little early” meant at seven p.m. instead of nine), “If I have to cancel that’s alright, but I’d like to try.”

               “You’ll make it, I’ll ensure that.  I can take some extra home if it comes to it,” If Rei had learned one thing about Satsuki so far, it was that she valued whatever free moments she had with her friends, especially Ryuko, more than just about anything else.  Rei found it oddly adorable.  She couldn’t remember a time when Satsuki had enjoyed anything besides winning a sword duel; she was too happy for her to even be jealous.  She hadn’t earned friends like that yet anyway.  She put down her sandwich (Rei, although not technically a Kiryuin Foundation employee, ate from the catering service that provided lunches for the office – top notch stuff – whereas Satsuki just brought a box of leftovers) and started scrolling through messages on her laptop.

               “That’s not necessary and you know it.  It’s like Ryuko says: we make time to enjoy life in between our work, not instead of it.”

               “She said that?  That’s… quite wise,” Satsuki loved telling about things that Ryuko or Mako or Uzu or someone had done or said, and Rei didn’t point out that all her stories were second-hand.  She understood well enough how it felt to be the least fun person she knew (not that she knew many people).  Not that she didn’t have stories, oh she had stories all right, but they weren’t the pleasant kind.  And Satsuki knew them all, anyway.

               “Well, I think the phrase she used was “all this crazy shit”,”  Satsuki pronounced the words like she wasn’t quite sure how. But I don’t think I’ve diluted the message too much.  What, why’re you giggling?”

               “Oh, it’s just – it’s funny to hear you say that.  Not part of your usual vocabulary, you know.”

               “You mean my quotidian lexicon?”  Satsuki shot back.

               “Yeah, yeah that’s more like it,” Rei chuckled, “Let’s see.  Well, if you want easy – we’ve got a petition here from a conservation group to immediately ban all whaling and shark finning in the country.”

               “There are still some whales left?”

               “Evidently.”

               “Well then, we’ll approve that immediately.  We’ll have the police step up patrols in the harbors to stop any illegal activity as well,”  She declared, then stared expectantly at Rei.

               “What is it?  That’s all for this one.”

               “Oh.  Well, I just expected…”

               “You expected there to be some lobbyist group from the whaling industry responding to that?  I took the liberty of seeing them out myself.  I figured you wouldn’t want to be troubled with such trifles.”

               Satsuki smiled, “You learn fast.”

               “Oh, well thank you.  Now let’s see about some more easy ones,”  While Rei shuffled through her messages, a loud pinging indicated that Satsuki’s secretary was calling over the intercom.  She pressed the button to let it through.

               “Another news station calling about the incident in Chiba,” He said, and Satsuki sighed, shoulders hunching just slightly.  This incident was only the most recent in a series of thorns Satsuki hadn’t been able to get rid of.  It began with the policy of her new police force to move the homeless who were sick or high on hard drugs to homeless shelters – harmless enough on its own, but all too often they took people without properly informing their families where they were going, or maybe giving them wrong information.  Either way, people couldn’t find each other, and then the rumor-mongers got started about Satsuki “disappearing undesirables” and people started snooping around.  This time, a young man looking for his uncle tried scaling a fence into a restricted area and got shot.  It was only with stunning needles, but the fall still killed him.  And something like this was just bound to happen again, no matter what condolences Satsuki sent.

               “Save the number, I’ll take care of it in an hour or so.  If they really need a statement now, have them call my lawyer and he’ll issue the same one as last time,” She said, and he pinged back that he understood.  Satsuki picked at her rice – she hated being reminded of these failures.  In a moment she’d be fine, but Rei was frustrated.  They’d been having such a nice conversation, work aside.  But then, maybe there was something she could do to help.  That’s what a good assistant should do, right?

               “Ugh, that’s a rough one.”

               “Just more time out of my day.  Can’t be helped.”

               “You look tense though!  Here, let me help,” Rei stood up, pushing her laptop aside.

               “Hmm?”  Satsuki hummed quizzically.

               “Shoulder massage.  I actually honed the craft in Geneva, not much to do there really, so I got lots of practice.”  This was true, she had practiced on some other hotel guest from time to time, but it wasn’t like she hadn’t already acquired this skill before that.  But she could put it to better use now, right?  That’s what she was doing with her other talents.

               “Oh.  No, that’s alright.”

               “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised,” Rei said with a confident smile.

               “…Well, if you insist, what’s the harm,” Satsuki conceded after some consideration.  She sat back as Rei crossed around the desk and kneaded into her shoulders.

               “Wow, your shoulders are just two huge knots!”  Rei exclaimed after minute or so, “Are you sure you’re sleeping right?”

               Satsuki tried to respond, but first she had to let out a big, gruntlike exhalation.  “Don’t hold your breath now, alright?”

“Sorry.”  Satsuki hadn’t really meant to hold her breath, really, she just wanted this experience over as quickly as possible, but Rei couldn’t guess that.  Satsuki knew full well that she had cultivated this skill to please her mother.  The idea that those dexterous little hands were performing the exact same motions as they had back then was making her deeply uncomfortable, relieving though it was. 

Rei, on the other hand, was too lost in the work of it.  Never before had she had the chance to work on such a perfectly formed body, nor one so tense.  Since first laying eyes on her she’d known Ragyo was the most perfect creature, but now Satsuki edged her out.  Ragyo, in retrospect, had been too angular, too… exaggerated.  Satsuki wasn’t the same, despite feeling just as shapely.  And she smelled nicer too, a more subtle perfume than her mother would be caught dead using.  The subtlety was the key really.  Yes, she was incredible, capable of incredible things, but she kept all that hidden just below the surface.  Rei was so grateful to have the chance to serve her, to see what Ragyo should have been.

“Rei.  Rei!  What are you doing!”  Satsuki was suddenly completely stiff.  Rey snapped open her eyes in surprise.  Oh god, what had she been doing?  Without realizing it, she’d begun leaning further and further over Satsuki.  Her hands had crept down to her sides, their heads practically next to each other.  Why, her lips had stopped mere inches from Satsuki’s neck!  It was too familiar a motion.  Her whole body felt like it was constricting in upon itself.

“I – I’m sorry!”  She leapt back, face flushed, stammering because there just was no rational explanation for it.  She had been acting on pure instinct, but her instinct was horrible. “I – I didn’t mean to, I swear!  It – I just - ,”

“Rei - ,”

“T - There’s no excuse, I know, I’ll – I’ll just,”  she hurried scampered back over to her seat.

“Rei!”  Satsuki said, a little louder, fixing Rei with the same sympathetic look she’d worn when Rei rushed her in the defcon system.  Rei stopped, thinking, I’m doomed now.  And I’m the one who was supposed to be keeping tabs on her! “It’s fine, really.  Why don’t you go home for the day?  I’m afraid you seem a bit worn out yourself.”

Yes, yes that’s it, if we both agree to believe that lie then I have my way out! “Yes, maybe that would be best…  But you’re sure you’ll be alright on your own?”

“I’ll manage somehow.”

“But Ryuko…”

               “This won’t be the first time I’ve had to cancel on her.  She’ll forgive me.”

               “Okay…”  Rei said, taking a deep breath, “Okay.  I think I will go home, take a nap maybe.  We’ve been running pretty ragged lately, haven’t we?”

               “We have.”

               “Okay,” Rei gathered up her things, “I’ll be back tomorrow, better, alright?”

               “Don’t even think about doing any work until then.”

~~~~

               Later that evening, Rei lay across her bed in her still mostly empty apartment, staring up at the contact info of her psychiatrist back in Geneva for longer than she cared to admit.  She’d said to call her whenever she needed, if anything came up.  Something had definitely come up, but Rei just couldn’t bring herself to do it.  She was a grown woman!  She’d been through worse on her own.

               At first, it had been the struggle to make sense of all the contradictions in her head.  Everything Ragyo had promised:  oneness with the universe, the ultimate bliss, a destiny.  Everything she had been:  pure and good and beautiful beyond compare.  And then on the other hand, the cold, bland truth. That all of that was a lie  It had been good to have someone to talk her through it all.  She had so many questions, that one fateful day had thrown her entire world into confusion.  But she’d gotten through it, now she knew the truth and was happy in it, or so she thought.

               But then this, this thing she’d done without even thinking about it.  Another lie, but one she didn’t know she’d even believed.  This was just what you did for your boss when they were stressed out, you made them feel good, no matter what.  That was the lie put into words, but how could she have known she’d had it burned into her skull?  What else was back there she couldn’t remember? What more might it make her do, thinking it was normal, thinking she understood what was expected of her?

               And the way Satsuki had looked at her was maybe the most infuriating part of all.  Like she knew exactly how she was broken.  Because she was broken, she couldn’t be normal, Ragyo had taken all that from her long ago.  And now she got that same look from everyone.  How could she tell them that, though she was glad they cared, their pity got her nowhere?  Even a psychiatrist, how could she help any, especially across an ocean?

               Eventually she put her phone down and went to sleep.

~~~~

               It took several weeks to Rei and Satsuki to feel comfortable having pleasant conversations with each other again.  It helped that they were both too stubborn to avoid each other.  But telling who felt more uncomfortable during those weeks was a task beyond either of them.

Chapter Text

November 2065

~~~~

               Mataro thought he was getting better, but he couldn’t prove it until he noticed how much easier stairs had gotten.  The first week, he’d had to clutch the banister and probe with delicate little passes of his feet because he couldn’t gauge the height of each stair.  It had only taken him one bad stumble to scare him out of trying to rush up like her used to.  But that was months ago, back when he couldn’t even tell where he was going and every day his fingers itched to claw the blindfold off, even if it meant giving up.  Now he had the heights at school and in his apartment complex down to muscle memory, and anywhere else he could just listen to the position of the footfalls from someone else climbing them and up he went!

               Which is why he was a confused when, darting up to the second floor on his way to class, there was a stair missing.  But then there was a leg under his ankle, and it made sense.  He hit the ground hard.  Now this was something he was having more trouble getting used to.  Jeering laughter surrounded him as a meaty boot fell onto his back.

               “Ohh, hey guys, how’s it going?”  He groaned.  One thing he had given up on was trying to keep his voice deep, it just took too much concentration that he needed for gauging his surroundings.  It was as shrill and scratchy as ever – if it felt like dropping sometime soon, he’d sure appreciate that – but that hardly mattered at the moment.

               There were worried gasps and shouts from onlookers, which he appreciated.  At first, he’d been worried that everybody would write him off as a weirdo, but all he had to do was explain that he was learning shingatsu from Uzu and it went from bizarre to extremely rad.  It helped that he still dressed sharp as ever – had to make it clear that he was still going places.  In the end it worked out oddly well; he was ten times more popular as “the guy who ran track blindfolded” than “Ryuko Matoi’s brother”, he was actually doing something interesting himself.  But with all that extra popularity came extra enemies.  Once, he’d been considered one of the better brawlers in his class and wasn’t afraid to prove it.  And now he couldn’t fight back, so it was only natural that people took advantage of it.

               “Well, if it ain’t little Stevie Wonder,” A familiar voice sneered.  By the tone, Mataro guessed that his face was split by an ugly, gloating grin.

               “Kinzo? Ahh, what the hell man, you jumpin’ ship?” 

               “Not much of a ship you got anymore, bud.”

               “What?  Who’ve you got there?”  There was shuffling around him.  Kinzo wasn’t acting alone.  They never did, even though he couldn’t hold off even one of them.

               “Oh, just a few of the guys.”

               “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” He groaned, “You traitors!”  At this point he had to just accept this was happening.  It hurt a little, he hadn’t loved his old friends, but they were fun to be around.  But then, there were lots of people who wanted him in their cliques now, and he had Satsuki and Uzu and all the rest in his corner.  So who needed them?

               “Fuck off!  You’re the one who transferred in and started lording yourself over us.  We had a good thing going before you came along.  Just cuz your family adopted The Girl Who Saved the World doesn’t mean you aren’t still an asshole!”

               “Wow, big talk, you been rehearsing that one?”

               “Man, shut up!”  One of the others yelled, “You’re the one on the ground!”  A vicious kick connected with Mataro’s abdomen, but he’d sensed it coming – heard the foot lift off the ground, felt the rush of air.  He took it without flinching.  If there was one thing he’d learned from Satsuki so far, it was how to take a hit.  He wore long sleeves and pants even on hot days to hide all the fresh bruises she left each morning.  At first, he’d thought that she would ease up, start teaching him basic techniques, but that turned out to be Uzu’s job (not that he wasn’t decent at it, he didn’t run a dojo for no reason).  All she did was show him how vastly unprepared for a real fight he still was.  Over and over again.  Against her, it was a victory if he managed a few blocks.   Another kick came, and another, but he relaxed his body and weathered them all like a sandbag until he heard a frustrated shout, “The fuck’s wrong with you!”

               “Weakass kicks, that’s all.”

               “Oh yeah?”  Kinzo grunted, “See how you like this!”  Rough hands grabbed Mataro’s shoulders, pulling him upright.  Kinzo threw a punch towards his gut, but whoever had been holding him made the mistake of letting him stand on his own, and as soon as he was up, he was moving.  He weaseled his way out of the punch, shimmying his wire frame just slightly to the side.  Ha! Compared to Satsuki these guys are so slow! He heard the overhead swing coming from someone behind him too and slid forward to evade it easily.  What he didn’t see coming was the follow-up elbow from Kinzo, and he was back on the ground with a grunt.  He still couldn’t keep up.  Uzu’s words rang in his ears:

               “You’re wasting your own time doubting yourself, you know.  Shingantsu isn’t about using your other senses as your eyes, it’s about using your senses, period.  Your body knows what it’s feeling, all the doubts are coming from your head, and until you understand that you’ll never achieve shingantsu,”  Uzu was a fan of these short, declarative phrases that seemed to make intuitive sense to him.  Mataro understood the idea just fine, but as far as actually putting it into practice he was still falling infuriatingly short.

               “So what am I supposed to do instead?”  Mataro had asked, frustration ringing in his voice.

               “Think about this: when you’re using your eyes, do you need to think about what you’re seeing?”

               “Uh, sort of?”

               “Really?  So you ask yourself ‘what’s that thing in front of me?  Oh, a chair.  What color is it?  Oh, brown?’  every time you see anything?  That’s what a drunk person does.”

               “Alright, alright I guess not.”

               “Exactly.  You just use them.  And think about this:  I’m talking to you right now, but do you need to spell out every word?”

               “No?”

               “Right, you just know what I’m saying, natural as that.  So, why is it any different to tell where my Shinai is?  I’ll give you the answer:  it’s not.  Your body knows exactly where it is. You’re just tricking yourself into thinking it doesn’t.”

               “So what do I do?”  Mataro asked again.

               “It’s simple.  Stop thinking.”

               “Stupid bitch,” Kinzo grunted, grabbing Mataro’s collar and pulling him up again.  This time his fist connected, right onto Mataro’s nose.  A brilliant red starburst filled his blindfold, a dull ringing in his ears.  Still nothing compared to Satsuki.  You’ll have to try better.  Don’t tell me this is all you’ve got.

               “Hey, c’mon,” He squeezed on Kinzo’s forearm, but he couldn’t detach it, Kinzo was just too much bigger than him, “This shirt’s new!”

               “Shut up!  You with your stupid jokes, you think we’re playing around here?”

               “A little?  I thought you could at least make it hurt.  I mean come on, you’re fighting a blind guy.”

               “Oh, that does it!”  He was really getting under Kinzo’s skin now, just by that snarl he could envision brows scrunched in rage. “I don’t have to put with your shit anymore!  You want it to hurt?  You got it!”  Another punch.  This time it felt like a lightbulb had shattered on his face.

               “Anymore, huh?”  He said with a morose laugh, “You pussy.”

               “What’s that?”

               “You’re only doing this because of my blindfold, aren’t you?  Heh, I shoulda known.”

               There was a moment of hesitancy from Kinzo, and the others stepped back.  Good.  An upperclassman should be here to break this up any moment now.  Mataro knew he had heard a girl running off to get help when the fight had started. 

               “Am not!”  Kinzo screeched desperately.  The others seemed to be taking unconfident steps back, suddenly aware how cowardly they all surely looked.

               “Hah!  I wasn’t wearing this, you’d never dare!  I’d take you all down and you know it!”

               “Oh yeah?  We’ll see about that!”  A rough hand seized the black cloth right above the bridge of Mataro’s bleeding nose.  Searing light poured in as it scrunched up, and he slammed his eyelids shut. 

No!

Mataro could have spent that instant freaking out, deeply regretting having provoked Kinzo this far, worrying if Satsuki would take him back after this.  But his whole body was swinging like a pendulum in Kinzo’s grasp, and he knew just where to direct all that motion.  It was like he could see again - there he was, plain as day, and there was Mataro’s boot swinging up with deadly precision, right between his legs, hitting home with a fabricky thunk.

For a moment his entire world was swallowed up by Kinzo’s horrified, squeaking groan, the chorus of excited “Ohhhhh!”s from the onlookers, and the various sensations of his body and Kinzo’s hitting the ground together.  But this time nobody was pinning him down.  He was up and running, imagining Satsuki’s shinai or Tsumugu’s fist closing in on his neck.  He rushed at the shortest of the punks surrounding him, focused only on not giving them another chance to grab at his blindfold.  The guy he charge was still too shocked by this sudden turn to make any attack, but the guy to his right made a desperate grab at him.  It was all too easy now, he tiptoed out of the way of the swinging arms with a cocky little laugh and slammed into his target like a football player.

“What the fu-oof!”  He didn’t stop to check if he knocked him over, and instead scrambled over him and kept running.  He left his books behind (they were just for show anyway since he couldn’t read at the moment), and only managed two solid hits, but judging by the overjoyed reactions from the crowd that now parted around him, he’d scored a massive victory nevertheless.  He cackled to himself as he left Kinzo and his lackies in the dust.  This would be a day they wrote about in his biography.  This was the day Mataro Mankanshoku first felt the power of Shingantsu.

              

Chapter Text

November 2065

~~~~

               “Sats, sit down.  All that pacing’s making people nervous,” Ryuko said, managing to talk in a fairly normal sounding grumbled despite the five sewing needles she was holding in the side of her mouth.

               “Well, I do have places to be, you know, and I’d expected to be on my way by now.”  It was a normal Saturday morning at Ryuko’s penthouse.  A few tenants were milling about at various stages in the process of making and eating breakfast, others weren’t up yet or were out of bed but still half-asleep, and there was a group that had gone to the gym for a morning workout.  Ryuko was sewing in front of the TV, a giant box of spools of  thread she’d borrowed from her fashion design professor spread out in front of her on the floor, Haruka nearby watching (mostly her but also the TV). 

The only difference was that Satsuki was still there, whereas usually she was gone before anyone else woke up, if she was even there at all.  She stalked around on her phone, trim black skirt-suit and impeccable grooming clashing with the sweatpants and disheveled hair of the college students surrounding her.  She drew plenty of looks, everyone wondering what important business she was about to embark on, but acknowledged none of them, choosing instead to cast impatient glances towards the sky-blue gown Ryuko was working on.

“Sheesh, you gotta chill out.  It’s Saturday!”  Ryuko said defensively, hooking the needle she’d been using between her teeth and selecting another one with a thread of ever so slightly darker blue thread trailing from it.

“And the nation of Japan doesn’t stop existing over weekends.”

“Yeah, well aren’t there like other people who work for the government?  Like, a guy whose actual title is Prime Minister?  Aren’t you like, not even technically a government employee?”

“That may be, but do you really not grasp that there are things that only I can do, both as former leader of Honnoujji and, for what it’s worth, head of the Kiryuin House?  Or would you rather do it?”

“Ugh, fine.  But don’t rush me anymore, okay? Y’know I spent all yesterday to find the exact color match for this.”

“I could have sent it to the tailor’s and had the rip gone by last night.  You’re supposed to be a prodigy.”

Ryuko growled in frustration, glaring at Satsuki and wishing that for once she would just take some much need down time.  Haruka watched nervously; she hated these fearsome squabbles that occasionally sprung up between Ryuko and her regal friend.  It was so unpredictable – most of the time they were downright sisterly or engaging in one of their creepy stare-offs Haruka assumed only people who’d seen some real hell in their time would understand – but then all of a sudden one of them (usually Satsuki, she thought) would start being unreasonable. And then she desperately wanted to leave the room, especially now that she’d seen firsthand what they were both capable of when provoked.  She muttered something about how this wasn’t worth fighting over, but they didn’t listen

“You said you wanted it perfect, so I’m giving you perfect.  Better than the tailor, anyway,”  Ryuko spat derisively.  She had no idea where this talent with a needle came from, and frankly she didn’t want to think about it, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t proud of her handiwork. “That takes time, I thought you’d get that.”

“Just… get it done…”  Satsuki sighed.

“Y’know, why am I even doing this?  Can’t you just wear something else?”

“But this is my favorite dress,” Satsuki said plaintively, seeming to acknowledge that it was a foolish statement.

“You have, like, five of the exact same thing!”

“No, I mean, this one in particular.”

“But they’re identical?”

“I can assure you, they’re never exactly identical.  So, I’d like this one back in working order, if you don’t mind.”

“Yeah, right.”  Ryuko went back to examining the rip she was sewing up.  It was a nasty one, several inches long on the back side of the knee and the calf, with lots of loose, frayed threads that had to be removed on the edges. “How’d you even do this, anyway?”

“… I snagged it on a banister.”

Ryuko looked at her pointedly.  It would have to have been one hell of a bannister to leave a rend like this.  A knife, on the other hand, or a large bullet…

“I did, really.  It could’ve happened to anyone.”

“Right.  Well whatever, it’s gonna take a few either way.”

“Oh please, I know you’re stalling on purpose.  You should know I can just as easily have someone pick it up later.”

“… But you’re still here.”

Satsuki made an exasperated noise in her throat.  It was a terrible thing, how easily Ryuko read her stress.  She half wanted to tell her all about it, but there were too many unauthorized ears around.  And she really didn’t have the time.  It wasn’t like she was unused to working past exhaustion, anyway.

“… C’mon, sit down.  It’ll just be a little while longer,” Ryuko said in a conciliatory tone.  Satsuki realized she was serious when she went back to working, and eventually complied, settling down to observe as Haruka flipped through the channels antsily.  They sat there in a tense sort of peace for a few minutes before something on TV caught Ryuko’s attention.  She sat up with a start, dropping a needle from her lips (it didn’t fall far before her lightning quick fingers snagged it from the air, though).

“Whoa, hey, go back!”

“What, what was it?”  Haruka asked, fumbling the remote and scrolling back a couple channels.

“On the news!  I just saw me!”  Haruka found the channel and – sure enough – there she was, on a screen behind a pair of newscasters.  It was an old picture, one of the few high-quality ones of her wearing Senketsu that existed.  She fixed the camera with a steely gaze, but the present day Ryuko’s face went white.  Haruka cranked the volume so everyone could hear.

~ “Chaos continues to envelop the Vatican City and other areas of Rome today as Matoiists and loyalists clashed in the streets.  This morning, a car bomb claimed the life of the new pope and several high ranking officials as violent mobs of Ryuko Matoi’s followers infiltrated the city’s defenses after weeks of seige,” ~ the newscaster piped somberly as footage flashed by – hordes of black and red robed figures flooding narrow streets and clashing with another mob who fought desperately to hold them back, blood dribbling through cobblestones, haze rising from burning cars and old stone buildings, a cacophony of screaming and gunfire. ~ “This is only the most recent in a series of civil wars that have broken out around the world as Matoiists unite in an effort to force the world to recognize Ryuko Matoi, The Girl Who Saved the World, as a religious figure.” ~

~ “That’s right Kenji,” ~ His cohost nodded, ~ “Matoiists in Italy have been particularly aggressive since the old pope was assassinated for declaring Lady Ryuko to be the messiah in late July.  It’s split the country, indeed most of Europe, in two.” ~

“Sounds like Uzu got out of there just in time,” Satsuki observed tersely, scribbling notes in a little black leather pad.  It was a good idea to keep an eye on the news, see how this stuff was being reported on.  Ryuko nodded absentmindedly, keenly aware that all eyes were on her and the growing agitation visible on her face as she watched violence carried out in her name.  Replica scissor blades held aloft over a pile of bodies.  “This really ought to have a graphic imagery warning on it,” Satsuki added, “I’ll get the ball rolling on making those required.”

~ “Now, we actually have an exclusive interview with one of the leaders of the Matoiists currently besieging Rome, one Alessia Di Donato, is that right?” ~

~ “Indeed it is,” ~ The cohost responded, then she fixed the camera with an inense, conspiratorial look, ~ “This footage was taken outside the city, a few days ago.  At the time, the Matoiists were in a stalemate with the Vatican City’s private guard and the mobs of loyalists, so not everything is completely up to date.”  ~

~ “Well, I’m certainly very interested to hear what she has to say, nevertheless.  Let’s roll the clip.” ~

~ “Translated from Italian:” ~ A generic announcer’s voice read before the screen cut to show a woman standing on a sandy hillside.  In the foreground behind her there was a wide camp in which the robed cultists bustled urgently, in the background huge steel walls surrounded the ancient city’s domes and shingled rooftops, which smoldered under intermittent artillery barrages.  It was an incredible sight, whoever filmed this had an eye for shot composition.

Alessia herself cut an intimidating figure:  a tall, stocky european woman with wild eyes and cross-shaped scars on both her cheeks.  She wore the same robes as her comrades, and under close inspection it was clear that they were rough, patchwork things with thick, scratchy threads.  And that she was naked underneath them – in fact, they all probably were, not that you noticed it much.  Only the depth of her cleavage gave it away, it actually covered more skin than Satsuki’s bathrobes.  Ryuko almost liked the look of her, she certainly seemed capable and charismatic.  But those eyes, they were the eyes of a fanatic.  She started babbling in an incomprehensible stream of furious Italian before the flat, emotionless translator came in over top of her.

~ “Why we do what we do?  It’s simple.  Mistress Ryuko is obviously the daughter of God.  She emerged – out of nowhere, in our hour of greatest need – and struck down the embodiment of sin and privilege with divine power.  How can the fools doubt it?  It’s not Revelations word for word, but nobody said it would be literal.” ~

~ “So, what does that mean for what you’re doing now?” ~ the man behind the camera asked.  He didn’t actually seem to be a member of the cult, which meant he must’ve been quite intrepid.

~ “We take Mistress Ryuko as an example in all things.  It’s clear there’s a great change occurring in the world now, and I don’t know what she has in store for us next, but we must put our faith in The Lord and be ready.  What I’m sure of is that we will be judged harshly if we do not punish the corrupt and privileged in our own country, whose greed turned our once lush and beautiful land into a desert.  And there is nobody more corrupt than the ones cowering behind those walls!” ~

~ “And the civilians?” ~

~ “If they have seen the light, they will come to our side and be embraced with open arms.  But if not, then they side with the privileged and shall be dealt with accordingly.” ~ At this point there were a couple more sentences that seemed to be much more vehement that didn’t get translated (Satsuki understood some of them, and scowled at the vicious threats).

“I don’t understand why they’re showing this,” Satsuki grumbled, but nobody else talked, except the newscasters.

~ “Certainly a very motived young lady,” ~ the newscaster named Kenji quipped with a chuckle, then continued more somberly, ~ “It is chilling though, truly.  Violent Matoiists rarely negotiate, rarely even make demands.  Myself I’d say we’re quite lucky we don’t have their type here in Japan.” ~

~ “Oh I’d agree.  Alessia’s not alone in believing Lady Ryuko to be some sort of supernatural being – messiah, deity, demigod, what have you – although beyond that there appears to be little to no unity between their philosophies.  People from many faiths – Buddhists, Hindis, Muslims, Christians, and others – have all interpreted Lady Ryuko in this way, but each one put their own spin on it.  In Japan the Matoiist movement is completely nonviolent, although there are reports of injuries as a result of overcrowding at their demonstrations.” ~

~ “Possibly because they aren’t at odds with the people in power.” ~

~ “Well, certainly.  After all, she lives here.” ~

~ “Right.  Although little is known about how she lives.  In her only public appearance all she asked was that we respect her privacy, and she has practically no social media presence.  What we do know is that she appears to live in a large penthouse in the Tokyo area – for the sake of her privacy we won’t say quite where – and attend Tokyo University.  She associates with a small circle, mostly influential figures from Honnouji like Lady Satsuki Kiryuin, Lord Uzu Sanageyama, and Lady Nonon Jakuzure.  She has been spotted at nightclubs around Tokyo as well – again, we won’t say which.” ~

~ “And you can frequently see her patrolling the city late in the evening, intervening on crimes and accidents.” ~

~ “Yes indeed, I suppose you could call that a landmark of the city by now.” ~

~ “Well, I think it’s only natural to be curious about her, considering how mysterious she is.  Even the origins of her abilities are poorly understood.  At this point it is unknown if she has any contact with her religious followers, although considering her lack of social media use and the divisions between them, experts consider it unlikely.”  ~

“Contact with them?”  Ryuko grumbled, the pressure building in her ears to a boiling point.  Until she couldn’t take it anymore.  This isn’t what Senketsu died for. “They’re right outside my door right now!  Alright.  I’ve seen about enough of this.”  She put down Satsuki’s dress and pulled out her phone.  Something had to be done about this.  “These guy’s studio is here in Tokyo, right?  Ah, yup, here it is?”  She stood, grabbing a jacket and throwing it over her tank top.

“Ryuko?  Where are you going?”  Satsuki asked.

“I’m gonna go down there right now and fix this. I’m gonna tell that crazy chick and all the rest to knock this shit off.  I’ve got a good feeling that if I ask, I can make them send my message to the whole world.”  She exited onto the balcony, leaving everybody watching to talk amongst themselves.  She was balanced on the railing, stretching her legs in the blustery fall air, when Satsuki called out to her.

“Ryuko!”  She shut the balcony door, and Ryuko had a good guess that she didn’t approve, even though it made no sense.  Wasn’t the new Satsuki all about doing what was best for the world?

“Yeah Sats?”

“I don’t think you should go.  It won’t work.”

“What?  Didn’t you hear her?  These people think I’m Jesus, I think if I tell them to stop killing, they will.”

“Didn’t you hear her?  What she said about privilege and corruption and ruining their lands?  This is a conflict that’s been brewing in her country since long before you.  I’m afraid you’re just a symbol for them to rally behind, a figurehead.”

This gave Ryuko pause.  It was a good point.  Dammit, why isn’t anything ever simple!  How the hell do you know what people will do, anyway?  “Still, I have to try.”

Satsuki shook her head, “It isn’t about you, Ryuko.  And even if it was, is it really right for you to intervene in other people’s lives?  This might be what their country needs to progress.”

“Oh, as if you don’t intervene every damn day.”

“I don’t.  I’m very careful.  Which you should be now.”

“Yeah, don’t worry, I know what I’m gonna say.  You think I’m gonna have a meltdown on live TV?”

“No, but consider this:  let’s take the afternoon, come up with a good statement for you together, then I’ll get a press conference together this evening.  It’ll come out much better that way.”

“Nah, I’ve gotta do this now.  Nobody’s gonna die because of me.  Not if I can help it.”  Plus, judging by the reactions of her friends inside they thought the idea of her hijacking a live news station was pretty fucking cool.  And they were right.  It was bound to draw attention, which only meant her message would spread even faster.

“I’m won’t stop you Ryuko,” Satsuki sighed, smiling sadly, “It’s a noble idea, really.  I just worry it will only lead to frustration on your part.”

“Well, I won’t come crying to you.”

“I’m sure you won’t.”

“And who knows? Maybe you’re right.  There’s only one way to find out.”

“Well, take care Ryuko.”

“I’ll be back before you know it!”  And with that, she sprung off the railing with a rush of air, landing on the rooftop across the street and speeding out of sight.

Chapter Text

In the following fifteen minutes the news station continued their discussion of world news, moving on to less thrilling topics like the ongoing chocolate shortage and yet more petty skirmishing between the (formerly) United States and another epidemic ravaging Southeast Asia. They were about to move on to traffic and weather when both newscasters looked offstage quite suddenly, shock and amazement playing across their faces as though a cameraman had sprouted an extra head.

               “Hey, you guys, she’s there!”  One of Ryuko’s friends who had posted watch in front of the TV shouted and quite soon all the seating was full as everyone crowded around.  Satsuki hadn’t moved since Ryuko left, but now she sat forward in her armchair, watching intently.  Someone was talking into the newcasters’ earpieces, and Kenji responded.

               ~ “Yes, I know, I – Really?  Well of course, of course, send her on – what?  Oh, sure,” ~ He looked up at the camera and cleared his throat, trying to regain composure, ~ “Ladies and gentlemen this is… this is an extraordinary development.  We have with us in the studio the Ryuko Matoi herself, and she’s come here – by herself – through the window, actually – to uh, to go on the air and say a few words -,” ~

               ~ “ – Nah, I’m fine as I am, really.  Nooo makeup, these clothes’ll do,” ~ Ryuko could be heard offstage, brushing off murmurs from a director or somebody. ~ “And I think I’ll live without water, too.  Look, just make sure the entire world sees this and I’ll be happy.” ~ Her friends started chuckling even before she hurried onstage to escape further harassment.  When she appeared from camera left, they all cheered, and the newscasters stood up like they weren’t sure if they should bow or salute.

               ~ “ – Uh, Lady Ryuko.” ~

               ~ “Oh you guys can stay,” ~ There she was, projected eight feet tall across her own living room, addressing the newcasters casually, completely unaware that they were live. ~ “I’ll be out of your hair in a minute.” ~

 

They backed off to seats on the sides of the broadcast desk, leaving Ryuko to take the center.  As soon as she sat down there was a blinding red-orange glow that filled the center of the screen as though Ryuko had a sun for a head.  Something, either the lights or the cameras or both, was having a bad reaction to the twinkling of the red undersides of her hair.  All that could be seen of her face was a blurry profile and a nervous smile peeking through the radiant light.  Satsuki couldn’t help but chuckle.  The Kiryuin glow does take some growing into, I suppose.  Nevermind that hers was artificial, a simple trick of spotlights, whereas Ryuko’s was something else entirely.

~ “Uh… testing… testing… Hey!  What are you guys doing?” ~  She shouted as another spotlight zoomed over her face, beaming onto it from a different angle as the crew tried to make the image presentable again.  ~ “It’s fine, leave it.” ~  Eventually they did manage to rein it in a little, making Ryuko’s face visible.  Still, the tiny sparkling lights didn’t quite go back to normal, beaming out tiny little orbs that scattered lens flares across the screen.  The crew went quiet, and Ryuko looked around expectantly for someone to tell her she could start.  The entire studio stared back at her.

That was when it dawned on Ryuko both that she really was about to speak in front of the whole world and that she had already been live the entire time.  The red creeping over her face now had nothing to do with the lights in her hair.

~ “Ahaha alright,” ~ She chuckled, sucking in air through her teeth.  All I’ve got to do is say exactly what I planned on the way over.  Wait, shit, what was it?  No, the goddamn silence stole it again! Sometimes, when Ryuko had nothing to distract herself and The Silence got particularly strong, it seemed to swallow up everything she’d been trying to think.  Compounded with the nerves, of course it would happen now. So now she had to improvise and try to piece it together, in front of all these cameras staring at her like empty, lidless eyes.

~ “So, uh, I’m Ryuko.  Ryuko Matoi.  You know the one.  I’m just – I mean I just – I’m here to set the record straight about a few things that came to my attention lately.  Cuz I’ve seen about all you who’re trying ta build a who new religion based on me, going around startin’ wars and killing people because they won’t worship me, and if I can get you to stop, I’m gonna.” ~ She cleared her throat, then carried on, maybe a little too quickly, ~ “So let’s start with the easy one here.  Yo!  Newsie, uh, you’re name was Kenji, right?” ~

~ “Whu, me?  Well, yes?” ~

~ “Kenji tell me, do I look like a Goddess to you?” ~

 ~ “Well, I don’t know, I -,” ~

~ “- You’re sitting right next to me here.  I just got out of bed like half an hour ago.  You really gonna tell me that this is what you expect a Goddess to look like?” ~

~ “Well no.” ~

~ “Exactly,” ~  Ryuko said, recovering a bit of her confidence as the words started to piece themselves together, ~ “You see I’m not a goddess, or Jesus, or anything.  And before you do the ‘only the real deal would deny her own divinity’ one, I’m aware of that.  That’s not what’s going on here.  Yeah, I’ve got freaky powers, but if you live in Japan you already knew what Goku Uniforms were and so I feel like it’s kind of weird if you don’t see how it’s basically the same thing.  But just so we’re clear:  I’m not from heaven or anywhere, I was born right here in Japan.  I don’t have any wisdom for you, and I don’t know what happens when you die.  Hell, I wish I did.” ~

~ “And look, if that’s not enough, then I’ll just straight up tell you,” ~ Ryuko added, on a roll now.  ~ “People think I showed up out of nowhere when the Life-Fiber crisis kicked off, but truth is before that I was just another punk kid going to boarding school.  My powers didn’t show up until I put on Kamui Senketsu, but where they came from – ah shit should I say it?” ~ I might as well, they deserve to know, and I should be over it by now.  But still, she hesitated.  Satsuki thought she could see the steam coming out of Ryuko’s ears. ~ “Yeah, fu – er – it’s fine, it’s too late.  People have been wondering where I came from, and I’ll tell you right now.  I’m sure someone’s gonna get mad because this is a red-tape thing, but it’s fine.  Okay *ahem*:  I was made in a lab.  They took a normal human baby and combined it with life fibers.  That’s it.  I was made as a weapon to be used against Ragyo to stop her from destroying the world.  And now that I’m done with that I’m just out her tryin’ to make something of myself, just like everybody else.” ~

Although none of the audience in Ryuko’s penthouse had heard all this before, save Satsuki, to most of them it wasn’t that big a surprise.  They already knew she was superhuman, what was one explanation over another so long as it made sense?  But Haruka, well, her mouth was hanging slack, her heart pounding.  She’s serious about this.  That’s it, that’s really all there is?  Why, why wouldn’t she tell me?

Satsuki, meanwhile, couldn’t help but feeling a pang of sympathy for Ryuko.  She never, ever talked about this, and more than everyone else Satsuki knew it wasn’t easy.  She’s probably imagining that she’s talking directly to that Alessia woman.  I wonder what would happen if they met in person?  She’d better not mention her directly, that would be the height of foolishness.

~ “Hold on, so you’re telling me you’re made out of life fibers?” ~ Kenji asked, shocked.  Ryuko looked over at him both surprised that he was talking and terrified at her tone.

~ “Well, I mean, yeah, but it’s no big deal.  Like, there’s lots of science-types who’ve known that for a while now.  It doesn’t make me any less human – well no, it does, but – ah hell I don’t know the point is you don’t have to worry.  The life fibers inside me are under my control and that ain’t changin’.” ~

~ “So, you would call yourself, uh, what would you call yourself?” ~

~ “Life-fiber hybrid.  Or just hybrid.” ~

~ “So, you do not condone Matoiists and others that hold you as a religious figure.” ~

~ “Yeah,” ~ Ryuko suddenly remembered why she was there, ~ “Look, it’s pretty simple.  Stop worshipping me.  Stop fighting for me.  I – I mean that you should see there’s no reason to.  I’m just another person, I’m not even that much of a hero.  In my place any of you would have done the same thing!” ~ She exclaimed. ~ “And if you still don’t believe that, you still think I’m a goddess then stop anyway.  Consider it an order.  All I want is that you don’t kill anybody else thinking you’re doing it for me.  It’s like, the worst, really” ~

~ “I – I see,” ~ Kenji started when Ryuko paused and shifted nervously, looking like she was about to stand up.  ~ “Well thankyou for coming out here, Lady Ryuko, I think -,” ~

~ “And-and one last thing.  If you don’t think I’m a goddess, if you’re one of the ones fighting the people who do, please just… you stop too.  I’m serious.  I didn’t save you just to watch you all tear each other apart.” ~  And with that Ryuko did stand up, striding out of frame without a goodbye.  Her friends started clapping.  Haruka looked utterly lost.  Satsuki was too busy trying to estimate what the reaction would be from the world, once the footage began to spread.

~~~~

               “You going out?”  Haruka called over from the bed, watching as Ryuko changed into the thin athletic clothes she wore for her evening patrol of the city.

               “Uh-huh.”

               “Oh, I kinda thought today you might not.”

               “Why wouldn’t I?”

               “Well, because of the whole TV thing,”

               “That took like, an hour.  Not exactly a busy day.”

               “Okay.  So you uh, you don’t want to talk about it, huh?”

               “Well, not right now, really,” Ryuko sighed, shoving up her hair like she usually did.  It always took Haruka’s breath away.

               “I thought it was amazing, you know.”

               “Heh, alright.”

               “What does that mean?”

               “It was stupid, Satsuki was right. I didn’t even remember half of what I wanted to say.”

               “No!  It definitely wasn’t.  Wait, she said that?”

               Ryuko chuckled, “When I got to the part where I had to actually tell everyone to stop fighting and I just realized how ridiculous it was.”

               “I thought that was the best part.  I mean, because the first part…”

               “- Haruka it’s a war.  You can’t just stop that because someone asked.  Makes me look like a naïve wuss.  Like I don’t know how the world works.  I should have remembered, I’ve been there before.”

               “They’ll listen to you.  It’s you, after all.  All you had to do was ask, you didn’t need to do the first part.”

               “That was the most important part.”

               “But why?  I’m sure there was an easier way to get people to stop believing in you if, y’know, that’s what you want.”

               “What’s that supposed to mean?”

               “Well, you had to deceive them to -,” Haruka read the look on Ryuko’s face.  It didn’t inspire confidence, “Wait, you weren’t serious, were you?”

               “Yeah, yeah I was fuckin’ serious,”  A pinprick of rage was worming its way into Ryuko’s head.  Compared to how her other friends had reacted – cheering about how cool it was, not really interest in the content -  compared to how Satsuki had reacted… That had made Ryuko grin despite herself.  She’d shrugged, feeling a little sheepish now that she’d decided Satsuki had been right, and Satsuki had shrugged back with a smug little smile.  All she said was, “And now we wait.” Compared to that, this was torture.

               “Wha – but I thought – with the lab and -,”  Haruka stumbled, trying to stumble through this shattering revelation.

               “Haruka, take a step back for me real quick, and tell me what you think is happening here.”

               “You - No, I don’t believe it - that’s really all there is?”

               “Yeah that’s it.  I’m just a regular human that got blended up with life-fibers.  You’re telling me you really thought all this time you were dating – fucking – like, a goddess or, or something?  Well, what?”

               “I – I don’t know!  Like an - an angel or something.”

               “Well I’m flattered,” Ryuko said venomously, deciding that enough was enough, this was months overdue, “But you’re telling me you thought you were here dating an angel for half a year even though I told you that wasn’t true?  Do you realize how insane that sounds?  Just, completely insane!”

               “You never told me anything like that!  What was I supposed to think!  You fell from space, in case you forgot!”  Being called insane was Haruka’s breaking point.  Even minutes ago, she couldn’t have imagined yelling at Ryuko, but somehow this was where they were now.  She didn’t know what was happening and that only made it worse.  “And – and you were the one who asked me out!”

               “But you stuck around, and never once did you ask about it.  How do you just not say anything at all about it?  You – you aren’t one of them,”  Ryuko nodded dismissively out the window to the street below, where campfires were already burning, “Right?”

               “No!  I just thought, like, one day you would -,”

               “Grace you with my secret divine wisdom?”

               “Well like – not like that!  Just, one day you would tell me.  Why do you never tell me anything!”

               “What I just don’t understand how you’ve gone this long still thinking I have some kind of secret!”

               “But there was a secret!  It just… wasn’t what I expected.”

               “Yeah, well I hope you’re satisfied with that.”

               “No, not really.”

               “Well, nothing I can do about that.  It’s just like I said, they did some science stuff on me and usually it would’ve killed me but for some reason it didn’t.  That’s it.”

               “For some reason.”

               “What?”

               “That’s what you said.  Maybe there is something there, you ever think of that?”

               “Oh my god would you let it go already?”  Ryuko sighed, “Look, this is getting too weird, okay?  I thought you were just a quiet, agreeable sort of girl, but now you’re telling me you’ve been sucking up to me because you think I’m some sort of… being.”  In truth Ryuko had suspected this for a while, and had frequently regretted not saying anything about it sooner.  But Haruka was the weirdo here, not her. “What am I supposed to think?”

               “Ryuko I,” Haruka said more softly, feeling now that in Ryuko’s eyes she had fucked up massively “I didn’t do anything because of that, really.  I – I love you, I do.”

               “I know,”  Ryuko also calmed down a little bit.  But she wouldn’t let Haruka’s evident devastation melt her resolve, “I lo – I think, I think I need time to think about this.  I don’t want… I don’t think it’s any good if you love me for the wrong reason.”

               “But I don’t.  I love you – forget all that angel stuff.”

               “I can’t.  I’m sorry but I can’t.  Could you, could you leave me alone, for a minute?  Could you just go?”

               “Could I… go?”

               “Yeah like, I don’t know.  Maybe come back when you figure all this shit out.”

               Haruka stood up, even though she felt like she would crumble along with her world.  Maybe Ryuko meant it, maybe she just needed a night to brood and everything would be back to normal.  But no.  “So, this is it, huh?” She asked.

               “Maybe.  For now, anyway.  I’m sorry, I -,”

               “No it’s – it’s okay,”  She desperately held up a weak smile, “I think I always knew you would move past me one day.  I didn’t think it would be over this, though.”

               “What else is there?”

               “You’re wrong though.  You are special.  You should end up with someone special.”

               “Stop saying shit like that.  Why aren’t you angry, I’m breaking up with you.  Get angry!”

               “It’s Satsuki, isn’t it?”  Haruka sniffled, the pieces finally clicking for her, “I’ve seen the way you two look at each other.  It’s okay, really.  She’s like you, she’s someone special.”

               “Just…”  Ryuko sighed, placing an aggrieved hand across her brow.  “No.  Just go.”

               And just like that, she did go.  She vanished out the door, shutting it behind her nearly silently.  Leaving Ryuko alone.  With The Silence.  She almost caved and called Haruka back just so the static in her head would go away.

               Haruka made it halfway down the stairs before breaking down.  She thought she heard footsteps, and half hoped it would be Satsuki.  She’d have it out with her now, the worst thing she could do was kill her.  But it was just a chair pushed over by the wind clattering on the patio.

               Ryuko didn’t patrol that night.  Until three in the morning a cacophony of electronic music flooded out from the crack in her doorway as she stared up at the ceiling.  It had to be done, it should have been done a long time ago.  Why didn’t she feel relieved?  Why didn’t she feel guilty either?  The Silence wouldn’t give her the space to figure it out.

               She was on her tenth replay of a Regalia instrumental, watching with her superhuman vison as the sky gradually lightened to the east, when she somehow found herself texting Nonon.  And she, for some reason, responded.  They traded snide jabs for almost half an hour.

               *Y’know what’s nice about you?  I at least know that you don’t think I'm anything special.* 

               *What the FUCK could prompt you to send that*

               *… you still there?*

               That was the last exchange between Ryuko and Nonon that night.  Uzu woke up and demanded that Nonon shut that damn phone off and stop shining it in his eyes.  So she had to spend another half an hour squabbling halfheartedly with him until they both got too tired.  By that point Ryuko too had collapsed from exhaustion.

~~~~

               Three weeks later, Alessia Di Donato was crowned First Heirarch of the Matoiist Church.  Her followers continued to battle nonbelievers in the barren Italian hills for weeks after that.  Satsuki held off on telling Ryuko this.  She’d just gone through a breakup after all

Chapter Text

December 2065

~~~~

               It started at the Kiryuin Foundation holiday party.  Ryuko hadn’t wanted to go at first, thinking it would be a real drag, a bunch of wealthy socialites hobnobbing the way only they knew how.  She remembered Nonon’s party from last year and decided, since she would just end up ignoring them, it wasn’t worth dealing with again.  But when she mentioned it to Satsuki, she’d been assured that wasn’t it at all – this was for the employees, not research or political connections or any of Satsuki’s work.  An actual party.  So she ended up pulling up in the limo with her, breezing past reporter’s flashing cameras, attempting to replicate Satsuki’s unruffled grace.  Satsuki had been so insistent, if Ryuko hadn’t gone she would have just felt bad.

               A couple hours in, Ryuko was happy to admit she’d been wrong.  The main atrium of the Research Complex’s Visitor Center, that vast hallway that Ryuko always thought looked awfully empty, was finally bustling.  Bright gold, green, and red lights glistened off the statue of Kinue Kinagase and twinkled through the fountains, casting the gathered crowds into a warm glow.  Despite there being several hundred guests in attendance the atmosphere was far from wild – you could easily hold a conversation anywhere but directly next to the dance floor.  Most people seemed to be taking Satsuki’s advice from her opening remarks and enjoying the food and drink and relaxing after a year of hard work.  It was the most restful party Ryuko had ever attended and she couldn’t say she didn’t appreciate it.  Especially considering how many nights she’d spent in the deafening confines of nightclubs and bars lately.

               And the whole gang was there too.  Mako and Ira came in on the train from Kansai, Mataro meandered in (nobody was sure how he’d even got there), the scientists wandered out of their hole – they probably hadn’t even started to get ready until fifteen minutes before the guests arrived, knowing them – and then there was Nonon and Uzu.  This was their first event as a couple and apparently that meant something to Nonon because she was a bundle of nervous energy.  Nagging Uzu about keeping his tie straight when she thought nobody was looking, hanging on his arm when someone was, Ryuko opened her mouth to call her out on it as soon as they’d grabbed a table, but Uzu shot her a look that said “let her do her thing” then carried on laughing off Nonon’s antics.  The only one missing was Satsuki, even though you couldn’t miss her holding court at Kinue’s feet.  She had many people she felt the need to talk to though, so she couldn’t join in on everyone’s fun.

               Ryuko’s night took a dramatic turn when, as she waded through the dense crowd around the bar with drinks for the table, a shoulder slammed into her side with such force that Nonon’s cocktail nearly flew from her hand.  Nearly, but it was enough to provoke some preemptive mortification as Ryuko imagined all that fizzy, pink crushed ice spraying on a hapless bystander.

               “Hey!  Watch it!”

               “Excuse me, why don’t you watch where you’re going!”  Ryuko wheeled around quickly – that voice was not at all what she was expecting.  And as she got a look at her assailant, she realized that this cute little black woman with her gigantic bun that made her face look even more delicate and her slender shoulders peeking out of a short orange dress was someone she didn’t want to get snappy with.  Especially considering how her eyes shifted from fiery to surprised and curious as she got a good look at Ryuko.  Made her think she actually might be interested.

               Rei, meanwhile, was coming to a similar realization.  Unlike Ryuko she knew exactly who she’d bumped into – even without the sparkling lights in her hair or the gear shaped pupils – there was no mistaking her.  But she did feel just as bad as Ryuko about her hostility.  Stories Satsuki had told her about Ryuko popped up in her mind.  And things Satsuki hadn’t told her too.  Like how devastating that toothy, sheepish grin was.  And she’s on the market, Rei remembered Satsuki mentioning her breakup a month or so ago. But no.  She would never and I shouldn’t.  And besides, she’s in college now, must have girls all over her.

               “Oh, sorry I -,”

               “Oh, sorry I -,” They both began in unison, then stopped, then both opened their mouths again.  Ryuko had to giggle at it, and Rei joined in without much hesitation.  For a woman with such a low, scratchy voice she had a surprisingly sweet laugh.

               “You go first,” Rei said with a magnanimous hand wave.

               “Alright.  I’m sorry about that, I didn’t mean ta be all… y’know.”

               “No, it’s fine, really,” Rei smiled. “It’s important, I get it,” She gestured towards the drinks in Ryuko’s hands.

               “Heh, you know it’s funny, these aren’t even mine.  I’m more of a liquor gal.  I’m just bringin’ em for -,”

               “Wait, no let me guess.  The pina colada type thing is for Jakuzure, the beer for either Gamagoori or Sanageyama, and the water…”

               “- That’s Mako,” Ryuko filled her in when she looked stumped, “Shit, how’d you know that?”

               “Oh I…,” Rei began, but she hesitated, suddenly concerned with how Ryuko might react to learning her identity, “… I work as a consultant.  I’ve met a few of them.”

               “No, I mean, how’d you know about – wait, you know who I am?”

               Are you so surprised? Rei communicated with a raised eyebrow, “It’s nice to meet you in person, Ryuko.  You’re much more… intimidating behind a camera, you know that?”

               “Ahaha shit you saw that?”  Ryuko lifted an awkward hand behind her head.  She’d been defecting questions about her recent TV appearance all night, but Rei mentioning it with that little lilt left her at a loss. “Y’know people tell me I’m intimidating in real life too sometimes.  But you don’t seem like the type to be intimidated.”

               “Oh no, in fact I was going to say you seem very approachable to me.”

               “Sweet,” Ryuko smiled.  No, it’s not my imagination!  She’s definitely into me. “So you know Nonon, huh?  Then I’m sure you know how much of a pain in the ass she is,”  Ryuko started, latching on to something to keep the conversation going.

               “Oh, and she’d say the same about you.”

               “Oh yeah, we’re best friends,”  Ryuko rolled her eyes, but her tone was only half sarcastic and she ended it with a conspiratorial smile that told Rei everything she needed to know.  Not like she didn’t already know – she’d been down in the lab, heard Nonon whine with a smile on her face about how she still wasn’t a better fighter than Ryuko even at human levels.  She giggled.

               “Well, what do you expect when such big personalities meet?  It’s a wonder to me you all can be in the same room.”

               “Nah, nah, I can’t stay mad at them.  We’re way past that.  Even if they’re all weirdos I mean, let’s face it so am I, y’know?”

               “That’s sweet.  One big happy family, eh?”

               “We try.  Can’t say it’s not nice though, especially since I was an only child.”

               “Really?  Me too! Well, sort of.”

               “Tch,” Ryuko clicked her teeth, “It’s a tough life, isn’t it?”

               “Mmm,” Rei nodded.  She figured at that point they were done here.  She’d meet Ryuko again at some point and Ryuko would think “oh yeah, we met once,” and hopefully not think too hard about how she’d said some vaguely flirtatious things.  It’s nice to find out she’s as friendly as Satsuki described her, and just as gorgeous as she looked from far away to boot.  Not like that’s not expected for a Kiryuin.  But Ryuko had other ideas.

               “Hey, listen.  I’d really like to continue this conversation, but I do have to get back to my ‘big happy family’ with their shit,” She jiggled their drinks around, and Rei gave a start.

               “You – ah – sure, yeah.  I’d like that too.”

               “Really?  Cool.”  Ryuko grinned, “Okay, stay right here.  Or no wait, come with me, it’ll just take a sec.  You can say hi to Nonon, I’m sure she’ll love that.”

               “Huh?  Oh no, that’s alright, I’ll stay here,” From that heart-stopping grin Rei was sure Ryuko would come back, and that she was looking forward to it on a level she knew wasn’t logical.

               “Nah, it’s fine, really.  If you think I’m approachable, you’ll have no problem with them.”

               “Oh…” No sense ducking from it, one way or another Ryuko will figure out who I am eventually, “… alright.”

~~~~

               “Ryuko’s back!”  Mako shouted, throwing her arms around her bestie as she returned to the table.  Standing off to the side, Rei had to smile at it as Ryuko responded in kind.  “Have a nacho!”  Mako kept shouting, shoving the plate in the center of the table at her.

               “No thanks, Mako,” Ryuko chuckled, “I ain’t hungry.”  Which was categorically true; the last time Ryuko had eaten at all was a week ago and thanks to her hybrid body she was none the worse for the wear.  She’d gone to get lunch with Satsuki for the purpose of getting her out of the house since she’d been ducking from the paparazzi since her TV appearance.  But Mako made a pouty noise and shook her arm, and she caved.  “Ah what the hell, I’ll have one.”

               “My hero!”  Uzu reached over to snag his beer with a friendly slap to Ryuko’s shoulder, “This looks like good stuff.”

               “Well, better than the rest.  Hope you like it.  Oh, and uh, here,”  Ryuko slid Nonon’s cocktail over to her, purposefully leaving it for an afterthought. “Alright, I’m actually gonna get going now,”  She said with a nod, then turned to Rei “Alright, you ready to go? Or uh, did you want to say hi?”

               “-Urk!”  A sudden pained noise from Nonon caught Ryuko’s attention, and she whirled around.  Everyone else was suddenly looking at her bug-eyed too (except Mako who hadn’t seen Rei with her new hair color and as such didn’t recognize her).  But she only noticed Nonon’s reaction.

               “Well, what Nonon.  I told you I had pull, didn’t I?”

               “Ryuko, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”  Nonon hissed.  Rei took a worried step back.  Oh boy, here it comes.

               “Okay, you know what?  I’m not dealing with you now.  C’mon, let’s go.”  Rei allowed Ryuko to lead her off with a sigh of relief, leaving the rest of the gang staring after them in confusion.

               “So… was that who I thought it was?”  Uzu exclaimed.

               “Yeah, duh,”  Nonon replied.  Mako scrunched up her face in confusion.

               “Now hold on, who was she?  She’s super cute,” she asked.

               “Rei Hououmaru,”  Gamagoori explained, “She used to be Ragyo’s secretary.”

               “You know, she kidnapped you that one time?”  Nonon said, tapping Mako on the skull with her knuckles. “Think for a second, C-student!”

               “Ohhhh!”  Mako remembered now, “Wow so she’s not evil now, huh?  They make an adorable couple!”

               “Ugh,”  Nonon groaned.  “The real question is, which of them is playing the other?”

               “Not even gonna give them the benefit of the doubt, huh?”  Aikuro chuckled.  “This might’ve happened naturally, you don’t know.”

               “With Ryuko?  Heh, I kinda doubt it.”

~~~~

               Satsuki saw all this, she’d been keeping an eye on Ryuko for the entire party, and she felt a horrid sinking as she watched Ryuko and Rei take a seat by one of the fountains and spend nearly an hour just talking, laughing, inching closer and closer to each other.  She should have known – Rei was just Ryuko’s type.  From Mako to Haruka to all the one-night-stands she’d had since breaking up with Haruka (and there were a lot of those) Ryuko always went for petite girls with cute little faces and big round eyes.  The type of girl she could pick up and toss around without any trouble at all.  Rei certainly fit that bill.  And they had something like history together, messed up as it was.

               Satsuki had been paying a carefully concealed amount of keen attention to Ryuko’s recent rendezvous whenever she happened to be staying over in Tokyo.  Each time a girl hadn’t come back for a second night her heart had soared, which wound up being almost every time.  She couldn’t understand it, she had no idea about The Silence, how Ryuko needed someone, anyone, any living thing sleeping near her to distract her from the hole in her mind.  But she did admire it in an odd way.  Was this what she had learned from synchronizing with Senketsu, not only not to take shame in her own body but to celebrate it, celebrate the bodies of all the women she’d saved?  It might be a nice lesson to learn, but Satsuki couldn’t imagine how to even begin.

               And there was something fitting to it to.  What better way to show the times had changed than to make a lover out of a former mortal enemy?  And yet…

               Well, it had to do with it being Rei in particular.  She wasn’t entirely better yet, the “massage incident” had proven that.  Satsuki knew all too well how deep the scars from a life like hers ran.  Best case scenario, they woke up the next morning to an awkward realization and did their best to forget about tonight from then on.  But worse case… if Rei developed some sort of dependency, or, god forbid, real feelings, and Ryuko wasn’t interested anymore who knew what she would do?  Ryuko didn’t know anything about that, she might break the poor girl’s heart as easily as stepping on an anthill. Or – and this was maybe even worse – what if they both felt something, and this wasn’t over after tonight.  If this was the one that lasted, Satsuki already knew it would make her life miserable.  And there was nothing she could say, she was the deviant here.  The guilt burned her.  But no, no she had to do something.  Just in case this whole thing turned out to be a disaster.

               She spent a while thinking about what she would say, and she got her chance when Rei excused herself for a moment.  Ryuko grinned and waved exuberantly as Satsuki approached – she’d barely touched any alcohol the entire night, rather she was intoxicated entirely on Rei’s presence.

               “Sats! Hey!  How’s it goin’?  You know, I gotta thank you for draggin’ me here, it’s been pretty great so far!”  That was the knife in Satsuki’s gut.  And I’ve got nobody to blame for this but myself.  If I hadn’t been so insistent on bringing her here, or told Rei so many stories about her, none of this would have happened.  Satsuki cleared her throat and open her mouth.

               “You shouldn’t be doing this,” She declared, being mindful that her time was limited.  Ryuko’s face fell.

               “What?  Sats what the hell’s the problem?”

               “Do you know who that is?”

               “Aha, well…”  Ryuko’s face shifted quickly from aggressive to sheepish as she was struck by the realization that no, she hadn’t gotten her new companion’s name.  Ah shit, she’s important.  And now I’m knee deep in ruining diplomatic relations with some African country I bet.

               “That’s Rei.  Rei Hououmaru.”

               “Oh shit, really?”  Now this was far, far from what Ryuko had expected.  But suddenly it clicked:  the slight evasions about her upbringing, the vague familiarity of her face, Nonon’s reaction. “She changed her hair.  Wait, what the hell! Why didn’t you tell me she was back?”

               “Why should I have, she’s a business associate of mine.  Do I tell you every time I hire someone new at the office?”

               “Ahh c’mon Sats,”  Ryuko groaned, palm to her forehead, “And here I was worryin’ that she was gonna try and pull some shit and kill you and now -,”  But she likes you.  She likes you and you’ve never been with an actual grown up woman with her shit together before. Ryuko fought down the thought that, if she had her way, she’d still choose Satsuki even at her bitchiest.  That thought was pure fantasy, and Rei was more than beautiful enough to make up for it.  “No but seriously, she’s like a whole new person now.”

               “That may be so, but you never had a single conversation with her, and you know it.”

               “Whatever.  What’s your point?”

               “What is my – Ryuko you know as well as I do why she had to spend an entire year in intensive therapy.  What kind of people she’s lived with. You really think she’s not still a little vulnerable?”

               “Wha – I – Jesus Sats I’m not gonna take advantage of her!  I mean think what you want – I see you scowling whenever I bring home a date – but I do have standards.  And we were having a great time until you came along!”

               “So you… so you don’t care about her identity, then?”  Satsuki asked, at a complete loss.

               “No, y’know what, I do.  Cuz I’d imagined her as a real hardcore bitch but now I find she’s actually being less bitchy than you,” Another knife.

               “Ryuko…,” Satsuki muttered, still fuming but holding it back now, knowing that Ryuko was right.

               “Maybe you should get going before she gets back.  Look, I don’t get what your problem is, I mean, you work with her don’t you?”

               “But Ryuko, I -,”

               “- Look, here she comes now.  C’mon now Sats, don’t look like that,”  Ryuko said more sympathetically, “We’ll talk about it some time soon, okay?  But I’m here to tell you that if you think there’s something wrong with her, I don’t buy it.”

               It’s still fine.  Satsuki thought as she stalked away, wondering if she should have known that Ryuko would respond that way. They’ll wake up tomorrow and regret it, I’m sure.  She kept this certainty as the party dragged on, wound down, swept her out the door with the departing crowds and eventually dropped her in her bed in the penthouse.  Sleep didn’t come easily – she listened intently for the telltale sound of Ryuko’s shoes landing on the patio.  And when it arrived, it was followed by giggling.  Giggling and low chatter that didn’t stop until they were upstairs and out of earshot.  But that was fine too.

               Every was fine until the next morning when, as she sat at her desk checking the emails she’d missed last night, she heard through her door the words that were the sharpest knife of all, right in her heart.

               “So, I’ll uh, I’ll call you or something.”

               “Or something.”

               “Heh, yeah, you never know.”

               “Well, make your move Ryuko, but remember – I know where you live.”

               “Oho, don’t make a threat you can’t carry out now Rei.”

               “You thought that was a threat?  You couldn’t be more wrong.”

               Then there came a noise of fabric on fabric, a faint gasp.  What is going on out there?  Why aren’t any of Ryuko’s friends stopping this?

               “Ohh, you really are incorrigible, aren’t you?”

               “Big words for such a little girl.”

               “You don’t know what it means, do you?”

               “…No…,” Another pause, another noise that sank in Satsuki’s stomach.

               “Actually, want to go back upstairs?”

               “Yeah, sure, why not?”

               Satsuki sat staring at her laptop, head rested on her hand, for longer than she cared to admit.  She had never felt so despondent in all her life.  But there was work to be done, and she was gone long, long before Rei.

               Rei called in sick that day.

Chapter Text

December 2065

~~~~

               Today’s the day.

               Nonon’s eyes shot open as this simple thought passed through her head.  She stared up at the distant beige expanse of the ceiling, feeling her heart pounding in her chest until she was sure it would burst.  It reminded her of nothing more than how she felt as a child each Christmas morning, except tinged with a panic that sucked the blood from her skin.  Today was the day, alright.  In a few hours she would either become the second human ever to wear a Kamui – or die.

               A few hours… what time is it anyway… four-thirty!  Nonon groaned - it was going to be more than a few hours.  She threw her phone down with a stiff hand and, eventually, willed herself to roll over and try to nestle back to sleep.  It didn’t do the trick though and Nonon was left, cheek pressed up against the sleek surface of Uzu’s bare shoulder, feeling twitchy and restless and deeply jealous.  Look at how peaceful he was, limbs thrown all about carelessly, making those oddly adorable little muttering noises.  It wasn’t fair, but then it wouldn’t be fair to wake him either.  No, she’d leave him be for the moment, but he’d better appreciate that she hadn’t forced him to wake up and join her in this hell.

               With anything better to do she rolled of the bed and padded quietly over to the mirror, rolling up her sleeves and shirt as though the products of a year of brutal training would vanish overnight.  Of course, they hadn’t; her muscles were still as built as they could naturally be for a woman of her short stature.  She’d be considered dangerously thin if she didn’t have a world-renowned biologist to lay out her nutrition (well Xenobiologist, technically, but close enough).  And in cardio and gymnastics, where she always stood out, she was performing better than ever.  Especially breath control, although to be fair that was to be expected considering she’d played more than her share of brass instruments.  She ran through all these facts as if there was something left to forget, reassuring herself that she was as ready as she’d ever be.  But then, Satsuki had reached a peak of fitness Nonon could never hope to achieve, her body honed to the theoretical maximum, and she’d barely survived.  No way around it, if the Kamui decided it wanted her dead, she was dead.

               She walked two laps around Uzu’s apartment to clear her head, then settled back into bed.  But sleep still wouldn’t come; every inch of the sheets seemed rough and wrinkled and her stupid eyes were just unwilling to stay shut.  So she grabbed her phone again and started scrolling.  But who to text?  Houka was the obvious choice, he would definitely respond, but Shiro had decided to intervene for the sake of his health and made her promise not text him after midnight.  Satsuki?  No, she was asleep, and besides you didn’t just text Satsuki for no reason.  Ryuko was right out, of course.  And Mako would probably respond, she slept with her ringer on full volume (she was so excited about owning a phone since she hadn’t been able to afford one before), but that level of unquestioning optimism wasn’t something she could deal with at the moment.  No, the only person she actually wanted to talk to was the one she had just decided not to wake up.

               But then, Uzu stirred and her heart leapt.  Oh, he woke up on his own!

               “Uzu!”  She whispered urgently.  His eyes slid open just a hair, grey irises blank and uncomprehending.

               “Go back to sleep,” He murmured.

               “Can’t.”

               “Put… put the phone down then.  Too bright.”

               “You could wear a sleep mask, you know.”

               “You could not text in bed.”

               “Okay no, no wait,” Nonon set her phone down and leaned over him.  We’re not having this argument again, today of all days.  He lazily raised a hand to her side, but it didn’t make it all the way and settled for her wrist.  “Do you know what today is?”

               “Nooo…” He trailed off, thinking, “Wait, today’s the day?  Shit, that really snuck up me, huh?”

               “It’s okay.  It snuck up on me too.”

               “Well.  Uh.”  He was suddenly wide awake, although his brain didn’t seem to have caught up yet. “You nervous?”  He read the look in her eyes and smiled, “You shouldn’t be.”

               “Let’s not talk about that,” Nonon said quickly, overcome but the sudden urge to be closer.  He couldn’t make her nerves go away with his words, but maybe she could forget, if only for just a moment.  The surprised but not at all unwelcoming “oh?”  when she straddled his waist helped, and so did the softness of his lips on hers as she silenced him.  She held him there as long as he could manage, back arched into his bare chest, teeth knocking together occasionally – which she usually hated – until the long, satisfied sigh escaping his nose and the hands creeping up her sides told her he was ready.  That, and the strangled noise in the back of his throat that was probably him running out of air.

               “Heh, I didn’t think you’d-,”

               “-Shh,” Nonon chided as she quickly slipped both his boxers and her own pajama shorts off – times like these it pays to have quick fingers and good flexibility – and then gracefully re-mounted him, letting out a squeaking gasp that was more involuntary than she cared to admit.  Uzu looked up at her with a mixture between a giddy grin and a stunned groan.  God, I really am dating a monkey, if this is all it takes to impress him, Nonon thought with a giggle.

               In retrospect, she shouldn’t have been surprised the first round didn’t last very long.  Even before she began riding him, she’d already been instinctively moving her hips in a very stimulating rhythm.  And then she’d done that thing when they locked eyes – pulled that smug little smile with the raised eyebrow that seemed to say, “is that the best you’ve got?”.  That had, as always, driven him wild and lead him to finally yank her shirt off and squeeze her stomach so hard she thought he might actually manage to wrap his fingers all the way around her.  Maybe she shouldn’t have done that, maybe it pushed him too far before she was ready.  Or maybe it was that nagging thought that this could be the last time – ever – that kept her from fully enjoying it.  Either way she was disappointed when, suddenly, uncomfortably, he stopped thrusting.

               “Hold on, you’d better -,”

               “Ah, alright, alright,” It was a remarkably conscientious move on his part and Nonon had to respect it.  She, reluctantly, removed herself and finished him off with her hand, pulling his boxers back up make the results his problem.  He didn’t seem to mind though, and when he finally caught his breath he chuckled and twiddled a strand of her hair between his fingers.

               “Now, where did that come from?”  He asked as Nonon snuggled up next to him.

               “I dunno,” Nonon hummed, barely opening her mouth, “Just… in case.”

               “Now hold on,” Uzu frowned and sat up a little straighter, “Don’t talk like that.  You’re gonna be fine.”

               “You don’t know that.”

               “I do so.  These things always work out in the end.”

               “Real vote of confidence there, huh?”

               “Well, I…”

               “You don’t have to reassure me, okay?  I know it’s a risk, I’m alright with that,” She lied, trying to convince herself, “It’s the uncertainty that gets me.”

               “If you say so.  And you’re right, whatever happens, happens,” Nonon only had to look at his face, or feel the way his arm around her shoulders held her closer than ever, to see that no matter what she claimed, he wasn’t alright with that.  “Oh wait, you didn’t… uh…,” He said after a pause

               “Get off?  Geez come on, you can say it,” Nonon groaned.

               “Well, you didn’t, did you?  Here, I’ll pay you back,”

               “No, no I’m good.  I mean, you’re going to.  But let’s just lay here a little longer, alright?  We’ve got time to kill.”.

               They laid there in silence for an amount of time Nonon had difficulty keeping track of.  But it did what even the sex couldn’t and made her forget to worry about what was in store for her, if only for a little while.  No surprise there, this was what they did best back during the war.  Uzu let out a soft, appreciative chuckle.

               “What’s up?”

               “I was just thinking about when Satsuki first recruited me.  First thing when I met you, I thought you were the brattiest, most stuck-up little cunt on Earth.  But you probably knew that.”

               “I did.  And I thought you were the stupidest meathead jock -,”

               “- I knew that too –,”

               “– I mean, being that obsessed with fighting – I thought you’d had one too many concussions.  Almost felt bad for you.  Almost.”

               “And now look at us.”

               “You’re still a dumb jock.”

               “And you’re still a little brat.”

               “But you know what, I’ve warmed up to fighting thing, that’s for sure.  Did you know, this whole time I’ve been training, I’ve had in my mind this one stupid goal.  Like, REVOCS and all that, that’s just a distraction.  But beating Ryuko, in a fair fight when she’s at her full power?  I said to myself ‘that’s when I’ll know I’ve made it.’.  It’s dumb, really, but who else am I supposed to compare to?”

               “Are you kidding?  That’s fucking awesome.”

               “Heh, I should have known you’d like it,” Nonon said snidely.

               “What’s not to like?  Hell, back in the day that’s what I wanted too.  Well, defeating her and Satsuki too.  If I had the chance, you know I’d be in line right behind you.”

               “… Yeah, I’m sure you would…”

               “Speaking of, you know I warmed up on your whole unhealthy obsession with Satsuki thing too.”

               “Yeah… maybe a little too warm though.”

               “I’m still sorry about that.”

               “It’s fine.  I wanted to be her, you wanted to fuck her.  Not too different, really”

               “We were stupid back then.”

               “We’re stupid now.”

               “Yeah…”  Uzu trailed off, then smiled sheepishly at Nonon in a way she had come to recognize, “You aren’t gonna like this one.”

               “Oh boy.”

               “But with you wearing Saiban, it’s like we’re both getting what we wished for back then.”

               “Heh, you think I’m gonna be the new Satsuki?  If I live through today, I’m not gonna replace her,” Nonon fixed her face into a grim smile, tried to lower her shrill, scratchy voice to an appropriately dramatic pitch, “I’m gonna be better than her.”  Uzu’s jaw hung slack, as though he’d been waiting to hear just those words, “Maybe not as a ruler, I guess, but as a Kamui wearer?  I’ll find a way.”

               “Now that,” The look in Uzu’s eyes was one Nonon had never seen before.  Or at least, never seen directed at her before.  Reverence.  “That doesn’t sound like someone who plans on dying today.”

~~~~

               Somehow, the unbearable waiting had continued even after Nonon arrived at the lab.  She got to watch the scientists setting everything up, everybody trickling in, Ryuko and Rei making eyes at each other, Satsuki pretending she wasn’t annoyed by their unprofessionalism (it was nice to see she actually disapproved of something Ryuko did, for once).  She’d long since run out of things to talk about, even with Uzu, and relegated herself to sitting on the couch, begging the universe to just get it over with.  The universe didn’t answer, but Houka, eventually, did.

               “It’s time.  You may proceed to the test chamber,”  He said, and somehow Nonon found herself walking, down corridor, past the observation chamber where everybody stood with bated breath, down the stairwell to a darkened little corridor with a solid double door at the end.  Just her and Houka now.  He adjusted his glasses, a thin, excited smile crossing his face.  “You ready?”

               “As ready as I’m gonna be.”

               “Good,” Houka handed her a short scalpel.  “One more time:  You cut your finger, put the blood on the Kamui, and within a few seconds you should hear a voice in your head.  Then, it should leap up and attach itself to you.  If it takes, you’ll know.”

               “Seriously?  That’s it?”

               “Well, that’s everything that happened to Ryuko,” Houka shrugged.

“Inspires confidence,” Nonon said sarcastically.  She knew full well Ryuko was designed to pair with Senketsu just as much as he was with her.  Not exactly fitting comparison.

“Remember also that you should not follow Satsuki’s example and try to subdue it.  You have to establish a trust.  Just follow the instructions and see what happens.  Everything else is on our end.  Although, it would be better if you undressed now, so it doesn’t shred your clothing.”

               She complied with that instruction, Houka left, there was a beeping noise and the doors swung open, simple as that.  She stepped out into the blinding light… and there it was.

               She had to resist the urge to run the rest of the distance.  There were cameras on, this was a historic moment, and she had to look dignified.  But by the time Nonon reached the stark white table her hands were shaking, her heart pounding in her ears.  It was really happening.  That outfit, that Kamui was hers and hers alone.  Whatever happened next, Nonon felt a rush of excitement knowing she’d made it this far.

               The finished Kamui Saiban was a beautiful dress, that was beyond all question.  It had less black trim than the original – most of the places where that had been were now replaced with a silver that glittered along with the original gold thread.  And there was a new pattern embroidered onto the bodice to give it a little extra detail.  Kinda looks like snakeskin.  I guess that’s what I get for letting Houka and Shiro help design it.  She ran a finger along it, feeling a silky smoothness nothing like any fabric she’d ever known before, even Goku uniforms.  Almost like skin.  This is really a living creature, it dawned on her.

               Up in the observation chamber she could vaguely make out everyone’s faces through the glare on the glass.  Everyone who meant anything to her was there:  Uzu, Satsuki, Houka and Shiro, Gamagoori, Ryuko, Aikuro and Tsumugu, even Mako (for some reason) and Rei.  All watching with an evident mixture of nerves and excitement.  None of them would shy away from danger, even if that was because some of them didn’t understand it, and they weren’t looking away now.  They had to know what would happen.  Even Tsumugu, although he did look much, much more agitated than the rest – arms crossed, foot tapping furiously, deep scowl scarring his expression.  But who could blame him?  Nonon knew he wanted her to succeed where his sister had failed, but did he think it was possible? 

Nearer to her, the floor started whirring and eight robot arms capped by the instantly recognizable cylinders of emergency rescue suction devices emerged from panels in a circle around the table.  That made her feel a little better.  She took a deep breath to stabilize.  No sense waiting any longer.  Alright Saiban, let’s see what you’re made of.

Blood dribbled out from her forefinger as she, as gingerly as she could, set the scalpel aside.  A thin red dotted line that struck Saiban on the breast, right above its eye slit.  It vanished without leaving a stain and Nonon’s heart skipped a beat, the corners of her mouth pulling nervously.  That seemed like a good sign, but then Kamui hardly came with an instruction manual, and for a moment nothing happened.  But then –

[You…].  The voice was just a faint howl on the wind, dry and raspy and barely sounding like a voice at all.  But the moment she heard it Nonon stood bolt upright, overcome with joy.

“Huh?” She breathed, the words didn’t come right. It’s happening It’s happening It’s happening It’s happening!

~ “Nonon what’s going on down there?” ~  Shiro’s voice over the loudspeaker.

[You…]

“I-I hear it!”  She shouted with a giddly little laugh.  But then something else hit her.  She clutched her chest over her heart as it went wild with overwhelming, desperate dread.  No!  No something’s wrong!  I need to run, NOW!

[GIVE ME YOUR BLOOD!]

“Wha - !”  Nonon took a step back.  No no no no not now!  Not when I was so close!  But it was already too late.  The eye slits snapped open.  It was already on her.

Everything descended into chaos.

~~~~

               There had been a plan, of course, but as soon as the Kamui wrapped itself around Nonon like an octopus, squeezing her so tight that you could see her ribs, all of that suddenly seemed very foolish.

               “Get her out of there, now!”  Aikuro shouted over the blaring alarms, pounding a fit on Houka’s desk as he scrambled away at the computer panel.  Houka guided the suction devices in, trying to angle it properly to seize her.  But it wasn’t easy, her body shuddered and jerked and bent over backwards, and the robot arms weren’t fast enough to adjust.

               “No!  She may be able to overpower it on her own!”  Shiro shouted back and Houka, torn between them, hesitated and missed an opening.

               “That’s no good!”  Ryuko shouted, “She needs to sync with it!  Sats, let me go in there!”

               “No Ryuko, suction devices first!  Houka!  Remove her!”  Satsuki’s face was white, but as usual she was keeping it together about as well as could be expected.  Much more so than Tsumugu, who was sobbing, clutching the sides of his head and ripping at his hair, reliving the worst day of his life.  Rei had gone over to console him as best she could, realizing she wasn’t helpful for much else at the moment.

               “I am trying!”  He shouted, and finally managed to get one within a few feet of her as she straightened up, clawing at her throat desperately.  But then, as though gripped by an invisible hand, the suction device crumpled.  And the others further away weren’t far behind. “… No,” Houka breathed, throwing his hands over his eyes in defeat as the robot arms were shredded by waves of raw energy screaming from the Kamui.  His best friend, killed by his own invention.  He should have seen it coming.

               “What!”  Uzu had been clenching the back of a chair with white, scared out of his wits but faithful that they’d be able to save her.  Now his voice cracked under the strain, and he grabbed the chair and bashed it against the glass desperately “Nonon!  Hang on!  S-Someone help her!”  Gamagoori joined him in trying to break the glass, but they had no luck.  Mako’s instincts, on the other hand, were a bit better.  She’d vanished before and now returned with a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher.  Not that it would do much good, but she stood there at the ready for whatever little help she could provide.

               “Satsuki!”  Ryuko shouted, and Satsuki looked over at her with a steely gaze and nodded.  So it looked like it came down to the final continency.

               Without even a running start, Ryuko kicked her legs into overdrive and blasted through the glass, leaving behind a billowing wall of furnace heat and rushing wind.

~~~~

               Everything was burning.  The whole world was shrunken down to pure touch as violent stabs of pain sent lightning through her eyes and a deafening thud of blood in her ears.  It was hard to think, impossible to move, and it was all she could do to stay standing.

               [It’s not enough!  More!  More!  I can’t go back to sleep!  I won’t!  I won’t face the dreams again!]  Flashes of incoherent memory appeared to Nonon as Saiban howled into her head.  An endless black field of swimming stars.  Laying chained to an operating table, her innards ripped out, replaced, everything chopped up and spliced until nothing remained pure and unprofaned.   Years of frozen, helpless agony.  They leaked through with the dread and the all-consuming desperation.  And pain too, she wasn’t the only one who was burning.

               Like a wounded animal.  He’d do anything to escape this pain.  Her sympathy was overshadowed by despair as the cold reality settled in.  She was dying, and it was much slower and more horrible than she’d expected.  Then all that, everything was for nothing after all. She pictured her organs bursting like balloons in her tiny frame, bones crumpling into pulp as that precious, putrid meatbag blood spilled forth.  Or was that Saiban picturing that?  Or both?  It didn’t matter anymore.  Maybe it had already happened.

               No, no no no no this is all wrong!  We were supposed to be friends, partners!

               [Friends?  After what your kind did to me, meatbag?]

               No, I want – Oh god, I- I can’t breathe!  That was the final straw; as her hands leapt to her throat, scratching until her skin was red and raw, her conscious thoughts scattered to the wind.  Pure surivival instinct, impotent as it was, took over and she thrashed and stumbled even more erratically.  Still the constant drone of Saiban’s thoughts and feeling leaked their way through.  Run, run, run!  Kill or be killed!  It’s him or me, me or her!

               [Why, why won’t you surrender?  What’s wrong with you, what do you want?]  Now, frustration.  The last meatbag had been so sweet, so willing.  One little lullaby and she’d been practically begging him to take every last drop.  But this one, he just – he couldn’t do it anymore, he couldn’t bend her to his will.  [What did they do to me?  What’s wrong with me?].  This was no good – she would fight on to the bitter end and die without surrendering, without letting him take her apart.  A lump of lifeless flesh was no good to him.  And he would go back to sleep, back to the dreams.  Such a tiny little volume of blood as he could extract while constricting her wouldn’t last long.  She couldn’t actually survive, could she?  Surely, he must have her hemorrhaging by now.

               Nonon too, as the world began to darken and feeble strangled sucking noises emerged from her mouth, felt a last vestige of her own frustration.  There had to be a way, some sort of puzzle.  But she hadn’t figured it out.  She’d let him break her, and now it was too late.  Why?  Why couldn’t you see I wanted to help you?

               [You want to help?  Then give me your blood!]

               It’s yours!  She finally caved.  No sense fighting anymore, not while she was sinking into this fuzzy void, her lungs weeping but every other part of her relaxing, suddenly rid of the pain.  All of it!

               The last thing she felt as her consciousness faded was Saiban’s joy, relief, and glee.  And a peculiar light feeling as his threads permeated her and started sucking her dry.  It was almost worth it, it almost felt like her own joy.

               She didn’t feel the rough hands grabbing her as she fell, seizing her by the back with a grip both impossibly strong and delicate.  What she did feel was what came next:  A sensation totally unknown to either her or Saiban.  Being ripped in half.

               Saiban’s shriek of pain echoing through her head was the first time since he’d awoken that he’d sounded truly human.

~~~~

               Hitting the ground shocked Nonon back to life.  She sucked air back into her lungs involuntarily, even before her brain rebooted.  When it did, nothing around her made any sense.  She was… alive?  But how?  Her hands flew to her stomach –but her skin was wholly intact, no trail of entrails, just a few droplets of blood, not even a scar.  She hadn’t been ripped in half, so that meant…

               Through the blinding light, a shadow loomed over her.

               “…Ryuko…,”

               [Let me go, you, you, what are you?]  Oh good, he wasn’t dead.  Nonon watched as Saiban reformed in Ryuko’s hand, swiftly going from a scrappy rag back to a fully formed dress that lashed and flopped like a fish, baleful orange eyes wild.  It didn’t do any good though, Ryuko wasn’t even paying attention to him, just watching Nonon and breathing a sigh of relief when she stirred and tried to sit.  Eventually Saiban went limp – Nonon could feel his despair and tell that he sensed that, in his present form, Ryuko was so, so far beyond him.  It was like he’d been hit with cold reality, that if he had managed to kill Nonon, this thing would have made short work of him anyway.

               ~ “NONON!”~  Uzu shouted over the microphone ~“Are you okay?”~

               “I’m -,”  Nonon tried to stand.  Big mistake – she immediately felt a rolling wave of nausea, and within seconds her breakfast was on the floor.  “I’m alive,” She finally answered as she wiped her face.  She couldn’t even begin to explain what had just happened, nor could she ever hope to express how disappointed she was.  Maybe there’s still a way.  Maybe now that he’s awake and not on me I can talk to him.

               “Eh, I don’t think it worked,” Ryuko shouted up to the observation chamber, “Do I absorb him now or what?”

               [Absorb me!  Now, hold on just a minute!]  Saiban’s panic was overwhelming.  What had he gotten himself into?  This world was so much bigger than he’d ever imagined, and with creatures like this wandering around – creatures almost as bad as the ones in his dreams – [I – I didn’t mean -  please, listen to me!].

               “Yeah, alright bucko,” Ryuko regarded Saiban, “Looks like this is the end of the road for you.”

               [I’ll be good, I promise!]

               “No!  Please don’t!”  Nonon croaked, trying as hard as she could to raise her voice.  Ryuko you barbarian!  I was so close, I can’t give up now!  I can’t go back to living how I used to, not after everything I’ve done!  “Ryuko listen, please.  Let me try again.  I have to try again.  I don’t care if it kills me, if I can’t wear him -,”

               ~ “Nonon NO!” ~  Uzu again, but she wasn’t listening.  She knew he was shocked, but compared to what she was feeling from Saiban that was a minor concern.

               [You - you want to wear me?  You’d really rather die if you can’t wear me?]  Since Ryuko had humbled him, Saiban’s voice had shifted so dramatically.  Before it had been a vicious screech, but now, not only was it human, it was oddly soft.

               “Yes, yes I would,” She responded quietly.  Ryuko noticed what was going on, and Satsuki had too - she was staring down Uzu to keep him from jumping into the test chamber.

               [You can hear me?]

               “I’m the only one who can.”

               [I don’t understand.  I don’t understand any of this.  Why, little meatbag?  Why would you?  Where am I?  What am I?  What is this creature that’s trying to kill me?]

               Nonon couldn’t even begin to explain it all.  And there wasn’t time anyway.  But maybe, maybe there was some way for her to send something back.  She thought, as hard as she could, about the old Honnouji days, the war, Ryuko and Satsuki and Senketsu and Junketsu and the unfettered power of a Kamui.  About her year spent training, waiting for this day.  She wasn’t sure it was getting though until she felt a response.

               [This is all real?  Not dreams?  This really happened?]

               “Yes,”  Nonon said simply, and somehow Saiban could tell she was telling the truth.  Saiban struggled to comprehend it all.  This tiny little meatbag, sprawled so weak on the ground before him, was among her kind’s greatest heroes?  She’d been… waiting for him?  And together, together they could unlock a power to rival his captor’s?  He couldn’t believe it, she had to be crazy.  Or she’d been dreaming too.  What were a meatbag’s dreams like, anyway?  “Do you… do you believe me?”  Saiban didn’t answer right away, but he didn’t get a chance before Ryuko intervened.

               “Listen up,” She barked, “Yeah, I know you can hear me.  I don’t know what you and Nonon are talking about, but I know you’re confused now, and in pain, and you think all you need is a little blood so you stay awake.  You want to stop that?  The only way you’re gonna feel better is if you let her wear you.”

               [You know that?  How do you know that?]

               “Here, look at this,” She grabbed at her glittery red streak.  “You see?  I’m the same as you, I’ve seen all this before.”  That was when it clicked to Saiban that this one was the same Ryuko from Nonon’s memories.

               [Your name, she said it was Nonon?]

               “Yes, yes that’s right.”

               “Wait, hold on, what?”  Ryuko turned to address Nonon, suddenly uncertain if her little speech had done the job.

               “Shh!  He’s talking!”  Nonon said quietly.

               “Oh, sorry.”

               [Nonon.  The other one, she had a name too, didn’t she?  Kinue.  Is that right?]

               “Yes.  You remember that?”

               [I don’t know.  There’s a lot I don’t know.  Did I ever have a name?  I don’t think so.]

               “You do.  It’s Saiban.  Kamui Saiban.”

               [Kamui Saiban.] His instinctive understanding of human language allowed him to comprehend the meaning of the name, but not the context.  Still it told him enough.  [ I’m something very important, aren’t I?]

               “Yes.”

               [Nonon, I want you to try to wear me.  It seems that, if this Ryuko is not lying it might be the only way for me.  And if it not, it seems I don’t have any other options.  And I know you want to try again.]

               “I’m ready.”  Nonon was beaming.  She’d solved it!  With a little help from Ryuko sure but that hardly mattered.  And from Saiban she felt something approximating hope.  Maybe all this nonsense they’d been dropping on him since he’d awoken was true after all.  But he would try his best not to mess it up.  If the alternative was having Ryuko rip him to shreds and consume him, he would do anything.  “We’re going to try again!”

               There was some protestation from the observers, but Ryuko ignored it. “You serious?”  She asked, and when she read the steel in Nonon’s eyes she smiled and turned to Satsuki, giving her a nod.

               “Proceed!”  That was all the command Ryuko needed, and she stood Nonon up and handed her her Kamui, not especially gently.

~~~~

               This time Saiban let her put him on like a normal dress, only moving on his own to seal himself up in the back (there was no real zipper where there would be on an ordinary dress).  She was wearing him, and it was nice to be clothed again, but nothing was happening.

               [What happens now?]

               “I don’t know.  There’s some way to activate it, but I’m not sure,”  Nonon said nervously.  Please oh please don’t think we tricked you.

               [Is this any better?] Was all Saiban asked, because he didn’t really know exactly what he done either.  But the result was instantaneous, he’d certainly shifted something inside himself.  It was like he’d walked into Nonon’s body and turned the lights on.  In an instant, all the pain and soreness Saiban’s attack had left behind was just… gone.  She was standing on her own, reveling in a feeling that she could never have imagined before, bubbling up from her heart.  It was beating like so fast it might burst, and she knew she was hyperventilating too, but it was fine.  She was fine.  Everything was great.  It was like some crazy drug.

               Saiban too felt a wave of joy and relief as that eternal pain he’d been bearing perhaps since his creation simply evaporated.  This was the truth, after all!  Nonon grinned when she heard his voice, the first time she’d heard something near to happiness in it [I got it!  Nonon now I understand why they changed me!  This is wonderful!]

               Everything was burning.

               But not the same way as before.  In fact, it was more like the exact opposite.  Now, she was the fire, a roaring inferno of something beyond mere energy.  She lifted her hands up and marveled at them, marveled at how they somehow looked exactly the same even while storm clouds billowed beneath her skin.  No, actually they didn’t look the same.  Bolts of static electricity leapt off them, leapt off her entire body.  And they were glowing.  Ryuko took a step back, grinning.  Now this was starting to look familiar.

               “Ohhh whoaaa,” Nonon mouthed giddly.  The glow was growing brighter, the blooming sensation inside her stronger.  She was the tip of a vast, foaming iceberg of pure power hiding just below the surface.  The thin veneer that kept it all from exploding out was only that faint separation between her and Saiban.  Skin and fabric.  And that wasn’t gonna hold together much longer.  This was nothing like a Goku Uniform.  Just before the glow became blinding (blinding, but somehow not at all painful), she managed one last glimpse at the observation chamber.  Through the shattered window she could see them, Houka, Uzu, Satsuki, all the rest, staring awestruck as the wind that cascaded off her whipped them.  Even Satsuki!  Satsuki was awestruck!  Nonon and Saiban both were giddy, at this point they barely even knew why anymore.  And then the separation was gone.

“Whoa…whoahaha…hahaha…hahahahahaHaHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

               As Nonon’s laughter devolved into a shrill cry of pure exultance, she could not longer hold the power inside her at bay.  Everything went white as golden flames and a swarm of plasma flashes in the shape of four pointed stars immersed their body.  Even Ryuko had to leap back from the towering inferno,  though for her it was just to save her clothes.  But it didn’t stop there, the flames shot up in a brilliant column, mushrooming across the ceiling and shaking the entire room until scraps of masonry came tumbling down.  And within their recesses, cut off from the rest of the world, Nonon and Saiban both felt the change happen.

~~~~

               “I think next time we should do this outside,” Houka said, chuckling as he tried and failed to maintain his usual detached attitude despite the soaring elation.

               “Lucky for us I thought ahead and told everyone up above that we were firing the particle accelerator today, so it shouldn’t attract too much attention,” Aikuro said.

               “Are the cameras still running?  Please tell me they’re still up!” Shrio shouted.

               “Guys, shut up and look!”  Ryuko and Uzu shouted almost at once.  To their credit, they did.  The view was more than worth it.

               Underneath it all, the petite, pink-hair girl standing before them, chest heaving with fits of laughter, was the same Nonon they’d all known for years.  But you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.  From head to heel, every inch of her had been transformed.  That pale, rosy hair was whipped up above her head, wild and flaming.  Two long metallic antennae swept up from within it, curving backwards along the contour of her hair.  Beneath that, the bruises on her face and neck were gone, smoothed over by glistening sweat and a lingering glow.  And then there was Kamui Saiban himself.  Like Senketsu had, he extended over Nonon’s shoulders and crept over the upper halves of her breasts, connecting down to his bottom half with silky, membranous strands that draped along her sides.  Her pale skin blended with the silver accents, and the glittering emerald green and spiderweb lines of golden light stood out all the brighter for it. 

The great, baleful eyes were positioned on long, thin shoulderpads – well, not shoulderpads exactly, they were far from robust.  They only connected by a pair of hinges on both sides of her shoulders, curving with a sharp, aerodynamic profile like a wasp’s wings.  They tilted up and down, surveying their surroundings as Saiban finally really perceived where he was.  The expression was inscrutable, but everybody there had seen Senketsu plenty and knew that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Nonon flexed and stretched her arms, feeling firecrackers soaring through her muscles, and as she did Saiban’s sleeves, double helices that slithered down her arms to large, scale shaped gauntlets, glinted in in the light.  His tights were made in the same pattern, and with the slits in them and the delicate design of his shoulderpads Saiban showed even more skin than either Senketsu or Junketsu had.  Not that Nonon minded, she’d known what she was getting into.  And that very fact, now that the pain was gone, filled Saiban with a sense of great security.  In this huge, scary world she at least knew what was happening, even if he didn’t.

One final detail stood out, something totally novel that hadn’t been seen on either of the other Kamuis.  A massive, voluminous coattail that stretched all the way from Nonon’s shoulders down to the floor and back up in a curl.

Mako was the first to speak: “Ohh WOW Nonon!  You look awesome!”  She shouted.

“Huh?”  They’re talking to me?  What am I supposed to say?  Nonon couldn’t tell if she didn’t know where to begin or didn’t have anything to say.  The only one she wanted talk to now was Saiban.  Now that everything had worked out, he had so, so many questions.  But they were coming anyway, crowding around all of a sudden, talking all at once.

“Don’t ever scare me like that again!”  Uzu shouted, grabbing her by the waist and hoisting her up, not caring about Saiban’s shoulderpads stabbing into him.  It took Saiban a second to realize they weren’t under attack.

[Wait, who is this one?  He’s – what is he to you?  You’re thinking about something I don’t understand.  What were you doing with him?  I don’t understand this.]  Nonon’s face went beet red.  I’ll explain later!

“You scaredy-cat,”  She mumbled as Uzu pressed her to his chest.  “I’m alright now.  I’m great, actually.”

“You sure are.  Oh, and uh, Saiban, it’s um, it’s nice to meet you.  My name is Uzu Sanageyama.”

[Tell him I don’t understand.]

“Look, I’ll explain later, okay?”

“Uh…” Uzu trailed off.  He would have asked something but Mako was jumping on the bandwagon with the introductions.

“I’m Mako Mankanshoku!”  She chirped, holding out a hand for Nonon to shake, “It’s nice to meetcha!”

“You know… I…,”  Nonon tried to articulate how dumb this was.  “Oh fine,”  she groaned and took Mako’s hand and gave it a good shake, “He says it’s nice to meet you too.”

[What?  No I didn’t!]

“Well it’s polite!”  Nonon hissed.

               “Already talkin’ to him, huh?”  Mako giggled, “You and your Sunday Best are gonna get along great!”

               [I don’t understand this one either.]

               “Join the club.”

               The rest of the group introduced themselves.  Gamagoori was more congratulatory to Nonon for having toughed it out, Houka and Shiro immediately switched into data acquisition mode now that the danger was over, and Tsumugu had pulled himself together, but still looked shaken by everything.  Nonon sensed no recognition from Saiban when he stood before them.  When it was Satsuki’s turn, all she did was smile gently and say, “I knew you could do it,” but the rush of Nonon’s memories introduced her better than she herself ever could.  And then, finally, Ryuko came back from her place on the side lines.  She’d been observing everything with a happy little smile.  She slapped Nonon on the back.  Slapped her hard.  Hard enough that it whipped everyone’s hair around.  And she took it like it was nothing. The thrill of that moment was like nothing else.

               “Welcome to the club, Nonon,” She quipped.  “I knew you had it in you.”

               “Wha-fuck off!”  Nonon wasn’t prepared for this oddly friendly response, “You were gonna absorb him, the hell you knew I had it in me!”

               “Oh shit, you didn’t see?  I winked at you!  I thought you were just being a good actor,”  Ryuko shrugged, looking truly regretful for having pulled that one on Nonon.

               “You’re serious.  That was all a trick?”

               “Well yeah.  C’mon, you didn’t really think I’d destroy your Kamui, right?  You only get one.”

               “Rrrr, you jackass…”

               [Oh, I get it!  That’s what I sensed in her.  She had a… Kamui, that’s what I am, isn’t it?  And he died.  That’s what’s the matter with her.  Do you sense it too?]

               Nonon did.  It was a second-hand feeling, but she could tell how Saiban saw the world.  Everything had a presence, but Ryuko’s felt like a mirage, half there, empty.  She didn’t know how to process this sudden burst of pity.  But that didn’t matter now.  She’d thought that morning she couldn’t be more excited, but now  that was nothing.  She just needed everyone to leave her alone so she could focus on this indescribable electric feeling soaring within her, see what it could do.  Ryuko, Satsuki, even Uzu, there would be time for them later.  But they were just distractions, so small compared to what she was now.

               For the first time in forever, she was alive.

              

              

 

Chapter Text

December 2065

~~~~

*Day 02*

               *Standard diagnostic tests commenced at 0900.  Subject 01 reports feelings of tiredness, as model SK02 attempted contact repeatedly throughout the night.  However, Subject 01 also shows enthusiasm for both basic diagnostic tests and further study and claims that model SK02 feels similarly. *

* Regardless, basic physical aptitude tests are well within expected ranges based on the performance of models SK01 and SK03.  Athletics and mobility data are convergent with model SK03 immediately following its synchronization [data link].  Durability testing shows a near complete resistance to conventional ballistics and explosives, and resistance to several dozen jamming needles before model SK02 reached its limited and was forcibly powered down [data link].  This is much lower than the durability of models SK01 [data link] and SK03 [data link] after the latter had absorbed a large amount of life-fibers, however no durability records of early-stage model SK03 exist to compare.  It is possible that these values would be comparable to those of SK02, although at present we can only speculate. *

*At present, model SK02 shows no ability to assume alternate forms.  Tests of absorption abilities were successful, as model SK02 absorbed 600 yards of life-fiber [data link].  Together, this indicates that Subject 01 and model SK02 have achieved synchronization.  Their strength is already more than combat ready, but by all indications it is capable of advancing further as model SK02 absorbs more life-fibers and they progress to a closer bond. *

“Whatcha typing?”  Nonon asked, leaning over Shiro as he hunched over his computer in the break room.

“Just some notes from today,” He answered casually.  It had been a good day, and now that all the data was successfully entered it had become a great day.  He was more than ready to indulge his star test subject’s restlessness, give her a test chamber to (literally) bounce around in. At least until Satsuki arrived.

“ ‘Standard diagnostic tests commenced at 0900’ – wow this is dry reading,”  Nonon capped the sentence off with a spoonful of her Kiwi yogurt and a self-satisfied grin.  Even while taking a break Saiban was still powered on – considering that they’d figured out synchronization there was no reason not to.  This was only his second experience with food, and he was practically purring with contentment.  Nonon hadn’t expected that a being such as him would be able to appreciate something as mundane as eating, and it kind of made her appreciate food in a whole new light.  She didn’t know quite how her perceived what she was tasting, but she knew it had become one of his favorite new discoveries.  A life without it, well, that would be one less thing to look forward to, wouldn’t it?

“I’ll take my notes how I want, thankyou very much,”  Shiro said tersely.

“Subject 01?  Jesus, what am I to you, a guinea pig? And SK02 – that must be Saiban, right?  Saiban, Kamui?  Why zero-two?  Why do you even bother?”

“SK actually stands for Soichiro Kiryuin.  SK01 was Junketsu, SK02 is Saiban, and it follows that SK03 was Senketsu, or Nozomi, as Soichiro had designated him.  If we ever design more, they might be the SI line, or maybe the HI, who knows.”

“Ok, sure, fine, it’s dumb but whatever. But why even bother?  I mean, these are just your notes, right? Not like you need all this secret spy code.”

“Actually, it’s just to make it easier to do a keyword search when I put it in the database.”

“Wow, looks like you nerds even figured out how to suck the fun out of a Kamui, huh?”  Shiro knew she was poking fun with her smarmy jabs, but he still responded with his “no bullshit” frown.  Nonon had learned not to be fazed by this a long time ago.

“Didn’t you say you wanted to go back in the test chamber?”  He asked tersely

               “Shh, lemme read. We’ve got time to kill until Satsuki gets here, right?”

               “… Alright, but you can’t complain about my writing…,”

               * Subject 01 reports feelings of tiredness, as model SK02 attempted contact repeatedly throughout the night*  Nonon mouthed the words as she read.

               Shiro had no idea how right he was on that one.  Yesterday had been, despite it all, a tiring day.  Even if she was on top of the world she still needed sleep.  Uzu had eventually gotten the hint that the chivalrous thing to do was stay over in the lab with her, even though he had early morning kendo classes to teach, including one of Mataro’s sessions.  It hadn’t done a lot of good though.  They’d only been snuggled up together for fifteen or so minutes when:

~~~~

               [Nonon? Nonon!]

               “Huh?”  She murmured sleepily.

               “I didn’t say anything,” Uzu murmured back.

               “Not you – it’s Saiban,” She waved a sleepy hand over to rack by the foot of the bed where he hung, unblinking eyes occasionally flitting about as if there was anything to see in the dark, sparsely decorated little cell that was her living quarters in the lab.

               [Nonon what are you doing?]  There was a palpable twitch of nervousness in the feeling she got from him.  Why was she going to sleep?  Did she want to go to sleep?  And if she did, would he be alone again? 

               “I’m trying to sleep.”

               “So am I.”

               “Jesus, you are such a little bitch when it comes to sleep,” She sat up and gave Uzu and light slap across the back.  She’d have to talk to him about that one when he was a bit more awake, this was happening way too often.

               [And why is this one here?]  And internal cringe of discomfort from Nonon.  She had definitely not expected Saiban to be this innocent and unworldly.  But then, what of the world had he ever had the chance to see?

               “Alright, alright,” She rolled out of bed, grabbing Saiban’s rack and carrying him down the hall to the empty break room, where she flopped on the couch and positioned him to face her.  “So, what’s up?”

               Saiban responded not with words but with a feeling of profound relief, intermixed with a tinge of guilt.  He didn’t want to disturb this creature that the scientists had chosen to save him, but there was so much he had to come to terms with. 

They’d told him about his brothers, Senketsu and Junketsu, about the life-fibers he was made from and the war to stop them from consuming the world, about Ryuko – the one who was somewhere between himself and the humans, about how he was to work with Nonon to keep the peace now that the war was won.  But somehow that only lead to more questions, and she was the only one who could talk to him.  Without her he’d be all alone again.  He needed her. 

And she couldn’t hide that, tired though she was, she was excited to be there with him.  Every moment with him was a new discovery, a historic step.  He had no idea he was that important.  Or maybe that was just how she felt.  It hardly mattered.

               “You do know sleep means something very different to us humans, right?”

               [Yes, I know] He sounded sheepish.  But the memories of his long slumber made it clear to both that although he knew it, he couldn’t accept it. [I’m sorry, I’ll let you go back.]

               “Nah, I’ll stay up with you,” Nonon shrugged, “I’m sure if a human were asleep for twenty years, they wouldn’t want to go to sleep ever again either.”

               [Except I don’t think I can sleep.  Or not the good kind of sleep, like you can.]

               “Hmm, well that could be a problem.  What are we going to do about that?”

               [We?]

               “Well yeah.  After all, we are… er,” Nonon hesitated; it was harder than she’d expected to say the words to someone – something – that was still a stranger to her.  That not twelve hours before had seen her as a mere tool to be used for self-preservation.  But Ryuko had been reticent too, and that had cost her weeks of lost progress.

               [Stuck together?]

               “Friends,” Nonon corrected him, and was immediately rewarded with a burst of emotion that was, frankly, heartwarming to the extreme.

               [Oh!  I thought that with Satsuki and Uzu and all your other human friends] He hadn’t missed how strongly they all played in her thoughts, in her memories, good and bad, [That there wasn’t any room for me!].  Compared to his words, the strange background of vague thoughts and emotions was running a mile a minute:  But then, he’d already known they had some sort of special connection.  He just couldn’t believe that, after how he’d behaved when she woke him up, that she wouldn’t be too frightened to go on.  He would have been.

               “Don’t worry about all that,” Nonon answered the background rather than his direct “speech”, “I get it, you were scared and confused.”

               [But, we still barely know each other]

               “Don’t worry about that either.  We’ll figure it out…  You’re right, we do hardly know each other, and we are stuck together.  But that’s not a bad thing….  You’ll see, we’re stuck together so we can take care of each other,” Nonon said, struggling to come up with the right words.  Saiban was so openly, unabashedly sure he needed her, he didn’t even bother trying to deny it.  Every word and feeling had this undertone that screamed to her “you are my lifeline in this world, don’t leave me alone”.  And there was something gratifying to feeling needed by a being whose power could measure up to armies.  Well no, that was their power together.  In this form, he was as weak as a kitten, and he knew it.

               So of course, she had to try to reassure him.  She was his guide, she had to put on a brave face.  He understood that it was just a face as soon as she thought that if not sooner, but he appreciated the effort nonetheless.  And if he was willing to let her play the part, then she would keep doing her level best.  And so, an accord was reached without either saying another word.  It was so bizarre to have this… understanding flashing between them, so fast that there really was no way to hide a single thing.  But it was even more bizarre how comfortable it was.  She wondered idly if this was what it had been like when Ryuko and Senketsu were alone.  She was sure she and Saiban were getting along better than they had.

               “Well, you can ask now,” Nonon said aloud. “We’re supposed to get to know each other, right?”

               [About you and Uzu?]

               “Yeah.  He’s my… he’s my boyfriend,” Nonon said, thinking this was doubly odd because this was maybe the third time ever she’d actually used to term to refer to him.

               [Ohh I see now!  And that thing in your memories about him?  From this morning?]

               “Are you being serious?”  please don’t tell me I’m about to have “the talk” with a Kamui, “You seriously don’t know what sex is?”

               [Sex?  Well I know the meaning of the word, and – oh. Ohhhhh.]  A very particular flash of understanding passed between them, [Huh.]

               “Really?  That’s all you’ve got on that one?”

               [Am I supposed to have something else to say?]

               “Well I don’t know, maybe?”  So much for being a guide, but it wasn’t like Saiban blamed her.  They were venturing into uncharted territory now and Nonon was really quite thrilled by the prospect.  What would a Kamui experience if its wearer had sex?  Neither of them had any idea.  Nobody knew.

               [The real question though is if he’s our boyfriend, or just yours?]

               “Well that depends, are you gay?”  Nonon asked thoughtlessly, focused on the soft voice in her head that she was sure was a man’s and not the fact that it came from was an extradimensional being that had just been flummoxed by the concept of sex itself, “No, let’s back up, are you male? Can you be gay?  Are you asexual?  Do you even have any concept of any of that?”

               [Male?  I don’t see how I could be, considering I was made with your genome, remember?]

               “So, what are you then?”

               [I… I think I’m you.]  At this point Nonon actually broke out in a fit laughter.  This was a real thing that a voice in her head had just said to her!  Damn, I think I owe Ryuko an apology for just assuming she was crazy, because this is a trip and a half.  Saiban too had to recognize the absurdity of it - he couldn’t laugh, per se, but he did the next best thing and added to Nonon’s mirth.  But on the other hand he now also realized that that had sounded very, very silly out loud.

               “You know what, I think this is gonna take more brain cells to unscramble than I have right now,” Saiban felt a stab of concern.  So she really was going to sleep?  But he still needed her!  Especially now, now that he was stuck gnawing on the question of human sex and sexuality, something that was all but beyond his comprehension.  He needed her.

               “I know, I know, but I’ll be here in the morning, alright?  And besides, maybe you’ll be able to see what human dreams look like.  It’s not just that awful abyss over and over again.  They can be pretty nice.”

               [Well, maybe.  Oh, but one last thing before you go]

               “Oh, why not,” Nonon answered to his feelings once again and wasted no time shedding her pajamas and putting him on.  She had to resist the urge to flip the Seki-tekko and power up – no, now was time for sleep, but when she reclined across the couch, she was surprised to find that with his silky, organic fabric Saiban was incredibly comfortable.  Well, I guess considering that life-fibers are basically made of nothing I’m essentially sleeping in the nude.  Ira’s right, it really is the most comfortable way.  Ugh, I really hate that I know that about him.  Saiban chewed on these stray thoughts, trying his best not to rouse her and just appreciate that if she was wearing him, she couldn’t possibly go anywhere without him.

               Nonon never managed to nod off.  She was roused, inevitably, by Saiban’s own contorted efforts not to disturb her.  He just had too many questions.  But no – he would be patient, the other Kamui before him must have figured out a way.  But every little thought and memory that drifted down to him demanded context.  Patience was brutal.

               “What is it?”  Nonon asked.  Who could sleep with all that racket?

               And so began the first of many sleepless nights in which Nonon learned what it meant to be bonded to a particularly curious Kamui.

Chapter Text

December 2065

~~~~

               Nonon was back in the test chamber obliterating practice dummies when Satsuki arrived.  Shiro was pretty relieved when he finally heard the chime of the elevator; nearly half the floor was obscured by the scrap metal from all the vaguely humanoid cylinders she’d pulped, and the floor panels kept delivering more.  She leapt and dove between their twirling blades – they were just ordinary steel, if they ever hit her they’d just shatter, but if that happened it would mean she was being careless.  And she was having way too much fun to get careless. 

If Shiro weren’t impressed he might be a little frustrated.  He’d coded the targeting AI for their blade arms with Houka, and back at Honoujji they had given even the three-stars a hard time. On the other hand, with Saiban’s power she was so far ahead of them she had to come up with challenges for herself – right now, she seemed to be trying to avoid touching the ground at all, plunging down with kicks that crumpled them like tin cans and ricocheting off with a gleeful grin.  Houka too was grinning gleefully, and he wasn’t even watching at his seat in the corner.  There was so much great data to collect here.  He did stand up with a friendly wave when the door opened, though

“Nonon!”  Satsuki called as Aikuro led her and Rei into the observation chamber.  Nonon’s high-heeled feet finally clacked onto the ground and she looked up, the same grin plastered over her face.  “Having fun down there?”

Nonon responded by cracking her coattail against the ground, boosting off with it like a giant spring and sailing through the air, turning a cartwheel for the sheer fun of it.  How cool was it that Saiban had this awesome prehensile tail, neither of the other Kamui had come with extra limbs!  Everything seemed to be running in slow motion and even while upside down she knew exactly where she was going to land:  leaning jauntily on the windowsill where the glass Ryuko broke yesterday used to be.  Saiban’s eyes glinted.  He seemed to be addressing Satsuki just as much as Nonon was.

“You don’t know the half of it.”

[Which is more true than you meant, considering she can’t know how much fun I’m having]  Nonon giggled at that one, which made it look to everyone else like she was just giggling in self-satisfaction.  And he was having fun – going faster than the human eye could follow, feeling the metal crumple under fists he never knew he was missing.  But more even than the fun they were both looking forward to their first real battle against something that actually put up a fight.

“So I see,” Satsuki chuckled, “I’m glad that yesterday seems to be a distant memory.  And tell me, how are you two getting along?”

“Oh, I – we – could write a book.  But good, good.  Real good.  We were up way late last night just, y’know, talking.  You probably don’t want to hear it all.”

“And I know I don’t want to hear it all again,”  Shiro said.

“Need I remind you, you were the one who asked!”

[Does he really not care at all?]

“Nah, that’s just how he is.”

“Well Nonon,” Satsuki said, “I did come here to discuss our next move.  And I do have other things on the schedule for today.  Buuut if I said I wasn’t curious…”

“I had a feeling you would.”

“You eat lunch yet?”

“Uh, kind of.”

“Well, I didn’t,”  Satsuki produced a bento box from her bag, “Care to join?”

~~~~

               “So, you two decided that Nonon will do the talking for both of you, and if you disagree on something Saiban will correct you afterwards.  Is that right?  I want to make sure nobody messes this up.”

               “Yeah, about right.  I can usually tell if he’s gonna disagree though, so this way we don’t need to have our own conversation every time we try to talk to someone,” Nonon nodded.  They’d taken one of the observation chambers so the two of them could have lunch alone (although Satsuki had felt a little guilty about not inviting Rei – not like the thing with Ryuko was her fault, after all).  Nonon had no such regrets and now, with just Satsuki, she went ahead and told her nearly everything they talked about the night before and everything about how it felt to activate Saiban and enter into the superhuman.

               “That’ll come in handy for people who don’t really understand what a Kamui is, too,”  Satsuki noted. Nonon reclined with her feet on a desk and her coattail flicking idly – she hadn’t bothered to power down now, and Satsuki wasn’t going to pretended she minded.  Although she still tucked her own feet under her chair, eating slowly and carefully.

               “Right.  I think it’s what Ryuko was doing with Senketsu too.  I don’t know, it just makes sense.”

               “Yes, she never really explained that to you, did she?”

               “No, but she had it figured out.”

               “I don’t doubt that.  She might come off a little heedless, but when it came to Senketsu she had it all figured out.  The idea to train naked was hers and look how that turned out.”

               “The shoulders of giants indeed,”  Nonon muttered snarkily.

               “Quite.  But that doesn’t matter, you shouldn’t feel like you only succeeded because of her.”

               “Did I say I did?”

               “No, but your tone suggested otherwise.”

               [And you do]

               “I’m not acknowledging that,” Nonon grumbled, looking down at Saiban’s eyes fiercely.  But there was no hiding anything from him, she wished she didn’t have to give any credit to anyone but herself and maybe the scientists.  Satsuki raised an eyebrow, trying to guess what Saiban might have said. “Well, she did save my life, which I never thanked her for.”

               “Still, it’s your accomplishment.  I doubt any of the rest of us would have trained nearly so hard, nor been so gung-ho about the whole thing.”

               “Mmm.  Uzu might’ve, but thanks anyway.”

               “Oh, yes I suppose he might’ve,” Satsuki chuckled.  “And how is he taking everything?”

               “Well, he’s happy I’m alive, I know that much,” Nonon rolled her eyes and pretended to be frustrated that Uzu hadn’t more emotive.  But in truth she knew how he felt.  “But truth be told I think he’s a little jealous,” She giggled conspiratorially.

               “Now, it that because he doesn’t have you all to himself anymore, or because he wants to swap places with you?”

               “The latter, definitely!”  Nonon blurted hastily.  “We’re not clingy like that!”

[And neither are we]

“Right,” Nonon agreed despite thinking to herself that Saiban was plenty clingy, but it was different considering he was literally on her body. “Nah, but you know how he is.  I’m sure he’s been eating his heart out.”

               “I don’t doubt it, truly.  He never did get his rematch with Ryuko.  Well, we’ll see about him after your first assignment.”

               “Don’t tell him though – leave it a surprise,” Nonon said, and Satsuki nodded in agreement.

               “I will say though – I wouldn’t call myself jealous,” Satsuki continued after a short pause, “But I am really very happy for you.”  Nonon was already beaming when Satsuki looked up from her food with a sweet smile. “I’m really excited to see what’s next for you.  It’s funny though, isn’t it, that after years spent dreaming of the day when all the life-fibers would be eradicated here we are?”  If her self from just a year or two ago could see her now she’d be thrown into a murderous rage, but she’d been talking with Ryuko about it the night before.  Back at the penthouse, still finding it almost hard to believe that everything had worked out in the end, they had agreed that something that had been missing from their lives had just been reborn.  It was scary, yes, and Ryuko was sure she personally wanted as little to do with it as possible, but they couldn’t deny that it was electrifying too.

               “I don’t know about you, but I’m still convinced there’s only one good use for them:  making Kamuis.”

               “Perhaps.  So, you aren’t on board with Shiro’s hybrid project, then?”

               “Okay, first off, don’t drop that shit on me and expect me to have a good take.  All I know is I think one Ryuko’s more than enough.  One time, when she first woke up from her coma, I saw her cut a building in half with just the shockwave from her swinging her sword.  It was like ten blocks away.  And she might live forever?  I dunno, can we not talk about that now?”

               “I didn’t really want to have a conversation about it either,”  Satsuki raised a conciliatory hand, “I was just curious.”

               “It does make me think though, how do you suppose people are gonna take this?  I mean, considering that everybody knows now that life-fibers equals bad guys,”  Nonon looked thoughtful, “And this didn’t just occur to me, I’ve been thinking for a while about how I might win the public trust, so to speak.”

               “Oh?”

               “Well yeah, like interviews, speeches, photoshoots, that kind of stuff.  Maybe do a little disaster response and general-purpose crime-fighting like Ryuko does.”

               “I’m sure you’d love the chance to be interviewed, huh?”  Nonon had been by far the most vocal way back at the Geneva Trials, as Satsuki had expected.  She loved a spotlight, always had and always would.

               “Oh I think we certainly would.  Although Saiban is more curious about what an interview is like than actually going on one himself,”  Nonon correctly surmised, “But he wouldn’t be talking anyway.”

               “Well, you’ll be interested to know that the public response probably won’t be as bad as you’d expect.  After Ryuko’s TV stunt where she dropped the fact that she herself is made of life-fibers on the world our polls and social media trawling show that a lot of people softened on them immediately.  Apparently, she’s so widely beloved that basically anything she supports becomes beloved as well – which makes it good that she almost never appears in public.  Also, the association of her and myself with Kamuis basically means that most people think pretty highly of them – get that they aren’t the same as Goku Uniforms.  Although I don’t think most people understand that they’re sentient.  Rei or Houka could tell you more.”

               “Oh, alright then,” Nonon said, honestly a little disappointed that she wouldn’t have an uphill battle.  Saiban, on the other hand, was a bit relieved.  He knew from Nonon’s memory that most things made of life-fibers were bad news.  He did not want anyone lumping him with them.  Especially not the COVERS, which even he could tell were downright chilling.  They almost reminded him of the creatures in his dreams.  Only much smaller.

               “Not that I think any of your ideas were bad, mind you.  I think everyone is going to want to interview you.  But again, we’ll find that out after your first assignment.”

               “I would hope so.  Can I ask about that, by the way?  I know I’m supposed to be attacking a REVOCS base but other than that… nobody tells me shit.”

               “Oh, certainly.  We were going to do a briefing as soon as I got done with lunch but why not go over the basics now?” Satsuki produced a folder from her bad and leafed through it, pulling out several files.  The first had several airphotos of what appeared to be a european style mansion with its sprawling grounds, surrounded by dense forest. “Have a look here, both of you,”  Nonon leaned in so Saiban could see.  “This is a mansion up in the mountains near Mt. Arakai.  It was previously owned by the Otori family, presumed abandoned following the war.  However, one of Ira’s prisoners at the max-security lockup indicated that beneath it was hidden an extensive REVOCS base with barracks, production facilities, and databases.  Our scouts confirmed that suspicious activity was occurring there – we believe the mansion itself is being used to entertain wealthy donors and cult leaders, the types REVOCS would like to see returned to power.  Seismic scans show that there’s a sizeable cavern underneath, so it’s all but confirmed.”  Satsuki showed her another page, this one with a confusing diagram that seemed to be an underground cross-section of the earth under the mansion.  She wasn’t sure if she was reading it right (and was pretty sure Saiban couldn’t read at all), but that definitely looked like a big hollow.  The type of place a secret base might be.

               “There could be anything down there, huh?”

               “There might.  There may be life-fiber weaponry of many kinds down there, so you’ll have to be very careful.  What we do know you’ll find is the following:  Nui Harime’s book, someone in the role of base commander, and quite a few die-hard cultists.  Your mission will be to capture as many of those things as possible, prioritized in that order.  And destroy the rest.  Show them they can’t hope to win against a Kamui.”

               “Really, the book comes before the commander?  I thought we wanted to know where the rest of their bases are.”

               “We do, but the book contains not only the cult’s ideology but also a breakdown of the devices that Harime and her underlings created.  We need to know what they have at their disposal.  Besides, at the same time that you attack, Houka will begin hacking their database, so we -.”

               [Ryuko’s coming]

               “What, seriously?”

               “-Uh, sorry?”  Satsuki looked up from her papers in confusion.

               “Wait a second Saiban says Ryuko’s coming.”

               “He can sense that?”

               [She’s far, far above us on what I can only assume is the surface level.]

               “Yeah, I can kind of feel it through you.”  It was a feeling like static electricity, it felt like that half-there shadow was brushing along her skin, so close to touching but not quite.  Except it was happening one hundred feet above her head.

               ~ “I’m going up to let Ryuko in.” ~ Aikuro said over the intercom.  ~ “I don’t think she’s here for the briefing, so we’ll let her take some life-fibers while we talk.” ~

               “Hmm, I guess she couldn’t keep herself away,”  Satsuki said.  “Well, now’s your chance to thank her for saving you.  Or, you probably didn’t want her coming around, did you?”

               “Nah, you know what?  This is actually good.  I was hoping she’d drop in.”

               “Really?”

               “Yeah,”  Nonon grinned, “Because that means I get to punch her.”

               “She’s gonna punch back, you know that right?”

               “I’m counting on it.

~~~~

               When Ryuko and Aikuro reached the break room, they were greeted by everyone waiting expectantly.

               “Ah hey guys, you didn’t have to wait up for me,” She said a little sheepishly after the initial greetings.

               “Actually, we were waiting for Aikuro so we can have out meeting,” Nonon corrected her snarkily. “You just happened to distract him.”

               “Oh, well then cool.  I’m just here to see how everything’s going, don’t mind me.”  This unfazed reaction annoyed Nonon far more than if Ryuko had responded in kind.  What was that about?  Houka and Shiro, on the other hand, took her at face value and went back to working on their giant multimonitor computers.  Satsuki too started fiddling with her papers, getting ready, but Nonon could tell from how straight her back was that she was still listening.  She might as well have been back on her throne at Honoujji, this was the same way she always sat and watched as the elites bantered.

               [Shot in the dark, it has something to do with me] Saiban quipped in response to that unspoken question.  Nonon was honestly impressed how quickly he’d picked up sarcasm.

               “Hey Rei,” Ryuko said, turning to address Rei where she sat on her the couch, fully distracted from her work and looking up at her expectantly, “Are you part of the meeting?  Cuz I, uh, I got something I gotta talk to you about.”  Satsuki’s face contorted into a scowl – just momentarily.  Nonon let her scowl linger much longer.

               From the moment she’d seen them together at the holiday party Nonon’s mind failed to comprehend how Ryuko and Rei could be an item.  Well, were they yet?  It was hard to tell.  Nonon’s sources, mostly Mako since she was home for winter break but also a few of Ryuko’s college friends she happened to know, informed her that they’d gone on two real dates and had several post-work hookups when Rei didn’t have to stay too late.  So they were probably not official… yet.  Just another case of Ryuko being Ryuko really, but Nonon wasn’t among those who found it endearing.  It just made no sense, what did they have in common besides having tried to kill Satsuki at one point or another?  Plus it was a dumb move because, if things didn’t work out, they’d still have to see each other all the time because Rei worked so closely with Satsuki.  Ryuko never thought of those sorts of practicalities.

               [Now they, they are gay.  Not that that has anything to do with what you were thinking, I’m just realizing that human sexual dimorphism isn’t something I can read in their aura.]

               “Well good for you, you’re learning,” Nonon said sarcastically, unintentionally interrupting Rei as she informed Ryuko that yes, she was needed for the meeting.  Ryuko ignored it, just as Nonon ignored her when she said told Rei she’d just wait then.

               [Your tone is not appreciated,] Saiban shot back, sounding more exasperated than he was. [Well, are you gonna ask her to fight us or what?]

               “Oh, right.”  Nonon, for politeness’s sake, did wait until Ryuko and Rei were done.

               “-I think I can wait fifteen minutes to hear where you had in mind,” Rei was saying, smiling as Ryuko went on enthusiastically.

“Well yeah, that’s not the problem.  I just don’t wanna wait to tell you.”

“Life can be so cruel sometimes, can’t it?”  Rei joked.  Ryuko flopped down on the couch next to her and, after a moment’s hesitation, put her arm across Rei’s shoulder.  Satsuki stealthily swiveled her chair just slightly so they weren’t in her line of sight.

“Well, if you’re sticking around,” Nonon said, leaning over Ryuko tauntingly.  She wondered if remembering how it felt to be ogled while wearing Senketsu would be enough to make Ryuko stop the natural creep of her eyes.  Evidently it was, because she met Nonon’s eyes nonchalantly. “I’ve got something for you too.”

“Oh yeah?  Now what could you mean by that?”  Judging by the wolfish curve of her smile, something Nonon recognized all too well from all their sparring sessions, she knew exactly what Nonon meant.

“C’mon, don’t play coy with me.  You wanna go a few rounds?  You at full strength, Saiban and me at full strength. How about it? I know you want to see what we can do.”

“Hmm.  Honestly didn’t expect you’d want to jump right in the deep end. Cuz you say full strength, you’re gonna get it.”

“Uh, Satsuki?”  Rei asked, “Were you planning to stay here and watch the Kamui fight?”

“Well, it’s not on my schedule.  But I’m going to say yes.”

~~~~

               ~ “Now before you two get started, a little gift for you, Nonon,” ~  Houka said over the loudspeaker, and Nonon took a step back as a floor panel slid open.  Across the test chamber, Ryuko didn’t bother leaning in to see just fine, but Nonon had to guess she was watching pretty intently. “Enjoy.”

               From the dark recesses beneath the floor, a world of whirring machines and wires, a deep blue-black blade emerged.  My sword!  Nonon thought with a thrilled giggle.  Well, it wasn’t exactly a sword.  It was even better.

               Rising up vertically until the tip was well above Nonon’s head or Saiban’s shoulder-eyes, Nonon’s blade was a beautiful, two sided naginata with smooth, intricate golden detailing in the shape of vipers winding their way up the pole from the center, with their open mouths forming the guards.  Nonon wasted no time wrenching it out of the plinth, giving it a few experimental twirls.  Perfectly balanced, just a little flex.  The hardened life fiber blades glinted in the light.

               “Whoahohoho!”  She cackled shrilly.

               ~ “We thought, considering your preference for the quarterstaff, that this would be more your style than a sword,” ~  Houka said, ~ “I hope you don’t mind the snake designs, I just thought they would be fun.  We can remove them, if you want.” ~

               “Are you kidding?”  Nonon shouted back, “And ruin it?”

               ~“Oh, well in that case I knew you’d like it all along”~ Houka said with a chuckle while Shiro rolled his eyes next to him,  ~“It also can separate in the middle – in case you ever run across something you need cross-cutting life-fiber blades to take down.”~

               “Cool,” Nonon separated the halves to see it in action while Saiban “downloaded” the information on how the cross-cutting principle worked.  “Very cool.”

               [These scientist friends of yours – I didn’t trust them at first, but they’re very invested in our success, aren’t they]

               “Of course!  They’ve only been my friends for basically forever.  I know they treated you roughly but look. At. This.

               [It makes an eloquent point.  Want to try it out?]

               “You know it.  Thanks guys!”  She called up to the observation chamber, lest she forget, “I fucking love it!”  Then, to Ryuko, “Well, thank you for your patience.  But I think it’s time we wiped that smile off your face.”

               “Hey man, a blade like that I wouldn’t mind getting stabbed by, so long’s you don’t try and cross-cut me with it.”

               “Well duh.”

               “Alright, alright, I’m just checking.  So, what’re you gonna call ‘er?”

               “Oh, shit we need to think of a name!”  Nonon said excitedly.  She was too caught up in the beautiful, lethal implement in her hands to really wonder about how nice Ryuko was being.  Not that she could have guess that, underneath it, a raging torrent of jealousy was barely contained by Ryuko’s confident toothy grin.  Just looking at those bloodshot orange eyes, the little antennae poking up from the raging beehive atop her head, that self-satisfied way Nonon carried herself now, reminded her that those days were over for her now.  And worst of all was when she talked to herself, blithely unaware of the world as she listened to a response only she could hear – that’s our thing!  She can’t do that!

But at least someone got to experience it, see what made a Kamui so special.  And with her help they’d managed to (mostly) skip that awkward first stage.  That was something worth being happy about, even if was a bittersweet happiness.  It’s their turn now, and yeah, I do hope they do it better than we did.

“Ah, nevermind. Later.  I don’t want to wait any longer.”

[Be careful.  It’s hard to get a read on her but I’m sure she’s got a good deal more raw strength than us.]

“That’s never stopped me before.  Okay, you ready?”  She shouted across the test chamber, “You, us, full strength!”

“Sounds good to me, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

“Funny, I was about to say the exact same thing!”

It was over in an instant.  Nonon pushed off the ground with the combined power of her legs, coattail, and the end of the naginata, vaulting through the air at blurring speed.  A huge blast of steam and golden fire shot out from the vents on her back and shoulderpads. The glinting blade sang through the air, perfectly lined up to drop directly onto Ryuko’s head where she stood, arms crossed and cocky smile unflinching.

Then the entire underside of Ryuko’s hair lit up with a blinding red-orange glow.  It was like her body had caught fire.

[Wait, something’s changed!] was all Saiban had time for.  Ryuko connected a perfect, open fingered jab right to the dead center of Nonon’s sternum.  She went sailing straight backwards like a speeding bullet and she was pressed against the wall – no, into the wall – ten feet deep in a massive crater that pulped the entire wall and plenty of the ceiling and floor as well.  A huge, quaking tremor reverberated through everything as yet more masonry spilled out across the test chamber.  As the light faded from her hair Ryuko seemed to suddenly fully appreciate what she’d done.

“Nonon!  Shit!”  She leaped over to the crater and paused over Nonon.  To her credit, she’d managed to hold onto her naginata through the entire ride.  “I’m sorry, I – oh shit!”  All her bravado was gone now as Ryuko started to peel the concrete away and dislodge Nonon.  “You said full power, and I thought you’d be able to take it!”

~ “Nonon! Are you alright!” ~ Satsuki shouted over the loudspeaker.  ~ “Ryuko is she breathing?” ~

“I-I’m fine!”  Nonon wheezed ferociously, “We’re fine!”  Try as she might, she couldn’t move from the cookie-cutter imprint she’d made in the wall.

[No, we aren’t.  I’m way over my limit, I can’t protect you any longer. We’re powering down.]  Nonon growled in frustration as, in a pulse of light, her skintight battlesuit warped into a dress once more.  At least now she was free from the imprint. She could feel Saiban’s own frustration.  He knew how much this fight meant to her, but it didn’t matter any.  He was powerless to help her against such a force – if he’d known Ryuko was equal to at least ten of him, he would have told her to back down.

~ “You guys, what the hell!” ~  Aikuro burst into the observation chamber, ~ “You think you could warn me next time before you decide to make earthquakes under a high-tech research facility?” ~

“It’s my bad,”  Ryuko said, helping a begrudgingly grateful Nonon down to floor, “I’ll take the heat.  I miscalibrated, went overboard.”

~ “Sure, fine, but from this point on you’re not allowed to use any superhuman abilities in my lab, got that?” ~  Ryuko nodded guiltily – this was the first time she’d ever seen Aikuro truly upset.  And it was justified, Ryuko knew just enough about science to know that there was plenty of stuff up above her that might go boom with a good shake.  Satsuki too felt guilty – she’d been sitting there with everyone else, not expecting anything to go wrong.  They’d done indoor training back a Honoujji all the time.  But that was a poor excuse, she was supposed to foresee outcomes like this.  ~ “That goes for you too,” ~ Aikuro continued, nodding to Nonon, ~ “You do this shit outside, or not at all.” ~

~ “Aikuro,  I’m sorry,” ~  Satsuki said, giving him a grave little bow for good measure, ~ “I should have been keeping a closer eye on them, we all should have.  I think we just got a little caught up in seeing what Saiban could do.” ~

Aikuro’s expression softened a bit.  Yeah, he got that.  Sometimes it was hard to remember that – with the exception of Rei, who was Satsuki’s employee and frankly used to following orders – none of them was older than twenty.  He smiled even as he crossed his arms, ~ “I don’t know what I expected, honestly.  Let’s just hope nobody got seriously hurt up there. And, er, Nonon are you alright?” ~

“Yeah, not hurt,” Now that Nonon was on her feet she found that, save for the wind being knocked out of her Saiban’s thin energy barrier across her skin had protected her from the attack quite elegantly.  And he wasn’t the worse for the wear either – he wouldn’t be able to power up again for a few minutes, but once he did, he would be good as new.  So Ryuko wasn’t that much stronger than her.  Just ten or so times?  “Saiban’s fine, too.”

~ “Good.  I trust next time you’re planning to control yourself a bit better, Ryuko?” ~

“Oho yeah,”  Ryuko nodded, “Don’t worry next time I’ll make sure to match her properly.”

~ “Alright.  Now, you two ought to get out of there so we can turn on the auto cleaner.”

~~~~

               Back out in the hallway, Nonon turned to Ryuko, “So tell me, you powered yourself up just by absorbing life fibers, right?”

               “Yup, pretty much.  Same deal with Senketsu, too.”

               “Actually,” Shiro leaned his head out the door, “Absorbing the life-fibers is only half the process, there seems to be some hidden “x-factor” we have yet to discover.”

               “Whatever, it’s close enough.  Well then, I guess that’s the silver lining in this – we can probably do the same,” After that crushing defeat, Nonon was feeling oddly philosophic.  She was probably stupid to think it would all come easily.  No, they weren’t done yet, and that was a good thing.  She had something to look forward to.  What made it all better was that she knew it was doable.  Anything was possible now, even if it took a little more time than she’d expected.  She would beat Ryuko at full power eventually.

               “I mean, I bet you guys still have tons of room to grow.  Looks to me like you’re about where me and Senketsu were when we first learned to sync, and after we absorbed a couple three-stars it was like a night-day difference.  You haven’t learned how to evolve yet, have you?”

               [Evolve?  I know the meaning of the word…]

               “She means like change forms and stuff.  She picked the wrong word because she’s dumb or something.”

               “Hey!”  To her credit, this was as far as Ryuko went butting into the conversation between Nonon and Saiban.

               [Ah I see.  Because that’s not at all what evolving means.  So, what could I do?]

               “Oh, well Senketsu had this one where he covered himself in spines, Junketsu could shoot his shoulderpads like harpoons, and they both eventually gained the ability to fly.”

               [Fly]  Saiban picked up the particular thrill in her when she said that, [Sounds useful]

               “Oh it’s more than useful.  So, whaddya say, want to try that?”

               [Well yes I would.  But, but what I really would like is to get out of this lab.  See some of the places you’ve told me about.  I think it’s been put off long enough especially now that we can’t fight Ryuko here]

               “Well yeah, so do I.  I mean, we’ve gotta continue this shit outside, right?” She asked Ryuko, “I know it wouldn’t be at your full power but do you wanna find a place to get in a little sparring anyway?”

               “Sure, I’m on break, nothing better to do with the afternoon.”

               At this point Shiro interrupted again.  “Don’t you remember what Satsuki said in the briefing Nonon? You can’t leave the lab until we’re ready to attack the base so REVOCS can’t possibly get wind that Saiban exists.”

               “Ugh, seriously?”  Nonon groaned.  They couldn’t wait another night. “Fine, then let’s do it now.”

               “Wait, now?  But -,”

               “- Just give Saiban enough time to recharge and we’ll be ready to go.”

               “Well nothing else is.”

               “What else is there? Just a helicopter to get me there and Houka and I’m sure he’s been ready to hack them for days now.  C’mon, we can’t stay here another night we’ll go stir crazy!”

               “Hey, I’ll loan you my bike if you want so long as you park it outside the splash zone,” Ryuko offered.

               Satsuki had been half listening to the exchange from in the observation chamber, and eventually reached a decision of what to do.  She understood their restlessness plenty, but at the same time there was too much at stake to go in half baked.

               She wound up staying the night over with Nonon.  They sat in the storage facility, bathed in the blue lights of the life-fiber pods as Saiban consumed yards upon yards of the red threads, playing cards with the scientists and eventually Uzu (when he got back from his Kendo lessons) until late in the night.  It was oddly fun.  The intent was just to keep Nonon occupied as best she could, but on the other hand when had any of them ever had a normal slumber party growing up?  She only wished Ryuko could have been there too, but as near as she could tell she’d invited Rei over to the penthouse to stay the night.  Being with everyone else helped her not to think about that, either.

               And when they woke up the next morning they were ready to deliver judgement onto REVOCS like they had never known.

Chapter Text

December 2065

~~~~

               “Hey, I was thinking,”  Ryuko said, reclining across the bench along the right side of the helicopter bed, “Since we’re not exactly trying to sneak in the leader’s probably gonna bolt, so maybe when you attack them head on I sneak in through the back, grab ‘em and the book, and scoot.”

               Across from her, Nonon scoffed, “Are you kidding?  And let you take the credit?  This is my debut – my prize.  I’ll collect the assets, thank you very much.”  She crossed her arms resolutely, which also helped with the draft blowing through the open doors.  She’d insisted on leaving them open – Saiban was staring in awe at the grey-brown expanse of the barren winter woods, rolling hills interrupted by the occasional measly village.  So this was the outside, how amazing!  If you think this is something just wait until spring, Nonon thought, but he didn’t care.  His eyes peeked out and darted around wildly from the unzipped collar of the parka she wore over him.

               “Hey man, not like I care that much,”  Ryuko stretched her arms, unruffled by the cold, “I’m only here ‘cuz Satsuki asked me to.  Had a whole day planned with Mako and everything – we were gonna go down the park, get some lunch, go mess around at the museum, get some din-,”

               “Yeah I get it!” Nonon groaned.  “Well then, if you don’t care, you’ll be fine posting sentry in the woods and waiting for if I need backup, won’t you?”

               “Sure, whatever,”  Ryuko nodded, and they rode the rest of the way in silence.  Eventually Satsuki’s voice piped in from their earpieces – she and the scientists and Uzu, Rei, and Ira were all cloistered up in a dark little ops room someplace in the government compound that had sprung up where the old Kiryuin Headquarters used to be, watching screens project the image from the tiny cameras on the earpieces.  She wasted no time informing them that they were over the drop point, and they booth stood up with a stretch.

               “Welp, looks like it’s showtime, you ready?”  Ryuko leaned out the door.

               “Been ready – let’s roll!”  Nonon may not have been a superhuman herself, but with Saiban’s help the seven story drop to the forest floor held no fear for her - even while powered down he could absorb that much shock no problem.  She leapt out the door on her side with a whoop, and Ryuko followed not far behind, plunging through the morning breeze with reckless abandon.  Her face scrunched up in confusion though, when their feet padded softly down on the side of a featureless asphalt road, no mansion in sight.

               “Uh, what gives?  There’s nothing here.”

               ~ “Ryuko…” ~ Satsuki sighed through the earpiece.  Ryuko’s cheeks burned just a little at that evident disappointment.

               “Seriously?  Do you never pay attention or just not during important briefings?  This is as close as they can put us without setting off alarms!”  Nonon’s exasperated, shrill tone pricked Ryuko’s temper, but she did have a point.

               “Ohhh. Oh. Wait, does that mean we have to walk?”  Ryuko groaned.

               “Yup, and since you don’t know where it is you can’t even speed ahead,”  Nonon said with a little snarky joy at Ryuko’s displeasure.

               Ryuko groaned again, this time a big, nonverbal “ugh”.  But she pulled herself together, Satsuki and Rei were listening so she couldn’t be too whiny even if it would annoy Nonon, “Alright, then lead the way, miss shot-caller.”

               ~ “Enjoy the walk, you two,” ~ Satsuki intoned, ~ “We’ll check in when you’ve arrived at the desination.” ~  And so began the morning hike, a mostly silent affair as Nonon and Saiban psyched themselves up and Ryuko idly wondered what they might find inside that hidden base.  Maybe something that could give a decent fight?  Oh who was she kidding, if Nonon couldn’t then what chance did they have?

~~~~

               When Minazuki first saw the Otori Mansion, she’d been worried.  Worried that the aboveground component, the mansion proper, would be her new home.  That she would be living an idle life with the other nobles who huddled there – a political piece, not a vital piece of an active guerilla machine.  Every day of that first week she saw soldiers leaving on missions at all hours, and not nearly as many coming back.  Not that she wouldn’t have taken it, knowing that Satsuki was after her it made sense to disappear.  But she was happy when she told Kuroido she wanted to play a more active role, do Takamori proud, and he listened and opened the door – down into the real REVOCS.

               Now, months later, it was a morning just like any other.  She got her coffee and her breakfast delivered to her quarters, then went down to the mess hall anyway to preside over everyone.  The soldiers nodded respectfully as she passed, calling her “Lady Minazuki” with all due deference.  Although they referred to each other as “brother” or “sister”, an oddly fraternal turn for such hard-bitten rebels. 

But then they were an odd bunch, with lots of strange sayings and habits she hadn’t fully mastered yet.  As near as she could tell there were two kinds – young, untrained idealists, fired up about what a travesty the new government was and how something had to be done, and the grizzled veterans.  They were a quiet bunch, spent a lot of their time in that strange, dimly lit chapel that was one of the only rooms Minazuki hadn’t been in yet.  She’d told Kuroido, when he’d asked if she would join them for mass, that she claimed no affiliation to any religion, and he’d shrugged and said, “Perhaps one day”.  But she was having trouble telling exactly what religion they followed; all she’d seen of it was that plinth in the spotlight with the huge tome on top, and it didn’t look like anything she could recognize. Still, they’d accepted her as one of their own, so she could put such eccentricities aside.

“Mornin’,” She was greeted as she entered the command center with the only informal greeting she would receive all day.  This was Akiari, security chief and quartermaster of the compound, second only to Kuroido in this particular cell.  He sat with his feet on the long table, watching the screens roll by without much apparent interest.  Minazuki was respected by the rest of the compound, but he was the only one she really spent all too much time with – the rest of the officers were old and cynical and not interested in humoring her when it came to practicing martial arts (as a Kiryuin she was expected to know her way around a blade, but she wasn’t content to let herself be just passable forever) or the ins and outs of command.  And there was something about Akiari, with his permanently half formed hair, easy smile, and that laid-back attitude that seemed to bely a sort of perpetual somberness. 

“Akiari, how’re you today?”  Minazuki smiled back. “Gonna work on breaking in your 2-star again?”

“Nah, it’s my turn to feed Chibi and the wolf-rats today, I figure that’ll be plenty of warmup for it.  You’re welcome to watch by the way, I know you’re a fan of them.”

“Maybe I will,” She nodded, sitting on the table, “I never get tired of watching the transformation sequence.”

“And yet you don’t want one of your own, huh?” Akiari fiddled with the lapel of his suit, at first glance just a normal, although very well-tailored, black and maroon three-piece.  But it was too smooth, too shiny.

“I said I liked watching, didn’t I?  That’s for a reason.”

“Fair enough,” He tilted his head at the suggestion that she might be admiring his physique during the transformation.  She hadn’t invited him to her quarters yet, but she’d definitely considered it.  He was of the lesser nobility, the retainer to the Otori family, so he wasn’t a bad match by any means.  She’d been here for months without a man, and he’d been here even longer.  “And then after that… Well I do have to pick a team for the next op, you’re helping with that, right?”

“Yeah, although truth be told I haven’t settled on any of them yet,” She chuckled.  She would only admit such failings to him.

“Well, we’ve got time, we could review the files now?”

“Mmm.  So, you really think it’ll work this time?”

“Honestly, HQ says it has to.”  “HQ says” was one of Akiari’s favorite phrases.  Minazuki didn’t know who ran the show at the REVOCS headquarters, hell, she didn’t even know where it was.  There were some secrets she just hadn’t been there long enough for. “It sucks that we haven’t been able to find a single piece of dirt on her, she covers her tracks too well.  If we could just discredit her, then this wouldn’t be necessary.  But here we are.”

“And the research complex is the best place to do it?”

“Well, if we’re lucky we might take a few of her lackies out as well, and -,”  Akiari was interrupted quite abruptly by a loud siren emitting from the front of the command center, where a wall covered in various screens with security feeds from around the compound stood above the table.  They both stood up at alert. “Ah hell, intruder alert?”  Akiari groaned, “Probably just the peasants from down the road again.”

They wouldn’t be so lucky, it turned out.  In a moment Kuroido burst in, his corpulent little body heaving with exertion. “They found us!”

“What!”  Minazuki and Akiari shouted at once.

“Look!  At the gates – it’s -,”  Kuroido pointed to the screens.  No, there was no mistaking it.  But how?  How was that all too familiar pink-haired devil standing there, amidst the ruins of the gatehouse, wearing… that?

“No… is that – that’s really a Kamui, isn’t it?”  Minazuki mouthed, despair crashing into her as she stared at the thing in the shape of a woman as it picked itself up and bounded across the gardens. “But how?  How could she have made something like that?”

“Jakuzure! Damn, I guess this really is it!  Begin the evacuation!”  Akiari shook himself to usefulness.  Minazuki, on the other hand, was gaping, at a complete loss.  So, this was it then.  What happened when you went against the new queen.  It was inconceivable, the hypocrisy of it.  All life-fibers had to be destroyed, huh?  Then what do you call that -  that thing you’ve made out of your little girlfriend?  The cold, dead eyes on the shoulderpads flitted up to the camera as bullets plinked harmlessly of the Kamui and its body, and then the feed descended into static.

“Server room!  Wipe all hard drives and prepare for evacuation!”  Akiari shouted into the intercom.  The voice on the other end was frantic.

~ “Sir we’re trying!  But - but we’ve been hacked!” ~

“Argh!  Fucking Inamuta!”  he snarled, and then, reading the evident panic on Minazuki and Kuroido’s faces, straighted his back and put on a grim face, “You need to get out of here.  Get the other officers together, take the exit tunnel.”

“Wha – wait we?  What about -,”  Minazuki began to protest.

“I’ll be fine,”  Akiari shrugged.  “I should have seen this coming, now I’ve gotta clean up my mess.”

“You’re not seriously going to fight her, are you?  You won’t stand a chance!”

“I’ll be fine, I’ve got my Huskarl and my life-fiber sword.  I’ll end this in a single blow.”  He looked over to Kuriodo, who was still knee deep in his panic, bustling around grabbing up papers and shoving them into his bag.  He might’ve been in command, but he wasn’t in control.  “I leave this in your hands, Minazuki.  Good luck, and goddess bless you.”

“Be careful!”  Minazuki called, but he was already gone.  Minazuki was left gaping, her stomach curling in on itself.  He was going to die.  Then she was probably going to die.  But before that the base was going to be destroyed, and the REVOCS resistance would be one defeat closer to destruction.  This was what she signed up for, wasn’t it?  Akiari was counting on her not to make his sacrifice in vain.  She turned on the intercom.

“All combat personnel prepare to engage the enemy!  All non-combat personnel gather all assets and proceed to the exit tunnel!  Move people!”

~~~~

               Mere minutes before Minazuki’s morning was so dreadfully interrupted, Nonon got her first glimpse of the mansion.  It was just like Satsuki had described it, an ostentatious, multi-story European-style structure nestled into a valley and ringed by gardens, greenhouses, tennis courts, and hedgerows.  She was alone now, Ryuko had peeled off into the forest not long ago, vanishing into the bare branches.  She was out of eyesight, but Saiban could still feel her out there, perched somewhere with a good vantage on the scene.  But even Ryuko’s overwhelming aura – that’s what Saiban called it, but Nonon thought of it in a manner more comprehensible to her: scent – was overshadowed by the vast glow beneath the mansion.  Something down there reeked.

               [So many, I can’t even tell where one ends and the next begins!]  He couldn’t decided to be nervous, excited, or just plain curious.  Saiban needed no more persuasion to proceed, though.  He knew what he was made for, and he was dying to come to grips with a real enemy just as much as

               “One big nest full of rats,” Nonon quipped.  Surveying the wrought iron front gates, she noticed that the small towers on each side were clustered with the silhouettes of men.  Yet more sentries seemed to be patrolling the gardens on the other side.

               [Now I know your plan, but those humans have guns.  I can only protect you against a few bullets like this, we should transform now.]

               “Nah trust me, this is gonna be awesome,”  She carried on up the road.

               ~ “Trying your ‘big reveal’?” ~  Satsuki asked over the earpiece.

               “Yup!”

               ~ “Alright, just don’t hesitate when the time comes.” ~

               “Oh don’t worry, we’re itching to get started.”

               ~ “I’ll let you work then.  Good luck.” ~

               “As if I need it.”

               ~ “Good luck babe, whack ‘em once for me!” ~ Uzu cut in, almost over her.  She frowned.

               “Ugh, don’t call me babe you dope!”

               ~ “Aw, but I’m the only one who gets the chance to call ‘earth’s mightiest warrior’ babe, babe!” ~  Nonon groaned into the mic.

               “You’re lucky I can’t hang up,”  She growled.

               [He’s proud of you, don’t take it for granted].  At those words from Saiban Nonon’s face went a little red.  It became much worse when she heard Ryuko making wet kissy noises over the earpiece.

               ~ “C’mon!” ~  She whined ~ “Fight the baddies already!” ~  Nonon wasn’t about to argue with that.

~~~~

               “Halt!”  The call came down from one of the towers and Nonon heard the telltale click of rifles being shouldered in her direction.  “This is private property!”

               “Oh?  Why, I could have sworn this place was abandoned!” Nonon tapped her chin thoughtfully, looking up at the guards with their grizzled, blank faces.  She pulled a pout and batted her eyelashes in her most adorable way, giggling internally.

               “Nonsense!  These lands have been in the Otori clan for generations!”  Nothing like a little bald faced lie, huh?

               “Oh really?  Then, you don’t suppose I could talk to the master of the house, could I?”

               “Depart now, or force will be used against you!”

               “I’m not in the habit of asking twice, boys, so I’ll give you a chance to reconsider,”  The guards took an uncertain step back.  The local villagers were easy to scare off, you didn’t usually even need a warning shot.  This was different.

               “This is you final warning!”

               Nonon sighed, as if frustrated.  These morons were fun to toy with, but enough was enough.  Her fingers twitched with the urge to turn the Seki-tekko.  Instead, she took a coy step forward, “So what happens if I do this?”  The report of a burst of bullets in response was near instantaneous, squeezed out by the nervous fingers of a fresh recruit who had no idea what the hell he was getting himself into.

               Everyone froze.  The last shot had, by pure coincidence, struck Nonon directly in the chest.  The sergeant slapped his charge upside the head, “No firing discipline!” he shouted as the recruited belted out his apologies.  The other guards relaxed a little as they watched the chastisement, expecting that they’d have to dispose of a body soon.  Might as well watch the newbie get his lumps first

               “I’m fine, by the way,” Nonon said casually,  and suddenly all eyes were on her.  Brilliant emerald shone through the hole in her parka – Saiban’s energy field and his own impenetrable fabric held together like a charm and she was standing just as nonchalant as ever.  “So, looks like we’ll be doing this the hard way.  Don’t feel bad though,”  Nonon was having a blast watching the shocked expressions on the guard’s faces, and it was only going to get better.  She reached up into her hair – there was a pin holding it up – she removed it, and in her hand it warped, unfolding upon itself over and over again like a butterfly knife, but growing impossibly as it did so.  This was a trick Ryuko had taught her – or really taught Saiban – on the way here:  Shrinkning her naginata down to a miniscule size and expanding it back to combat-ready in mere milliseconds.  She could swear she saw the whites of the guard’s eyes bugging out as they saw the wicked double-bladed weapon appear in her hands, “The hard way was really the only option.”

               “Open fire!  Sound the alarm! Sound the alarm!”  the sergeant suddenly understood what was happening.  The pink-hair, by the goddess of course that was familiar!  Why hadn't he noticed before!  A hailstorm of bullets sang through the brisk winter air, but it was already too late.  Nonon’s Seki-tekko was an improved design over Ryuko’s – not a glove but a simple silver bracelet.  All she had to do was rotate it to open the valve and let the blood flow, and she could do that with one hand by running it across her thigh.  The guards could only watch in horror as she did just that, and her parka was shredded as Saiban exploded off her in a burst of raw golden light.

               If the first transformation was like surfing a tsunami, then the subsequent times were like wading into the ocean on a hot summer day.  She closed her eyes and let the change take her.  Nonon didn’t see the fibers wheeling around her, contorting across her naked form in a whirlwind.  She didn’t see the great, draconic figure rising up behind her, the flaming shadow of a vast, incomprehensible creature that roared a disorted, unearthly tone as it sunk its jaws around her.  She didn’t see it lash itself down, that monstrous shape shrink-wrapping down into her chestpiece, the ribbons on the sides of her belly, the helical sleeve and tights, the bladed guantlets.  But she felt it all, and she knew when the time had come to throw her head back,  shoulderpads erupting from her flesh like bared fangs, and scream like shrill thunder:

               “Life-fiber Synchronize!  Kamui Saiban!”

 

Chapter Text

~~~~

               The moment her transformation was finished Nonon surged forward like a woman possessed.  No good messing around now that the alarms were blaring.  A few guards with more sense than courage were bolting, leaping off the towers or trying to make it down the stairs.  They couldn’t outspeed her though, in fact those that kept shooting couldn’t even keep on target as she bounded to the gate and unleashed a mighty punch right into the center.  With a rumpling, wrenching noise, the wrought iron flew away into the gardens, taking the cobbling of the towers with it like a wave of rock.  The fallen guards buried in the rubble were of no concern to her now, nor were the others that came rushing around to try their hand at using mere metal to put her down. 

But they were ordinary humans; all they could do was watch her passage in terror.  If they didn’t run off into the woods, she would be back for them when the book and their leader were recovered.  And if they did, then it was out of the frying pan, into the fire, because Ryuko was out there somewhere.  She didn’t know where anymore, Saiban was overpowered by the scent from below, drawing them in like a pretty green vulture.

               “Mhmmhmm…ahahaha!”  Nonon couldn’t help herself.  Oh, how she had missed the feeling of maelstroms of bullets glancing off her skin like rain!  It was a little cruel, she had to admit, striding past them without even a glance.  But come on

               That, and to be quite frank she wasn’t sure that with this strength she would be able to stop herself from killing them accidentally.

               Security cameras, on the other hand, she did spare a moment for.  The less whoever was watching them knew about where she was, the better.  She leapt across the gardens, past withered lilies and glossy evergreen bushes, smashing cameras and blithely ignoring the men around her.  Inevitably she came to front door.  What lay beyond?

               [Only one way to find out!]

               “Hehehe,”  Nonon raised her hand, “Knock – knock!”  The door vanished down the massive foyer as soon as Nonon’s fist connected with it.  She strode in, heels clicking on the hard marble tiles.  Inside, the signs of chaos were everywhere, the nobles who had been living there had left in a hurry.  Nonon wandered through the rooms undisturbed– the guards hadn’t bothered to follow her.  She wandered through huge salons, galleries of fine art and antiques, and other such lavish accommodations.  She wondered aloud, “Now if I were putting a secret entrance in here, where would it be?”

               [I feel something, over there!]  A scent, but not the powerful, glowing pungency of life-fibers.  A living creature.  She followed the trail and kicked open the door into a bedroom.  There, she stalked to the closet and flung it open to find a nobleman huddled there, puffy and wrinkled and scared out of his wits.  In his silk pajamas, it seemed the alarm had caught him napping.  He looked familiar, she might have seen him at some high class function, but he certainly didn’t recognize her now.  She dragged him from his hole, kicking uselessly, and threw him out onto the hardwood floor with a heel on his back.  He groaned in pain.

               “Aw, don’t be like that.  If I wanted you dead,”  Nonon’s tone shifted and dropped quite abruptly then, “you wouldn’t have seen me coming.”

               [Is this really necessary?] Saiban asked, but he knew Nonon was having fun playing the rampaging monster, thinking back to all the years she had to spend putting up with insufferable bores like him, complicit or actively involved in so much corruption and destruction.  [Also, something big is coming.]

               “Now, where’s everyone run off to, hmm?  Why don’t you tell me, and maybe I’ll be nice.  But if you don’t, well, I make no promises.”  At this point Nonon could hear it too.  Footsteps just outside the door.  The metal schwing of a sword being unsheathed.

               “Let. Him. Go.”  Now here we go, a proper adversary.  Nonon turned to regard him with the corner of her eye.  A tall, strong-jawed young man with a ruffled coif stared back at her from the doorway, sword held high, point nearly at her shoulder blades.  She could feel the irregularity of his breathing. The black and maroon suit he wore that was so clearly a life-fiber weapon rose and fell sharply.  He knew that even in this disadvantaged position she was still beyond dangerous.  “One false move and I’ll gut you right now.”

               “You really want to do this here?”  Nonon sighed, lifting the back end of her naginata to press the blade against his.  Try as he might, he couldn’t resist as she slowly, daintily lowered his blade to the floor.  That’s not all you’ve got, is it?  She asked with a raised eyebrow, but she had a suspicion judging by what Saiban sensed that he wasn’t at full power yet.  “Cuz I’m ready to make a mess.”

               “I can’t allow you to threaten this house any longer.”

               “Good.  Then just show me how to get into the secret base and I’ll be on my way.”  He didn’t answer that one, but drew his sword back into a ready position. “So, it’s gonna be like that, huh?”

               She wasted no more time, surging forward faster than he could react.  With a hand on his lapel she dug in her heels and pictched him as hard as she could, splintering wooden walls and tile floors as he blasted though several rooms and floors down to the ground floor.  A booming crash echoed through the mansion as rugs and furniture and dust flew everywhere.  He unfurled in the middle of the vast foyer, and as Nonon followed through the tunnel he’d carved she was pleased to see whatever he was wearing was tough enough to survive that. 

               “Ah, much more room to work, eh?”  She dropped to the floor, stretching and giving him a chance to stand up despite Saiban’s wondering if maybe they should finish him quickly and keep moving.  He already realized that it was best if they didn’t “talk” during a fight, using feelings and stray thoughts to communicate during a fight was less distracting.  And besides, as much as he wanted to get this job done successfully and get on with exploring the outside world, he did want fight too.  “Alright, go ahead and transform now.”

               “Heh, decided to stand for a fair fight after all?  Very well!”  He swooped back upright, holding his sword aloft.  “But before we begin, perhaps an exchange of names?”  Oh lovely, he’s chivalrous.  Either that or stalling. “You have the honor of facing Akiari Hondou, retainer of the Otori clan.  Tell me, young Godrobe, what do they call you?”

               “Eh?  Godrobe?  Seriously?  I’m Nonon Jakuzure.  Honestly, I expected you’d recognize me.”

               “Wait, you’re still in control?  No, you lie.  No ordinary human can resist the influence of a Kamui.”

               “Well, think what you want, but me and Saiban here are a team,”  She shrugged, “Now c’mon, let’s see your Goku Uniform transform.  Don’t have all day here,”  She twirled her naginata to accentuate the point, dragging it effortlessly through the marble tiles to leave deep gouges.

               “A Goku Uniform?  I’d afraid you’re the one mistaken this time.  This is an Ultima Uniform - far beyond your primitive Goku models.  Behold!”  A pulse of crimson light enveloped Akairi as the suit whipped off his body.  It was definitely a different transformation that Nonon was used to. 

Rather than coalescing into a flat, star shaped glow that crept along, enveloping the body and coating itself across it like a layer of paint, the suit instead simply unwound itself, individual fibers winding free into a big red coil of life-fibers and ordinary fabric.  It reminds Nonon of how the COVERS ensnared their prey.  Once the entire outfit was lifted of his naked body, it sprung to life and descended upon him, weaving into a new shape.  It resembled samurai armor, at first, but that was only in profile.  The helmet was about right, and so were the flat plates on the shoulders, but beneath that the plating unfurled off Akiari’s torso like a flower, patterns on their undersides that resembled solar panels glinting in the light. The armor beneath his waist sash was light too, just a streamlined set of tassets, long greaves, and boots with sharp hooks on the toes.  Nonon couldn’t help but be a little surprised.  This wasn’t supposed to be a Kamui, right?

               “Uh, Shiro? Explain.”  She demanded of her earpiece.

               ~ “Innnteresting,” ~ came the response, ~ “They have incorporated the principle of minimal skin contact into their uniforms.  Like the final versions of the regalia series – practically mini-kamuis.  Be on your guard – I’m detecting a life-fiber concentration similar to a two-star uniform, but it should be considerably more dangerous.” ~

               “You look surprised!”  Akiari shouted coldly, luxuriating in the power, the aggressive instinct that came with such a uniform, “This is my two-star Huskarl model Ultima Uniform!  Its defenses are -,”

               “ – Yeah yeah!”  Nonon leapt off the ground, flinging her naginata above her head as her tail propelled her towards Akiari, “That’s all I need to hear!”  Two-star?  Shouldn’t be too hard.  She wouldn’t make the same mistake as with Ryuko, though.  Rather than bring the blade down on Akiari’s head, she hit the ground running and skidded behind him, far faster than he could react.  Crouching low, she spun in for a vicious attack to the unfurled plates on his back, a black arc dead on to his exposed skin.

               But then the blade stopped, a feeling like a powerful magnetic repulsion holding it half a foot from his skin.  Try as she might, she couldn’t muscle through it.  Nonon’s eyes went wide, realizing something was wrong, and with a precise bounce she was gone again -  just in time too, as Akiari’s sword sliced through the air where she had been.

               “It won’t be so easy!”  He shouted, “The energy fields projected from the plates of my huskarl reflect one-hundred-percent of the energy thrown at them!  Even a life-fiber blade can’t get through!  I won’t lie, you are faster than me Nonon or Saiban or whatever you call yourself.  But I only need to land one hit, whereas you’ll have no such luck with my ultima uniform!  Your rampage ends here!”

               “Is that all?”  Nonon remembered to keep her cool and lunged back at Akiari.  This time, she met him with a clash of blades, propelling herself with golden flames and enough force to push him an inch into the floor.  “Then looks like I’ll just have to wear you down!” 

Now the duel began in earnest, and Akiari had not been mistaken, he just couldn’t keep up.  Not only did a Kamui offer better raw speed, but between the coattail, the length of the naginata, and her own two legs Nonon had four limbs to work with.  She used them all to full advantage, tripping him with her tail while throwing in kicks, then vaulting off on the polearm’s length.  He would block one strike, two, then she would get one through, letting it glance off and twirling it back between her fingers for another one.  Whenever he came a bit too close, she would bounce off, seeming to defy gravity, perching on a statue of some famous, long dead Otori man and letting Akiari shatter it in his bullish rage.  He was powerless to touch her.

               ~ “Nonon you have a plan, right?” ~  Shiro asked.

               ~ “Hey c’mon dude, let her work.” ~ Ryuko said when Nonon proved too busy to respond.

~~~~

               Down in the command center, Minazuki watched the fight with bated breath.  He was holding on better than she’d expected, even if the was no way he would ever hit the tiny, twisting, steam puffing woman.  She could barely even see Jakuzure at times.  But the longer he kept his feet, the longer they had.  Most of the science team and the officers were already gone, she was left watching after Kuroido, who seemed to have given up all too easily.  But the soldiers were staying, of course.  That was their job.

               ~ My lady, the one-stars are prepared to support lord Hondou.” ~ a sergeant called in deferentially ~ “All the men without Ultima Uniforms have been ordered to retreat.” ~

               “Good, have them move to surface and surround the intruder.  Quickly now!” 

               ~ “My lady,” ~  This time a scientist called in ~ “We’re picking up a massive signal from the forest.  It’s Matoi.” ~

               “Matoi!”  Minazuki felt a terror at the name.  They really were screwed now – if the strongest fighter they had at this base could only stalemate Jakuzure then the living weapon would annihilate them all.  But yet, one thing she did know was the HQ considered it a number one priority to capture Matoi, alive.  Why, or even how, Minazuki had no idea, but the whole point of sending the assassins after her had been to goad her into retaliation.  Evidently it had worked.  So maybe, maybe this would be a way to turn this defeat around!  And if it didn’t work then all that resulted was a few dead soldiers.  And they were going to die anyway.  It was worth a shot.

               “Send out a capture party at once!”

~~~~

               Akiari made for an impressive punching bag, but despite that Nonon had to admit she was getting frustrated.  She knew he was only here to stall her, but honestly that didn’t matter.  What did matter was that she was getting bored.  Bored!  Her first ever Kamui fight, and it was boring her!  Against such an impenetrable, useless enemy how could she not be, and even though a visor covered his eyes she could tell Akiari knew what he was doing.  For the sake of her entertainment she had let him push her back up the stairs, and here the height difference made it a little more fun – when she was above him she could kick him in the face, and when she was below it was easy to kick his shins.  Of course, it didn’t matter any, but it was kind of fun.  But eventually his wild slashing did drive her all the way up to second floor, where the rooms were narrower than the now devastated foyer.  A labyrinthine web of libraries and bedrooms and baths and lounges.  Not a lot of room to swing an eight foot long polearm.  That might actually make things a little interesting, come to think of it.

               Inevitably it happened.  Nonon miscalculated a swing, intented for an opening on Akiari’s head, and realized it was going to hit a door frame too late.  She was sure that, when it rebounded that would leave her vulnerable for just a moment, and as Akiari loomed over her she didn’t know exactly how she’d get out of the way in time.  But when it collided the black blade just kept on going as though the wood weren’t even there, showering everything with splinters.  Oh right.  We’re really fucking strong.

               [We could use this to our advantage, you know]  Nonon instantly understood what he was suggesting, and giggled at the idea.  Saiban had noticed something very interesting about the wood splinters

               “Alright, enough of this.  Later!”  She shouted.

               “What?”  Akiari responded, but it was already too late.  Nonon vanished in a blur, diving into a closet, through the wall, and out of sight on the other side.  It was genius.  She knew exactly where he was from his scent, but he had know idea where she’d gone in the maze.  Saiban sensed him rushing out into the hallway, no doubt looking around desperately.  Now she could evade him and carry on looking for the secret entrance.  But first…

               A flurry of stabs sprung from the hallway wall as Nonon’s naginata sang effortlessly through wood, pipes, wires, and wallpaper.  Not a one hit Akiari, but they stuck out all around him, causing him to stagger as he was blinded by the spray.  Just what Saiban had foreseen.  When the wood splinters flew plenty of them deflected off the huskarl’s energy field, but the slower ones - they sailed right through!

And now Nonon joined them, lunging forward with all her speed and great huff of steam.  But when her hand extended, it was slow and steady, like a child trying to catch a frog.  Akiari didn’t appreciate the danger he was in, and – success!  How could there be any energy to reflect when her hand had hardly been moving at all, when he’d practically walked into it?  Her fingers seized on one of those unfurled plates, and with an almighty twist:

               “AAAWGH!”  Akiari howled in pain and rage as the plate crumpled and sparked in Nonon’s hand, trailing glowing fibers.  The plate had taken with it a great stretch of the Ultima Uniform’s frabic, and it seemed the fibers had hooked themselves into him, because he was bleeding profusely from a gash along his ribs.  Holding it high in one hand she brought the naginata’s blade down on the fibers, severing them with a pop!  More sparks shot up around Akiari, and his body jerked and spasmed.

               This time, Nonon didn’t hesitate or slow down.  Propping herself up on tail and polearm, she extended her legs gingerly, wrapping them around his neck.  She spun her now horizontal body all the way around in an instant, slamming Akiari into the ground with such a force that they both fell through the floor and every window in the mansion shattered.

               His helmet popped off, and Nonon got a glimpse of panic-stricken eyes.  But her blade was already descending, right towards the new gap in his invisible armor.

               “Sen-I-Soshitsu!

               Blood spattered onto the marble.  Akiari gave one spasm and went still.

               Whoa.

               [Whoa.]  Nonon and Saiban both thought at once.  The shock wobbling through the naginata as it sliced sinew and muscle, every little irregularity in the gristle and cracking bone echoing into their fingers, it was so incredible.  They’d done it.  Their first victory.  And just in time too, for Saiban smelled a massive burst of activity headed their way.  Like a stirring hive of bees.  On the plus side, she could tell exactly where they were leaving the base from. Some of them were peeling of into the forest, clearly after Ryuko, but Nonon wasn’t much in the mood to warn her

               “Seems like a pretty big design flaw you’ve got there huh?”  Nonon asked nobody in particular, grinning face flush.

               ~ “Nonon.  Nonon!  He’s dead.” ~ Came Satsuki’s voice.  Well shit.

               “Well shit.”  Nonon looked down for the first time.  Unseeing eyes met hers.  A peculiar coldness passed through her, but it was Saiban’s not hers.  She’d gotten over that feeling years ago.

               [We didn’t mean to.  Tell them that.  Go on!]  Humans were still a bit unusual to him, but seeing this lifeless flesh that used to be one...  Hard to believe, but that thing had been like him.  Thoughts, feelings, dreams – maybe not even bad ones.  Not anymore though.

               “Yeah I’m sorry, I know we’re supposed to capture them.  Shit Ryuko, how’d you always do sen-i-soshitsu without killing anyone?  Like, slicing right along their skin without hitting it is really hard.”

               ~ “Honestly Senketsu took over for that at first, then it just became muscle memory” ~  Ryuko chimed in.

               [I don’t know how to do that.]

               “Then I guess we’ll have to learn together, huh?”

               ~ “Hey, I see a bunch of dudes headed my way.  That my problem?” ~  Ryuko asked.

               “I would assume so.”

               ~ “Neato, I get somethin’ to do.” ~

               ~ “Nonon, are you ready to proceed?” ~ Satsuki asked, getting her back on track.  It was unfortunate, but this was an eventuality they had all accepted could happen.  She’d make up for it next time.

               “Yeah, sure.  I’ve wasted enough time already,”  Nonon pulled her blade from Akiari’s corpse and was about to head out when, as Saiban’s senses had warned, about thirty men and women in glossy white and magenta uniforms rounded the corner into the foyer at superhuman speeds.  Like the 2-star Ultima uniform they left the great extent of the stomach and back open, like extraordinarily flimsy leotards, complete with glowing tights and long purple wires connecting gloves and guantlets with the epaulettes that sat upon their shoulders.  When they saw that their leader was already a corpse, they stopped dead in their tracks.

               “Hold on one sec, the one-stars are here, shouldn’t take long,”  Nonon reset her foot position, gave a “come on then” wave with her free hand.  “Alright fellas, who’s first?”

~~~~

               No.  No no no no no!  Minazuki didn’t want to believe it, but she couldn’t unsee it.  The security cameras told her everything.  That little bitch – who cared if it was the Kamui or the human in control – she didn’t bother with mercy, did she?  Despair settled onto her like a blanket of needles.  Her best friend – her only friend – and he could’ve been so much more.  There was no reason to stay here any longer.  No reason to leave anything intact.  She pressed the on button on the intercom one last time.

               “Release Chibi and the wolf-rats, and get out of here!”

               ~ “At once, my Lady!” ~  The voice on the other end rang, and she smiled grimly.  Now she could go.  Even if Satsuki’s minions pounding at the door wound up winning anyway, she was sure this last secret weapon would still give them pause.  Last one out – hit the lights.

               In a pitch-black concrete chamber deep in the bases recesses, a magnetic containment field shut down with a whirring noise.  Claws scraped the in the darkness, gouging the concrete with hideous screeching.  There was nobody around to hear it.  A great feathered head shook, and bloodshot eyes the size of dinner plates shot open. Their bearer lifted its frame up as high as it could go, effortlessly shoving the ceiling aside, and began its climb to the scents above.

~~~~

               Nonon used the one-stars to practice her sen-i-soshitsu, and it went swimmingly.  At first she had to aim for extremities, still failing to contain her strength, and loose arms and legs scattered the mansion’s rubble.  But by the tenth or so she had it down and started raking the naginata right along their backs, bursting uniforms into loose, drifting life fibers that Saiban happily slurped up. 

               This part was fun, demolishing a host of enemies, each with a single slash.  She danced the way she had practiced in all her bouts with Ryuko, Satuski, Tsumugu, and Uzu.  A little bundle of speeding, spiky green and gold that was simply beyond any one-star’s ability to strike.  To their credit, only two tried to run, even as they watched their comrades get torn apart without even coming close to landing a blow.  She was almost disappointed it was over when the last one toppled over, naked and unconscious.  But enough time had been wasted already.

               [Something new coming.  This one’s really big.]

               “Ugh, again?”  Nonon felt it too.  “Wait, why is this one coming straight up?”

               Then the front half of the mansion exploded.

Chapter Text

From a perch high up in a tree Ryuko had a great vantage down onto the Otori Mansion.  She watched Nonon and Saiban bounce across the gardens, watched their fight against Akiari though the wide windows, watched the one-star soldiers pour out and surround them.

               And yeah, she did kind of wish it was her down there.  The blow-by-blow was easy enough for her to follow with her super-senses that she quickly deduced how Akiari’s uniform worked and had worked out her own plan for how to beat it – pin him down with rubble like a giant clam and then figure out how to crack him at her leisure – and when Nonon didn’t try this she itched to jump in there and take care of it herself.  But that was stupid, Nonon would be furious, and more importantly then she’d have to take responsibility for what happened next.  She’d have to get involved again.  Better to let Nonon prove her help wasn’t needed anymore – that her power was enough to take care of things.  Nonon was okay with signing herself away as a soldier again for however long it took to defeat REVOCS – made sense, considering she got Saiban out the bargain – but as far as Ryuko was concerned:  yeah, fuck that noise.  Those days are behind me.  But still, an opponent that could fight back…

               So Ryuko was actually fairly excited when she saw the one-stars sallying out to hunt her.  It wouldn’t hurt any if she had them to keep her busy.  She dropped from her tree, padding across the forest floor.  C’mon, come get me you weirdos.  She could’ve probably charged them full speed, but odds are that would be too fast for them to react - which didn’t bode well for their ability to put up a fight, but she’d cross that bridge when she got there.  Better to let them think she hadn’t spotted them yet, that she was just chilling in the woods, admiring the bare bark and the withered brown leaves.  She could hear them, they were probably just about to crest the valley’s rim into her light of sight, when:

               Get down!  A distortion in the air screamed at her.  Ryuko dropped, crouching low into the scraggly underbrush, and in an instant several high caliber bullets slammed by right where her head had been.  There was something odd about them, Ryuko could sense an aura from them (her range was nowhere near as far as Saiban’s, maybe a few feet around her), and when she looked up she caught a glimpse of a red glow.  And then there was the surprised look she now saw on the soldier’s faces, barely visible between the rise and the dull grey of their rifle scopes.  They really expected that to work, didn’t they?  She remembered with a chill that they knew her weakness.

               “Probably best those didn’t hit me.  Hey what was that about?  Felt like there were life-fibers in those bullets,”  She asked the earpiece.

               ~ “One moment, still interpreting the scans,” ~ Houka responded unhelpfully. ~ “Er, keep staying out of their way for now, don’t let them fire again if you can.” ~

               “Already on it!”  Ryuko was on top of her assailants in a flash.  They really never had a chance.  The first man she darted up on was so shocked when she appeared in front of him that he leapt up, throwing his rifle aside with a yelp.

               “Oh shi-,”  The next one over tried to bring his barrel around, as if that would do any good.  She twinkled it out of his grasp and crumped the gun between her fingertips as he looked on in dismay.

               “Alright, enough of that,”  Ryuko stood with her fists on her hips, slouching just slightly the way she tended to keep loose before a fight.  The one-stars, ten men and women in those glossy leotards.  Now that she had a chance to look at them, Ryuko was less than impressed.  Eppaulettes, big heavy guantlets, wires, the skimpy bodices?  What a bizarre mishmash, not at all complemented by the white and magenta color.  Who had designed these things?  Frankly, and she didn’t like to admit it, even Nui had had better fashion sense than this.  But they were supposed to be stronger than the one-star Goku Uniforms.  Time to see just how much.

               The soldiers stood there for a moment, paralyzed by the realization that they couldn’t escape her now.  Like watching a tiger, waiting to see what it would do. 

               “Well, c’mon!  I’ll let you get the first hit.  Show me what you got!”  This was apparently too much for the man whose gun she’d crushed.  After a moment to psych himself up he lunged at her, driving his fist into her gut with a wordless grunt.

               It didn’t even hurt.  He looked up, panic stricken, and Ryuko lifted an arm lazily.  She sighed, “Not impressed.  I’m not gonna toy with you though, don’t worry.”

               A single flick to his forehead sent him tumbling, unconscious, through the leaves and fallen branches.  The moment her finger connected she could feel the life-fibers loosening, so she grabbed them with her invisible third hand.  They stayed behind in a big red tangle as his naked body flopped, and she slurped them up.  One of the other soldiers gave up and ran.  The others either prepared to try and shoot her at point blank range or readied for a doomed fistfight.

               That was when a deafening crash echoed through the forest and Ryuko saw a great column of dust shoot up from the mansion.  Satsuki immediately began calling through the earpiece, demanding to know if Nonon was alright.  It looked like her help would be needed, after all.

~~~~

               ~ “Nonon?  Nonon!  Sound off!” ~

               “Dirty trick,”  Nonon said, peering through the dust that cloyed around her.  It was impossible to see anything more than a few feet away, but Saiban smelled something way to close for comfort.  “Yeah, I’m fine, but what was –,”

               [Look Out!]  Saiban shouted into her head, but even though she leapt back ten feet it didn’t matter.

               “Wha – ough!”  Something huge swiped through the fog, catching Nonon right on the shoulders and hurling her in a long arc through the air.  She splintered the still-standing fragment of a wall on her way out, tumbling on the lawn until she was nearly clear of the fog.  When she pulled herself to her feet, it was with a gaping open mouth.  Two immense, jagged, black objects rose three, four, no, five stories high out of the dust cloud.  A great keening noise resonated from within.  Monstrous feathered wings.

               ~ “My god…” ~

               “Uhh guys!  They have a dragon!”  Nonon shouted over the keening as a great head reared its way though.  Somewhere between the size of a refrigerator and a small car, with a beak lined by hooked serrations and a crest of ragged black feathers, its eyes were huge and blank.  Behind it, an s-curved neck stretched down to a body likewise covered in pitch, oily feathers and long, crisscrossing scars.

               ~ “Well, it’s actually a hybrid beast created from an eagle,” ~  Shiro corrected her.

               “I think I know a dragon when I see one!”

               ~  “Isn’t it more like a griffon?” ~ Houka asked.

               ~ “Maybe a wyvern.” ~

               “Holy shit you guys!”  Nonon said, backpedaling as the creature stalked towards her and she fully appreciate the size of it.  It curled its wings up, walking on hind legs with talons not all that much shorter than Nonon’s entire body.  She could barely wrap her head around such an impenetrable living wall.  Her eyes bugged out and she emitted a nervous chuckle.

               ~ “Shiro, Houka!  Clear the chatter!” ~  Satsuki called, reining them in.  ~ “Nonon, can you kill it?” ~

               “Wear it down or hit it with a cross-cut, right?”  Nonon shouting, remembering the briefing as the beak fell like an executioner’s axe – this was what had hit her earlier.  She skirted out of the way as it kicked up a fountain of earth, keening all the while.  What a horrid noise, filling the ears and screaming to Nonon that this was a desperate creature.  Best to try and put it out of its misery, then.  She twirled her naginata into its exposed throat, but suddenly it was moving again, dragging its beak along the ground in a shuddering, jerky arc.  Nonon’s eyes lit up with panic and she reflexively raised a free hand to block it, and to her surprise as her fingers met the rumpled, horny surface of the beak they ground to a halt.  She’d forgotten her own strength again!  “I can do it.”

               ~ “Good luck.” ~  that was the last thing Nonon heard clearly as the booming calls of the monster filled her ears.  The great beak rose from the ground and just as quickly came back down; she dodged the first and the second but the furious pounding caught up to her on the third swing, and she had to hold up her arms above her head to catch it, crouching low and even then being shoved a few inches into the roiling mud.  Frozen for a moment, she pushed off and forced the great head of the thing that had once been an eagle back off her, and it stumbled back with much rustling of mangy feathers. 

               [Nonon this being is very powerful] Saiban warned, feeling her same fear but also the same begrudging acceptance.  This needed to be done [I can only protect you against so many blows like that before I have to shut down.]

               “Got it!  In that case then we’ll go full evasion mode,”  Nonon landed cleanly in the driveway and darted back in.  This time she ignored the beak, hurtling under the dragon’s rotund belly to attack those pillar-legs.  It stomped and backpedaled, trying to get her back into sight, but she was nimble enough to avoid the talons and eventually she got her chance, digging a blade deep into the scaly ankle.  She was reward with a sudden, jerky recoil and a huge, violent explosion of hyper-pressurized blood.  But all too soon it sealed up, wound closing as if it had never been there.  She would have to do that over and over again to overwhelm its healing.  But that was fine.  Just think of what a fantastic feat it would be to bring this thing down!

               Eventually, after quite a few other lightning quick cuts Nonon did manage to dislodge a toe.  It wasn’t as easy as she might have hoped – the hybrid eagle was unearthly fast, her only advantage was that so long as she stayed underneath it only she could see what she was doing.  But when she watched the toe pop off, she was dismayed to see the flesh begin to writhe and pulsate and, sure enough, resculpt itself into a new toe, talon and all.

               “Oh son of a…,”  Nonon said as she watched it happen.  So much for wearing it down.  But then something shifted above her.  She looked up to see the foul creature’s underbelly falling towards her.  It had given up on stomping her and decided to just sit on her.  “OH SON OF A BI-,” 

               Pressed into the earth by the body of the hybrid eagle, Nonon didn’t hear the great thud it made as it crunched down.  She did hear Satsuki and Uzu desperately yelling for her.  But she couldn’t answer, couldn’t open her mouth or she would surely gag from the putrid, acrid, greasy stench percolating off the rotting skin behind the feathers.  At least she wasn’t suffocating – she’d had just enough time to raise her naginata above her head, creating a sort of tent for her to crouch in.  But the wound couldn’t heal while the blade was still in it.  The shower of scalding metallic fluid covered he whole body, but far from being soothing it inspired an entirely new panic.    Her tent was filling up.  Nonon could feel her heart racing.

               C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,

               [C’mon, c’mon, c’mon]  Nonon and Saiban both knew there was only one thing to do:  unlatch the two halves of the naginata – click – she managed it, and bring the two blades together in the hybrid’s flesh.  With all the strength she could muster, Nonon dragged the lower blade right up alongside the first until she could feel them scraping together and opened her arms, pulling them apart with a scissoring motion.  Even in her fleshy tent she could feel the shockwave resonate though its body, hear its howl of pain.

               “Haha!”  Nonon shouted as light flooded back in, hybrid lifting off her.  She rolled free and tried to shake the blood off as best she could, but it wasn’t doing much good.  Saiban’s surface appeared to be hydrophobic, but her hair wasn’t so lucky.  Somehow it stayed up, but it was now several shades darker. “I’m still here guys,”  she told the earpiece, “Don’t freak out.”

               ~ “Looks like that did some permanent damage,” ~ Aikuro observed.  The fresh gash on the monster’s belly continued to spout blood at an absurd rate – the life-fibers were severed, it wasn’t sealing back up.  A few more of those and might be enough to bring it down.  But it wouldn’t be so easy – the hybrid eagle was enraged now, charging right for Nonon, mouth wide open, lower jaw scraping along the ground.  It had realized that she was a legitimate threat now, not food, and now she had to die

               “EEEK!”  Nonon couldn’t help but fall back in the face of that horrifying maw.  It kept advancing, chasing her over hedgerows, topiaries, and tennis courts until she’d been forced back into the forest.

               [This could be good.  We have the maneuverability advan – oh] Saiban said as they watched the hybrid blast right through a towering old oak, carving a path into the dry woods with its enormous bulk.  At least it had to close its mouth to avoid eating a tree.

               It didn’t take long for Nonon to lose track of time.  It could’ve been seconds, minutes, hours, it didn’t matter.  She could hear talking in her ear, but with the blood rushing she had little idea what they were saying.  All there was in the world was the hybrid, the forest, Saiban, and herself.  Everything was sucked into the intense focus it took to try and land another cross-cut on the hybrid.  Each time she got close it glanced off wrong, or she couldn’t land both blades at once, and each time she would take a hit and her frustration would grow.  I know Satsuki, she wanted to yell into the earpiece, I know this is taking too long!  Just one more try – this time it’ll work!

She swerved between the trees, leaping in to plunge the blade in her left hand deep into its thigh.  Good, good – what the fuck!  A gigantic kick lashed through the air and she, feet already off the ground, was along for the ride.  Try as she might there was no way to get her right hand there in time – she slid loose and went tumbling, splintering trees as they went, until suddenly the canopy above gave way to overcast sky.  She skidded onto asphalt, leaping backup and staring around in confusion at her new environment.  Why were there voices, human scents all around?

Nonon saw now that she had been thrown into a measly, one road village.  Low wooden homes surrounded her, as did the nervous faces of the villagers – mostly people who had fled the cities in the hard times before the COVERS war, but also a few families whose ancestors had lived in the area.  They’d heard the noise from the fight, seen the dust rising from the mansion, and now they crowded around to see the source of the disturbance.  Nonon wasted no time wondering what she might have looked like to them, not when she could feel the monster fast approaching. 

“Get out of here, RUN!”  She shouted as the forest heaved and her enemy burst forth, a trundling black mass like a scar on the surrounding nature.  The villagers didn’t need to be told twice, and they ran screaming in every direction.  Nonon wasn’t sure if they were all out of the way in time, but really it didn’t matter.  If she didn’t get between them, none of them would be safe.  The hybrid was still focused on her – thank god.  As it charged forward she leapt up as high as she could.  Attacking from the ground wasn’t working, so this time they would go in from the air.

~ “We can’t afford to delay any longer.  Ryuko!  Head down into the base and recover any assets you can.” ~  Satsuki’s voice cut in, and Nonon immediately forgot what she was doing.  Wait, what?

“Uff!”  A wing swipe knocked her out of the sky.  It hurt that time.  Really hurt, not just registry of the attack but real pain leaking through the energy field.  Not good.  She got up hesitantly, her frustration billowing.  Ryuko was going to complete the mission?  That was the last straw.  “No no what the fuck guys?  This is my op!  I’m going to get the book, just as soon as I kill this – Awgh!”

A brutal sideswipe from the beak crashed right through her – she’d been distracted.  That one really hurt, Nonon could feel her side pulsating with it.  Saiban was at a loss, his panic was growing stronger, mingling with her own rage.

[Nonon I have maybe one more hit I can protect us from!  After that it could kill us!  Nonon we need to think of something!]

“Yeah I know!”  Nonon whispered, crouching low in the rubble.  She could hear and feel the hybrid eagle stalking closer – it must not have spotted exactly where she went yet. “Geez is all you do nag me?”

[I thought you didn’t want me to try to talk!]

~ “Nonon, Nonon are you alright?” ~

“Satsuki, I-I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do it,” Nonon was at her wits end.  She’d tried so many times and only once had she actually managed to leave a mark on this thing!  She couldn’t even handle an animal!

~ “Just hang in there, we’ll send Ryuko down as soon as -” ~

“No!”  It wasn’t fair.  Even now she was still living in her goddamn shadow!

[Nonon we can’t stay here!  Please, move!]

Nonon prepared to stand up.  She might not have the energy left to fight, but she would still be able to run.  Run?  The humiliation crushed her.  But what was there left to do?  She had let down Satsuki, Uzu, Saiban, everyone.  She might as well just die, if that didn’t mean Saiban would die too.

“I’m sorry,” She whispered to the villagers screaming in the distance, “You’re on your own.”

~~~~

               “Are you sure?”  Ryuko asked, sitting next to the neat row of naked, unconscious REVOCS soldiers she’d made on the forest floor?  “Shouldn’t I go help Nonon instead?”

               ~ “We’re running out of time as it is,” ~ Satsuki informed her bluntly.

               ~ “Satsuki, I-I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do it.” ~

               “Oh shit, she sounds fucked up.”

               ~ “Just hang in there, we’ll send Ryuko down as soon as -” ~

               ~ “No!” ~

               ~ “Ryuko please, finish this quickly,” ~ Back in the control room, grim faces abounded.  Things hung on the precipice of disaster. But Satsuki wasn’t flinching.  She’d known Nonon longer than any of them.  She was tougher than this. ~ Nonon will find a way.  I’m letting Shiro take over your line.” ~  Satsuki cut out, to be replaced by Shiro clearing his throat.

               “Alright then,”  Ryuko had heard Nonon’s protests, and frankly was worried she was in over her head, but Satsuki had a point.  This whole mission wouldn’t count for much if they didn’t get something valuable from it.  “Hey Shiro, let’s go get us a book, eh?”

               She dashed down to what was left of the mansion.  Fortunately for her there would be no wasting time trying to find a hidden entrance – a vast circular sinkhole open up into darkness now, giant claw marks on the sides indicated where the hybrid eagle had tunneled through.  Ryuko leapt into the darkness, plunging stories down to a wide-open concrete room that could only have been the monster’s holding chamber.  All was quiet, the only lights were what filtered in from above and the dim reds of emergency exit signs.  Not like that mattered much to Ryuko, she could see quite clearly even in the darkness.  Not knowing where else to go, Ryuko settled for busting the glass of the observation chamber and jogging off down the adjoining hallway, pitch black settling around her.

               ~ “Our cameras are quite poor in low light, so you’ll have to look out for yourself.  If you have any questions just ask,” ~ Shiro said helpfully. ~ “Make sure you keep an eye out for traps.  Good luck.” ~

               “Don’t worry, I’ll be as cautious as can be,”  Ryuko said, scanning with all her senses as far as they would go.  Each turn and corner in the darkened halls looked like the others, but fortunately when she felt lost, she could just burst through a few walls and be back on track.  So far there were no signs of life, but her hyper-sensitive hearing was picking up stuff from above.  Shouting, footsteps and scrabbling noises, chittering.  There was definitely something down there with her.

~~~~

               [I know there’s slim odds, but if we run these humans will certainly die.]  Saiban’s voice cut through the footfalls and the keening [I don’t want to run, and I know you don’t either]

               I can’t win, and Ryuko already got the prize.  Why bother?

               [Nonon our prize is right here!  You know a book is nothing compared to this!]

~ “Let me talk to her, c’mon!” ~

               ~ “You’re already on” ~ Satsuki said quickly 

               “Uzu?”

               ~ “Nonon?  Can you hear me?” ~

               “Yeah,”  She smiled despite herself.  He was so obviously worried, it was nice sometimes that he wore his heart on his sleeve.  He couldn’t possibly be disappointed in her for failing, not when all he wanted was for her to come home. “Yeah, I can.”

               ~ “I know it looks tough Nonon, but we’re counting on you here.  You’re going to get up, and you’re going to beat that thing.” ~

               “But - ,”

               ~ “No, I don’t wanna hear any of that!” ~ Oh.  He would be disappointed, wouldn’t he? ~ “You’re gonna win this thing, and you know how I know?  Not because you’re one of the Elite Four, not because I believe in you, or any of that crap.  You remember what you told me?  You promised that you would be better than Satsuki, even better than Ryuko, the best.” ~ Normally she would’ve been mortified to have that said in front of Satsuki, but it didn’t matter now.  She thought back to the Nonon who’d said those words.  What would she say if she saw her now?  Had she worked so hard just to give up now? ~ “You know when I blinded myself, I woke up every morning and thought to myself ‘This is it – my story starts today’.  Nonon, your story starts today.  You’re at your best when you fight with that smug, bitchy little smile on your face – show ‘em why.” ~

               Logically, it wasn’t much.  Tripe, one step above nonsense.  But it was exactly what she needed to hear.

               ~ “C’mon Nonon, don’t make me look like a dick here” ~  She could imagine exactly how he was smiling as he said that.

               Nonon will find a way.

               If we run, these humans will certainly die.

               Nonon, your story starts today.

               Consider this your second lesson:  Get the fuck back up.

               Our prize is right here!

               They were right.  A shadow loomed over her.  The keening stopped.  It had found her.  But now an incandescent mixture of hope and rage was brimming in her.  Fuck it.  If she died now her troubles were over. But she wouldn’t die now.

               For the briefest instant, a peculiar sensation flooded through her.  It was as though, rather than containing her body, Saiban let it flow through him like water through a strainer.  It was like she was floating up to meet the hybrid beast’s descending jaws.  She just had to smack it, as hard as she could.  So she did.

               With a rush of wind so powerful it boomed across the mountains, everything in a fifty-yard radius was forcibly evicted.  Half the village went from sturdy little wooden houses to loose boards and nails rocketing though the air.  It happened so far it was like stop motion.  Even the hybrid eagle skidded away, holding its ground only with beating wings and latched claws.  Nonon was standing again.  The pain wasn’t gone – it would remain as a reminder to do better this time.  But that didn’t mean her arms were stiff at all.

               ~ “Amazing!” ~ Houka exclaimed ~ “Saiban is capable of the ‘willpower blast’ effect like Senketsu and Junketsu!” ~

               ~ “No, that’s not Saiban.” ~ Aikuro said ~ “That’s Nonon.” ~

               “I’ve got to hand it you Uzu,” Nonon said, just as smugly as ever, “You may not be the brains of the operation, but you know fighting, and you know not giving a shit about the odds.  But you are gonna pay for calling me a bitch just then.”

               [We’re going to fight?]

               “We’re going to fight.  And we’re going to win,” She clicked her naginata back together.  To hell with cross-cutting, she was better with it this way.

               She didn’t waste any time, didn’t acknowledge Uzu’s last cry of encouragement.  The hybrid was stunned for a moment by the blast, and that was time she used to leap, pushing off with her tail, naginata held in front of her like a lance, not in an arc but in a straight line right for its head.  The blade dug in down to the hilt with a crunch of bone. The hybrid howled in pain as the blood ran free.  A wing swiped down to dislodge her, but she was already moving again, swinging down off the side of its face to bouncing off the ground, slicing the great staring eye on the way.  Then it was up to the armpit, a deep stab into the soft flesh, then off elsewhere. 

None of these blows would leave any lasting damage but trying for that hadn’t worked. So fuck it.  She dove in with no plan but plentiful enthusiasm, for the first time in the fight one step ahead of it’s attacks – not dodging but just not there.  And every time she scored a hit it only made the hybrid more confused and more furious.  Saiban had no objections to this reckless plan of attack – this was how a Kamui was meant to fight, Nonon understood it now.  No thought, pure instinct, and in this state her mind conjured up memories and sensations like a dream, sifting through them with Saiban.  It was an wordless form of conversation, and somehow didn’t distract her at all.

The hybrid, on the other hand, was not faring well.  Its poor, addled brain couldn’t keep up with a creature with such tenacity.  It was time to leave.  It extended its wings, all one hundred feet of them, with a gust of wind powerful enough to knock Nonon back.  A momentary pause, is it doing what a think it is? And suddenly, inexplicably, it leapt into the air.

[That thing can fly?]

~ “That thing can fly?” ~

“Hoholy shit that thing can fly!”  Nonon charged back at it.  Although it had achieved some for of levitation based liftoff without a running start, it took some time for it to rise more than fifty or so feet above the ground, where it hung like a great feathery blimp.

[Let’s not let it get away now!]

“We’re hitching a ride!”  Nonon declared, separating her naginata again as she charged it.  Saiban fired up his vents, jetting golden flames to boost Nonon faster than ever.  Reaching its talons was no problem, sinking her blades in like meathooks even easier.  The moment it felt her latch on the hybrid experienced, for the first time, genuine panic.  It started moving forward with a lurch and wingbeats seemed far too slow to support it.

Nonon, meanwhile, began her ascent.  One blade at a time she scurried up its leg, but not fast enough.  The trees were fast approaching and if she wasn’t careful, she’d be scraped off.  But fuck being careful, it hadn’t worked before.  She was equal in strength to it, right?  So why not try throwing her weight around a little?  She swung herself off one of her blades like she was hanging from monkey bars, and kicked the beast’s thigh with all her might.  It did the trick, the shockwave of the impact reverberated through its body and tilted it into a tight corkscrew, much, much closer to the ground than it could withstand.  The moment its wingtip clipped the ground, nearly a third of the wing was shorn off in a bloody explosion. 

But somehow that still wasn’t enough.  Now the hybrid began to climb, first 45 degrees up and then nearly 90, until Nonon could see the mansion, the village, even a distant town all like tiny models.  It defied reason that this creature could fly at all, let alone with such incredible damage, but Nonon wasted no time wondering what the life-fibers were doing to make it so. 

Up the length of the creature’s belly she climbed, braving bucking and twisting and vicious clawing as she went.  So close now, so fucking close.  The air was growing thin and murderously cold, so much so she almost couldn’t bear it.  But inevitably she made it, right below the base of the hybrids long neck.  She gave its chest another swinging kick, this one right into an already open wound so her feet stuck there, preventing it from closing.  Now she had her chance.  He blades were free, its windpipe right there. She didn’t bother yelling sen-i-soshitsu this time.

With one final fountain of blood, the hybrid went still.  It didn’t even manage a last squawk as its windpipe was severed.  Asphyxiation was quick after that – this was a creature that should not have been capable of breathing at all, so having its monstrous anatomy ruined lead to its lungs going limp like week-old balloons.   The fearsome lurch as it began to fall came at the exact same time that Nonon realized it was over.  Nothing left to do now but twist it so it was falling on its back and pray that it would be enough to break the fall.  It was a big animal, it would resist the shock, right?

Nonon fell without a scream, but the landing was another story.  The force of the blow crumpled a hillside.  “Aieeeee!”  Nonon screamed as she was thrown from the tumbling carcass, shutting her eyes against the rubble flying all around.  This time, she skidded to a halt in a bed of soft, if damp, leaves.

“Getting real sick of being tossed around.”

[Aand that fall reached my limit.  I only hope that was enough to stop it for good] Saiban said as he powered down.

               “Only one way to find out,”  Nonon said as they got up, “Ohoho wow.

               There it was, feet twitching, eyes unseeing, puffy tongue lolling.  Dead as it could be.  Nonon breathed a sigh of relief that released more air than she thought her lungs could even hold.  The elation seized both her and Saiban, making her feel dizzy.

               “We did it! We-did-it-we-did-it-we-did-it-we-,”

               ~ “Amazing work Nonon.  You are the first person – ever – to defeat a hybrid beast in battle,” ~  Satsuki informed her, correctly guessing that she would be interested.  Besides her voice she could hear cheering and laughter on the other end of the line.

               “WOW,” Was all Nonon had to say.  She slumped down against her trophy.  Without Saiban powered up, it suddenly felt very cold.  But she wasn’t about to leave her prize now, not just yet.  Saiban had begun to drink the life fibers from its unhealed wound.  Just a little longer, and she would have her lunch too.  I feel like I could eat this whole stupid bird myself.

~~~~

               A vast vibration shook through the hallways, and Ryuko stopped in her tracks, “Yo Shiro, what was that?”

               ~ “Nonon just defeated the hybrid beast she was fighting.  She’s fine, resting.” ~

               “Neat.”

               ~ “Any luck?” ~

               “Still looking and – hellooo!”  Ryuko had spotted a room with a light still on.  A spotlight, and in the middle of it was a plinth with a book “Nevermind, I’ve got it.”

               ~  “You do?  Really?” ~ Shiro breathed a sigh of relief, ~ “I thought we’d missed our chance” ~

               “Yeah well, they seem to have left in a hurry,”  Ryuko said, darting in at lightning speed just in case there was a trap on the way.  She bashed through the glass doors in her usual manner, entering into a sort of small chapel.  Nothing about was really all too special about it, except:

               “Oh! …Ugh…”  Behind the altar there stood a massive ivory statue of a woman.  With those fox-ears in her hair, there was no mistaking it.  Ragyo.  Ryuko shuddered as she walked over it.  Not failing to notice that she had to step over a dead body to do so.

               “Fucking freaks,” she said, holding a hand out to statue.  With a light slap, she pulverized it.  “Hey, found another dead guy in here.  Looks like a priest in their fucked-up cult.  He’s pretty torn up.”

               ~ “Hmm, most likely there’s another hybrid beast of some type running around in here, preying on the stragglers.” ~ Shiro didn’t seem all that interested, ~ “But the book, the book is intact?” ~

               “Yeah hold on,”  Ryuko lifted it up, cradling the thick leather tome as she read the cover, “La Chanson de la Couturière?  This is it alright.”  She opened it up and started paging through it.  It had the same super thin, gold lined pages bibles and the like had. “Hey, hold up.  This is all jibberish dude.”

               ~ “Jibberish?” ~

               “Yeah, it doesn’t say anything,”  Page after page was covered in nonsense scribbling and odd, inscrutable blueprints, “These aren’t even Kanji, I don’t think they’re any language. Oh hold on,”  It clicked to Ryuko suddenly, she was dumb, but not that dumb, “Ohhh yeah dude this is all in code.”

               Shiro groaned ~ “Code?” ~

               “Hey man, aren’t you guys geniuses?  I’m sure you can crack it.”

               ~ “Sure, but that’s not the point” ~

               ~ “You got it?” ~  Houka suddenly joined in.

               ~ “Yes, but it’s all in code.” ~

               ~ “Code?” ~ He groaned too, ~ “Ugh, goodbye weekends.” ~

               ~ “I knoww.” ~

               “Hey guys?”  Ryuko interrupted, “Can you see this?  I don’t think you’re gonna like it.”  She held a page close to her face to make sure the camera got it.  Most of the blueprints she couldn’t parse, but these, these were all too familiar.  Kamui.  Four of them.

               ~ “Oh dear, no that’s not good at all,” ~  Shiro commented, then paused.  The chittering was back.  ~ “You hear that?” ~

               “Oh yeah.  One moment, looks like the other critters have decided to show up,”  Ryuko ran back out into the hallway, tracked down the noise, and before long was acquainted with the wolf-rats, those same pack hunting hybrids that Shiro had kept a pack of in their lab for a while.  Another disappointing fight – she could overwhelm their healing ability with a single punch.  As Ryuko stood there, book still in hand, in the corridor now painted with the red sludge that was all t