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REVOCS Insurgency - Part 2 of Symbiosis

Chapter Text

October 2066

~~~~

               If Ira Gamagoori had said he was entirely disappointed with the way the morning was going, he would have been lying.  The smoke and the rubble and the sounds of battle held no fear for him, especially now, when even in her powered down form Tekketsu was more than capable of protecting him from stray bullets that shot out from the gloom pouring out of the huge doors before him.  Beyond that it was a maze of corridors, and nobody who’d gone in had come back.  Better to spare the men, surround and siege them out.

               Especially considering what was in there.  What was leading them.  He’d much rather have that thing out in the open.

               [I’m sorry about your prison.]  Tekketsu said in her silky telepathic voice.  They were well acquainted enough by now that she knew it wasn’t the building itself, but his men and the reformation project he was attempting on the prisoners that he was concerned for.  Not like the main structure was going anywhere, it was reinforced concrete carved into a hill on the Tokyo outskirts, solid as the bedrock itself. [Two years of work down the drain, huh?]

               “Well, not quite,” Ira answered, his voice stern – if it were anyone but her this kind of casual conversation wouldn’t be permitted at a time like this.  He interrupted himself to issue a command, “Second squad, form a perimeter on the breach in the eastern wall and post sentry for any sign of the enemy.  If you see the commander, fall back and report to me.”

               “Sir!”  The captain of a squad of soldiers in DTRs – the new kind that didn’t leave your legs hanging out the back end – shouted back in affirmative.  They broke off from the group stomping in Ira’s trail and vanished into the smoke.  The sound of their whirring servos vanished not long after they did into the general chaos.

               [Not quite?] Tekketsu asked when they were gone.

               “Well, now we get to see if those two years were worth anything.”

               [Yes the prisoners…] She trailed off in though. [Well what would you do if one of those monsters was in front of you, spit in its face?]

               “Well, I would.  Them?”  He wasn’t so sure about that.  Takamori, oh no, he was definitely a lost cause.  They’d never gotten even close to deprogramming him, hell, how do you deprogram the programmer?  The assassins that had tried to kill Ryuko in her bedroom weren’t going to resist either, they were disciplined, hadn’t even talked once.  The prisoners Nonon had taken in the base raid? That was a tossup - he was pretty sure some of them had been deprogrammed, but when their lives were threatened that probably didn’t mean much. 

And that just left Itsuki.  The first one, the one who Ira was sure he’d fully converted to the light.  How many days hand Ira sat playing chess or cards or go with him, having totally normal conversations with him that almost made Ira forget where they were?  How many stories about his past life, before he joined REVOCS, had Itsuki shared?  And he was even the one who revealed the location of the base!  Ira tried his best to treat him how Mako would’ve treated him (besides all the hugging, that would’ve been weird).  What would he tell her if that hadn’t been enough?  He wouldn’t cave.  Right?

But if he didn’t, they’d probably just gut him on the spot…

[Well, I guess I’m not especially optimistic either.  But look on the bright side – it’s not like you wanted to be a prison warden forever].  Things were dying down in there.  An uncomfortable silence was filling the air.  Behind him a large steel barricade protected soldiers who didn’t have the dodging speed of DTRs.  They shuffled nervously, pointing needle guns downrange.  The DTRs meanwhile whirred and hummed, ready to leap into the fray at a moment’s notice.

“No, I suppose not.”  But what was there for him to do now?  It looked like it was back to full time soldiering now.  At least Nonon and Uzu seemed excited about that.  And, despite her sympathetic tone, Ira knew Tekketsu was too.  Battle was what she was meant for, she could feel it on an instinctive level.  The eagerness to get to grips with a powerful foe nearly infected him too.

[They’re coming!]  Tekketsu said in a hushed whisper [I can feel them!]

Ira held up a hand, and the men behind him froze.  He could feel them too, and then he could see them.  The entire main entrance was filled with vague silhouettes, watching them from within the billowing smoke.  And the one in the middle, the slender woman with the horns in her long hair and the great rounded pauldrons, that was her.

Ira and Tekketsu decided as one that now was the time to power up.  When Junketsu was in control of Ryuko she’d had no interest in honor or holding back.  Ira clenched his upraised fist, pushing his Seki Tekko – a pin in the palm of his glove – deep into a vein.  He got a chance to see Tekketsu’s chainmail fill with solid red like a twisty straw before she exploded off of his burly frame, a vast serpentine shape of fire, draconic horns twisting high above his head.  He looked up to admire that vast creature with a satisfied smile – a little embarrassing, if anyone could see, but his soldiers could barely even look at him for all the brilliant, brassy light that flew from his body.  Tekketsu was about to collapse back up on top of him, but she suddenly froze.

[Look out!]

Something large and flat and metallic was hurtling through the air towards them.  One of the twenty-foot-tall steel doors to the prison’s main gate, flung like a frisbee.  Ira instinctively held out a hand, and Tekketsu surged down towards it, just in time.

Gigantic, curling fingers snatched the door effortlessly, serrated talons that glinted black and blue sunk into the steel as effortlessly as with a sponge.  It felt good to crumple the metal so easily – this was how strong they were meant to be, as though some great invisible chains had fallen loose around them.

               The rest of Tekketsu’s flaming, draconic shape was too vast and luminous to long maintain itself in this world.  She wrapped around Ira, carving a new landscape of hulking metal in the shape of muscle.  The sword in Ira’s right hand, which had just moments ago felt ridiculously long and imbalanced, now hung perfectly in his hand.  He could feel the indignation surge through her, drawing his face into a grimace.

               “Life Fiber Synchronize!  Kamui Tekketsu!”  He shouted, and Tekketsu shouted not moments behind him.

               [Interrupt my transformation will you!  Now its really on!]  Usually so unruffled, Tekketsu had just realized how ruthless this foe really was.  And that pricked a nerve.

               The Kamui straightened itself imperceptibly, and Tekketsu suddenly radiated agitation, [Oh shit, I think it heard that!]

               “No matter.  You’re right though, now it’s time to do our job.”

               The Kamui stepped from the smoke.  The white fabric, traced through with those glowing red lines that squeezed and embalmed its host, the great glaring eyes, that was all about what Ira expected.  Now that Tekketsu could see it she crawled with discomfort, something like an “uncanny valley” effect at seeing this thing that looked and felt similar to her but just… not quite right.

               That was all what Ira was prepared for, but the woman underneath, she was more interesting.  That couldn’t be Minazuki Kiryuin, Satsuki’s older cousin, right?  But it was!

               “Oh hell, that’s not good,” Ira muttered fairly pointlessly as he stared at that face – so similar to Satsuki’s, blond hair aside.  And the phalanx of one-star Ultima uniforms armed with bulky assault rifles behind her, that wasn’t good either.  Nor were the other prisoners behind them, all also armed and ready to fight their way to freedom.  Takamori grinned viciously.  He clearly felt on top of the world.  But Ira was too busy thinking about how disappointed Satsuki would be until he saw Itsuki in the back and his heart sunk. 

               Itsuki saw him too – really how could he miss a ten foot hulk of a man – and quickly turned away in… fear? Shame? Disgust?  Ira couldn’t tell.  But it didn’t matter.

               No, Ira wasn’t completely disappointed with how this morning was going.  But that didn’t mean he wasn’t still absolutely livid.  He pointed his sword at the monster that shouldn’t be, and she stared back at him serene and unruffled as he bellowed:

               “NOT ONE STEP FURTHER, REVOCS SCUM!”

Chapter Text

The year is 2066 – two years and counting since Ragyo’s death and the salvation of the world from the Life-Fibers.  A lot has changed in that world.  Stepping into the vacuum her Mother’s death left, Satsuki Kiryuin lead the movement to rebuild the government and restore some semblance of democracy to Japan.  Under her rule, prosperity and hope has returned to the people of this once-poverty ravaged country, and it stands as a beacon to the rest of the world.

A beacon who many who benefit from oppression and inequality want to see snuffed out.  Powerful, wealthy people, who under cover of false smiles have rallied together around a new champion:  The shattered but still dangerous remains of Ragyo’s death cult, REVOCS.  With an arsenal of Life-Fiber weaponry pilfered from their old labs, they seek to destroy everything Satsuki has built and return things to the old days, the days of megacorps and brutal hereditary hierarchies.  At least that’s what they claim, but as for the plans of the cold, alien intellects that lead them…

Well, the Earth was spared once, which should never have happened.  This time its death will stick.

Our heroes have changed a great deal since the old days too.  They’ve moved on with their lives, finally acted on those feelings they never had time for before.  Mako and Ira have been happily dating nearly the entire time, the same for Houka and Shiro, although they aren’t the type to brag. Nonon and Uzu have been together nearly as long, but happily is a bit of a strong word to describe their relationship. 

And they haven’t just acted on their feelings – this has been a time to pursue ambitions that were mere distractions before.  Mataro, who was just an underfoot kid watching from the sidelines last time, has made it his goal to get a Kamui of his own and join the new conflict, no matter what it takes.  And of course Rei, who only now has fully realized the error of her ways, has finally been able to get the friends, the belonging, the love she never knew she was missing.  For all of them living in the world they saved, protecting their new lives against REVOCS means more than anything.

But the last two years have not been kind to everyone.  Satsuki, to whom defeating Ragyo meant more even than her own life, was cast adrift without her mission.  Everything she did felt like an afterthought, and though she knew she was stagnating, adapting poorly to a new world not built for her military mindset, that was nothing compared to the guilt she felt.  Guilt for her love of Ryuko, her sister, a feeling she neither understood, wanted, nor knew what to do about – and she couldn’t help but let that consume her until a confession was inevitable.  With so much work left to do in her day to day life she hardly even realized how lost she was becoming, but now – just now that REVOCS has finally made their move – in the aftermath of The Weekend she spent with Ryuko, she finally feels awake again.

And Ryuko, well, she might have changed the most.  She went to college, and although most of it didn’t go great, she found a calling in fashion design – the absolute last thing she expected.  She’s grown more gentle, more secure, and more confident in the confines of a loving family, surrounded by friends.  Her life is hardly the normal one she always wanted, but she’s got the parts of that life that really matter.  And even though she’s kept parts of her street punk childhood alive – wild nights on the town, plentiful consumption of alcohol and weed, there’s far more that’s brand new to her.

Ryuko isn’t as afraid as she once was to embrace her wealth and status.  She’ll probably never get fully used to it, but at least now it doesn’t make her want to run away when people bow, even if she wishes they’d just stop.  She’s so much more comfortable in her body and her sexuality, even going so far as to not just understand Mako’s polyamory but to try to embrace it herself.  She fell hard and fast for Rei, and even considered – briefly – the most unthinkable thing for the old her: settling down.  Satsuki might have thrown all that into chaos, sure, but it was only the seed of an idea so far.  Still, the old her couldn’t have even done that.  The old her was so different.  She never used to wear makeup before…

And even more than that, she has finally come around to accepting that the life-fibers are here to stay, and so is she with her immortality and her powers and everything that comes with that.  Even going so far as to produce new Kamui for her friends, to prepare them for the fight against REVOCS.  Sure, she knew that meant she was going to get dragged back in, but she never expected that they see her as their… mother.  Or that it would feel right, somehow.  And the words Shiro once asked her: “Wouldn’t you like someone to spend eternity with?” keep coming up in her thoughts more than she expected.

Everything has changed.  But at the same time, nothing has really changed.  The war isn’t over, it just changed form.  And the world is still not at peace, and the slowly approaching doom – starvation and collapse as the last vestiges of nature wither to dust – that hasn’t gone anywhere either.  And the fight to survive goes on.

~~~~

The rest of this chapter is a sort of “reference” section designed so I can infodump and make sure if you want to know specific things you don’t have to go back into whatever chapter they were first mentioned in to learn them.  Some of this stuff is new info at this point so I’d advise giving it a read now.  Some parts won’t be done yet and will be filled in as the info is revealed.

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“Power Tiers”

               As established in the show, not all beings in the Kill la Kill universe are on equal footing in terms of combat ability, or even footing that’s remotely close to each other.  Anyone with a Goku uniform was basically invincible to normal people unless they had special anti-life fiber weaponry, Senketsu was so durable that ordinary two-star Goku uniforms couldn’t even scratch him or Ryuko, Ragyo was so fast that Ryuko and Satsuki couldn’t come close to hitting her, even with the most powerful versions of their Kamuis, and so on. 

However, figuring out who exactly is stronger than who in a simple power level sense isn’t really possible because combat skill, special abilities, and other factors get in the way.  As such, and because I like it better, in the combat mechanics of this fic power levels of characters will be divided up into tiers of approximately equal strength.  Characters in the same tier may vary a lot in various attributes like strength, speed, durability, etc., but they will remain on overall equal footing (just as some real people are stronger or faster than others but are all still human).  These aren’t the end all be all either: you can surmount a tier difference with enough skill or clever use of a special ability, like when Satsuki stalemated Nui without any life-fibers on her at all, just using her swordplay, or when Uzu managed to land a hit on Ragyo while in a three-star Goku uniform thanks to his shingantsu.

Without further ado, here is the tier list, along with examples from the show so you know what the hell I’m talking about:

F:  Ordinary humans

D Tier:  One Star Goku uniforms:

               A One Star Goku uniform is little more than a weapon, with a mind only equal to that of a feeble worm or insect, however it still puts its wearer well beyond the reach of a natural human.  The rush of speed and power from one of these uniforms is exhilarating, but unlike higher tiers it is easy enough for just about anyone to handle.  Anti- life-fiber weaponry is very effective against this tier.

C Tier:  2+ Star Goku uniforms:

               These beings may be made of a fairly high concentration of life-fibers, but they remain nonsentient creatures, clothing that enhances the powers of their wearers and sometimes influences their behaviors.  Powers vary greatly in this category, but at bare minimum someone wearing a C Tier being would be able to wrestle an elephant to the ground, and power increases from there up to the point where B Tier begins.

Examples: Two-star, Three-star, and greater Goku uniforms, Rei’s and Dr. Isshin’s combat clothing, Ryuko as a dormant Hybrid

B Tier: Pure Life-Fiber Beings:

               Kamui, Hybrids, and Artifical Humans, these beings have the power to lay waste to armies and cities entirely on their own.  Only the strongest anti- life-fiber weaponry is of any use against them at all.  This is the highest tier of being that can be created in a lab as of now without some form of unique transformation or apotheosis of a kind that cannot yet be consistently replicated

Examples:  Senketsu, Junketsu, Nui, Ryuko as an awakened Hybrid, the Honnouji Defcon Mech

A Tier:  Kisaragi:

               Pure life-fiber beings who have unlocked their full potential, allowing them to achieve power far beyond what even a Kamui can possess.  Reality itself seems to warp in their presence sometimes, as though they exert an invisible pressure upon the very matter around them, trying to reshape it into something else.  Kiraragi also typically produce blinding, unnatural light in strange colors and patterns – perhaps a product of their radiant, irrepressible power.

Examples:  Ragyo, Senketsu Kisaragi

S Tier:  Gods and other Higher Beings:

               At this point Tier doesn’t really matter anymore, these beings have the power to reshape reality on a planetary or larger scale.  Their capabilities are almost beyond the conception of ordinary humans.

Examples:  Shinra-Koketsu, the Primordial Life Fiber, Senketsu Kisaragi after absorbing Shinra-Koketsu

~~~~

Compatibility

               In addition to the power of the life-fibers in a piece of clothing or a hybrid, humans also have a property called life-fiber compatibility.  This essentially works as a multiplier to the power of whatever they’re wearing, allowing for a deeper connection to the life-fibers and often improving control or accelerating the growth of new forms. It is a genetic property passed on by certain families such as the Kiryuins – some families have been selectively bred to maximize it; others seem to have acquired it via a random mutation (such as the Mankanshokus).  Most people have a completely average life-fiber compatibility, only a rare few have a higher value and although it’s theoretically possible to be life-fiber incompatible this has never been observed so far.  This is essentially the “base power level” of characters.

               An example of this in the show is Mako’s two-star Goku uniform, which is able to damage Ryuko and Senketsu even though other two-stars can’t even scratch her. Mako is also able to momentarily rip control of the Defcon system from Rei in the OVA, further evidence that she has a very high compatibility level.

               So far, the following characters have higher than normal life-fiber compatibilities, ranked from highest to lowest (although still above average)

  1. Mako Mankanshoku (4.5x the average value most people have)
  2. Mataro Mankanshoku (3.33x)
  3. The wearer of Kamui Ranketsu (3.2x)
  4. The wearers of Kamui’s Yuriketsu and Sumiretsu (3x)
  5. Rei Hououmaru (2.75x)
  6. Ryuko Matoi, Satsuki Kiryuin, and Minazuki Kiryuin (2.5x)
  7. Ragyo Kiryuin (2x)
  8. Tsumugu Kinagase (1.5x)

Absorbing Life-Fibers

               Some characters and beings are capable of absorbing life-fibers, either freely from the air or from defeated enemies, in order to increase their power.  This ability is possessed by Hybrids like Ryuko and Kamui that were made with human DNA like Senketsu, Saiban, and Ryuko’s creations.  This absorbtion can noticeably improve their capabilities like leveling up in a video game, but it cannot on its own provide advancement to a higher tier.  However, it is an essential step in growing new forms to transform into, as well as a great way to restore energy and defenses.

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Hybrids Vs. Life-Fiber Clothing.

               At first glance, a Hybrid and an ordinary human wearing their Kamui would appear to be very similar.  They are both ridiculously strong and fast and hard to kill.  However, there are meaningful differences between them, both in how they generally work and how they fight.

               Hybrids:

                              True hybrids are humans which have had life-fibers fully integrated into their biology through a complex surgical procedure.  When done to a newborn, this process creates a person with free will – the baby’s unformed psyche readily accepts the new addition. However, when attempted on someone older in instead produces a loyal thrall to whatever it is that controls the life-fibers.  This does also require that the person willingly surrender themselves to the life-fibers, or else the procedure fail and either leave the person unharmed or instantly kill them.

               Either way, the hybrid’s powers are the same.  They are possessed not only of super-strength and speed and reflexes but also vastly enhanced senses and no need to eat or drink or even breathe.  Their body is also impervious to any disease, poison, or other invasive substance unless they willingly let their guard down (such as when drinking or doing other drugs).  In addition, they are also capable of regenerating or reattaching lost or wounded body parts.  Their skin is slightly tougher than an ordinary human’s and the same is true of their bones, but a hybrid’s main defense is their regenerative properties.

               All of these various abilities are derived from a very bizarre fact:  a hybrid’s body can open up miniature wormholes within itself.  Harmful substances are teleported off someplace.  The raw materials to heal damaged body parts are brought in and stitched together.  If they aren’t eating, nutrients are provided; if they aren’t breathing, oxygen is dropped off directly in the bloodstream.  It is currently unknown where exactly these tiny little teleporters go, but one possible explanation is the home dimension of the life-fibers. (For more details on this check out chapter 4 of part 1)

               It is in that same home dimension that the part of a hybrid that contains their consciousness is throught to be found.  Even brain destroying damage does not permanently keep a hybrid down, and as such the mind of a hybrid is thought to be housed somewhere else.  Unfortunately, the details of this are still mysterious.

               As a result of their regeneration, hybrids are best suited to fighting up close and personal.  The only thing that can permanently harm them is cross-cutting slashes from hardened life-fiber blades, which leave wounds that can heal, but slowly, and always create a nasty scar.  This means that they can rush in, catch on of the enemy’s blades with their body, and tear it out, making it impossible for even someone with two swords to kill them unless they’re a much, much better fighter.

               Hybrids are distinguished from ordinary humans by unnatural color on the underside of their hair and unique eyes with unusual pupil shapes and colors.

               It is also possible to create a hybrid from an animal besides a human in much the same way.  However, this kills the creatures every time unless it is done on a newborn, and even then the result is monstrous to say the least.  Animals become what are known as hybrid beasts – raging behemoths many times their previous size with lumpy, misshapen flesh and weaponized claws and fangs and whip-like tails.  It is unknown if these creatures follow the will of the life-fibers or are simply rabid rampagers.  Either way, they are also capable of regenerating, but unlike human hybrids this ability will eventually be exhausted, although this can take a very long time on a large hybrid beast.

               There is another type of creature similar to a hybrid but not exactly the same – the artificial human.  As of now Nui Harime is the only one known to have existed, so many details remain mysterious.  Unlike a hybrid no real human was used to create her, she was 100% life-fiber making her both more like a Kamui in the shape of a human and a slave to the life-fibers’ will.  The powers of an artificial human are mostly the same as a hybrid, but they are differentiated by some abilities unique to them and a manner of moving that is stiff and unnatural looking, sort of like a marionette.  Another thing that sets them apart is that they cannot wear Kamui – due to being Kamui themselves their life-fibers will reject it.

              

               Kamuis and other life-fiber clothing.

                              On their own Kamui are not especially powerful things.  They can shuffle around, move their sleeves, and communicate via gestures, but even a medium sized cat would be more than a match for them.  But when you put them into contact with a human via and interchange of their blood, things change.  The Kamui boosts its wearers natural strength, speed, and reflexes just the same as the life-fibers inside a hybrid’s body do, but in a different way.  The human underneath is still human – they cannot regenerate.

               Instead, a Kamui has a different defense mechanism: a thin energy field like a magnetic repulsion field that lays millimeters above the wearers skin.  Punches and kicks, knives and swords, bullets and flames, even nuclear radiation – anything harmful is rejected by this field.  It creates the impression that the skin of the wearer is itself bulletproof, although this is not quite true.  The same type of fields surround Goku and Ultima uniforms, although these are less powerful.  These fields do not last forever and can be exhausted by sufficient damage, causing Kamui to power down and other life-fiber clothing to be about as protective as regular fabric.  They will eventually regenerate and absorbing more life-fibers can speed up this regeneration.  Kamui can also regenerate and piece back together their own bodies when damaged like a hybrid, although the same can’t be said for their wearer’s body.

               These fields have one very major weakness though.  Hardened life-fiber blades can cut through them as though they weren’t there.  Although the blade itself is only somewhat stronger and sharper than a regular steel blade, this power makes them essential in battles between Kamui.  Because of this, these battles are usually fast, frenetic, and highly lethal, with the possibility of death at the slightest misstep.  However, if neither combatant has a blade the battle quickly descends into brutal slugfest as combatants struggle to wear each other’s defenses down, which in the case of Kamui could take hours.

               Kamui come in two kinds – pure Kamui and bonded Kamui.  Pure Kamui do not have any human DNA in their structure, and are as such not just slaves to the life-fiber’s mysterious will but embodiments of it, with alien minds incomprehensible to puny human intellect.  Bonded Kamui, on the other hand, are much more complex.

               A bonded Kamui has been made with a special treatment of human DNA, and is sentient with a mind that works like a humans – thoughts and feelings and memories and everything.  They are capable of communicating telepathically – this is easiest with the human they are bonded to, but Senketsu was able to communicate with Tsumugu and Satsuki but it was extremely difficult and only worked in times of extreme duress. Hybrids and artificial humans are also capable of hearing the telepathic voices of Kamui – Ragyo and Nui were able to hear Senketsu in the final battle.  However, this is nothing compared to what they share with their bonded human.

               A kamui and their wearer can do more than just converse.  They can sense each other’s feelings, see and hear and feel what each other are, and read each others memories.  Over time, this creates a closeness that no words can express, and a Kamui and their wearer will come to feel that they complement each other more like two halves than two separate people.  This should not be equated with romantic love – Kamui don’t actually seem to fully comprehend human sexuality except through their wearers experiences – it really is more that a Kamui becomes a piece of its wearers very self, and vice versa.

~~~~

A list of notable fighters:

 

Ryuko Matoi

Type: Free-willed Hybrid

Tier: High B Tier

Powered down appearance:  Ryuko looks much the same as always, but the red on the underside of her hair is brighter than before and sparkles in the right light.

Transformed appearance:  When channeling her full power Ryuko’s hair glows a fiery red-orange and her body emanates a heat that warps the air around her.

Alternate Forms: None so far

Special Abilities: Seamstress:  Ryuko has a instinctual ability to manipulate life-fibers ad use them to create clothing and other objects.  She can do this using her hands or telekinetically, but prefers telekinesis.

Satsuki Kiryuin

Type:  Human

Tier:  F Tier, but skillful enough to face opponents of higher tier

Powered down appearance:  Satsuki has kept her hair short, and now prefers to tie it off in a bun or topknot while fighting

Transformed appearance: N/A

Alternate Forms: N/A

Special abilities:  Chi focus:  Satsuki can remain utterly still even in combat, removing telegraphs from her attacks to confuse her opponent.  She also uses short “shouts” during combat the intimidate her opponent and throw them off guard.

Kamui Saiban and Nonon Jakuzure

Type: Bonded Kamui and Human

Tier:  Low-middle B Tier

Powered down appearance:  Saiban is a short, elegant emerald green cocktail dress with gold and silver accents and a snakeskin pattern.  His skirts are parted in the middle so Nonon can freely move her legs

Transformed appearance:  Saiban’s most notable trait is a long, forked coattail that Nonon can use as a prehensile tail.  His shoulderpads are thin and razor sharp, shaped like wasp wings with pointed ends.  In order to boost Nonon forward he is capable of projecting blasts of golden get flames, and a web of golden lights trails through him.

Personality:  Saiban is irrepressibly curious about the world around him, to the point of distracting him and Nonon.  He struggles to fully understand the complexities of human life, but that’s just one more thing to be curious about.

Alternate forms:  None so far

Special abilies:  Aura Hound:  Saiban can sense the auras of both other life-fiber beings and living creatures from much further away than most Kamui.

Kamui Nekketsu and Aikuro Mikisuki

Type:  Bonded Kamui and Human

Tier:  Low B Tier

Powered down appreance:  A white suit with a violet vest and tie and popped collars.

Transformed appearance: (I’m just gonna quote exactly what I wrote when I first described them) Nekketsu’s transformed shape kept some semblance to a suit.  The popped collars had fanned out into a vast fan like a manta-ray’s fins, the ends of which swooped down to connect to his shoulders.  Despite being huge and ostentatious, they were flexible too, and it was there that Nekkestu’s eyes were, round and oddly surprised looking and far redder than Saiban’s.  The tie had become a web of wire-thin lines that traced down his torso, glowing and pulsing as they outlined each muscle.  Below that they connected to a speedo like hip component. Nekketsu’s boots were thin and pointed, with glowing filamentous wires extending from them too, framing the contours of his legs.  The arms were a bit more covered, and the wide collar connected to armored shoulderpieces with huge sets of interlocking vents that huffed steam out over his arms, and wide silky sleeves tipped in black gloves with talons on each finger.  The horns that cropped from his blue hair as it whipped around were short and curved, with a sort of webbing behind them that made them look thicker from the sides.

Personality:  Dainty and cautious, often a bit shocked by how much she instinctively enjoys combat

Alternate forms: None so far

Special Abilities:  Shock Absorption.  Blows that hit Nekketsu’s field are deflected even more efficiently than most, with the concussive impact being negated.  Aikuro cannot be knocked over even by very powerful attacks, hell come back up like a punching bag, and he cannot be knocked off-course by being shot while jumping in midair.

Kamui Seijitsu and Uzu Sanageyama

Type:  Bond Kamui and Human

Tier:  Low B Tier

Powered down appearance:  A Gi with a turquoise color and deep navy hakama

Transformed appearance: The only thing covering most of Uzu’s body was a thin leathery skirt like a loincloth, longer in the front than on the sides giving it a shape like bat’s wings, and a mess of geometrically curling green ribbons that trailed from toes clad in steel toed sandals up to his shoulders.  But those shoulders made up for the rest easily.  Huge curved pauldrons like devil’s horns, from which Seijitsu’s orange-green eyes beamed out, appearing furrowed with determination.  All the gold ended up there too, in decorous trimmings that made the whole thing glint.  They were connected by a high collar and a breastplate that extended down to around heart level and no lower.  They also matched to the tiny little curved horns that rose from his erratic mess of hair, which danced flamelike above his face. The only thing that carried over was the hakama, which had migrated over his shoulders into a voluminous cape with the same color and pattern it had before.  It also wrapped around to his left arm like a renaissance fencer’s cape and since it was made of life-fibers it would be plenty strong to fulfill the same purpose - a shield.

Personality:  Exuberant and naively enthusiastic about just about everything.  Not that she’s cocky or anything, she’s just out for a good time and to make the most of her new life.

Alternate forms:  None so far

Special abilities:  Moldable Cape:  Seijitsu’s cape can change shape into practically anything.  Fencer’s shield, whip, raincoat, giant leathery wings, backpack, bandage, whatever could be helpful while remaining attached to Uzu’s shoulders

Kamui Tekketsu and Ira Gamagoori

Type:  Bond Kamui and Human

Tier:  Low B Tier

Powered down appearance:  A gilded tunic with his family crest over bronze colored chainmail, like a medieval knight.

Transformed appearance: Ira’s shoulders and arms were entirely covered in interlocking plates of brassy metal that resembled impossibly roided muscles.  If it weren’t for Tekketsu’s eyes peering out it would be easy to think there was muscle under there as well.  The entire thing whirred, and dozens of vents opened seemingly from nowhere to huff massive clouds of steam.  The bottom half of Ira’s torso was covered in the same sort of metal above skintight shorts, and his feet and lower legs were equally well armored, making it look like he was barefoot and had stepped in a sort of metallic mud.

Personality:  Suave and clever, Tekketsu is very good at reading people and enjoys forcing Ira into social situations.  She isn’t intimidated by danger either but lets him take the lead in battle.

Alternate forms:  None so far

Special abilities:  Scale Shift:  Defying the laws of biology and physics, Tekketsu can change the size of Ira’s body itself.  Normal she increases his size to make him about ten feet tall, but maybe there are other sizes she can do as well…

Kamui Misaki and Houka Inamuta

Type:  Bond Kamui and Human

Tier:  Low B Tier

Powered down appearance: A 19th century European military uniform in blue with gold tassels and medals.

Transformed appearance: Misaki’s transformed mode turned things around – the other men had Kamui that mostly covered their limbs and left their torso free, but Houka’s chest down to his thighs was covered in a skintight blue material that seemed to glow all on its own.  Only two oval slits on the side showed and skin at all.  But on the other hand, his arms and legs were mostly free but for large, sharp looking gauntlets and spiked combat boots and the wires to connect them all to the main body.  The shoulders were rounded like pearls and quite smooth and sleek, with large vents positioned between them on Houka’s back.

Personality: Loudmouthed and abrasive, she is very protective of Houka and Shiro but distrustful of most everyone else, even their friends just a little bit.  With Houka though she is very casual and lighthearted, and she is very close with Shiro’s Kamui Izanami as well.

Alternate forms:  None so far

Special Abilities:  Supersense:  Houka’s senses are improved by Misaki to the point that they are equal to Ryuko’s

Kamui Izanami and Shiro Iori

Type:  Bond Kamui and Human

Tier:  Low B Tier

Powered down appearance:  a tall, velvety lab coat in a deep maroon with a modern military uniform beneath it

Transformed appearance:  Like Uzu’s Seijitsu, Izanami in her transformed shape had flowing capes and skirts, but they were parted into eight prehensile arms made of thin fabric, and on each, an eye.  He still had shoulder spikes, a set of thin prongs far too thin to hold an eye, to match the thin, straight horns that cropped from his blond hair.  The rest of his body was also enveloped in a glowing skintight material with holes and swirling patterns revealing skin in seemingly random shapes.

Personality:  Cheerful and constantly joking, she seems to enjoy mocking Shiro’s generally dry, serious mindset.

Alternate forms:  Kamui supercomputer:  Izanami’s physical form is split between her clothing form and a vast living computer in the basement of Shiro’s lab.  She is constantly connected to the computer and is slowly creeping across the internet.  This allows her to quickly look up information and perform calculations even while in combat.

Special Abilities:  Multiarm:  the prehensile arms that grow from Izanami’s cape can each operate on their own, and she can see from each of them.  They can also regrow very quickly if they are cut off.

Kamui Furashada and Rei Hououmaru

Type:  Bonded Kamui and Human

Tier:  Middle-high B Tier

Powered down appearance: Furashada has a tight fitting bodice made of cream yellow metal, a silver-green jacket with lavender buttons over it, a long skirt with lavender embroidery and tights ending in high heeled sandals, and something between a cape and a shawl over one shoulder.

Transformed appearance: Diaphanous, glowing lace trailed off Rei’s limbs and off the huge, smoothly curving lavender-ivory shoulderspikes, massive tusks that erupted as if form her own soft skin.  The fabric swept around her breasts and down the center of her stomach to a skirt of leathery webbing, longer in the back than the front making a sort of tail, was also glowing with patterns that seemed to project a couple centimeters off her skin and shift slowly

Personality:  Calm and soft-spoken, Furashada has a peaceful outlook at odds with his destructive nature.  Still, when people he cares about are in danger, he can fly into a rage just like Rei can.

Alternate forms: None so far

Special abilities:  Deeper link:  Rei’s high compatibility allows her to communicate with Furashada directly with her thoughts, far faster and in more detail than the others.

Kamui Reiketsu and Tsumugu Kinagase

Type:  Bonded Kamui and Human

Tier:  Low-Middle B Tier

Powered down appearance:  High collars and broad, smooth shoulders like a modern army uniform, thin horizonal plates down the torso like samurai armor, bulky sleeves and cuffs with leather gloves, all done in a sleek steel-grey with gold and crimson highlights.

Transformed appearance:  Tsumugu's arms and shoulders gain a silver armor plating with interlocking scales and red highlights.  In front of this, Reiketsu's eyes are placed on large prongs similar to those on Senketsu, but with a wider shape like a huge bowtie.  His torso and back have sets of vents trailing down them, alternating with patches of bare skin.  Around his waist there is a thick red and gold loincloth with a set of pouches that latch shut - Reiketsu can open and close them on her own.

Personality:  Serious and passionate like Tsumugu, but lacking his cynicism.  She is earnest and trusting, and tends to do the feeling for both of them.  Despite enjoying exploring the world and meeting new people, she shares with Tsumugu a preference for relaxing alone or with a few friends and withdrawing from the world.

Alterante forms:  None so far

Special abilities: space warping pockets:  Pouches on Reiketsu can contain an unreasonable amount of supplies, weapons, and other gadgets up to twice Tsumugu’s body weight without weighing him down at all.  Oddly, things tend to come out either scalding hot or freezing cold, so it’s probably not the best idea to put anything living in there.

Kamui Rosuketsu

Type:  Pure Kamui

Tier:  High B Tier

Powered down appearance:  Rosuketsu resembled a kimono with flowing silky sleeves of golden-white, a huge red bow on a sash about the waist, and rose patterns all across the silvery bodice

Transformed appearance:

Alternate forms: Unknown

Special abilities:  Unknown

Kamui Yuriketsu

Type:  Pure Kamui

Tier:  High B Tier

Powered down appearance: A shiny gold and red dress in the traditional European style with voluminous skirts that puff out like wings and tight corset with delicate embroidery

Transformed appearance: Unknown

Alternate forms: Unknown

Special abilities:  Unknown

Kamui Sumiretsu

Type:  Pure Kamui

Tier:  High B Tier

Powered down appearance: A European dress in a Greco-Roman style, flowing silky purple robes with silver belts and tassels

Transformed appearance: Unknown

Alternate forms: Unknown

Special abilities:  Unknown

Kamui Ranketsu

Type:  Pure Kamui

Tier:  High B Tier

Powered down appearance: A sari with a light turquoise shawl over a dress of deepest navy blue, speckled with silver starbursts

Transformed appearance: Unknown

Alternate forms: Unknown

Special abilities:  Unknown

Chapter Text

October 2066

~~~~

In the limo on the way back to Tokyo, Ryuko could hear every detail of both sides of Satsuki’s phone-call with her unnaturally enhanced hearing.  On the other end of the line, Nonon was breathlessly laying out the entire unfortunate turn of events, and although Ryuko wanted to rage and scream about how of course it had to be now of all fucking times that they showed back up, she could see that Satsuki’s brows were twitching, eyes flickering, and that made it obvious she was in deep thought.  So she kept quiet until Satsuki finished listening, fired off a string of straightforward orders, and hung up with a “Good luck, I believe in you”.

               She turned to Ryuko with a very severe look on her face.  “You heard all that, yes?”

               “Uh-huh,”  Ryuko nodded, but then she couldn’t keep her tongue in check any longer, “Those bastards!  Why can’t they see they’ve already lost?  I’m gonna go down there and rip that devil Kamui right off whoever that stupid fuck is that’s wearing it!”  She started to roll down the window with the intention of leaping out and running off to the battle through traffic, not thinking about how she didn’t actually know where the base was.  Out the window she could see traffic stretching out on the highway well into the distance – apparently the attack was causing major gridlock.  She was about to get up, but the amused half smile on Satsuki’s face stopped her. “What?”

               “Well, that’s just exactly what I was going to suggest you do, and – oh hold on,”  Satsuki interrupted herself as her phone pinged, “It’s Shiro’s Kamui.  Since when can a Kamui send emails?”  Satsuki remembered Shiro trying to explain how his Kamui was connected to the internet, but it was so complicated it required an understanding of quantum entanglement which Satsuki hadn’t had a chance to read up on.

               *Urgent tactical update: RM – RK possible link* The subject line read, and Satsuki pursed her lips in puzzlement.  “One moment,” She said to Ryuko and read on.

               *Hello Satsuki,

By now you have no doubt been informed of the ongoing attack on Tokyo infrastructure by REVOCS and the presence of a spearhead force lead by an enemy Kamui at the supermax prison.  Shiro has asked me to send you this urgent addendum to the strategic briefing provided by Commander Jakuzure:

               RM must not engage any enemy of similar strength to herself.

Recent discoveries in the ongoing investigation of RK’s status have confirmed that allowing the enemy to capture RM is a lose condition.  Any situation in which RM is at risk of capture must be avoided at all cost.  I have attached a full report on the RK investigation for your perusal to explain why this is the case.  However, further detail is unnecessary within this message itself.

With all due to respect to your position as interim supreme commander of our armed forces, I humbly ask that you heed this update and do not needlessly court disaster.

               Thank you,

                              Izanami*

               Satsuki’s first reaction was to stare at the email blankly.  Even Shiro wouldn’t be so blunt unless it was really important, and this was filtered through his Kamui, who as far as Satsuki knew was a bit friendlier than he.  So why?  She clicked on the report and kept reading, flicking through the lines so quickly that Ryuko couldn’t help but be impressed.

               Consciousness surviving the destruction of the body… accidental absorption… Oh no.   Satsuki’s mind instantly began racing with the implications but that wasn’t especially helpful.  The moment she realized that, Satsuki turned her thoughts to what to do about it.

               “What’s wrong?”  Ryuko asked ugently – Satsuki’s face had gone even paler than usual.

               “Change of plan,”  Satsuki decided, “Go to the other areas first, wrap up the fighting there.  Nonon will reroute the others to battle the Kamui. Go to the police station first”

               “Wha – I – hold on why?”  Ryuko shouted over the rush of wind from the open window.  What fucking excuse could Satsuki have for not letting her kill the Kamui and end this nightmare before it began?

               “You’re the fastest, you can clear multiple attacks faster than the others could clear one.”

               “Well yeah, but I’m the strongest too!  I’ll just go kill it and that’ll be that, easy!  The others aren’t strong enough yet, they haven’t absorbed enough life fibers”

               “No.  It’s not tactically sound.”

               “Give me one good reason.”

               “Ryuko do I really have to explain the entire theory of economy of force to you?  We’re kind of in a rush here!”  Satsuki snapped, and the tone of her voice brokered no argument.  Ryuko clambered nimbly out the window and, after a moment hanging on the side of the car sped off, weaving between traffic so quickly that Satsuki could only tell where she was by the wind whipping up trash and gravel in her wake.

               And then she was gone, and Satsuki was left waiting impotently in the gridlock for a helicopter to come pick her up, mulling over Shiro’s report with a bleak feeling.  The more she thought about it, the surer she was that Ryuko would be better off never knowing.  But no, she had to know.

               Well, here I am.  The great Satsuki Kiryuin relegated to uselessness by mere traffic.  I guess this is the egalitarian future I dreamed of.

~~~~

“NOT ONE STEP FURTHER, REVOCS SCUM!”  Ira bellowed , and the Kamui wearing Minazuki Kiryuin’s body, oddly enough, obeyed.  It stared at him with the easy contempt of a human regarding a cockroach.

“So, I guess now we know what became of you after you vanished, Minazuki Kiryuin”  Ira addressed Minazuki. “Can’t say I’m surprised, Kiryuin or not, you never had vision.  Disappointed, well, that’s another matter.  But I’ll let Satsuki take care of that once I rip that thing off you.  Or you could just surrender and save me the trouble.  As you can see, you are surrounded.  There is no hope of escape, even with your Kamui.”

Surprisingly it was Takamori who spoke, laughing with a harsh, savage bark.  Scraggly and haggard as he had become in prison he was still a handsome man, and his followers looked at him in adoration as he jumped up on a chunk of rubble with eyes glinting madly, “Minazuki?  Really?  She is far beyond your reach.  She is part of something greater now!”

“SILENCE!”  Ira roared.  He’d tried being nice, no more of that, “YOU ARE A TRAITOR TO OUR ENTIRE SPECIES!  YOU WILL SURRENDER OR I WILL KILL YOU ALL MYSELF.”

“Ohoho!  You forget yourself, Gamagoori!”  Takamori sneered sardonically, and as Ira watched the Kamui wearing Minazuki’s body shifted its feet slightly and he realized it wouldn’t wait for him to finish ranting to attack.  This one wasn’t like Junketsu, with its gleeful rage – it was smart. “You believe you have a partnership with your Kamui, that you are equals?  Oh, does she talk to you?  Call you her friend?  Pftahaha!”  He broke down in laughter, the thrill of his imminent triumph overwhelming any sense of compose and letting the madness leak out. “No true child of the life-fibers is so small that it seeks the companionship of humanity!  Look at Minazuki, just a mere cog in the vastness of Kamui Rosuketsu, as it should be!  What you have made is an abomination not worthy of being called a Kamui!”

               It was at that moment that Rosuketsu made its move, but Ira was ready the moment its feet left the ground and glinting black swords erupted from nowhere in its hands.  Spinning all the way around he hurled the steel door back at the charging Kamui, but it was cut cleanly in half in midair as Rosuketsu sailed towards him.

Still, that give him enough time to block its righthand sword with his and grab the left with the bladed talons on his backhand.  The moment they clashed, a massive blast of force whipped the air around them, sending rubble flying and clearing all the smoke so that both sides could see each other clearly for the first time.  It felt like they were repelling magnets forced together, and all the built tension between them released in an explosion of sheer willpower, just as had happened the first time Ryuko and Satsuki met in battle.

Steam huffed from Tekketsu as she and Ira realized just how strong this thing was.  He towered over the woman’s body it possessed, but that hardly seemed to matter.  He had to guess that of all the Kamui Corps, he might be the only one with the raw strength to hold her down

[This is going to be tough!]  Tekketsu chimed, but that wasn’t going to stop either of them.  Ira barged forward with his huge shoulder, swinging his sword in a great sweeping arc to force Rosuketsu to spring backwards, and as he pressed his advantage the DTRs and soldiers behind him opened fire.  The REVOCs cultists in their shiny white Ultima uniforms were quick to respond in kind, and the gates to the prison collapsed into chaos.

There were probably only about 50 or so REVOCs cultists involved in the assault, maybe a couple hundred soldiers divided between the DTRs and those on foot, but still that barren tract of asphalt quickly became a bloodbath the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Tri-City Raid Trip. 

The Ultima uniforms may have been strange looking with their leotards, lilac veins, and big bulky gauntlets, but they were even faster and more brutal than the Goku uniforms before.  The cultists wearing them – handsome men and women with hollow eyes and waxed, hairless bodies – loped forward and sprayed bullets with absolute confidence in their defenses.  Their faces were hardened, but there was a sort of gleeful wantonness as they smashed DTRs with swinging, clumsy punches.

But the DTRs danced backwards just as quickly, and the air was immediately filled with perfectly accurate streams of jamming needles.  Just as easily as the Ultima cultists could seize them and rip the thin metal and fragile human apart, so too could their lanky servo-legs kick them down and hose them with enough needles to turn their uniforms into loose life-fibers that were inevitably siphoned over to Ira and Tekketsu.  This was what they were built for, after all, although half of the pilots weren’t former Nudist Beach now, they were former Honoujji students.

               All tactics were out the window – pure reflex and valor were what mattered now.  It was like a trapeze show, just with more blood. The soldiers standing behind the barricade and the prisoners across from them had no choice but to crouch in cover, try and shoot anyone who slowed down, and hope nobody decided to gun them down.

               And in the center of it all stood Ira, like a great immobile axel of metal and muscle around which the entire battle spun.  He may have had unnatural speed thanks to Tekketsu, but compared to Rosuketsu he was still a lumbering brute.  It might have finished him off in moments but for one advantage he had that couldn’t be surmounted: reach.  With absurdly long arms paired with a blade almost nine feet long he could keep it not just at bay but more than twelve feet away.  And whenever it did manage to dart in his offhand was there, slicing with hardened life-fiber talons.  Still, he was never considered the best swordsman of the elites, and against an opponent like Rosuketsu he had no time to think.

               It was just like Junketsu, maybe not as infuriatingly arrogant, but in the way it fought there was no difference.  Speed difference aside Ira still nearly had his guard broken a few times just because of how unusual the style was.  Raw, vicious strikes that from a human opponent would have been imprecise, a sign of an opponent on the ropes, coupled with a writhing of the body that jerked and shuddered like a rabid dog – it all looked so vicious but every blow was calculated. Soon Ira found himself reflexively pulling back every time there seemed to be a gap in its defense.  They were all ruses, what appeared to be laziness was actually a perfect trap, like the creature was manipulating the parts of human body language we cannot voluntarily control

               Ira thought only Satsuki and Uzu had ever mastered a perfect technique for swordsmanship, but this was something different.  A technique derived from millennia of molding the human form, calculating ideal movements.  An alien way of fighting.  Ira and Tekketsu were both so preoccupied just keeping it at bay that they never even realized the bodies were piling up on both sides around them, or that as the minutes dragged by that they might not be killed by Rosuketsu, but they sure hadn’t a clue how to defeat it either.  Until –

               “Incoming!” A shrill voice shouted behind him, and Ira ducked at just the right moment.  From behind his gigantic shoulders Nonon, framed against the early morning sunlight, shot forward with Kiba extended as though it was pulling her along.  With a mighty “KRA-KOOM!” another blast of force rocketed through the air and sent empty bullet casings scattering as she joined the fray – late, sure, but not too late.

               “Nonon!”  Ira shouted, as Rosuketsu deftly blocked her naginata and then, as a third and final blast of force ricocheted across the battlefield, it managed to twist its other arm almost entire around its back, barely parrying a stab from Houka as he slid in.  “About time!” Ira finished snidely as they sprung back to regard their enemy.

               “Save your quips you colossal moron!”  Nonon spat, “They were never your strong suit anyway.”

               “What an unusual way of moving this creature has!”  Houka observed, dragging the tips of his rapiers along the ground as he charged back into the fray, spraying sparks into Minazuki’s eyes.  Nonon and Ira weren’t far behind him, and now that they outnumbered their enemy, they could force it back.  It couldn’t block three attacks at once, or so they thought, but no sooner had the flurry of blades begun again than did it twist its legs up and plant such a mighty kick on Ira’s chest that it sent him skidding back across the battlefield.  “It’s like it has every muscle under perfect control!”

               “Wait this isn’t – holy shit it is Satsuki’s cousin!”  Nonon blurted when she got a breath as Ira leapt back in.  All the Kamui immediately asked if they were supposed to know who that was, but when they didn’t get a response they focused on the battle. “Hahaha Oh man I hope we get out of this alive ‘cuz I need time to unpack this one!”

               “I thought you said we weren’t doing quips!”  Ira bellowed

               “Yeah, yeah.  Alright team lets mulch this bitch!”

               From that point on Rosuketsu barely touched the ground, and neither did Nonon or Houka.  With their aid Ira could finally bring his clunky but effective style to bear.  They would leap to meet it in midair, blades would clash at speeds beyond normal human perception, and then when Rosuketsu landed Ira would throw in a huge swipe – which would be dodged – but the followup kick wouldn’t be.  And each time they pushed Rosuketsu closer to the doors, and the DTRs (who had been reinforced and wiped out the Ultima cultists by now) would stun the outlying prisoners.  Only a few were left now – Takamori, the assassins who had failed to kill Ryuko, and Itsuki.  They were spared only because no-one was brave – or stupid – enough to go within fifty yards of the Kamui fight.

               “Now, how are we supposed to get an opening in?”  Houka grunted in frustration.  This had gone on for minutes and, whereas Nonon was having an absolute blast, combat was more occupation than hobby for him and he was hoping for a quick takedown.  But this thing just seemed to get even more unpredictable the more they hacked at it.  And it never made a sound, never gave any indication it might be tiring out.

               [Never mind that!] Kamui Misaki suddenly chimed in his ear.  [Missiles incoming!]

               “Missiles?”  Houka glanced up, luckily ducking under a decapitating strike as he saw with his supersenses a pod of concussion missile zooming their way, as well as the helicopter that fired them.  “Good call!  Evasive action!”

               When the missiles slammed into the four combatants, they did nothing at all to wound them, but they did knock them all away from Rosuketsu.  Nonon barely had time to shout “Okay, what the hell!”  before the whirr of helicopter rotors drowned everything out.

Ira fell flat on his back, and Rosuketsu leapt at him, swords pointing down into his heart.

“Ira no!”  Nonon screamed to herself as she rushed towards them, but Ira wasn’t done yet.  Gritting his teeth, he whipped an arm up to grab Minazuki’s body, seizing her by the waist with one huge hand.  Blood seeped through Rosuketsu’s fabric as his talons dug in.  That serene face flinched for the first time, and Ira grinned in satisfaction.  He got the smug bastard to hurt.

Seeing the opportunity, Nonon sprung for the kill.  Rosuketsu wasn’t done either though, and with an unnatural twist of Minazuki’s body it scraped a sword along his belly where Tekketsu’s metal plating didn’t reach.  Now blood erupted from him too, as he gasped in shock.  He tried to dig his fingers in tighter, thinking only: We’ve got eight in total, plus Ryuko.  They’ve only got four.  We come out ahead in this trade.

[IRA WHAT’S HAPPENING!]  Tekketsu shouted – not remotely composed now.  This was the first time so much pain had bled through from him, and she just… this sensation was wrong.  A million thoughts flashed through her, so loud that he could hear them, but never once could she seem to wrap her head around the idea that they really might die here. 

And just as quickly as Ira realized he was okay taking Rosuketsu down with him, he realized that if there was one thing he could never accept it was doing the same to Tekketsu.  She’d only just begun to live, how selfish to take that from her!

With a roar of rage and exertion Ira pitched Rosuketsu at Nonon, who thought quick and got ready to slice.  But somehow, even with blood still trailing from its wounds, the Kamui managed to swivel in midair and meet her blade.

Meanwhile the helicopter had nearly reached the ground.  Houka saw the door slide open and the bloated face of Kuriodo, that damned steward who’d been such a thorn in Satsuki’s side, sitting there with a smug grin.  Ira was on the ground bleeding, Nonon was off fighting the Kamui again, and it looked like somehow – oh Satsuki was going to be furious – Takamori might actually manage to get away.  Somehow the whole damn thing was falling apart again.

But the team came first.  Houka rushed over to Ira, shouting, “Are you okay?” over the din of the rotors.  Ira sat up, patted his belly, examined the wound, and nodded with a rush of relief.

“Just a flesh wound.  I got lucky.”

“Well, you do have a lot of flesh there big guy,”  Houka said as he sped off, but he still hadn’t decided if helping Nonon or trashing the helicopter was more important.  Fortunately, something happened that decided things for him.

Specifically, a bullet hole appeared in between Kuroido’s eyes.  He was dead before he even had time to register surprise.

Houka stopped up short, whipping his head around to try and find who the hell shot that.  It couldn’t have been the DTRs, they all had needles.  It couldn’t be the footsoldiers, they were on the wrong side of the helicopter.  That meant…

“Itsuki!”  Ira blurted in overjoyed shock.  And Houka spotted the former REVOCs assassin, standing up on a piece of rubble next to Takamori, blasting the other two assassins before they had a chance to figure out what was even happening. 

Takamori’s eyes bulged out of his skull, his lips pulled into a hissing rictus – he could barely believe what was happening.  “Itsuki, what the hell are you doing?” He snarled.

Itsuki responded, as smug as could be (he’d been rehearsing this for hours now).  “Sorry sir.  Consider it a plea bargain.”  And he fired, but Takamori whipped around to try and shoot him, and so the bullet, rather than sailing through his brain instead pulverized his lower jaw.  He collapsed in a heap, tumbling from the rubble with a strangled groan.

“TAKAMORI! NO!”  For the first time, Rosuketsu spoke.  But that voice, ripped and desperate with panic, that wasn’t the same smooth, oily voice the Kamui produced from Minazuki.  For just a moment, something else had poked through.

“Stand and fight, you pussy!”  Nonon screeched as Rosuketsu skidded over to Takamori.  It grasped at him with those clawed fingers, cradling him.  He gurgled, not dead, but wishing he was.  The bottom of his once beautiful face – perfect Kiryuin loveliness – was a ruin of blood and spongy meat and splinters of bone.  Minazuki’s head turned to Itsuki, eyes glowing with rage, and he stared back at them.  He was proud to have gotten in one last “fuck you” to the cult that had stolen so much of his life, and to have paid Ira back for all the nuisance he caused him.

This time Houka was on things though.  He was between them before Rosuketsu could eviscerate Itsuki, blocking her and throwing in a riposte with his offhand rapier, and now it was Rosuketsu’s turn to look wildly around, trying to find a way to get Takamori the hell out of there.

The helicopter stopped being an option pretty quickly.  The pilot was so confused and shocked by this turn of events that he didn’t notice what the rest of Ira’s soldiers were up to.  One of them put a rocket into the cockpit, and that was that for the helicopter.  That left only the simplest, most direct route.

Rosuketsu grabbed Takamori, leapt into the air and – to everyone’s surprise – didn’t come down.

“Oh are you kidding me?  Even that thing can fly?”  Nonon shouted, growling with frustration.  “Someone bring her down!”  She hurled a piece of rubble but it fell short, leaving Rosuketsu to drift off until it was just a silhouette against the smoke, hovering above the hill the prison was built into.  Nonon felt like cussing it out just for the hell of it.

“Well, they got Takamori, but not in good shape, Rosuketsu’s wounded, they lost all their troopers, and I’m going to be just fine as soon as I get some gauze,”  Ira recapped, feeling generally positive about the whole thing after seeing Itsuki betray his former commander. “This feels like at least a draw, right?”

“I… I think you’re calling it a bit too soon,” Houka stammered, staring up at Rosuketsu’s fading silhouette.  With his supersenses he saw something, something that would become apparent to the others as the smoke began to clear.

Rosuketsu wasn’t the only silhouette drifting menacingly above them.

Chapter Text

~~~~

               “Please -hrrk!- please tell me the others are coming, or Ryuko or someone,”  Ira grunted as he stood up, pressing a giant hand to the shallow cut along his stomach to staunch the bleeding as much as he could. 

               “What! We don’t need her help, moron!”  Nonon hissed

               “Well, we need something! We can’t fight them alone, we need to retreat!”

               “Can’t retreat!  We run; we’ll lead them right into the city!” The prison was built in an abandoned industrial complex, blending in with all the other doors nobody cared about anymore.  But beyond that rows of tenements sprung up – tenements full of people.  Houka with his enhanced senses could see them standing on the roofs, trying to see what was happening so close to their homes.  “We gotta hold them until the others get here!”  She could feel through Saiban that the first few were closing in, but would it be enough?

               Nonon was aware her plan wasn’t especially helpful, but it was hard to think.  Terror coursed through her veins, but it pounded even stronger in Saiban.  The Kamui were practically screaming to each other about how horrid those things were (they could communicate with each other, but their wearers only got their side of the conversation and it could be quite distracting).  With that, Ira’s injury, all the soldiers and bystanders, and the knowledge that the three of them had only barely won the upper hand against one pure Kamui, she was paralyzed by indecision. 

               Ira shrugged his huge shoulders and readied his blade.  The pain on his belly was needling, gripping like a huge papercut, but he knew he wouldn’t die and staying and fighting was – in his calculations – no more risky than it had been minutes ago.  He decided Nonon was right, they’d all learned so much from Satsuki, and she’d been at her side longest.  He nodded and affirmed, “Yes commander!”

               “Hey guys, now that we got that sorted,”  Houka pointed out, “Maybe we should talk about why they aren’t doing anything.”

               Up above, another disagreement was taking place.  There was a contradiction in understandings, a contradiction which had to be rectified.  Rosuketsu’s brief infection – the not at all Kamui-like panic when Takamori had been shot – had already been smoothed over and Minazuki was slumbering peacefully once again.  But still, the contradiction remained.

               There were no words exchanged in this disagreement, but if the process could be summated as a conversation it might have proceeded in this manner.

               [Now is the opportune moment to press the attack.  The polluted Kamui are weak and divided, but the rest of their brood are closing in.  We must purify them while we have the advantage in power] Imagine perhaps that this is the voice of Kamui Ranketsu, who hovered with a snarl on its human face between two huge, spear shaped pauldrons, ready to attack

               [No.  The human demagogue is badly damaged.  It must be evacuated immediately.]  This might then be Rosuketsu, who still cradled Takamori.  He was fading quickly, totally unconscious now.

               [The value of the human demagogue is low compared to that of purifying three or our enemy’s children.]

               [She might be here soon.]  This understanding added in another tangential opportunity.  A bothersome addition to an already difficult contradiction, imagine it then being suggested by Kamui Yuriketsu.  For some reason its human host was still wearing a plastered on, too-wide smile, as though it was stuck like that.  [Capturing the enemy has the highest value of all.]

               [It will not be possible.  We cannot fight the entire brood and the enemy at once].

               [Which is why we must retreat.]

               [Which is why we must attack now.]

               It was at this moment that Tsumugu barreled through the DTRs retreating out the main gate.  Kamui Reketsu was still trailing gouts of crimson flames from its back vents, and silvery domed pauldrons huffed steam.  Her eyes, mounted on armored plates that trailed out from Tsumugu’s neck like a giant gold and red bowtie, whipped around just as his did, until he spotted Nonon, Ira and Houka who were issuing retreat orders to soldiers left standing while keeping a wary eye on the floating Kamui.

               “Heads up!”  He shouted, and a pod of concussion missiles shot off over their heads from an auto-launcher he’d dropped moments ago.  The others watch them slam into Ranketsu’s swirling robes, deep blue like the sunless depths of the ocean.  It did no harm, but it did knock the Kamui off course.  And that was all Tsumugu needed.  He’d tried the concussion missiles on Ryuko once, but he’d learned since then. 

               The moment the Kamui shuddered, was distracted evading the first volley, an arrow travelling at lightning speeds sunk deep into its arm and pulled it down like an anchor into the nearby scrapyard with a crash and a plume of dust and debris.  And then there was Aikuro, skidding in not moments after Tsumugu.  His bow still ready in his hands, and he chuckled to himself about the raw power he was able to pull from it.  “Still got it,” He muttered to himself, and Nekketsu gasped in awe that she had made that happen.

               This made everything a whole lot simpler.  Nonon’s paralysis vanished in a rush of determination.

               “Nice shot Aikuro!”  She shouted, twirling Kiba in the direction of Ranketsu, “Let’s gang up and finish that thing before they even know what’s happening!”

               “Here, take these first!”  Tsumugu reached into one of the pouches on his loincloth – a red and silver piece of synthetic fabric with jagged patterns though it.  He produced three glowing red capsules and quickly tossed them to each of the others, as well as a pack of blood-clotting gel for Ira.

               “What are they?”

               “Life-fiber capsules.  Absorb them – it’ll restore your energy.”

               Nonon was the first to nod and crack it open, starting to run behind Tsumgu and Aikuro as she did so.  And it worked just as Tsumugu had advertised – she felt as refreshed and energized as if she’d just transformed, and Saiban felt even better, humming along with his energy field at full power once again.  He could feel the enemy Kamui up ahead, and a deep clawing feeling in him told him it had to die.

               [Five against one?  We’ll tear it to shreds!]  He crowed, and the other Kamui crowed with him as they leapt over the rubble into the crater in which Kamui Ranketsu stood, as if waiting for them.  The generous curves of its human host were accented by the glowing blue lines of light on deep robes.  Aside from the armored shoulder pads it looked more like a woman drifting naked on dark water than one enshrouded in a Kamui.

               Tsumugu was the first down into the pit, and as he landed he heard that voice that sounded so familiar, [This is it, your vengeance!]  Tsumugu wanted to respond that she should know by now that his memories were no mythology – she seemed more excited about his “vengeance” that he’d ever been.  But this was just her way, watching his memories was like watching a movie to her.  A movie with a lot of tear-jerking moments.

               And besides, too much was happening.  Moving faster than the human eye could see, Tsumugu raised his sword – a hardened life-fiber falchion – and the shield strapped to his left wrist – also life-fiber, with a blade on its circular edge.  In his left hand he held a needle rifle, and even though it probably wouldn’t do any good he fired it as he charged anyway. 

               Even so, he was taken off guard when Ranketsu lifted its arm – the one without an arrow sticking out both sides -, and its long, tight sleeve with the cuffs that looked like flower petals unfurled.  Inside, bioluminescent cyan light swirled in smooth, organic patterns that mesmerized both Tsumugu and Reiketsu.

               [Oh my, that’s beautifu – Oh shit!]

               Oh my, that’s beautifu – Oh shit!  They thought as one, as suddenly the lights pulsed white hot and a blast of what could only be described as pure blue light flew from the sleeve instantly.  Only the sheer instinct of a hardened soldier saved them, as Tsumugu lifted his shield and tucked his knee into a slide just at the last moment.

               In one perfect, frozen moment that would leave afterimages on everyone’s eyes, the shaft of light appeared, deflecting off the shield at an angle to slice telephone poles down the road clean in half, and then it was gone again.  Everyone froze on the edges of the crater, momentarily stunned and appalled at what had just happened.  But Tsumugu was too close now.  He got up, staring into the Kamui’s furious eyes, bulging from its spiky pauldrons with evident hatred for the puny fleshy creature that defied it.  Tsumugu could see it how Reiketsu saw it – an aura of cold, a vast and oozing body crammed into those robes.  Now I know how Ryuko felt.  Come on then!

               And the Kamui screeched at him.  The mouth of its human host opened further than seemed possible and a guttural, inhuman noise issued force.  It raised its arm to fire another beam of blue light, but Tsumugu was on top of it before it got it out, and Nonon wasn’t far behind.  Ranketsu leapt back, but it was even faster than Rosuketsu, if that were possible.  In a blur of motion daggers expanded in its hands, and everything descended into chaos again.

               This time, the battle was short and brutal.  Rosuketsu flew off with Takamori, nursing the wounds in Minazuki’s body.  But Yuriketsu and Sumiretsu, with their twin hosts, zoomed down onto the battle, cackling as they did. Houka and Ira took Yuriketsu (or rather Houka did most of the work, and Ira tried his best) while Aikuro danced off into the rubble, loosing arrows as he did to draw Sumiretsu off.

               The first clash of Kamui in this desolate industrial wasteland had been a whirling vortex of violence too fast for human eyes to follow.  This was many times worse.  Blows and parries, precise little pivots and giant leaping bounds and pounces, several more huge light blasts from Ranketsu (fortunately all misses) – it was a deadly, swirling kaleidoscope of blades and glowing lights.  The steam and the flames exhaled by the fighting Kamui obscured the air, and blasts of compressed air leveled the landscape around them whenever blades clashed.  Later, Houka and Shiro would watch and rewatch the security camera recordings of this battle, taking detailed notes on the first pitched battle of the superhuman era.  But for now it was almost impossible to even think.

               “Hi therrre!”  Unexpectedly, the host of Yuriketsu – with her too-wide smile and freckly cheeks – spoke in a shrill voice, artificially filled with flirtatious fun, “Oh!  I love your Kamui!  What a byyyyeautiful color!”  It addressed Houka with a moist wink.  Her thin body twisted sensuously with each passing blow, and Yuriketsu’s combat form complimented this with a bodice shaped like a constricting velvet corset, fluffy little skirts with brilliant sequins, and banded lights on arms and legs that made their contours fuzzy and indistinct with each swing and kick.

               “What the hell is this!  Nui all over again I swear!”  He grunted as he blocked a slash from the long halberd it carried.

               “Only, it’d look even better without all that icky human DNA, doncha think?”

               [You’d better shut that thing up Houka, or else I swear…]  He could feel fear and rage from Misaki, billowing and making him sick to his stomach.  Meanwhile, Yuriketsu’s attention turned to Ira.

               “Aw, lookit – you’re bleeeding!”  She giggled, then gasped, “Oh!  I wonder if you’ll be able to keeep up!”

               In all this chaos, Nonon remained calm.  She only had to feel the rapidly closing aura from Rei and Furashada – quite a bright one – and then further out the auras of Uzu, Shiro and Ryuko somewhere in the city, to know that all they had to do was stay alive and then these things would be fucked.  It couldn’t have been more than a minute since the battle began when her prayers were answered.  And just it time; Ranketsu had almost worn Tsumugu down with a flurry of blows and his fingers were nicked and bleeding.

               “AAAAAAAAH!”  With a wordless cry Rei and Furashada soared over the side of the crater like an artillery shell, crashing down on top of Ranketsu and skidding off with her at top speed, blasting through everything in their past, “GET THE HELL AWAY FROM MY FRIENDS!”

               Ranketsu screeched at her too, and fired beams of light in random directions from both hands, but it was only when they skidded to a halt and Rei lifted her hands up to bring her blade – an axe that looked altogether too big for her tiny body – down on its head that it managed to kick her off.

               But now the battle had turned.  Almost as soon as Rei arrived Uzu was there too, and he leapt onto Sumiretsu and drove her back with Aikuro.  And that brilliant aura, outshining even the pure Kamui, was very close now.  Ryuko was coming.

               A new understanding passed through the Kamui.  They would not win this way.  As one, their feet left the ground and – with a chipper, “I’ll kill ya next time!”  from Yuriketsu – they zoomed off at great speed, vanishing into the smoke.

               And it was over.  The Kamui had been driven back, but just barely.  Nobody had the energy left for much cheering.

~~~~

               When Satsuki finally managed to get to the prison cleanup crews and triage were already there.  The Kamui Corps (plus Ryuko) were sitting on the rubble, powered down and exhausted, going through a sort of rudimentary debrief.  Which basically amounted to talking about things that had freaked them out and groaning “well what the fuck”.  Houka had just finished describing how freaky Yuriketsu was when Satsuki stepped out of the helicopter, and everyone nodded a respectful hello.

               Well, everyone except Ryuko.  She grinned and got to her feet, and when Satsuki looked at her, they both seemed to visibly soften with relief.  Nonon watched all this with interest.

               [I mean they are sisters.  You think they woundn’t be happy to see each other?]  Saiban addressed what she was thinking.  Since the battle had calmed down and Nonon could think, her phone call with Satsuki the previous night was all she cared about.  She’d watched the interaction between Rei and Ryuko carefully, and was surprised to see they just… didn’t even acknowledge each other.  And when she’d had the gall to ask Rei to her face, “So what’s the deal with you and Ryuko, huh?  That over?”  She’d gotten a very interesting reaction.

               Rei had stammed, “Well, she -,”  And stopped herself.  No, we can’t say that, can we?  Nobody can know.

               [No.  It would ruin both Mother and Satsuki]  Furashada replied, and so Rei had finished, “I’d actually rather not talk about it, I’m sorry.”

  The other Kamui could sense Furashada’s sadness at being deprived of their creator’s closeness.  They (especially Misaki and Tekketsu) thought it a bit silly to be so attached – sure, she was nice to be around, but they were self sufficient beings with their own wearers – but then they could also see how being constantly in contact with that reassuring, warm aura could be nice.  The feeling of general sympathy and sadness was felt by their wearers too, and soon the whole ensemble was darkened by the gloom of being around Ryuko and Rei at that moment.

And nobody could feel it more than Ryuko.  Hell, the moment she’d seen Rei, a powerful feeling of guilt and confusion had stabbed her.  Oh my god, I’ve wronged her so much,  she realized, and then the whole weekend – that weird sauna-sex thing Satsuki had done, the feeling she’d be so sure of that one day they’d be free to go public, the promise that they would continue this secret affair for the sake of Satsuki’s sanity – came crashing down on her.  And she realized with a sinking feeling that what she felt for Rei was nothing compared to that.  So what if they could have a future together she never could with Satsuki?  What an insignificant thing!

I just want to go back there.

But then when Rei glanced at her with the glowering look, one Ryuko (correctly) took to mean Rei was trying to tell if she was sorry and so, so desperately hoping she was, the guilt pounded in her skull.  When she overheard the Kamui’s conversation, Saiban (his perception no doubt tinted by Nonon’s) asking why they were even together in the first place, Furashada desperately trying to defend their relationship, she felt it even worse.  I don’t want them to doubt me.  I want to be there for them!  And they felt her guilt, and it only compounded things even more.

And so Ryuko just mostly glowered at the ground until Satsuki showed up.  Satsuki would fix everything; she was so smart.  She must’ve had this planned out since the beginning.

Satsuki meanwhile felt a stab of an uncomfortable, surreal feeling when she saw Ryuko.  The memories of The Weekend came back to her too, but seeing Ryuko standing there with all the rest cast it all in a very different light.  It didn’t even feel real.  It was like it was someone else whose hands had crept across Ryuko’s naked skin, performing the movements of the purification ritual and making her squirm and gasp.  It was like when she first realized she was gay – she felt sure the contents of her heart were exposed to the open air, and everyone could see how transformed she was.  But she knew from years of experience that even her closest friends were oblivious to such things.

But Nonon did see something.  She saw Ryuko suddenly perk up and smile, Rei’s face go blank and glassy, Satsuki give the subtlest of twitches of discomfort.  And she felt from Saiban how Ryuko’s aura had suddenly changed to one of pure relief and happiness – making all the Kamui and by extension their wearers rejoice to see Satsuki arrive.  A worming feeling of disgust seized her.  Oh fuck, it was all true, wasn’t it?

“Spare me the details, I’ve been apprised en route,” Satsuki announced, “You all did very well.  I’m so glad to see there are no major injuries.  The other attack sites have all been cleaned up, and civilian casualties were kept to a minimum.  We have done all but prevent Takamori Kiryuin’s escape, and considering the circumstances I’d consider that a victory. Congratulations. ”

“Oh, ah, thanks, Satsuki,” Nonon answered even though, for the first time she could remember, she didn’t want anything to do with her best friend and idol.  What the hell did she think she was doing, standing there smiling back at that bitch in plain sight of everyone.  “I’m just glad it wasn’t a complete disaster.”

Instantly, Nonon’s mind switched gears.  Of course.  This was all Ryuko’s fault.  She must have known what Ragyo had done to Satsuki, and though Nonon had always assumed Satsuki was stronger than Stockholm syndrome she had to admit it made sense.  With the lipstick and the red eyeliner, she looked so much like her.  She even wore that stupid army jacket loose, so that it hung around her arms and exposed her bare shoulders.

What?  Ryuko’s not nearly cruel enough - or smart enough - to think of something like that.  Just to fuck her own sister?  I mean, I wouldn’t put wanting to past her, but actually going through with it?  But she’s always affected Satsuki in some stupid way, ever since she first showed up… I guess I just don’t know her as well as I thought I did.  From that moment on, Nonon’s heart was hardened against Ryuko.  She wouldn’t forgive her for making Satsuki do something so awful.  Saiban watched her come to this decision, and although he thought the logic seemed right, he declined to share it with the other Kamui.

               “Indeed, you’ve all done so much more than I can ever thank you for.  Especially you, Ira.  And Tekketsu, of course. Holding off the first Kamui on your own until reinforcements arrived, that was no small feat.  Although I see you did not make it out unscathed”

               Of course, Ira was oblivious to all the turmoil going on in Nonon.  He looked up from changing his bandage, smiling, “We only did our duty, and even then, they still managed to escape with the most valuable prisoner.  However, if you were looking for some way to thank us, there is one thing I’d like,” Satsuki raised an eyebrow in curiosity, “Do you remember that man over there?”  Ira pointed to Itsuki, who was getting some minor wounds treated by a medic.

               “Oh yes, that is the man who attempted to assassinate me, is he not?  The one who turned and gave us the location of the first REVOCs base?”

               And Ira told the whole story of Itsuki, and how he shot and crippled Takamori, forcing Rosuketsu to retreat or lose the whole point of the attack.  He concluded by saying, “I’d like for you to pardon him.”

               “Of course.  I’ll meet with him as soon as tomorrow.  That’s great news, Ira,”  She smiled, a soft and genuine smile.  It had been so long ago that the project of deprogramming had begun.  Not only had it worked, it had paid off beautifully.  She stood there, admiring the wreckage in something close to satisfaction for a moment, until Ryuko spoke.

               “So, I guess now’s the part where you want me to go kick all their asses, huh?”  She put her arms behind her head, stretching in a languid, laid-back manner.  Satsuki looked at her questioningly, and she went on, “You remember, I said once that I knew I’d get dragged back in again.  I’m okay with that.”

               “Oh, fuck off!”  Nonon shouted.  The arrogance!  “I didn’t train for years just so that you could steal the spotlight again!”

               Ryuko looked over at her in shock.  “Well, I just thought…”

               Uzu smiled and took over, putting a hand on Nonon’s shoulder, “Nonon’s got a point.  It’s our turn to save everyone now.  Let’s face it, if anyone earned and early retirement from this shit, it’s you.  You just hang back, help us train, and we’ll put a stop to them, just watch,”  Ryuko hadn’t even considered that – she knew Satsuki always went for the simplest, more efficient tactics, and as she saw it that meant throwing the strongest fighter at them and letting that be that.  But now Uzu and all the rest were smiling at her, nodding reassuringly.  Well, except Rei and Nonon, but it was still enough.  It was like they could feel that she’d resigned herself to this.

               “You guys…”  She couldn’t help but be touched.  Her fingers protested, just a little.  They wanted to punch something.  But no, those days were behind her.

               “After all, why else would you have made the Kamui?”

               Satsuki turned back to face everyone, “And if you remain here rather than going out looking for trouble, that’s our strongest defense here in Tokyo.  It’s a plan I approve of, what do you say to that, Ryuko?”

               “I, uh, yeah,”  Ryuko concluded, “You guys are right.  You all took care of it today without me, maybe I got ahead of myself there.”

               “So, what will we do now then?”  Houka asked, “I suppose you’ll declare a state of emergency, Satsuki?”

               “Mmm, I think not,”  Satsuki hummed, “I want to show the country that it has nothing to fear from REVOCS or life-fibers anymore.  If I seized control away from the democratically elected government,” (never mind that the government was still far from up and running, and was mostly still under her thumb) “It would ruin all our progress.”

               “So… what are we doing then?”

               “Good question.  For us, we have one top priority – we cannot allow our new world to fall back to the way it was.  If the people lose trust in us, or the country collapses, that is our lose condition.”

               “Wait, you’re saying we just need to defend?”  Nonon was incredulous, “Why can’t we go find their main base and tear it the hell down?”

               “Well, that is our win condition, is it not?  It will be a long and difficult process to find it, but when we do we can rip them out from the roots,”  The Kamui Corps grinned at that.  That sounded suitably final.  “And we will find them.  It’s only a matter of time.  Time has never been our side before, but now we have you Kamui.  You can absorb life-fibers and become stronger.  Soon enough, you will be powerful enough to make short work of our enemies.  This is a war we’ve already won, so long as we can do it without becoming a terror to the people we lead.”

~~~~

               Sufficiently reassured by this, the Kamui Corps began packing up and heading for home, to take a well deserved rest after the day’s chaos.  Ryuko was about to go too, her phone had been buzzing with texts from Mako, Mataro, and her adopted parents all day – they were all terribly curious about what the hell all the excitement was about, if not as worried as they probably should’ve been.

               “One moment, Ryuko.  I’d like to have a word in private,”  Satsuki stopped her with a hand on her arm.  “Shiro, could you come along too, please?”

               “Certainly,”  Shiro already knew what this was about, and when they were settled in Satsuki’s helicopter with the doors shut he took a deep breath, knowing this was bound to be a tough conversation.

               “So, what’s up?”

               “Should I begin, or would you rather?”  Satsuki asked Shiro.

               “I think it would sound better coming from you.”

               “Quite,”  Satsuki said and then paused to think of how to proceed, “Ryuko, there is another reason why you can’t fight our new enemy head on.  Tell me, what do remember about when Ragyo died.”

               “Wait, seriously?  Let me think… well, she ripped her heart out, yelled a lot about how the life-fibers would just come back, and then she popped it with her nails, and just kinda… disintegrated into life-fibers.  And then those faded to nothing, and she was gone.  I don’t know.  I think that’s what happened,”  Ryuko had trouble dredging up an accurate picture of it.  She’d been too flush with triumph, and besides, all of that was overshadowed by what happened immediately afterwards.

               Satsuki shook her head.  “I’m afraid that isn’t quite right.  Ryuko, Shiro and Houka recently discovered that those life-fibers didn’t just fade to nothing, as you put it.  Ryuko, you absorbed them.”

               “… I-I’m sorry, what?”

               “It’s true.  Her physical body may have crumbled in space, but just as your real self is not your physical body, her real self – Shiro’s calling it an ‘anchor’ but I’ll call it what it really is: her soul – her soul lives on.  Inside of you.”

               Satsuki kept on explaining to the best of her ability what was in the report Izanami had sent her, but Ryuko didn’t hear a word of it.  Everything faded out, all she could hear was the pulse in her ears, rocketing faster and faster.  All she could see was Satsuki eyes, heavy with fear and sadness.

               I’m not supposed to love my sister.  I knew it was wrong.  She’s in there.  She’s making me!

               Ryuko wanted to blurt that it wasn’t true, it couldn’t be.  But as much as Shiro was prone to his lunacies, he wouldn’t dare get something this important wrong.  And she knew it wasn’t.  Everything suddenly made sense.  Her fingers, the very same fingers with which she’d sewed life-fibers - the enemy - together to give life to her Kamui, they burned as something horrible wormed into her stomach.

               She was sinking into the abyss in a submersible, only a thin sheet of glass between her and the infinite night.

               “Ryuko? Ryuko!”  Satsuki’s arms were suddenly around her head, snapping her back to reality.  Tears we running down her face – she hadn’t even noticed that in her panic.  Shiro blew a big breath from his mouth, as if to say “Oh boy, here we go”.

               “I’m… I’m okay,” She gently unwound Satsuki’s hands, rubbed her eyes, managed to keep herself from fully crying. “That… but it’s okay, right?”  She immediately jumped to the conclusion that she’d overreacted, mind going a mile a minute. “I mean, I’ve absorbed tons of life-fibers.  Maybe she’s just gone, like erased.”

               “I only wish that were true.  But Ryuko, it gets worse.”

               “No…”

               “I have to tell you the truth Ryuko. Just, please stay calm.  It’s going to be alright.  This is bad news, but we’ll get through it, yes?”

               “Mhm?”  Ryuko wiped her eyes again.  God fucking dammit Satsuki, I’d do anything for you.  But you expect me to believe that, when she’s alive inside me right this moment? “Tell me.”

               “We believe the enemy has found a way, a ritual or a surgery of something, that they could use to reverse the two of you.  Put her in charge.  Allow her to… possess your body.”

               Ryuko thought she’d gotten over the initial panic, and that now she’d be able to take it on the chin.  But she hadn’t expected that.

               “What! No no no no that – that can’t be right!  Shiro, tell her she’s got it wrong!”

               Shiro looked her dead in the eyes, face sad but set, “I wish that were the case.  But it’s in the book you took from the REVOCS base.  I could probably perform the ritual myself if I were crazy enough to try.”

               “You fucking WHAT!”  Ryuko roared, not hearing him exactly right.  Thinking he wanted to try it to see if there was a way to get rid of Ragyo for good, Ryuko was suddenly standing up, grabbing him by his collar.

               “I’m not going to!  I would never!” Suddenly terrified, he held his hands up in surrender.  After much shouting from Satsuki, Shiro and Izanami Ryuko finally let him drop.

               “You’re not touching me!  I’m not your goddamn guinea pig!”

               “Nobody’s going to do anything to you Ryuko.  I’d never let them,” Satsuki said reassuringly.

               “Yes, I said ‘if I were crazy enough to try’, not that I would try.  All I want is to keep this ritual from happening at all costs, believe me.  If Ragyo were to return, in your body, it would probably be curtains for humanity.”

               “Indeed.  That’s why you will not be fighting this time.  We won’t allow you to be captured by the enemy, I promise.”

               Ryuko remembered those life-fiber starching bullets that she’d nearly been shot by during the REVOCS base raid.  If those had hit… She shuddered, imagining her body with rainbow light spilling out from her hair.  Satsuki smiling, just purely happy to see her back after being captured then…

               “Hello, my foolish little Satsuki,” Not her voice, coming from her mouth.  But her hand plunging right though Satsuki’s body and ending her in an instant.  And in her imagination, she would be forced to watch the look of utter agony and betrayal on Satsuki’s face.  For an eternity.

               “Let me out of this helicopter,”  She said darkly.

               “Ryuko? Are you alright?”  Satsuki asked gently

               “What do you think!”  She blurted, and those she hadn’t meant to tears and rage showed on her face again.  She was a danger to everyone.  She flung open the door, and it smashed off its hinges and spun across the floor.

               “Don’t do anything rash!”  Satsuki called.  Don’t do anything rash.  All my life, that’s all I’ve ever done.  If I fuck up again, everyone’s going to die.  And I’m gonna be stuck watching her live in my body.  Forever.

               “I just… just… how are you so calm right now?”

               “What makes you think I am?”  Satsuki responded, and her voice nearly broke.  And for the first time Ryuko noticed how much Satsuki’s hands were shaking.  She couldn’t stop them, it was like she was in an earthquake.

               It was overwhelming.  And so Ryuko did the only thing she did nearly as well as acting rash.  She ran away.  She got as far as the back side of the hill the prison was built into before she collapsed, out of sight of everyone, and sobbed until she couldn’t anymore.

               Her stomach writhed even fiercer than before.  It was like she was going to give birth to a monster.

               No.  She was the monster.  Just like she’d always known deep down.

Chapter Text

October 2066

~~~~

               “So your friend is going free then?”  Mako asked, gently sliding a tiny pair of sewing scissors between layers of gauze.  Despite how clumsy and spastic she usually was, when it came to treating a wound she could be quite delicate.

               Ira was laying across their bed while she leaned over his belly, and he nodded, hands behind his head “Satsuki and a few other high-level government types have to approve, but that’s just a formality.  He’ll be free soon, I have no doubt, although what he’ll do with himself then I can’t say.  Doubt anyone would want to hire a former REVOCs assassin.”

               “You must be so proud,”  Mako murmured appreciatively.  She’d made Ira tell and retell the story of the days events, then called her parents and Mataro and had him tell them too.  But she kept coming back to Itsuki’s role in the tale, mostly because she’d already heard all about him from Ira and by this point basically considered him a close friend.

               “Well, I don’t know about proud…”

               [One must be honest, Ira]  Tekketsu chided in a very proper tone, although still one ringing with amusement.  She watched Mako replace the bandages on Ira’s wound from a coat hanger hung over the bed, well within range for him to hear and feel her presence.

               “Oh alright, I suppose I am a little proud – but in him, not me.  All I did was treat him how you would’ve treated him Mako.”

               “Awwww!”  Mako gushed, then made a playful little noise at Buster, one of the two German Shepherds they’d adopted so long ago. “AWWWW!”  She exclaimed even louder as Buster nosed at Ira’s hand and got a head pat in return, “Lookit, he knows you’re hurt!  Sorry Buster, you can’t lick this wound,” (Mako let the dogs lick little scrapes and cuts, claiming that “dog kisses help it heal – they wouldn’t lick themselves if it weren’t true!”) “Someone put too much Neosporin on it, its just all goop!”  She held up an absolutely sopping bandage to Ira with a pointed look.

               Ira shrugged, “It’s a disinfectant, right?”

               “You don’t need this much, not at all!”

               “Well, one of the medics did it!”

               “Yeah, and then you redid it yourself!  I’m a doctor’s daughter, I can tell!”

               Ira didn’t have much to say to that. “I wanted to make sure it fit under Tekketsu when she powered down,” He explained lamely.

               Mako accepted that with a shrug and a kind of “Mhm” noise.  She didn’t work in silence for long before laughing and starting up again, “You know what’s funny that I just realized?  You got cut exactly where your bellyband goes, didn’t you.”

               Tekketsu mumbled something vague and apologetic.  Ira chuckled and said, “Don’t remind me. Tekketsu’s still a little sore about it.”

               “That is so sweet! Y’know, I could always – well, maybe not always – but I could always tell when Senketsu was worried about Ryuko even though he couldn’t talk, and it’s the same with you two!”

               [I can feel the pain, I don’t know if she realizes]

               “Tekketsu says she can feel the pain, so that’s no surprise.”

               “Whoaaa…  Can you feel hers too?”

               “Yes, I think I can.  Although she hasn’t been too badly damaged yet.”

               [Or hopefully ever.]

               “Or hopefully ever,”  Ira concluded.

               “Wha-but that’s crazy!”  Mako exclaimed.  Suddenly she set he tools down and ran over to Tekketsu, slapping her hands on her front and rubbing them up and down.

               [Pffft! Pfha-ha-ha-Ira!  Tell your little woman to stop!]  That reaction, as Tekketsu’s eyes bulged open and she squirmed as little a she was able, took Ira by surprise.  He couldn’t help but laugh himself – he’d never heard such an open laughter from Tekketsu before.  [It’s not funny!] she squealed.

               “Okay, okay Mako, that’s enough.  You’re tickling her.  And yes, I can feel it quite well,”  He finally pulled her away from Tekketsu, but she still squealed with excitement anyway.

               “So cool!  Oh man, I want a Kamui too!”

               That made Ira sit bolt upright despite the pain, suddenly completely stone faced, “You aren’t serious, are you?”

               “Aaah!  You’ll reopen it!” Mako shouted, pushing him back down by the shoulders as though she was strong enough to move him an inch.  He did lay back down, but that didn’t change the sudden change in his mood.

               “Mako, you know I can’t allow that, right?”

               “Why not?  I wanna help too!  And I’m supposed to be like really good at Kamuis and stuff – compatible and all that, right?”

               “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that just because you can doesn’t mean you should?  It’s far too dangerous.”

               Mako pouted, stopped re-dressing Ira’s wound and put her arms over his shoulders, looking him straight in the eye, “You forget I went to Honoujji?  I know a thing or two about danger too.”

               Ira squirmed.  Just like Mako to bring up something so serious out of the blue, “That may be, but I still can’t approve of it.”

               Mako kept staring at him with those big, pleading eyes.  This tactic was usually effective, but this was too important. “I feel like you’re not taking me serious,”  She got back up as she said this, “Meatball is, look”.  Meatball was their other dog, Buster’s sister (they’d been together at the shelter and it seemed wrong to separate them).  They’d both agreed they’d come up with a real name eventually, but it had been more than a year now and they were still calling her Meatball.  She was more well behaved, and sat calmly in her dog bed, watching Mako putter around.

               “I am taking it very seriously.  It’s admirable that you want to help, but there’s a lot you can do without being a… well, a soldier.  I just don’t approve.”

               [Now hold on, isn’t there a chance of someone trying to kidnap her as a way to get to the rest of us?]  No doubt Mako being held hostage would have quite an effect on the entire Kamui Corps, Ira had to admit [She would actually be safer with the extra protection].

               “Tekketsu!  Whose side are you on?”

               [The side of not having every go horribly wrong I suppose] Tekketsu shot back with lighthearted snark, but she had to admit she did have a soft spot for Mako.  In part because she could feel Ira’s feelings for her, but also this sort of weird, gentle kind of fondness she herself had developed.  Somehow, she felt much older than the exuberant little human, like she needed to look out for her and protect her from a big, cynical world.

               “What’d she say?”  Mako asked.

               Ira sighed, “She took your side.  Says if you had a Kamui you’d be safe from people trying to take you hostage.”

               “Oh! She’s right!  See, even a smart Kamui like her thinks it’s a good idea!”

               [Aww, how sweet!]  If Kamui could blush, Tekketsu would be.  Ira had to smile at this uncharacteristic outburst – that was just Mako for you.

               “No, you two still don’t understand.  Mako, I can’t allow you to become a murderer.”

               [Oh.]

               “Whu?”

               “No, listen.  When you had your Goku uniform, you only fought Ryuko, the Covers, and some of Nui’s clones.  Now, there are real people who we’re fighting against.  And some of them are evil, yes, but some are just desperate and confused.”

               “Like Itsuki…”  Mako nodded.

               “Yes, like Itsuki.  And the time will come when we have to kill some of them to win, and to protect people.  Mako, you’re the only one in our circle who hasn’t committed a single murder.  I can’t let you change that.”

               “But Ryuko hardly ever killed anybody!”

               “Hardly ever.  But she still did.  You saw her chop Nui’s arms off with no remorse – she’s very brave but still, that’s not you.”

               “But I won’t,”  Mako murmured plaintively, “I would never kill someone!”

               “I know.  But sometimes all that power just makes it too easy to solve problems with violence.  Overwhelming violence.  You can even kill people by accident.  Satsuki turned down a Kamui because she knew that was true, the rest of us have had to make our peace with it.”

               [For what it’s worth, I’m sorry Ira]  Tekketsu could feel the weight this had to Ira – understood what Mako represented to him.

               “Well I don’t believe that!  People without Kamui do bad things all the time too, why would that change anything?”  Mako said huffily.  She whipped out her phone and started fussing with it.

               “What are you doing?”

               “I’m going over your head!”  Mako held up her phone and showed a contact picture of Ryuko smiling. “Ryuko’s my bestie and my sister and besides, she’s the one who can actually make ‘em anyway.”

               Ira shook his head and smiled in resignation.  He couldn’t stay upset, she just looked so cute when she was resolute like that, “I guess it never was my decision anyway.  Maybe you’re right, who knows?  Either way, it can’t hurt to see what she thinks.”

               ~ “Hey Mako,” ~  When Ryuko answered, her voice was clearly despondent and lifeless.  Mako frowned immediately.

               “Ryuko?  What’s wrong?”

               ~ “Nothing.  I’m just… worn out, I guess.” ~

               “Really? Because it sounds like there’s something wrong, and you want to tell me,”  She said sweetly, “Is it Rei again?”

               ~ “…What did you call to ask me about, Mako?” ~  Mako could hear a faint rustling sound that she correctly interpreted as Ryuko rolling over in bed.

               “Oh, I, uh, I just wanted to ask if you’d maybe make me a Kamui?  Y’know one day.  Just for safety and all that.”

               Ryuko sighed, ~ “I don’t think I’m gonna be making any more Kamui.  We’ve got enough already.” ~

               “Oh.  Well, are you sure you don’t want to tell me what’s going on?”

               ~ “Maybe someday, Mako.  But just… not right now.” ~

               “Okay.  I’ll call you later, okay?”

               ~ “Goodnight,” ~  Ryuko finished and hung up.

               Ira raised a curious eyebrow.  “Something’s really wrong, and she doesn’t want to tell me,” Mako said simply, almost on the verge of tears just from thinking about it.  She got back to working silently for a few minutes.  Then, Ira’s phone buzzed.

               “Huh, an urgent email from Shiro,”  Ira opened it, and began reading the very same report Satsuki had gotten that morning.  Mako watched as his eye widened in alarm. “Oh, oh my God.”

               “What’s up?”

               “You’re gonna want to see this.  I think I found out what’s upsetting Ryuko so much.”

~~~~

               “Ugh my hair’s a rat’s nest!”  Uzu shouted over the roar of the shower, “I got so used to being able to put my hair however I wanted, and now transforming and running all over the city just wrecks it.”

               “I know!”  Nonon replied, visible only in a vague outline through the wavy glass shower door.  “I keep wearing Saiban without sunscreen I’m gonna get so may freckles!”

               “That’s ‘cuz you’re so pale,”  Uzu said simply, and when she looked at him and even through the glass and the dripping water he could see the venom in her gaze he chuckled and grinned, “Love ya babe!”

               “Yeah I fucking know it’s ‘cuz I’m pale!  Shut up!”  She hurled a sudsy shampoo bottle over the door just to prove a point, but Uzu held out a hand and let the cylindrical bottle roll along his arm, flipped it over to his other one and launched it right back into the shower where it landed perfectly upright on the shelf – all without looking.  It was ridiculous that he could just do things like that – shingantsu was one hell of a drug – but although he always said anyone could learn it Nonon knew she wasn’t patient enough for all the meditation required.

               “Wait, you’re distracting me!”  Nonon went on, “Look, I know it’s hard to believe, but I can’t think of another reason why she would bring Ryuko without telling me.  And then the thing where she called her ‘dear’ which, like, I’m sure she didn’t mean to do, it just slipped out.  I-I mean, you shoulda seen how they looked at each other when Satsuki first got there today, you wouldn’t doubt it.  Or how Rei was glaring at them – ‘cuz that’s totally why they broke up, Rei must’ve found out somehow.”

               “Yeah, it is hard to believe.  As in I can’t believe it.  Especially not the part about Ryuko seducing her.  You really think she’s got Satsuki – the master of manipulation – wrapped around her finger just by acting like their mother?  I don’t even know why you’d think that!”

               “What do you mean why?”  Nonon said, but then she remembered that only Shiro, Soroi, and she herself knew all the abuse that Ragyo had inflicted upon her elder daughter, “Look, yeah, it does sound absurd, but just… think about what she was like in public, or what she was like with Nui.  And fill in the gaps.”

               “Oh. Ohhhh,”  Uzu stopped messing with his fair for a moment and gaped into the mirror as he fully processed that revelation. “Wait, but that still doesn’t explain why she’d want to fuck her.”

               “You’ve never heard of Stockholm Syndrome?  Simplest way I can put it.  Look, it’s not like she actually went and said ‘oh wow, my sister looks just like Mom,’ it’s all subconscious and shit.”

               “And you think Ryuko figured that out.”

               “I mean, look at her – she never used to wear makeup, she dresses more like her, and then there’s the whole fashion design thing.”

               “Yeah, but none of that’s proof.  It’s just a conspiracy theory.”

“Cospiracy theory!!”  Nonon shouted.  She’d expected that Uzu wouldn’t buy it at first, but she had also expected him to at least take her seriously.

“You know Ryuko wouldn’t do that to Satsuki.  Only a real scumbag would, and you’re asking me to believe that one of my best friends, who happens to be the reason any of us are alive at all, is scum on that level.  I’m being a hundred percent straight with you:  I’ve heard you out, but there’s no way I’d ever buy that.  Now, if you told me it was consensual, mutual, no mind games, I mean that could happen-,”

“ – No, Satsuki would never,”  Nonon cut him off quickly. “That’s just…” Uzu could see her shudder at the thought, “Ick!”

“Yeah, well what you think happened is like ick times a thousand.  Are we done talking about this?”

Nonon sighed, “Yeah, I guess.  I mean, I don’t have any real proof.  I just know Satsuki very well, she might seem to wind people around her finger but when it comes to anything emotional she’s… completely stunted.  And she one-time told me she used to have an unrequited crush, and I’ll bet you anything the person she was crushing on was Ryuko.”

“Well, that sounds more like mutual to me.  And if it was, let’s be real here, would there really be an issue if that were true?  I mean, it’s not like they could have inbred kids.”

“FUCKING WHAT?”  Nonon shouted, whirling around to face him.

“What?  I’m just saying that they didn’t know each other growing up, so like if it’s behind closed doors who really cares?”

“YOU’RE JUST SAYING THAT BECAUSE YOU THINK THEY’RE HOT AND YOU KNOW IT!”  She continued screeching, but at that moment Nonon’s phone buzzed and made the entire counter vibrate.  Uzu’s phone was in the bedroom with the Kamui, but he heard it vibrate too.  He could feel Seijitsu interrupt the conversation she was having with Saiban to ask what that noise was.

“Hold that thought…”  He said as he read the lock screen, “Urgent message from Shiro.  I’m unlocking your phone.”

“Wait!  You’re gonna get pomade all over it!”

“Too late!”  Uzu said, opening the report and starting to read.  He’d barely gotten through the first paragraph when: “Holy shhhhhit.”

“What?”

“Okay, not saying I believe you now, but you’re gonna want to see this.”

~~~~

               Down in Izanami’s central processer, Houka’s phone began buzzing repeatedly.  A stream of all-caps texts crossed the screen.

               “Well, Nonon knows.”

               “It’s too bad,”  Shiro said, looking up at the central “brain” component of Izanami above him, “I would have liked to break the news gently.  But it’s important they all know quickly.  And I also think it might be too much for Ryuko if everyone found out in front of her.”

               “Mmm.  How did she take it, by the way?”

               “Oh, about as well as you’d expect.  Better, actually, I thought she’d knock down a building or two but all she did was rip the door off the helicopter and try to throttle me.”

               “I’ll bet that was your fault, anyway,”  Houka said mildly.

               ~[Oh, it definitely was]~ Izanami spoke through the artificial voice they’d made for her.  Houka had developed a portable version for Misaki – it rested on his lapel like an ugly metal boutonniere.  They’d distribute these to the others soon, but for now it was a secret to the four of them.

               “Yes,”  Shiro nodded morosely, face a little red, “It’s a shame really, I did some reading on how doctors tell patients they’ve got cancer, lot of good it did me.”

               ~[You are known to mumble]~ Misaki commented.

               “That aside, cancer?  Isn’t that a bit much?”

               “I think in terms of emotional impact it’s quite similar.  And it could be just as life threatening.”

               ~[You don’t know that!  Mother’s tough, she’ll get through this,]~ Misaki shot back fiercely.

               “With our help, it will never be a problem.  Probably.”

               Houka pushed away from his laptop, looked at Shiro thoughtfully. “Probably,”  He chuckled, “We really are just kids playing with matches.”

               “That’s how progress is made.  It’s what we’ve always done.”

               “Oh I agree.  It’s just I feel bad for this particular match.  Not her fault she gets set on fire so often.”

~~~~

               ~ “Ryuko?  Are you alright?  I read the report.” ~

               “Rei?”

               ~ “Ryuko?  I-I just called in to make sure you were okay.” ~

               “Rei!”  There was so much Ryuko wanted to say, but just thinking about it she descended into sobs long before she could.

               ~ “Hold on!  W-wait, I’ll be right over!” ~

               When Rei got there all she had to do was buzz at the penthouse door and she was let right up.  Ryuko thought she had her emotions under control, but since Rei called she could do nothing but lay there and sniffle, chest heaving with heavy breaths.

               Rei had been thinking of what Ryuko had said about Satsuki: “It’s like a disease”.  She’d been thinking about how that made sense, but she only understood it when Ryuko sat up to see her, eyes red and distraught.  How was this the same woman who had loomed large over the defcon machine like an angel of death? 

               Instantly everything that had happened between them over the last couple weeks was forgotten – no, not forgotten.  Irrelevant.

               “You shouldn’t’a come.”

               “Don’t’ be stupid, you need someone to be with you right now.”

               “Rei I don’t want to hurt you anymore.  But it isn’t right.  Not you, not Satsuki.  I shouldn’t be with either of you.  It’s all her who wants it.”

               “Here.  C’mere,”  Rei scooped her into her arms.  After having been away for so long Furashada sighed with relief being so close to her aura. “You’ll tear yourself apart this way.  Look at me,”  She directed Ryuko’s glassy eyes to hers, which were beginning to mist themselves at the sight of her misery, “I know. I get it.  It’s okay.”

               “No, no you don’t,”  Ryuko looked away, disgusted that after everything it still felt nice to be in Rei’s arms.  “Nobody’s ever had this happen to them before.  I don’t even know what parts of me are me, and what parts are her.  I can feel her, clawing at me inside.”

               “I understand.  You know I lived with her for so long, believed in her.  You know how many times I feel the same way, you remember.”

               “No.  Satsuki said the same thing.  But you’re alright, you’re still you.”

               Rei followed Ryuko’s averted eyes over to the garbage can.  Every piece of makeup she owned, every hair product, every piece of tight or skimpy or feminine clothing, they were all crammed haphazardly in there.  Her sewing kit too.

               Rei got up and walked over to it, picked up the sewing kit.  Ryuko loved that thing.  Rei burst into tears all over again, and Ryuko wasn’t far behind.

               “I-I thought maybe that’d,”  Ryuko sobbed, “That’d fight her.  God, why doesn’t it ever end?  Why does this have to be my life?”

               They sat there crying and freaking out together until they couldn’t anymore.  Then Mako called, and the three of them had another good cry about it.  Ryuko wanted so desperately to rein her emotions in - she cried too much lately, and this was just what Ragyo would want.  I’m done being scared.  She kept saying to herself, clenching her fists together.  But there was nothing to punch, nothing to destroy to make the fear go away, except the horrid sinking feeling in her guts.  Her little glass submersible had burst and the water was flooding in.

               But it felt good to have Rei there, and Furashada and Mako.  And when Mako finally hung up it was too easy, too comfortable, in spite of everything that had just happened.  In spite of how much she’d wronged Rei she was right there, desperate to find some way to make this pain go away.

               And when they woke up the next morning and Rei got up, dressed, and left without saying a word, face burning with discomfort, they both felt the awkward, resigned feeling of ah shit, I guess we just did that.

               Eventually Ryuko lugged herself up to go to classes (Go to classes?  Well, she had to do something with her day).  Putting on her jacket, she found a carefully folded note.  An address and some instructions, written in Satsuki’s perfectly neat handwriting.

*Come at 9:00pm tomorrow.*

*Don’t knock, it’s unlocked*

*The door sticks so give it a good shove*

               For a moment she considered just not going.  She’d be forgiven, of course.  Better to just quit this horrible thing cold.

               But she hadn’t been able to quit Rei.  She couldn’t do it.  And she remembered what Satsuki had said, about listlessness and needing Ryuko to feel herself again. 

               She’s already won, in all the ways that matter.  I’m her.

               Ryuko nearly broke down again, but suddenly something new occurred to her.  Something so exciting that she didn’t even know what to do.  Finally she decided to call Shiro.  He was the only one she knew for sure would understand.

               “There’s a silver lining to all this,”  She said, “If Ragyo’s still alive, that means Senketsu might be out there somewhere too.”

~~~~

               Satsuki was late getting home.  Press conferences, meetings with different officials, disaster cleanup, public appearances, it all dragged on and eventually she just had to reschedule some things to tomorrow morning.  She hadn’t even made time to talk to Itsuki yet, and she’d wanted to do that more than all the rest.  But sleep eventually became the main priority.

               When she finally did make it to her modest home, the tea kettle was already on.

               “Hello?” She asked the air.

               “In the den, miss,”  A voice she hadn’t heard in weeks rang out.

               “Soroi?”  Her tired face was brightened by a surprised smile as she rounded the corner and saw her former butler and caretaker lounging comfortably in an armchair, book in hand, “What brings you here?”

               “Why, considering the day’s events, I thought you might appreciate my coming out of retirement.”

               “I, ah, that’s completely unnecessary.  If anyone has earned an undisturbed retirement, it’s you.”

               “Oh,” He raised his eyebrows, smiled, “Well, then I think I might sit here and finish my tea.”

               “Mhm,”  Satsuki hum-chuckled, “You might.  I might join you; I think.”

               “If it please you miss,”  Soroi nodded.  “Although I think you’ll find I like to steep mine a bit longer than you.”

               There could be no more profound relief than what Satsuki felt, sitting there across from Soroi, not even reading or doing anything – just sipping tea.  Even Ryuko might not have been as reassuring a sight.

               Ryuko… that’s right, she’d instructed her to come over tomorrow.  If Soroi came back (and she really hoped he did), there was no way he wouldn’t understand it all.

               “Soroi, you know I’ve never kept anything from you, don’t you?”

               “Yes miss, I know.”

               Satsuki smiled in resignation, “I think you should know.  Despite my best efforts, I remain a Kiryuin at heart. Ryuko too.” Soroi raised an eyebrow, nodded gently – neither too fast nor too slow, “You understand.  I can’t ask you to forgive us.”

               “Nor do you need to.  I’ve served Kiryuins my entire life.  I know – no matter what you and her have done – that you are no true Kiryuin, miss,”  The kindly look in Soroi’s tired grey eyes left nothing unsaid.  Satsuki’s smile broke naturally and with a sort of sweetness she could never intentionally replicate.

               “Please, it’s about time you called me Satsuki.”

Chapter Text

October 2066

~~~

               The day after the REVOCS attack began in a surreally mundane manner.  Ira visited the soldiers who had been wounded in the battle then went to oversee the cleanup of the gutted remains of the prison.  Uzu went to his dojo, although despite his offering every one of his employees – all martial arts masters in their own right – was so adamant that he was too big and important to teach regular lessons that he actually didn’t have anything to do.  Nonon spent all morning writing an intensely uncomfortable feeling piece of ambient electronic music that fit her current mood perfectly.  Houka, Shiro, Aikuro, and Tsumugu went back to the lab and carried on working just as usual.  Satsuki was totally swamped, of course, and she had to do it without Rei; she still couldn’t stand seeing Satsuki and instead spent the morning on a long call with her psychiatrist (dancing around the causes of her current distress until it became a pointless exercise).  And Ryuko and Mako went to classes.

               When Ryuko walked into her first lecture a hush fell over the hall.  Everyone was staring at her, completely unashamed.

               Because the location of the prison had been secret, there had been no reporters to see the Kamui fight.  But all the other locations across the city had gotten extensive converage and she featured in each of them – a red blur whizzing across the camera, leaving dead and unconscious REVOCS troops and stunned citizens in her wake.  But she had nothing in her to meet their stares with magnamity.  She took her seat silently, head to the ground.

               If they knew what I really am, they’d tear me limb from limb until I didn’t come back.  And they’d be right to do it.

               Then someone started clapping.  And then someone else.  Soon, applause filled the hall.  A seat was opened for her right in the center of the hall. Her head shot up from her laptop with a shy, stunned look. She wanted to say no, keep your seat, I’m fine in the back I was late anyway.  But what good would that do?  One look at the girl who gave up her seat told her that this moment was making her entire month.

               If they knew, they might try to destroy me.  But long before they could do that, it would break their spirits.  Ryuko felt like she’d betrayed the entire world.

~~~~

               So that was how the day started, but when classes were done and the dojo was closed and the rubble was finally cleared away and Satsuki had rescheduled her meeting with Itsuki again it came time for what would define the days of the REVOCS insurgency:  war council.

               When Ryuko arrived at the Research Complex, most of the council was already there.  Gone was the man-cave of computers and empty energy drink cans that had been the center of the secret lab – the room was almost two times its previous size and filled mostly with a broad black table.  Screens descended from the gloom of a high ceiling, and the big chairs at each of the four corners each had a built-in control panel for them.  Under the murmur of the gathered councilors there was an omnipresent droning of mechanic whirrs and clanks.  Izanami’s automatic construction components were reshaping the Research Complex from the ground up.

               Taking in who was at the table, Ryuko was mortified to find herself walking into a very important government meeting.  Each of the four sides of the table was a different branch, with their leadership seated at the corner seat on the left end.  So it was Nonon, as head of the Kamui Corps, that was sitting directly across from the elevators, and in the brief moment that she first saw Ryuko shot her a glare of such unbridled hatred that Ryuko flinched.  Off to her right sat the rest of Ryuko’s friends, but their eyes betrayed a much more sympathetic concern when they saw her.  Of course, they all knew better than to seem anything less than a united front to the rest of the government, so all these reactions were smoothed over before anyone else noticed.

               Satsuki was next, heading the conventional military and intelligence side.  Generals and spymasters sat to her right, mostly former Nudist Beach or Honoujji, but also a couple frail, elderly gentlemen in old fashioned suits – actual generals from the early 2000s, before everything went to shit. 

Then, sitting directly opposite Nonon was the Interim Prime Minister, leading the economic and administrative side of the government with a lot of stoic, ordinary looking bureaucrats at his side.

Finally, Aikuro was at the righthand corner, taking a break from his position in the Kamui Corps to lead the science and environmental branch.  Their numbers were very diverse, a multinational group of the best and the brightest from around the world – many of them refugees who had come to work at the Research Complex.  As the Complex’s (admittedly mostly figurehead) president, Aikuro was the obvious leader.

They all stood when Ryuko stepped into the hall.

“Lady Ryuko, you honor us,”  The Prime Minister said with a silky smile.  He motioned towards his chair, “Please, allow me.”

If the shock of seeing how the homey little man-cave had been transformed wasn’t enough for Ryuko, having the Prime-fucking-Minister give up his seat to her sure did it.  She stammered, “No, that’s-that’s fine, I’ll just stand.”

“Oh please, it’s no trouble at all,” He smiled, quite genuinely.  He was young for a career politician, just entering his late thirties.  Perfectly normal looking with no distinguishing features and a satisfactorily polite manner, he was highborn enough to satisfy the remaining dynastic megacorps and popular enough with the city he’d previously been mayor of to satisfy everyone else.  More importantly, he was plenty capable of administrating but totally lacking in any big picture vision the could conflict with Satsuki’s plans.  If you had told her she had appointed the ideal puppet she would have denied it furiously – she really hadn’t meant to.  Her political instincts operated with or without her conset.

Presently Ryuko turned to Satsuki, who nodded slightly to indicate that this was okay, expected, and actually completely necessary.  So Ryuko took the seat, the Prime Minister moved down, and all the other bureaucrats shifted down too until the lowest ranking was booted off.  Just when it looked like he’d have to stand a wall panel opened and robot arm passed him a nice new chair.

I outrank the Prime Minister,  Ryuko understood, watching as every sat down and murmured “Lady Ryuko” deferentially.  Normally she might have yelled to knock it off, but the past few days had changed that.  She didn’t want to get angry at anyone, afraid she might set something horrible loose upon them.  And besides, she couldn’t possibly wreck Satsuki’s important meeting.

And so the meeting began, and boy was it just as boring as Ryuko knew it would be.  She’d hoped to spend it playing a game on her laptop and trying to forget about her troubles, but that wasn’t possible now.  She found that, even as Uzu gradually drifted off to sleep, she had to stay as attentive as she could.  She could feel everyone’s eyes on her – Nonon’s, glaring as if to say “yeah right, as if you could ever understand,” Satsuki’s (she’d be so happy if Ryuko managed to actually learn something), and the other councilors who were awestruck and definitely expected her to play some kind of part.  After they gave their presentations they looked both to her and Satsuki for approval, and she just had to kind of nod like she was following.

It turned out to be a good idea to listen though, because Ryuko quickly realized that a lot of this stuff would be important to her daily life for the foreseeable future:

Ryuko learned that the main purpose of the Kamui Corps until an enemy base to attack was located would be to defend against attacks on citizens and infrastructure – just how Nonon had been taking out occasional REVOCS terrorists when she was the only one with a Kamui.  And so the entire Research Complex was getting a massive addition, a massive Kamui training facility which would be the home-away-from-home for all her friends.  Practice arenas, special feeding apparatuses so they could constantly absorb life-fibers, comfortable quarters – at any time at least half of them had to be there, waiting for an emergency to happen.  Most importantly, a launch platform for a kind of special high-velocity plane that Ryuko immediately forgot the name of was ready, so at any moment they could board and reach any part of Japan in an hour or less.

So what was the conventional military to do?  The generals were concerned – rightly, that they might be out of work.  But Satsuki had a plan for that.  Ordinary soldiers couldn’t handle any serious REVOCS attack, but they could keep watch for them and keep the peace.  So soldiers would be spread thinly through every major city, town, and industrial area.  Meanwhile, the spymasters were tasked with both figuring out what REVOCS was up to and monitoring public opinion, making sure everyone was as happy as reasonably possible.

Meanwhile, the administrative side of government was charged with making sure that none of this affected daily life as far as possible.  No emergency shutdowns for anything, be it roads, ports, power plants, hospitals, unless an attack was literally happening, right then and there -  this was Satsuki’s “suggestion”.  Since there weren’t any real laws yet about what the limits of power were or what exactly was meant to happen in times of emergency (this was apparently proving difficult for the new government to pin down) the Interim Prime Minister was given unlimited authority to do whatever he needed to keep the economy chugging and everyone fed – provided of course that Satsuki or someone else with more vision than him didn’t disagree, but she didn’t need to say that.

And the scientists, well, they were just there to provide a new set of guidelines for how to try and restore some of the country’s devastated environment, as well as to tell the military about some new anti-life-fiber weapons they’d made (mostly improvements on the Nudist Beach models).  Really Aikuro could’ve done it all on his own, and some of them wondered why they were there at all, except it did make a point: we’re really important, so let us do our jobs and listen when we tell you things.

All of this took way longer to say than it needed to as far as Ryuko thought, and from it all she learned was that A:  The lab was getting a renovation and would be a much nicer place to spend time, B: Yes, there was a plan for what to do about REVOCS, and C:  Nobody who didn’t need to know was going to find out she had Ragyo’s soul stuck inside her like a tumor.  That one was very, very comforting to realize.  As she watched her friends skirt around the topic of her involvement, why she couldn't fight, Ryuko felt like they were wrapping a warm blanket around her.  Except Nonon.  Not like they'd ever been the best of friends, but Ryuko couldn't guess why her every glace just conveyed one thought: Die.

But there were other things, things that nobody said but that she did eventually notice (and wouldn’t Satsuki be proud of her for that).  Like how despite ostensibly being just a single squad of special forces her friends of the Kamui Corps really ran the show.  When they made suggestions, people listened.  When two people were arguing – a general and a bureaucrat, say, about how supply lines for the Hokkaido troops were going to work – they stepped in and settled it, and even if someone got totally screwed they didn’t complain. 

And they had a plan, too.  Sure, some of them like Uzu and Ira weren’t really much for this big picture stuff and didn’t really contribute much, but the rest of them all marched to same beat.  They must have planned how this entire meeting was going to go beforehand, and Ryuko almost felt bad they hadn’t included her in their planning session.  Almost.

I guess this is how it goes.  You save the world and suddenly everyone just lets you run it.  It’s kinda funny.  They always squabble so much when it’s just us, not to mention that Rei and Satsuki – God they must hate each other now – Ryuko felt a pang of guilt bite her and flinched, making a general think he’d said something she didn’t like and furiously backtrack.  But still, when push comes to shove they unite and take control.

And there was no doubting who was in charge of their plan.  This whole meeting was Satsuki’s show, everyone there was executing what was ultimately her battle plan.  Even if they thought they were coming to present their own ideas, these were things she’d already accounted for, and whether the general council approved of them coincided exactly with whether she approved of them.

Ryuko saw nothing wrong with this, nor did anyone else at that table (at least of those who were aware they were Satsuki’s puppets).  To Ryuko it only made sense, she like simple solutions and the simplest solution was to let the genius, beloved, incorruptible Satsuki take care of things until the world was back to the way it should be. Of course, it was all extraordinarily corrupt, despotic even, but Ryuko had lived her whole life under the Kiryuin Conglomerate’s rule, so having a despot who actually cared about their subjects and was trying to move things in a democratic way was really quite reassuring.  Only those old early 2000s generals had any recollection of what living in a democracy was like.

But still it was nice to see her seemingly thrilled to be running her council, running it well.  She kept sending these little electrifying glances over Ryuko’s way that seemed to say “Welcome to my world”.

Chapter Text

“You all know, don’t you?”  Ryuko said somberly.  Most of the council had left – only the Kamui Corps and Satsuki still shared the room with Ryuko – but nobody looked any more relaxed than when the meeting was in session.  It wasn’t hard to tell why.

               “We’re here for you, whatever you need,”  Ira said gently.

               “Yeah, this shit’s real fucked up,”  Uzu nodded.

               From Tsumugu, “It’s shocking, but at least we know that if she can survive even that, so can you.”

               And Aikuro said, “We’re looking into how we can solve this problem for good, just you wait.

               Rei and Satsuki just looked at her sadly.  She knew full well how they felt.

               But Ryuko’s thoughts were going a mile a minute.  Yesterday’s developments had put her in an uncharacteristically pensive mood, and now that she’d seen her friends command the war council she was sure she knew what they thought of her.

               Friends - really more like family – though they might be, Ryuko was reminded that they were each and every one of them a practical, deservedly prideful, competent person - trained soldier and commander.  And she was a liability, no, a colossal fuckup.  Sure, she saved the world, but turns out she’d whiffed the equally important part of keeping it safe.  And now her very existence was keeping Ragyo alive (she could almost hear the mocking laughter).  She was a disappointment to them all, and for what?  One single reflexive action she didn’t know she’d even made.  This, at least, was how Ryuko saw it.

               But there was something else… eventually she got it. “Oh, I see. You’re afraid I’ll go ballistic again, like when I woke up from my coma,”  She said as casually as she could, leaning back on her chair for further emphasis.

               “Ryuko that’s not-,”

               “It’s cool, really.  I already freaked out last night,”  They might never believe her, but there’d been sort of crude rationality to that.  She’d been planning to kill Ragyo and Nui and die in the attempt – no more life-fiber monsters, herself included.  Simple, practical solution.  The rage came afterwards, because it was either that or tears and one of them wouldn’t solve the problem.  Things were more complicated now.  “So c’mon.  Lay it on me.”

               There was a moment of silence.  Nobody knew what exactly Ryuko was expecting.  Even the Kamui couldn’t guess.  Then Nonon spoke.

               “You fucking monster.  How do you know she isn’t taking you over already?”  They all knew Nonon as vitriolic, scathing, but this was something else.  She sounded like she wanted Ryuko dead.  And she did.  The only thing stopping her was that she knew Ryuko was still more than capable of overpowering her.  Hers was the terrified rage of a cornered animal, even more so because nobody was seeing this wolf amongst them for what she truly was. 

In her mind’s eye it was no longer the girl she’d begrudgingly called a friend these past two years who sat across from her – it was some kind of hideous, maggoty fiend that had stolen her skin.  Hell, it might have even been Ragyo sitting there, putting on such a pitch perfect performance while cackling internally.  Or it might’ve been some melding of the two (she pictured a grotesque blobby personality like the mental equivalent to The Thing).  The real Ryuko might be in there somewhere, silently pleading for help.  Saiban was frightened by all those possibilities (he’d always been more than a little frightened of Ryuko), and that only made Nonon more certain.  Something inside that girl had made Satsuki into her unwitting puppet.

               “Nonon!”  Satsuki immediately shouted, horrified.  Before anyone had a chance to say anything else, Nonon stalked out.

               “See?  She gave it to me straight,”  Ryuko actually felt a little relieved by that.  That was how a rational person would react to finding out she was harboring the devil incarnate inside her.

               “Ahem,”  It was Shiro who finally broke the silence.  “We have found no evidence that an umprompted takeover – without Ryuko noticing – is ongoing or even possible.  That aside, we do have a tour of the new facilities to undertake, and since Nonon helped design them we can do that without her.”  He stood to go, dispassionate as ever, “I’m sure it will get our minds off of Ryuko’s… unfortunate situation.”

~~~~

               The tour did actually help with that a bit – there was a lot to see.  New quarters (currently unadorned), offices for every one of them with new computers (which Uzu was not allowed to download things on or else they’d be full of viruses in a week), a new mess hall (which could seat way more than the ten of them), and weirdly enough an aboveground area.

               “Now that the secret’s well and truly out, there are a lot of scientists who wanted in on life-fiber research.  So now we’ve expanded the aboveground research complex with a new xenobiology department,”  Shiro explained as they led them through steel grey halls lined by labs filled with all kinds of unusual instruments, official looking researchers in lab coats nodding deferentially as they passed.  Most of it was still under construction (mostly automated construction run by Izanami – it was actually a wonder either she or Shiro could stay focused with so much distracting work), but Ryuko could tell it was going to have the same bleak aesthetic of Honnoujji.  Lots of concrete and metal, lights too bright in some places, too gloomy in others.

               She filed away for later that if she was going to be spending much time here something would have to be done about that.

               “Now, this one we’re really quite proud of,” Houka pointed into a lab with a large plexiglass window.  Some kind of sinister looking spiky black chair was sitting in the middle, connected to clunky electronic pieces by a mess of wires.  “This device makes use of the regenerative abilities that Ryuko and the Kamui have to draw pure electricity from the life-fiber’s home dimension.  When we get it up and running it could provide a near unlimited source of clean energy, so long as one of us strapped into it.  If you spent all your down time sitting on a chair like this, you could power a city.”

               “Now hold on,”  Ira interrupted studiously, “I thought that the life-fibers fed off of human energy in their clothing form, and that their end goal was to harvest the entire human race and transform it into energy.  But if they’re capable of providing unlimited energy…”

               “Then why would they harvest it from us?”  Tsumugu finished, “We’ve asked the same thing.  I’d suggest try asking your Kamui, but…”

               Almost simultaneously all the Kamui admitted that they had no idea, although it was a good question.  [I didn’t even know what a life-fiber was until you told me] Tekketsu added to Ira.

               [I’m still not sure what a life-fiber is!] Uzu’s Seijitsu chirped, almost proud to be so in the dark.

               “Well, that one might be on me,” He muttered to her.  Ryuko smiled, it was nice to see how such bizarre things had quickly become so normal.  She could feel the presence of her little Kamui children all around her.  Maybe other things that seemed freakish now could become normal.  Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad.

               “Still, we don’t really have a good hypothesis,”  Shiro went on, “After all, if they really just wanted energy life-fibers could just park themselves around stars and absorb light without ever troubling lifeforms that live on planets.”

               “So there must be something else they’re after,”  Satsuki murmured thoughtfully.  She did have several hypotheses, but she had to admit she didn’t know enough about all this to say for sure.  Yet. “Interesting.”

               ~”Sorry to interrupt!”~  A tinny, metallic voice suddenly piped, and everyone looked around to see where it came from.  As if to explain a wall panel unfurled and a small screen appeared, portraying the computer generated face of a little anime styled woman – short, blond, just a little plump, with a tiny little snub nose and a face that looked oddly like a female Shiro, just more smiling and upbeat. ~”There are visitors here to see you all!”~

               “Are there?”  Satsuki turned to the little screen, charmed by what she assumed was a rudimentary AI Houka had coded to help out in the lab, “And who may I say I’m speaking to right now, I wonder?”

               The little woman pulled a put-out face, ~”Well it’s me, Izanami!”~

               Now Satsuki, and in fact everyone, looked a little taken aback.  She recovered quickly though, “Oh, of course, forgive me.  I’ve never seen your new face before.”

               Meanwhile, behind her – “You made a device that lets your Kamui talk?”  Aikuro shouted, more aghast that he hadn’t been informed.  The other Kamui’s eyes all shot up (except Misaki, who already knew about this).  That sounded incredible!

               ~”You didn’t tell them?”~  Izanami gasped, pretending to be stunned.  She saw everything that happened in this complex, so of course she was aware that this had been their little secret until then.

               She just liked to see Shiro squirm, and he did, “Well, see, it came naturally considering she’s already able to use the computer.”

               ~”I mean, technically I am the –“~

               “Did you say we had guests, then?”  Shiro cut her off, and she giggled telepathically to him [Oh it’s just too easy with you!]

               ~”Yup!  Here, I’ll patch you through!”~

               The screen suddenly shifted, and all of a sudden it showed a shot of the main lobby.  A lobby that was quickly obscured by a big beaming smile, wide happy eyes, and a chestnut bowl cut.  ~“Oh whoaaa hey guys!”~

               “Mako!”  Ryuko shouted as she cheerily pulled away from the camera to reveal the rest of the Mankanshoku family – Including guts and Mako’s two dogs – all standing behind her, “Mataro! Mom! Dad!  What’re you guys doing here?”

               ~“Heh, things are finally kicking off and you thought we’d stay away?  Don’t you know us at all sis?”~  Mataro chuckled.  His head was tilted in the general direction of the screen, but he’d still never taken the shingantsu training blindfold off and couldn’t see Ryuko or anyone else at all.

               ~“Yuh huh!”~ Mako nodded, ~“Even if we can’t fight, we still wanna help!”~

               ~“Well, I’m gonna fight,”~  Mataro muttered.

               ~“Mataro!”~ Sukoyo gasped.

               ~“Mom, c’mon!  You know what I’m about!”~

               ~“I mean hey, where’d we ever get keeping Mako away from danger?”~  Barazo turned to placate his wife with a philosophical look on his face.

               “How’d they even find out we were meeting now?”  Aikuro wondered aloud.

               Uzu smiled sheepishly, “I… mighta told Mataro about it.”  Aikuro gave him a look (not as piercing as Nonon would’ve) and he explained, “He came in for kendo practice today with so many questions what was I supposed to say?”

               ~“Ryuko look!  I brought Buster and Meatball to say hi!”~  Mako shouted, holding one of her hulking German Shepherds (still basically a huge puppy) up to the camera like a baby and laughing as it licked her face.

               “Really…  those are your dogs’ names?”  Houka asked Ira with a mocking little smile.

               “Yeah dude, even I’ll admit you shouldn’t let Mako name things,”  Ryuko added, “But… I might’ve also told Mako she could come over.”

               “Well that clears things up,”  Aikuro concluded, “Send ‘em on down, Izanami.”

               ~”Yes sir!”~

               ~” I think that’s the elevator!”~  Sukoyo exclaimed, ~”Quick, Mataro grab the extra pot of dumplings!”~

               Satsuki smiled, “And I may also have asked Sukoyo to provide us all with a home cooked meal in the wake of the meeting.”

~~~~

               The Mankanshoku’s were brought down to the Kamui Corps mess hall, and by the time everyone else had gotten there the Mankanshokus (and Ryuko, who’d sprinted ahead) had already laid out a pretty extensive banquet.

               Mako and Ryuko were the first to finish, Mako scarfing her portion down so fast she got the hiccups while Ryuko barely touched hers.  The others ate with a greed that shocked even the Mankshokus – they were already feeling the extra energy requirements of their Kamui.  So with them all still absorbed, Ryuko took Mako on her own little tour of the place.

               “And check this out!”  Ryuko said as she opened the door to a giant domed room. A walkway around the edge was separated from the concrete floor by a large moat, filled with water but also ringed by humming, glowing machinery.  “We’ve got a real arena now.  No more re-purposing test rooms! And there’s more.”

               She flipped a switch on walkway, and right before their eyes a massive transparent red dome of swirling light emerged in front of them, enshrouding the arena with a shielding bubble

               “Whoa! It’s one of those high-velocity barrier whatsits!”

               “Yu-huh!  With this, we can throw down at maximum power!  Watch,”  Ryuko cheerily hopped into an access tube that led into the arena, and when she was inside she gave a quick wave and leapt into the air at full force.  Having Mako around had instantly improved her mood like a shot of espresso and she felt like doing one of the things she loved most – messing around and flexing her superhuman muscles.

               The full force jump was so powerful that Ryuko was sent slamming into the barrier at speeds approaching the sound barrier, a glowing red blur only visible as an afterimage.  She bounced right off it at nearly the same speed, but that had been the plan.  She kept crashing into the walls like a bee in a jar, and with her uncontrollable ricocheting the whole bubble was filled with red light, at least until she wiped out on the floor.

               “Human billiard ball!”  She announced, to Mako’s hysterical laughter.

               “Ohoho man!  That thing’s craaazy!”  She hollered as Ryuko dusted herself off. “Y’know it’s funny, using life-fibers for stuff like this used to be, like, proof you were evil.  But now it’s just something you do!”

               “Well yeah, way I see it they tried to kill us, so now we get to take them for everything they’re worth,”  And that wasn’t all bluster.  Ryuko knew that everytime she’d made a Kamui she’d encountered a massive resistance, like she was ripping the life-fibers she’d used out of their network.  Maybe if you made enough Kamui you could rip the entire network apart?

               It was at this point that Izanami chose to announce her presence.  In part because it was her job to greet guests, and in part because she wanted to get in on the fun.

~ “Hello Miss Mankanshoku!”~

“AAAAAAH!  Who’re you!”  Mako leapt clear off the ground as Izanami’s screen appeared from the wall.

“Mako chill out.  That’s Izanami, Shiro’s Kamui.  They found a way to let her into the complex’s security system.”

“Awesome!” Mako murmured.  All of this just convinced her even more that – even though she didn’t really want to use a Kamui to fight, there was so much else you could do with them. “Hehe, she even kinda looks like him!”

~”How do you like our facility?”~

“Oh it’s great!  Reminds me of Honnouji a little bit, but other than that, really really cool!”

~”Honnouji?  How so?”~

“Well, these big rooms are kind spooky, y’know?  Like up in the ceiling where it’s so dark,”  She pointed up at the gloom above them. “Wouldn’t it be nice if it was like, sky blue instead?”

~”I… yeah.  Yeah! Maybe it would!”~  Ryuko suddenly realized that the Izanami and Mako were like peas in a pod.  They’d already figured that out themselves.

And so it was that, after a short call to an exasperated Shiro, Ryuko was leading Mako and Izanami around as they renovated the place.  Izanami seemed to have practically unlimited power to rip out wall panels and put in new ones, smooth out rough edges, add seats and décor, and before long it actually turned out to be pretty fun.  So fun that Ryuko almost forgot all about her current problems.

But meanwhile, two other best friends were having a much less pleasant meeting.  Nonon had crept out of her quarters, quietly grabbed some food, tapped Satsuki on the shoulder and whispered:

“Could we talk privately for a moment?” 

Chapter Text

[Are you sure you want to do this?]

               “You know I do!”  Nonon hissed emphatically, and Saiban had to admit that he did indeed.  She paced back and forth in Satsuki’s new office, feeling the little trickle of her small, indistinct human aura come closer.

               [But still, what if-]

               “If I’m wrong?  I know you don’t think I’m wrong.”

               [No I don’t, at least not about them having an affair].

               “So what’s the problem?  If I am wrong then we’ll just laugh it off, I’m a master conversationalist don’t worry.”

               [But what if she denies it anyway?]

               “…”

               [Nonon?]

               “Lady Satsuki wouldn’t do that, not to me.  And even if she did,”  Nonon crossed her arms emphatically, “Even if she did, it doesn’t matter.  She still needs my help.”

               [Yes.  I want to help her too,]  Saiban concluded.  Any struggle that faced Nonon was his to bear too – that was the deal.  And he didn’t believe Satsuki would lie to Nonon’s face either, but it was possible.  And he was supposed to point out possibilities she missed – that was also something they’d worked out.

               And right now, her brain was practically a running loop of Satsuki’s in trouble Satsuki’s in trouble Satsuki’s in trouble!  So she probably was missing quite a lot.

~~~~

               Meanwhile Satsuki had already worked out what Nonon might want to talk about, and was beginning to plan what she would say.  Despite how she might act she was not omniscient, far from it, and rather than decide “Yes, that’s definitely the thing” she’d run through twenty or so different possibilities.

               Most of those were just banal practicalities, important to making sure everything went right but not really too complex.  Satsuki didn’t even bother rehearsing her response to those, she could figure that out on the fly.  But there were two…

               Was this about Ragyo?  Nonon clearly thought Ragyo might be more “alive” inside Ryuko than Ryuko claimed.  If that were the case, well, Satsuki could never believe Ragyo had any influence over Ryuko’s mind, no!  She only had to remember the look on Ryuko’s face when the news had first been broken (how awful it had been to hurt her so!), just that one look of indescribable terror made it clear that Ryuko was still Ryuko.  Satsuki could turn Nonon back around, she knew Ryuko, she trusted Ryuko.

               But what if it wasn’t that?  Could she have guessed what was going on between Ryuko and I?  From just that one phone call?  Oh that had been stupid, how had she let herself be so careless?  It was like she’d been someone else that weekend – a version of herself who let cares and caution fall away.

               A sinking feeling took hold of Satsuki.  The sword of Damocles was spinning above her, the rope coming slowly, slowly loose.  If Nonon found out – no, that wasn’t what mattered – if she told someone, then the blade would fall and that would be it.  Permanently discredited, she would be forced from the political sphere for good.

               Would that be so bad?  I could disappear somewhere with Ryuko, start a new life.  I did what I set out to with this one anyway.

               Oh, who was she kidding?  They’d never make it a day before being recognized.  And they’d never be safe.  And Ryuko could never abandon anyone (to say nothing of whether Satsuki could).  And besides, the fight wasn’t over yet.

               So the sword had to stay hanging, at least for now.  But how?

               By the time Satsuki got to her office, she had her plan.

~~~~

               “Ah, you’re already here.  You didn’t have to wait for me to take a seat, you know that.”

               Nonon smiled, “Ah, it’s fine. It’s your office, after all,”  She plopped herself down with an air of complete relaxation.  Satsuki took her seat the same way she always did when there was business to be done -  back straight, fingers slightly curled on the armrests.  Eyes fixed right on Nonon.  Steely, piercing.

               Nonon thought she could see the brittle interior behind them clearly for the first time.  Or could she?  For Nonon’s entire life Satsuki’s words were law.  She spoke and reality changed to suit her, Contradiction is Truth, after all.  So if she stared through Nonon with that glare and said, “Of course not Nonon, don’t be absurd” how was she supposed to argue?  Even if she was certain it was a lie, what good would it do?

               [Do what you have to do Nonon, I’ve got your back.]

 “So how was your weekend?  You seem a little more lively,”  She started casually.

“I should hope so, with all the recent excitement.  But yes, it was pleasant.  I only wish I could get away more often.”

“Just your luck with the timing eh?”

“Indeed.”

“And the lake?  Probably beautiful this time of year. Used to have a friend with a mansion up there.  He’d go fishing, but I… well you know I’d never.”

Oh, this is unexpected.  Satsuki suddenly realized this wasn’t just Nonon’s lead in.  Maybe she’d had something important to talk about -

Or maybe she just wanted to have a one-on-one chat with her best friend who’s been acting too distant lately.  If that turns out to be true, that’s really very sweet, Satsuki’s face softened gradually with the realization, although she wasn’t ready to let her guard down.

“Hmm, don’t I,” She hum chuckled, “Yes, what was his name… Akechi or something, right?”

“Mhm!  Surprised you remember, you never even seemed notice him.  Oh who am I kidding, of course you remember,”  Nonon said with a little giggle, “wonder what happened to him.”

“Father was arrested, sentenced for sedition against the new government.  Had most of the family fortune and estates confiscated.  These days they work over near Osaka, manage a small construction firm cleaning up a little slice of the ruins.  I’m told Akechi settled… not too well.  But his younger siblings are doing great at public school, so I hear.  His sister wants to be a Kamui wearer when she gets older.”

Nonon smirked, “Wow, and you just knew all of that right off the top of your head.”

“Oh don’t feel bad, I know he was never a close friend.  But, to answer your question, the lake was beautiful.  Didn’t go fishing, just looked at it.  That’s plenty for me,”  She almost added “but Ryuko caught a duck.” But, No, I won’t reveal that Ryuko was there unless she does.

Which was exactly what Nonon did next, “You brought Ryuko along, right?  She, ah, she seems… better too… y’know, Ragyo aside.”

Satsuki frowned, oh here it comes, “Yes, she did.  It’s too bad that Shiro finished the report right then,”  she sighed, “She was doing better, now who knows how she’ll adjust.”

“Mmm,” That reminded Nonon of how she’d found Ryuko right after the breakup – lying on the floor, not passed out but just… disconnected from her body.  My god, what if the trauma of the breakup caused a mental breakdown right then, and that was when Ragyo slipped in?  Nonon suppressed a shudder, “Honestly I’m kind of surprised she went at all, I heard she was taking the breakup very poorly.”

“You’re right to be surprised, actually.  I practically had to yell at her to get her to go.  She was a mess, and she needed someone to tell her that,” Not at all a lie, actually.  Not like Nonon would believe it.

“Huh.  So what changed then?  I mean, something had to,”  Nonon said leadingly.

Satsuki drew the corners of her lips into a frown, “Nonon where are you going with this?”

“Ah, well, I dunno, I -,” Nonon shot up like she’d been shocked, suddenly realizing she’d have to be the one to say it.  She took a deep sigh, “Satsuki, you remember when you told me that one time that you used to have an unrequited crush?  Way back, when you first showed me Saiban?”

“Yes?”

“It was a crush on Ryuko, wasn’t it?”

“… And what makes you think that?”

“Honestly who the hell else?”  Nonon answered reflexively, “Eh! Wait!  Answer the question.”

Satsuki nodded slightly, “Yes, I suppose there’s no harm in admitting that.”

“Oh, admitting that?

Satsuki sat forward.  Nonon could swear she felt a chill pass through the room.  “Nonon, what exactly are you implying?”

Oh well, in for a penny, Nonon gulped, “I’m won’t demean your intelligence pretending that you need this explained.”

“...This is a very serious accusation,” Satsuki eventually said.

“Satsuki, look, I know this is, uh, awkward.  Really uncomfortable, confusing.  But I heard how you talked to her over the phone. I know you.  Please, stop pretending you can tiptoe around this.”

“… I don’t expect your approval,” there it was.  No more room for that forlorn hope that all of this was just paranoia.  It was like she was realizing it for the first time all over again.

“Oh my god you’re serious!  I – ah – Satsuki what the hell! Y-you can’t do this!”

[Nonon, calm.  We have to come to her as friends!]

“I’d hoped to keep what Ryuko and I have a secret, but -,”

“No.  Stop.  I want to hear you say it.”

Satsuki sighed.  Seeing the distraught, disgusted look on Nonon’s face hurt, but she had to follow the plan, “Fine.  This weekend, Ryuko and I acted on our mutual attraction.  Completely unplanned.  We… look, do you really want details?”

“There’s details?”

“Not much.  Mostly we talked about feelings and life and such.  But we did kiss, and… touch each other – I guess ‘make out’ you’d call it,”  As Satsuki pronounced the words “make out” like she’d never heard them before she watch Nonon’s face, nose scrunched, jaw slack, descend yet further into a state of appalled shock. I can’t talk about these things!  But yet, what else am I to do? “We, ah, slept together -,”

“You did WHAT!

“No no, I meant we literally shared a bed.”

“Oh, I thought you were saying you had sex.  Good, so at least there -,”

“-Well, there was one time- Nonon?”  For a moment right when the words escape Satsuki’s lips Nonon entered almost a catatonic state, frozen with the overwhelming feeling pounding in her skull.  She could see it in her mind’s eye.  Ryuko, looming like a vulture of a Satsuki’s prone body, that predatory grin splitting her face.

“R-ryuko?  What’re you doing?”

“Nonon? Are you alright?”

“Ohmygod.  Ohmygod that… that freak!” Nonon leapt to her feet, “Satsuki what did she do to you!  You tell me what that – that inhuman – that vile, sadistic, sheming – that whore!”  Nonon sputtered, and Satsuki was seized by a very uncharacteristic bout of panic.  Oh no, no this wasn’t to plan at all!  She was supposed to shoulder the blame, but instead Nonon – she blamed it all on Ryuko!  She called her a -

“Nonon stop!  Please!”  Satsuki’s nails were dug into the armrests, unsure what the hell to do.

I’m going to kill her!  I’m gonna take her fucking immortal guts and turn ‘em inside out and see if she can heal that!  And then- 

[Alright, this has gone too far,]  Saiban, fortunately, only felt the spillover of Nonon’s cloud of rage.  Oddly, the more incensed she became, the more detached he felt from the whole thing. He didn’t know these people, not really, they’d never matter to him like Nonon did.  But what he did know was that Nonon would regret whatever she was about to do.  In her current state, if she tried to get him to transform, he wouldn’t be able to control his destructive impulses.  And then…

But there was one thing he could do before it was too late.  Reaching deep into Nonon’s memories, he scrolled through them like an odd, skipping slideshow.  He could tell the feeling of a memory almost as soon as he saw through the eyes of a past Nonon.  So he grabbed a bunch of peaceful, calm memories: alone time after kindergarten – when she first began to play the piano, watching the sunset over the Osaka ruins with Uzu – the wistful peace of knowing, accepting that they might die at any moment, staying up late talking with Saiban himself – the wonder of seeing everything through fresh eyes.  Dragging them from her subconscious they flashed like firecrackers across her mind, momentarily blotting everything out.  After the second time, he could feel her heart-rate going down.

[Are you okay?]

“I… I am.  Thank you Saiban,”  She turned to Satsuki, “I’m… sorry about that.  That was just a shock.”  She sat down, put a hand on her eyes, laughed in the sort of empty, sad way that eventually devolves into a groan.  “I just really never though it would come to this.  I thought everything would mostly work out from hereon, but she really tricked us all, huh?”

“Tricked?  Nonon, you called Ryuko a – a whore!” Satsuki could barely make herself say the word.  She didn’t have Saiban to forcibly calm her, and she could feel herself becoming emotional.  She hadn’t anticipated this, and the sheer hatred from Nonon was just – cold despair in her.  Why, why did Nonon hate Ryuko so, and so suddenly?  “You think she forced herself on me, don’t you?  Or that she… coerced me somehow.  Well?”

Nonon nodded, “Well she did.”

“No. Absolutely not.  You think I’ll come to my senses and realize this has all been a horrible case of emotional manipulation?  You think I’m really so weak willed?”  Satsuki couldn’t tell if she was more offended for Ryuko or for herself.  She made a harsh exasperated noise that was almost a laugh, “Huh! For two years now I’ve been wondering what was wrong with me and you think now that you’ve figured out what we did I’ll just change?”

“So you admit it’s wrong.”

“Of course it’s wrong, it’s completely unnatural, but fighting it was never going to work.”

Now Nonon was sure she had her.  It hadn’t been easy, but the bandaid was ripped off and it was time to act.  “Then let me help you,” She said as gently and sweetly as she could.  “Satsuki, this thing is going to destroy you, you know that right.  Ryuko isn’t herself anymore, she’s changed… well, the cracks were always there, but I don’t know if Ragyo’s influencing her or she was just always going to turn out this way but-“

“Don’t start with this again please.  I’m the one who deserves the blame, but Ryuko-.”

“You don’t have to keep defending her!”

“I’m not.  She has done nothing wrong except listen to me.”

“I know you think that, but -.”

“Nonon, are you even listening to me?”  Satsuki was beyond exasperated.  This was not going according to plan.  “Look at me.  Nonon!”  Nonon’s eyes finally snapped to, “Don’t presume tell me what I think. No, I’ll give you the whole truth.  I confessed to Ryuko first.  She was attracted to me, sure, but she was comfortable keeping that a secret forever.  It was me who couldn’t take it – I all but wrung the confession out of her.”

“As if I’d believe that!”

“Believe what you will,” Satsuki said, “All I can do is tell the truth, you have only yourself to blame for not listening.”

Which is exactly how Satsuki would react if she was telling the truth.

“Wha-you-no!”

“Like I said.  I don’t expect your acceptance.”

Satsuki had thought a lot about Ryuko’s reaction when she’d first confessed.  Not just what a… watershed moment in her life it had been, but how interesting it was to see someone’s entire world turned upside down in a moment.  This was worse.  Nonon’s world wasn’t turning, it was collapsing.

The look in her red-pink eyes, wide and drawn and beyond horrified, crushed Satsuki.

 

“I… I don’t know you.”

 

“Nonon wait!”

Don’t touch me!”  Nonon screeched desperately, springing up as Satsuki reached a hand across her desk. “How could you do it!  How!

“I love her,” Satsuki said in a small voice.  She could sense the enormity of what was settling in on Nonon.  A small part of her mind said “The plan is back on track”.  But what did that matter?  There’d been a lingering hope that Nonon would understand, would be happy for her.  But that was just a delusion.

Nonon turned to the door, now desperate to get out of the room. Just looking at Satsuki made her shudder, and despite Saiban’s best efforts pumping calming memories into her brain wasn’t enough.  Satsuki was in too many of them, and in each one Nonon saw those deep, dark recesses behind that face she knew so well.  A gaping abyss of foreign thoughts, schemes and sinfulness befitting of the Kiryuin name.

“W-when the others find out, they’ll,”  Nonon said breathlessly.

That was Satsuki’s moment.  Despite every instinct she snapped, “Yes Nonon, what will the others do?  Some of them will believe you, others won’t.  Some will be as affected as you, others won’t.  It will tear them apart.”

“Are you serious?  They’ll all see that you’re fffucked in the head!” Nonon was practically sputtering now, crying.

“Will they?  And even if they do, will that change that I am still their commanding officer?  Your commanding officer?”

“You’re crazy.  Oh my god you’re crazy.  You think that matters -,”

“I think winning the war matters.  More than anything.”

“Then you’ll end this… thing with Ryuko before it ruins everything!”

“… Maybe I am a bit emotionally damaged.  I’ve wondered myself.  I make no promises but of course I will try to be better.  For the war effort we must all be strong.  I expect you to do the same.”

“They have a right to know.”

“Well, if that’s what you think.  If you think spreading disunity and insubordination in your team is worth more than the lives of our people, well, maybe I was wrong about your leadership potential.  Aikuro has a long record of command in Nudist Beach, maybe he could…”

Something akin to an electric shock passed through Nonon.  The feeling drained from her face.

Strip me of my command?  Oh no no no no!  She can’t really do that, can she?  But worse than realizing what Satsuki was implying (exactly according to plan, painful to both of them though it might be), Nonon couldn’t shake the feeling that Satsuki was right.  What did the sins of one woman matter compared to the lives of a nation? 

[W-wait, maybe we’d better think about this!]  Saiban enunciated her thoughts more clearly.  He was first, the others – they were all Ryuko’s Kamui, and so they had the closeness of siblings.  He didn’t have anything on them if he wasn’t the eldest, he’d just be the odd one out.

“You wouldn’t!”

“I don’t want to.  I don’t want to do any of this. But in war we have to be practical above all.”

“The war’s over.  This is just a little mop-up.”

“If that’s what you think, then I might really start doubting…”

“Eep!”  Nonon threw a hand over her mouth.  She knew Satsuki could be cruel with her power, but she’d never felt this before.  She felt trapped, hemmed in on all sides, “Alright, I get it I get it!”

“I’m sorry, to be doing this, really I am.”

“Then stop fucking your sister.”

“I can do that, but I can’t stop loving her.  I tried.”

“Then I don’t care.  I don’t know you.”

And with that she was gone, door sealing shut behind her.  Satsuki felt hollow, stretched out and old.  She had just watched Nonon’s devotion to her collapse into dust.  Now all that was left was the crush of a threat, looming over her, the façade of the trust that had flourished between them.

“I don’t know you.”

Oh, what have I done?

But the sword remained hanging by its final, dwindling thread.  She would go on for another day.

What more will I have to give to keep it there?

Chapter Text

October 2066

~~~~

               Ryuko found herself nervous as she walked up the steps of Satsuki’s little house on what used to be the Kiryuin Manor’s grounds.  The address had been helpful, but she’s still nearly despaired of ever finding it amidst an endless expanse of gardens and fountains and statuary that stretched greater even than those around Versailles (although Ryuko didn’t know that).  A person who could run faster than the human eye could see has no real excuse for being late.

               The very peacefulness of the place – when she finally found it – seemed to be mocking her.  The earthy smell of the forest, the soft orange glow of the dim porchlight, the crickets chirruping in the willows above, it felt like a place of rest.  Thin white speckles of light trailed through a towering hedge wall into the darkness, mere traces of the floodlights that illuminated the manor proper.  Well, what used to be the manor:  nowadays it was a museum and apparently, they kept the lights on even when it was closed for the night.  It made Ryuko keenly aware that the whole world passed by right outside, so close and yet completely separate and unaware of her.

               She wondered if Satsuki noticed that about this place.  Did she like it? Or did she feel like Ryuko did today, that she was spoiling such peace just by being there.  She wondered what Satsuki thought about a lot of things – it was what she was nervous about, after all.

~~~~

               But it was hard to stay nervous when, as she shoved the door open into a narrow foyer hallway and debated if she should call out, Satsuki emerged from the kitchen with one of those sweet smiles she would be shocked to see on her own face.

               “Hey,”  Ryuko sighed as Satsuki wrapped her arms around her gently and she relaxed into them with her full weight.

               Satsuki tilted an amused eyebrow, “Hey yourself.  That’s all I get?”

               “Well no I –“  Ryuko momentarily panicked thinking Satsuki had expected this to be a “moment”.

               “Oh, what are you so flustered about, I’m just kidding.  It’s good to see you.”

               “Yeah, kidding, from you,”  Ryuko beamed despite how red her face had gotten, “Gonna take some getting used to.”

               “It’s going to take some practice too,” Satsuki said (she’d momentarily panicked thinking she’d actually upset Ryuko).  Now that the greeting was taken care of, she tilted Ryuko’s chin up and gave her a quick, chaste kiss.  After having it out with Nonon, she knew she wasn’t comfortable doing anything more than that right now.

               But it was reassuring to Ryuko too.  She was fine with that simple kiss too; in fact, she’d been nervous thinking that Satsuki might expect more.  She felt frail and exhausted, emotionally if not physically, and more than anything just wanted to unwind with Satsuki, the closest thing to a kindred spirit she had on Earth.

               Ryuko chuckled, “It’s good to see you to.  So, what are we gonna do huh?  Want to show me around?  I love it already, so cozy!”  The floor was that weathered, rough kind of hardwood, the siding and wallpaper smelled of dust and some kind of old-fashioned plaster they probably didn’t use anymore, and the lights were dim and yellow and made everything feel enclosed and sleepy.  Satsuki walked through this homey place like she was born to it – just the same as the concrete palace of Honnouji – except this time she didn’t have the stiff back, the imperious frown, but instead that subtle relaxation of her features that made her look twice her age, though no less beautiful.

               “Actually, I have dinner on right now,”  Satsuki turned and strolled casually back to the kitchen, and Ryuko kicked off her shoes and hung her jacket up, “I know you don’t need to eat, but if you’d care to join?”

               “Oh, totally!  But you didn’t have to wait for me, it’s already so late.”

               Satsuki leaned out the doorway and shook her head, “This is when I usually eat.”

               “Damn, didn’t know you were such a night owl,” Ryuko followed after her, but as she crossed the into the kitchen (a very narrow space, not that she minded) a rustling behind her caught her attention.

               She turned around and, in the den on the other side of the foyer she saw Soroi sitting with a thick novel and a cup of tea.  He looked up with a kindly smile and a polite nod.

               “Good evening, Miss Ryuko.”  Ryuko was suddenly aware she had nothing on but very short athletic shorts and a plain white tank-top.  And that Soroi had certainly heard every part of their exchange.  She froze.

               “Uh… hi… Soroi – er, Mister Soroi.  I thought you were retired,”  She stammered as carefully as she could.  Way to go, only been here a minute and already we’re busted.  Actually no, what the hell Sats why didn’t you tell me he was here?

               Satsuki looked up from the stove and said simply, “It’s fine, Ryuko, he knows.”

               “Wait, really?  Uh, alright then, nevermind,”  Ryuko was relieved and as nonchalant as she could manage, but still went stiff and red when, with an amused twitch on his usually stoic face, Soroi tilted his teacup at her in a little “cheers” motion.  Far from the harsh judgement Ryuko had expected, she quickly saw he was just too happy for Satsuki to be overly concerned about the morals of what she was doing.

               “I’ll be in the guest bedroom if you need anything,” He said as he stood, correctly guessing that what they really needed was a little privacy.  When he was gone Satsuki left the stove and came up behind Ryuko, throwing her arms over her shoulders and looking at her apologetically.

               “I should have told you he’d be here.”

               “Nah, it’s chill.  I’ve got supersenses, I should’ve noticed him there and asked.”

               “Hmmhmm,”  Satsuki hum-chuckled, “He continues to surprise me.  I had no idea he had such talents at spy-work. That he could evade even the great Ryuko Matoi!”

               “You’re kidding again, aren’t you?”

               “Only partly, actually.”

               “Yeah well, not my fault if I was a little distracted,”  Ryuko shrugged as Satsuki went back to stirring the pot on the stovetop, “Speaking of distracted, that smells real good.  Whatcha got there?”

               “Oh, just curried chickpeas over rice,”  Satsuki shrugged, almost embarrassed to be offering such light fare, “It’s nothing fancy, but-.”

               “-Sats, please, you had me at curry.  You need any help or anything?”

               “No, it’s nearly done.  I’ve set the table already too.”

               “Sweet.  So I just…”

               “You just have a seat and I’ll be right out.  You’re my guest, after all.”

~~~~

               Satsuki turned out to be right, in no time at all they were seated across from each other at the narrow little dining room table, steaming plates in front of them.  When their eyes met, glinting in the dim light, they both made a smug little laughing noise, thinking this is so nice.  Satsuki watched apprehensively as Ryuko took her first greedy bite.

               “Mmm!”  Ryuko exclaimed as she chewed, “It’s good!

               Satsuki beamed, “I’m so glad you like it.”  Thus appraised, she was now free to eat too, which she did more greedily than she meant to – it had been a long day.

               “Have you always known how to cook like this?  You should do it more often!”

               “No, I only learned recently.  I’ve been making my own food since the manor chef, well…”

               “REVOCS?”

               “What would a chef see in it?”  Satsuki said while nodding in confirmation, “I can only wonder.  But that’s besides the point.  My cooking is pure function, you’re just saying that,”  She murmured modestly.

               “Nuh-uh!  C’mon, don’t sell yourself short. You never do, so it’s weird.”

               “Hmhmm.  Thank you.”

               They ate in relative silence for a moment before Ryuko asked, “Speaking of the chef, is that also why you live in this place and not the gardener?”

               “Unfortunately, yes.”

               “Was there really only the one guy though?”

               Satsuki shook her head, “He was more of a manager.  The others didn’t live on-site.  They were bussed in from the slums on the edge of the city.”

               “Harsh.  But yeah, I was gonna say, this place is so huge, no way there was just one guy.  I mean, I was looking all over before and I still don’t think I’ve seen it all!”

               “You should see it during the day.  Families who come to the museum having picnics, kids running everywhere.  We built a café on the back veranda of the manor, and a playground where there used to be this enormous statue of Nui.”

               “Neat,”  Ryuko smiled, telling that Satsuki was very proud of this, “Right over there, huh?  Crazy there’s so many people right there. You ever go out and walk around with ‘em?”

               “… Not really, no.”

               “Oh.”  Wouldn’t you like to, though?  Ryuko thought, and Satsuki could tell she was leaving it unasked.

               “I’m usually at work when the museum is open,”  She explained.

               “Right, right, it’s just funny that you live so close.  Do they even know you’re here?”

               “Not as far as I know.  A good thing too, otherwise the museum would be swamped with reporters and other hangers on.  We’d probably have to ramp up security to keep out any would-be assassins too.”

               Ryuko sighed, “Right.  Nothing’s ever simple when you’re famous.”

               “Oh don’t feel too bad,”  Satsuki said, turning upbeat.  She could feel the pity for her streaming for Ryuko and decided to stop it – mostly because it upset her to see Ryuko upset.  Of course, there’s a lot to be upset about, she thought before she could stop herself.

               “I don’t know you.”

               “…Hey Sats? … You alright?”  Ryuko asked, snapping Satsuki back into the moment.  Ryuko looked alarmed – she’d just seen a darkness pass over Satsuki’s face seemingly from nowhere.

               “Ahem.  Yes, I’m sorry.  I was saying, you shouldn’t feel too bad about it.  I’m just glad we were able to turn the building into something useful.”

               “Yeah.  So what did you end up doing with the Nui statue then? And the others, I bet there were more than one.”

               “Well one of the art directors suggested that, with some changes to the hair and details of the face the clothing, we could make the statue into a Greek goddess or something.  But no.”

               “Heh, she was no goddess, that’s for sure.  More like a lil’ demon.”

               “Quite.  So I just had the workers tear it down and smash it to bits with sledgehammers.  They had fun with it.”

               “No-ho shit!  Gosh, that does sound like fun!  You should gone down and helped ‘em out!”

               “Hmhmm, and wouldn’t that be a sight.  Yes, maybe it would’ve been fun, I’ll admit.”

               “See?  It’s just like I was sayin’ – ah, don’t take this the wrong way – but you do this to yourself,”  Ryuko blurted, and Satsuki looked at her leadingly, “You keep yourself from doing anything that might be fun and just bottle it up until you can’t anymore.  Should treat yourself better, y’know?”

               Satsuki opened her mouth to protest, but Ryuko went on, “And I know, it’s important.  But really, you gonna keep doing this for the rest of your life?”

               Satsuki shut her mouth.  Ryuko had a point, the sort of point she wouldn’t have been able to see on her own.  And which nobody but Ryuko would’ve dared voice.

               “But then do you not do the same thing?”

               “Huh?”

               “Have you noticed that when things aren’t going well you stop eating?  You hardly need to but, well, clearly you like food.”

               “No I know that!  I mean, I hadn’t eaten for a while after Rei found out unless Mako made me.  Food tastes better with someone to eat it with!”  She held up her spoon illustratively.

               “Well more than that – you stop going out, trying in your classes, texting Mrs. Mankanshoku – every time.”

               “Well I – not every time, right?”

               “Without fail.”

               “Huh,”  Ryuko shook her head, dumbfounded, “I guess I never really noticed.”

               “And I suppose I lost track of how often I do things… for myself,”  She was thinking about Itsuki – how that one meeting was the one she really wanted to attend but a million other things got in the way.  The whole point of The Weekend had been to get a breath of fresh air for herself and Ryuko.  But the moment she was back the demands of governance and her own rut set back in like iron chains

               Back at Honnouji I could set my own schedule.  I was beholden to no one.  Satsuki quickly forced that thought down.  “Well, that’s what I’m doing now, isn’t it?  And you’re eating again,”  She said instead.

               “Oh, it’s too good to waste!”  Ryuko was emphatic, in part because it really was good and in part because Satsuki cooked dinner for me! “Look, I don’t wanna bring you down or nothin’, sorry if this isn’t, uh, what you wanted to talk about.”

               They were both aware that there were other, far more pressing and far more unpleasant things they out to talk about.

               “Oh, not at all.  I’m so happy you made me think about this, actually,”  She reached out across the table and took Ryuko’s hand (they were done eating by this point).  She was so warm – unnaturally warm, of course, but still pleasant even if a normal human would be dying of fever at that temperature.  “Who else could tell me I ought to be doing less?  Who else would?  ”

               “Geez,”  Ryuko’s face went flush. One can only imagine how warm her cheeks must be right now, Satsuki thought, “I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again.  You are a sap.”

               “I’ll try not to be embarrassed.”

               Ryuko chuckled, “So, we’ve established you’re gonna work yourself to death, and I’m gonna mope around for all eternity.  We really are a hot mess.”

               “We’ll do better, that’s the idea.  And uh, I’m sorry, ‘hot mess’?”

               “Oh, you don’t know that one?  It’s like, when someone looks good from outside, but really they’re just barely keeping it together and if you poke ‘em too hard it shows.  It’s not like a serious thing, just a joke people say.”

               “I see.  Yes, I suppose that is apt – to an extent.  We have our flaws, but who doesn’t, and -,” For the second time that evening Satsuki’s thoughts interrupted her

               “When someone looks good from the outside, but really they’re just barely keeping it together”

               “I don’t know you.”

               That look of something unspeakably horrible passed over Satsuki’s face again.  Ryuko tightened her grip on Satsuki’s hand, “Sats!  What’s wrong?”

               “… Something I should’ve already told you.  Nonon.  She knows.”

               “Oh shit,”  Was it Rei?  No, Satsuki clearly thinks this was her fault, “She figured it out from just that one phone call?”

               Satsuki nodded, “She’s perceptive, even you can give her that.  Frankly I’m just… disappointed in myself for not being careful enough.”

               “Not tryna kick you when you’re down, but I’m kinda surprised too.  I thought you’d be better at keeping the secret than me.  What, are you just getting worn out on keeping secrets?”

               “I may be,”  Satsuki murmured, far away from the conversation.  She cleared her throat, “But you don’t have to worry, she won’t tell anyone.”

               “No kidding.  How’d you work that one out?”

               “I, ah, I threatened to remove her from command of the Kamui Corps.”

               That shocked Ryuko, and it showed.  “Damn, that’s cold!”  She exclaimed, then gasped, “Oh fuck, she wasn’t happy about it, was she?”

               Satsuki shook her head vigorously, and that look passed over her face.  Her eyes went wide and far-away, edges of her mouth pulled back, as she reviewed how this was all going to play out.  She would keep slipping up, and every time she would lose someone.  Was it worth it? All for the pretty face across the table from her – oh who was she even kidding – the only person who really understood her.  Of course it was worth it.  But…

               “Whoa!  Hey, hey, Sat’s it’s alright!”  Ryuko was standing, rushing around the table pulling back the table and scooping Satsuki’s stiff back into a full body hug, “It’s gonna be okay, you hear?  Nonon will come around, she’ll be happy for you.”

               Satsuki leaned into her.  Oh, how she wished she could believe that.

               “She said she… didn’t know me.”

               Ryuko frowned, “Okay, that’s pretty harsh, but-,”

               Eyes wide as the full enormity of what had happened settled in on her, Satsuki’s mouth pulled into the ugly beginnings of a sob.  But even in a fit of emotion she was still in complete control of her body, and she fought it down ferociously, instead looking Ryuko in the eyes with a grave, sublimely empty expression.  “I lost my best friend today,” She finally said.

               Ryuko didn’t know what to say.  Grasping for something, she blurted, “I’m so sorry!”

               “For what?  You didn’t do anything. I am slipping, you were right.  This was my failure.”

               “No!  I shouldn’ta talked while you were on the phone, that was stupid.  A-and besides it was me who kissed you the first time.  You wouldn’ta done anythin’,”  Ryuko was pretty sure that wasn’t true, but it was too late to go back and check.

               “That’s not true.  And even if it were, it’s no excuse.  I was weak, and now I’ve paid for it.”

               Satsuki was looking away from Ryuko in self disgust now.  If she had the strength, she would have torn herself away from the embrace, but she just couldn’t make any part of her move.  And she hated herself for it.

                              “You’re doing it again!  Look, you can’t keep putting everything on you, you just make it worse!  I’m in this with you too, and if you don’t accept that you’ll – you’ll,”  Ryuko struggled with the words, she didn’t really know what she meant to say.  Ragyo, Nonon, Rei – it was all so fucked up, but what scared her most was how happy and content Satsuki had seemed, even while losing her best friend tore her up inside.

               “Just shut up and hold me,”  Satsuki said.  And to her credit, Ryuko listened.

~~~~

               Ryuko kept quiet, and kept a fierce grip on Satsuki, for the course of an entire movie (watched on Ryuko’s laptop since Satsuki didn’t have a TV).  She wanted to ask, but she also didn’t want to hurt Satsuki anymore.  Wasn’t she here to relieve the stresses of Satsuki’s life, not make them worse?  She hoped she was doing a good job, and through the whole movie (a historical docu-flick she correctly guessed Satsuki would like) she replayed the hot-water-bottle trick from The Weekend.  Although she didn’t keep completely still.

               “Hmm.  That tickles,”  Satsuki finally said as the credits were rolling, and Ryuko was running a hand through her hair admiringly, “Extra pretty today?”

               “So silky,”  Ryuko murmured, nestling in closer so she was practically lying on Satsuki’s lap, “How the hell d’ya do it?”

               “An extra half hour before and after work every day and yours could be the same,”  Satsuki fluffed Ryuko’s unkempt mess, “But I like it the way it is.  Anyway, enjoy it while you can.”

               “Huh?”

               “It’ll all go white by the time I’m thirty.”

               “You’re kidding!”

               “It happens to all of us – the Kiryuin white.  Well, except you, just another benefit of eternal youth,” Satsuki marveled at how she could say those words so easily, while right there in front of her was a person who would never die or even change. Who might go on holding her as dear in her glowing, fibrous heart as she did at that very moment until the end of time. Amazing and crushingly lonely though that thought might be, she carried on explaining in her usual way, “It’s an inbreeding thing, see? Here,”  She held a strand for Ryuko to examine. “You can see the white threads already if you look close enough,”  She said glumly.

               Ryuko did examine it, and yeah she could see the threads, but most people had a little grey on close examination so she assumed it was nothing unusual.  Oh my god, then she really will look just like… her.

               “You’re still thinking about Nonon, aren’t you?”  She said instead, sitting up and closing the media player tab on her laptop.  Satsuki nodded.  “You weren’t ever gonna tell me, were you?  Be honest.”

               Satsuki sighed and said, “No, at least not for a while.”

               “W-why though?  It would’ve just made it even harder to deal with.”

               “Oh, you have much worse problems to deal with.”

               “I mean, uh,”  Ragyo, right.  And I was afraid she’d try to – well, I suppose ‘break up’ with me because of it –instead I almost forgot! “Well maybe, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still be here for you.”

               “I’m honestly surprised how well you’re taking it.  You were, well, reasonably upset about it last I checked.”

               “Heh.  Reasonably.”

               “I’m scared too Ryuko.”

               “I know, I know.  I’m plenty scared, don’t mind admitting that.  But I spent some time with Mako today, and y’know what she did?  She never mentioned it, once.  And I thought to myself ‘I’m not being influenced by her.  Ragyo would’ve hated Mako most of all, but nothin’ changed between us’.  She’s still my favorite, so I can’t be losing myself – so if she’s in there then that’s just where she’ll stay ‘til the boys can figure out how to get her out,”  Ryuko said with a toothy smile. “Uh, favorite ‘sides you, obviously,”  She added with an even bigger smile.

               “Hmm.  Do you still love her?”

               “Whaat? Nah, you’ve got nothin’ to worry about there.  Me and her, it’s different.  So like yeah I love her but not love her love her.  Me and her, we’re like a team,  but it’s not like I’ve ever felt this ‘my god I just have to be with her’ feeling -  y’know, like with you,”  Satsuki’s eyes narrowed skeptically, and Ryuko shrugged, “She’s just always there, same as ever, no matter how long we’re apart.  She’s honestly more my sister than you’ve even been ‘terms of how I feel.  Does that make sense? Don’t sweat it, really.”

               “Yes, I think I understand – when I first learned about your relationship – back when you were in high school, you remember that deal you had – I was just confounded by it. But I think I understand it now.  Tell me, do you think she would approve of us, were she to find out?”

               “Pssh, more like she’d be thrilled.  She’s basically seen this coming for years.”

               Satsuki’s face was the picture of stunned disbelief, “You’re kidding.”

               “Nope, she caught onto me like, right away.”

               “Well she’s… amazing at keeping secrets, I must admit to underestimating her.”

               “People always do!”

               Satsuki sighed, “I’d thought – no, hoped that Nonon would be my Mako.  But I guess that’s not too likely.”

               Ryuko paused, looking at her with a serious but upbeat glint in her eyes, “It might not be too late, you know.”

               “Explain,”  Satsuki said skeptically.

               “Lemme see your phone.”

               “Absolutely not!”

               “Wha- I, alright fair just let me help you text something then.”

               Satsuki considered, decided. “…Alright.”

~~~~

               Little did Satsuki know that Nonon was at that very moment hunched over her soundboard, furiously hammering out one track after another.  Whoever first said “write what you know” had no idea how well that applied to music too; she wrote and recorded horrid, screeching dissonance which defied every tradition of chord progression – every measure felt like a betrayal, every melody distorted and alien.  In later years, this would be considered some of the finest art of her early career, both incomprehensibly Avant Garde and weirdly listenable in a unique way.  Small consolation to the musicians in the recording booth who had to bear the brunt of screeching demands.  One of her lead singers fled in tears after a particularly scathing takedown, but that had kept the rest in line.  Their whole musical careers had lead up to being in the booth with the great Lady Jakuzure, and they would swallow just about any abuse. 

               Not like any of them knew why she was so incensed, but some of the cleverer musicians could detect there was more to it than her usual short fuse.

               “No!  No no no!  Are you listening – Are you hearing yourselves?!”  She was hollering when her phone buzzed.  She read the tagline, betraying no outward surprise at seeing Satsuki’s name.  “From the top, don’t dick it up this time!”

               *I hope you haven’t blocked my number.  Please let me know if you see this*

               “Uh, Lady Jakuzure?”

               “What.”

               [You didn’t put on the updated version of the beat]  Saiban said helpfully, and when she barely acknowledge it he sighed and picked up her hand himself, pressing the right buttons on the keyboard with a stiff motion.

               *I have to apologize.  None of what happened today is your fault, and I don’t blame you for how you reacted.  You stuck by your morals. I’m proud of that.*

               “Lying hypocrite!”  Nonon hissed, and was about to type a scathing rebuke, but Satsuki wasn’t done typing (Ryuko was busily nodding and saying “Yeah, that’s good.  Just type how you really feel.”)

               *I’m not going to strip your rank.  Act as you see fit.  It was monstrous of me to even suggest it.*

               *It broke my heart to see you leave.  Like part of me had died.*

               *Please don’t hate me.*

               Back in Satsuki’s den, Ryuko put her hands behind her head and said, “That’s the best we can do.  And I guess now you know you text everyone in full sentences, kinda funny.”

               “Shh!  She’s typing,”  Satsuki waved a hand in her direction.

               *I meant what I said* the text was simple.  Satsuki’s heart sunk plummeted like an anchor.

               But Nonon wasn’t done, *I don’t know you.  You hid something really horrible from me*

               *And I don’t know what else you might be hiding.  You’re not who I thought you were.*

               *I guess I haven’t decided if I hate you or not.*

               “Read that,”  Satsuki shoved the phone to Ryuko urgently.

               “That’s good!”  Ryuko grinned, “I mean, not perfect, but not hating you maybe is better than definitely hating you.”

               “I’m not so sure, myself, but there’s one last thing I can try.”

               *Attached file: KJpart1.midi*  Satsuki sent that to Nonon.  She’d hoped to work on it a little more, and to give it off under better circumstances, but she knew that if nothing else it would get Nonon’s attention.

               *Well, if you decide you don’t hate me, I’d like you to take a look at this.*

               Nonon’s eyebrows flew up.  A sheet music file?  How unexpected – was it some kind of trick?

               *What is this?*

               *It’s something I’ve been working on.  If you’re interested, I’d like you to make it into a real song.*

               Nonon was more interested than she wanted to be.  She opened the file, started reading (yes, of course she had a sheet music app on her phone).  It was primitive, riddled with flaws – to be expected – but this melody… why was it so familiar?  She’d never heard it before, but somehow… Saiban had?

               [This is just bizarre.  How could she know about this – oh, of course.  Junketsu.]  In a flash, Nonon understood.  She paused the beat and the band stumbled to a halt.

               “New plan,”  She barked, “You all get out.  Go home.  Bright and early tomorrow.”

               It was with more than a little relief that the musicians hurried fled the studio.  Meanwhile, Ryuko looked at the text conversation in confusion.  “Uh, what the hell?”

               “I’ll explain that eventually, if she actually uses it.  It’s… a bit much to get into right now.”

               Nonon didn’t text back.  But she didn’t go to sleep until very, very late that night either.

~~~~

               Later, Satsuki lead Ryuko upstairs to the diminutive master bedroom.  Satsuki insisted on cramming a queen sized bed in there (she could get away with some creature comforts, couldn’t she?), so they were able to nestle together at just the right snugness.

               But the moment she entered, Ryuko’s eyes were drawn to a painted portrait hanging over the bed.  A young man in an old fashioned suit with a huge, bright orange coif and piercing blue eyes who stood in a lavish office, hand resting on a giant globe.

               “Hey, who is that?”  Ryuko finally asked as they were laying there, not yet asleep and not really trying to fall asleep either.

               Satsuki looked at her, confused and a little sad, “That’s father.”

               “What?  T-that’s what he looked like when he was young?”

               “Before his facial reconstruction surgery, yes.  You see why he went right under our noses the whole time.”

               “Oh my gosh, he was handsome.  Gosh, he really does look so much like you!”  Ryuko said, but she thought something else.  She knew he had to change his face for the sake of his mission, to ruin that perfect Kiryuin symmetry to save the world was a small price, but…

               He did that for me.

               “Well no wonder you think him handsome.”

               “He looks sad.”

               “He always looked sad.  Well, ever since we ‘lost’ you, anyway.”

               “Oh my god…”  Ryuko suddenly had a whole new, clearly vision of the past.  And what she saw was indeed profoundly sad.  “Hold on, where did he send me, anyway?  Because when he left you you were four or so, and we’re only a year apart, so…”

               “I believe it was Kinue, Tsumugu’s sister.  Details are scarce, but you could ask him, I suppose.”

               “No fuckin’ shit.  What a fuckin’ trip this is,”  At this point she actually got up to take a look at him.  Dad and Kinue, man the questions I could ask them.  So instead she asked Satsuki, “Were she and dad like… a thing?  Didn’t I hear something like that from Aikuro once?”

               “Again, I’m not really sure.  But I think so.  She stuck with him through thick and thin, when even Aikuro considered quitting.  It would make sense.”

               “I barely even remember her.  I feel stupid, y’know?  I don’t even know what to say.”

               “Well, what can you say?”  Satsuki asked, legitimately curious if Ryuko thought there were specific words befitting the moment, “What do you want to say?”

               “I dunno.  I just wish I knew them.  I wish it didn’t turn out this way,”  She laid back down.  “But if it didn’t,”  She laid a gentle kiss on Satsuki’s lips, then another, longer and more passionate, “If it didn’t, we might not be here right now.”

               “You know, I can’t help but agree. I’ve tried, but I can’t,”  She had to chuckle as she said it too.  Then Ryuko kissed her again, and although neither of them pushed it much further than that they didn’t speak for a good long while.  And when they did – pajamas and nightgown now partially shed and tangled up with each other, it really was while they were trying to fall asleep. 

               “Hey Sats?”  Ryuko’s arms were wrapped around Satsuki’s belly and she squeezed her a little harder to get her attention.

               “Mmm?”

               “You said, before, that Shiro wouldn’t call it Ragyo’s soul, he had some other more sciencey definition.  Right?”

               “Yes, I remember that.  What about it?”

               “Well nothin’, I just… didn’t know you believed in stuff like that.  I kinda didn’t expect you were religious.”

               “Hmm,”  Satsuki murmured. Her eyes were open now, looking into Ryuko’s.  Just like her to bring up something so serious right before bed – so unexpected, “Religious?  I wouldn’t go that far.  But you and I both know that life-fibers work on a level that’s more than physical, right?  We both know there’s really such thing as right and wrong in the world – good and evil.  What else would you call it?”

               “That’s fair, I think.  I guess I just thought you were so logical you wouldn’t accept something like that.  But you’re not a robot, don’t worry I know.”

               “Oh it’s perfectly logical – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – and I’ve seen extraordinary evidence.  Tell me, because I really am curious, what do you believe in Ryuko?”

               “Heh, with everything I’ve seen, I don’t know what the hell to believe.  I kinda thought when people started thinkin’ I was a goddess of an angel or whatever that I’d be struck down for stealin’ the big man’s thunder, but it hasn’t happened yet.  I know I ain’t anything special, that’s all I can say.”

               “… Well, odds are we’ll never really know.  At least, not until we see what’s waiting for us on the other side.  Which… you won’t be doing.  But who knows what you might see a million, a billion years from now?”

               “Well, that took a dark turn.”

               “What did you expect?”

               “… Eh, good point,”  Ryuko pulled her closer until their noses were touching, “Don’t you dare go anywhere too soon, though.”

               Satsuki smiled, eyes glassy as she contemplated that just two years ago she’d thought that, in a world without Ragyo she had no reason to live.  This was reason enough.

               “I’ll tell you one thing I do believe though,”  She turned up to the ceiling as though she could see through to the stars above, “If there is a god, it hates us,”  Ryuko looked at her, clearly gripped by such a thing, “This universe is full of uncounted planet destroyed by the life-fibers.  Planets full of civilized creatures just like us, gone forever.  What god would let them get away with that except one who wants us to die?”

               Ryuko chuckled in spite of herself, “Dark.  You sound like Shiro, you know that?”

               “Maybe.  Sometimes he’s got a point.  But you know what?  No matter what you say, you are special, Ryuko.  Because we aren’t dead. You fought God, and you won.”

               “Sap,”  Ryuko chuckled, “That might be the nerdiest, sappiest thing I’ve ever heard someone say!”

               “What’s sappy about that?”

               “Ohh you know, c’mon,”  She ruffled Satsuki’s hair playfully.  But there was an idea that went unvoiced, because it was only a suspicion at this point.  But just like life-fibers were what nearly killed us, they’re also the only reason we’re all alive.  Hell, they evolved us from stupid apes too!  So maybe Satsuki’s wrong, maybe the universe doesn’t just want us dead.  Ragyo might be stuck in me, but if I stay safe, maybe she can’t do anything.  Maybe that’s a good thing, it didn’t feel like one, but she could dream. Maybe I was meant to win.

               Maybe I’m the start of something new.

Chapter Text

November 2066

~~~~

               Nobody knew what the shape of the new war with REVOCS would be once the chaos of the first few days died down, but not in even Satsuki’s predictions did she anticipate that it would be… almost boring.  Sure, the terrorist attacks with Ultima Uniforms and hybrid beasts that the ordinary military could only stall were just about nonstop, and work at the Research Complex was stopped almost hourly by one of the high-velocity dropships ferrying someone off to fall from the sky on top of the invaders and put them down, and it was exciting to see the terror in the cultist’s eyes and thrilling to hear the cheers of crowds hailing them as real-life superheroes and deeply, deeply satisfying to the Kamui’s base instincts to hunt and kill… at first.

               At first, because there was at no time any attack that posed a significant challenge or even required more than one of the Kamui Corps to show up (and this was especially irritating to Nonon because she had planned all sorts of team training exercises which were now turning out roughly useless).  They’d expected the Kamui to show their possessed faces again or hell even some Three-Star uniforms that might pose a reasonable challenge, but so far the most fearsome thing they saw was the Two-Star Huskarl model that Nonon had already figured out how to defeat. There were a couple other Two-Star types too (a flying one, an artillery one that fired beams of sound and light like Nonon’s Goku Uniform used to, and a big bruiser that enhanced strength but didn’t have any other tricks) but these were quite frankly less of a nuisance than the Huskarls with their damn shields which meant you had to at least slow down.

               And the thing was they knew REVOCS had tougher foes.  They’d fought them, and barely survived.  So why were they being kept in reserve?  The tactical calculus said (at least in Satsuki’s opinion, and nobody had any better ideas) that swift and decisive destruction of the new government of Japan was not, despite their recruitment propaganda, the true aim.  They were up to something, but what?

               And so over the first two weeks, as Satsuki’s spies fanned out across the world in a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, her inner circle settled into a routine between their attacks that gave everyone time to do whatever their usual lives entailed between sparring with each other and going out on missions.  Some handled this better than others – they’d all expected something different, and when things became exciting again it was almost a relief.

~~~~

               “I mean it’s a nice win, but I don’t get why they aren’t throwing anything tougher at us,”  Uzu said as he thoughtfully twiddled a broken medal ripped from an ultima uniform.  Another day, another war council, another REVOCS terror attack that was mopped up without a challenge.  “That’s the… ninth, I think, this week without a single civilian casualty.  It’s great for our polls, I get that.  But hell, I think a squad of DTRs could’ve done the same.  So what’s going on?”

               Aikuro nodded, sitting up in his seat across the table, “I think your initial prediction has been proven out, Satsuki.  They’re just keeping us busy.”

               “Oh, undoubtedly,” Houka said, fingers busy on his laptop, “And now you’ll be happy to know we have proof.  Shall I?”  He asked Satsuki – this had all already passed by her desk, but it was being kept from leaking to the public.

               “Certainly,” She cleared her throat, “Although I must ask, councilors, that you refrain from discussing this content outside of this room until after the press release this afternoon.”  Not that it’ll do much good, she glanced over to the spymaster who had helped Houka collect this information (official Information Chair or not, nobody sifted through surveillance footage like Houka and even spymasters had to defer) and the drawn look on his face told her that no matter what they tried there was no stopping information from beyond Japan from entering through the docks and airports of the nation.  There was a seeping feeling out there that something was going down, and the best they could do was merely stop a full panic.

               “Izanami?”  Houka asked the air, and instantly the screens in the center of the room flared to life.

               Satelite and drone imagery, photos and video from agents on the ground flashed by.  Illumated by harsh spotlights and alien bioluminescence, armed columns of REVOCS troopers in ultima uniforms marched through the streets of Hong Kong, Seoul, New Jakarta, Sydney (the smoldering remains of the famous opera house were illuminated by the far larger fire of a slowly sinking battleship behind it).  And above the massed soldiers and the gigantic, chained hybrid beasts that hunched in their midst and the shells of devastated tanks and mechs and helicopters hovered those unmistakable figures, mere dots compared to the chaos and the swirling lights beneath them, but the unearthly terror they exuded dwarfed the armies beneath them.

               The councilors gasped and went silent.

If Ryuko were here, she’d blurt something thoughtless to break the tension, Satsuki thought wistfully, but since that first meeting she had decided coming to council meetings was a bad idea.  Things were strained enough between Satsuki and Nonon, who spent the meetings as alertly attentive as ever but never looked Satsuki’s way or even acknowledged her unless she absolutely had to.  Satsuki never tried to breach the divide, no sense causing a scene during a council meeting, and while everyone could sense the coldness between them only Houka and Uzu knew Nonon deeply enough to know that this wasn’t just because they were both too preoccupied with work.  But the feeling spread to the others through their Kamui.  Just like out in the wider nation, everyone who mattered in the council knew that something was up, but they didn’t know what.

Once everyone had caught their breath a little, Houka explained, “This was last night, at roughly 0100.  Lightning attacks on the four largest Pacific states, and smaller landing forces elsewhere,” He flicked through more images, “Siberia, Alaska, Hawaii, and we’ve spotted a fleet still on its way towards the South American coast.  The conventional militaries… they never stood a chance.”

The next slide came up.  This time even Satsuki could feel the blood drain from her face.

It was a field of carnage the scale of which even the satellite images failed to fully capture.  Twisted bodies and cratered, overturned earth.

“Early this morning, the Chinese military assembled in full force to stop the invasion force as it crossed from Hong Kong to the mainland.  Their quick response time was impressive, but nevertheless,”  another satellite shot flashed by, showing a massive canyon, a perfect cylinder of carved earth, turned to black glass by a blast of immeasurable heat, “Even before Kamui Ranketsu did that it was all over.  Within hours the People’s Republic of China announced its full capitulation and has since ceased to exist, annexed by REVOCS.  Korea has fallen too, but Indonesia and Australia have retreated and are waging guerilla resistance.  I’m told that the American Empire hasn’t even offered any resistance to landings in California, as repeated droughts have rendered the area completely uninhabited.”

“To their credit, the more remote provinces are refusing to comply.  REVOCS has small numbers of soldiers, they cannot enforce their will everywhere,”  Satsuki added, “But this is beside the point.”

“Quite.  Once footholds had been established, the REVOCS soldiers fanned out along the coast, rounding up locals and pressing them into service.  And then, they started building,”  The screen changed again, and this final flash showed maybe the most arresting sight of all.  Huge rectangular structures, indistinct beneath scaffolding but clearly rigid, industrial monstrosities that towered over their surroundings, even the ones build right in between skyscrapers.

“What the hell?”  Ira murmured wonderingly “The sheer cost…”

               “…The amount of civilian casualties…” Said one of the scientists, a young woman from Bangladesh who Aikuro was seeing off and on.  Indonesia’s not far from home, globally speaking, she thought worriedly.

               “Do we have any idea what purpose they serve?”

“Not really.  At first, we thought some kind of massive cannon, or a huge life-fiber resonance chamber that could be used in some form of ritual.  But look at these,” The screens zoomed in on a set of unusual objects, one distributed to each of the construction sites.  Truly enormous solid lead cylinders carved by unnatural means – aggregating so much lead in one place would be nearly impossible without a means of synthesizing it not of this Earth.  They lay horizontal on the ground now, but end to end the cratered pillars would be far, far taller even than Honnouji’s tower.  True megastructures.  “Now, what are they being used for?”

A scientist said, “Some kind of massive seismic impact?”

“Possibly, but to what aim?”  Houka asked, and the scientist shrugged.

“Well, that’s what you’re going to find out,” Satsuki declared.  “No matter the aim, we can all agree that these constructions cannot be completed.  To this aim we must assemble an expedition, a surgical strike headed by the Kamui Corps,”  She turned to Nonon, “You will assemble a crew of five Wearers and their Kamui and travel to Indonesia at the head of this force, establish contact with the resistance, destroy these megastructures, scatter REVOCS to the wind, free the enslaved populace and slay the enemy Kamui, returning with its host – dead or alive.”

Instantly Nonon was furious.  The fucking imperious tone!  Maybe she was just looking for something to complain about, but why Indonesia!  Why not the ones in Korea, right on our doorstep?

               But there was something even more important, “Five is too many.  Half of my team must remain on call here for national security.”  The rest, even Rei, who spent all these meetings with a flat expression that Nonon, read as a desperate desire to get the hell out of there, listened quietly for Satsuki’s response.

               “Very well, four then.  My apologies,”  Satsuki caved, and Nonon was about to protest further, demand to know why she’d chosen Indonesia of all places, when it occurred to her that Satsuki had probably asked for five Kamui just to give her an excuse to complain about something.  What the hell kind of game is she playing?  Nonon was taken off guard immediately and sat there stewing.

               “I’ll assemble a fleet at once, My Lady,”  One of the old generals barked deferentially.  So many people still called her ‘Lady Satsuki’ that she didn’t bother correcting them anymore.

               “That won’t be necessary.  This is the new kind of war the Kamui were designed for. Even with your most capable men a full invasion fleet will result only in more lives lost.  Assemble only the logistical support and intelligence agents necessary to support Nonon’s chosen team.  Any further questions?”

               [According to Seijitsu, Uzu is very excited about going to the tropics.  Just thought you’d like to know] Saiban told her like a whisper in her ear.  Great, thanks. How did he know he’d even make the team?  He probably thought, with that Neanderthal brain of his, that there’d be enough time for a day on the beach, surfing, snorkeling.  Wait until she was sunburnt as pink as her hair, see how fun it would be then!  And of course, he would deny it if ever confronted.  [I think you’re getting upset at the wrong person,] Saiban snapped her out of the distracted reverie, and yeah, he was right.

               “Isn’t military action on foreign soil technically a violation of some international code or another?”  Nonon suddenly asked as everyone was packing up and getting ready to leave.

               Satsuki looked at her with a totally unreadable glance, “The government of Indonesia is a corrupt and enfeebled junta, it hasn’t had a shred of legitimacy since the 2020s.  We do not recognize it.  And besides, who’s going to enforce such codes against you?”

               However Satsuki meant that to come out, Nonon chose to interpret it in the worst way possible.

~~~~

               “So, who will you send?”  Satsuki ambushed Nonon as she was leaving the council chamber.  Nonon whirled around in the wide empty hallway that lead to the training arena.  The hall, once dimly lit concrete was now a soothing shade of yellow cream with blue lights and engraved leaves on the walls, after Mako and Ryuko’s renovations (Ryuko had even drawn up the leaf designs herself, although Izanami was the one to etch them in).  Satsuki could almost feel their intent to make this a place where no one could feel fraught or furious.  If only it worked.

 There were lots of reasons why this was a bad idea, but at this point with Nonon avoiding her so studiously there was no other way to directly talk to her.  Still, the look of something approximating terror on her former best friend’s face cut deep.  She debated the merits of saying, “Nevermind, it’s your decision” and walking off.

               But Nonon’s response wasn’t what she expected. “I don’t know yet, does it matter?”  She spat venomously, “More like I should be asking you why the hell we’re going to Indo-fucking-nesia when there’s a whole enemy army right across the sea who could attack any day!”

               So Satsuki explained, “Because Indonesia is an archipelago with powerful natural barriers against troop movement, meaning when you attack a construction site it will take some time for other garrisons to respond.  Because despite not officially recognizing their legitimacy we have the best diplomatic relationship with them of any major Pacific nation.  Because Australia is directly adjacent to the country, and seeing that we can respond to REVOCS in their vicinity should prompt them into asking for help, which is good for our long term aims.  Because Matoiists represent a significant portion of their population, so you can expect very high levels of local support.  And finally for the oldest and simplest reason: we need to keep the ocean trade routes through the archipelago open or else lose timely shipments of grain from Africa, without which our people will starve.”

               “Are you sure?  You sure it’s not because that’s where your cousin is?  Yeah, I saw that was her, the red and white one.  I bet you wouldn’t have a single problem if she didn’t come back alive, would you?”

               Satsuki was genuinely puzzled, “She’s no rival for power, I swept her under the rug and have paid the price for doing so.  If anything she is the one I’d most like to bring her back alive, so that I may uncover her reasoning for betraying us – if she even did so willingly.”

               Nonon was infuriated.  Those all sounded like good reasons, the exact kind of reasons she always trusted Satsuki to have.  But no, that couldn’t be right!  She was sure it was a deception, that this was all really just brutal power grabbing… but how?

               “Does that sufficiently explain my choice of mission?”  Satsuki asked gently.

               “What is it you want?” Nonon blurted suddenly, leaving Satsuki at a loss.

               “I’m… sorry?”

               “You said you’re after peace, but I see you out there,” She pointed back towards the council chamber. “It’s the student council all over again!  You have everyone under your thumb, and you love it, don’t you?  So what’s the endgame, huh?”

               And that did give Satsuki genuine pause.  Not because Nonon was right, but because she couldn’t think of a satisfactory answer.  One that wasn’t contradictory.  How could she admit that being in the pilot’s seat in a time of crisis was still thrilling, even though every time Ryuko left in the morning with a kiss to her forehead and a cocky grin she felt sure she’d rather leave it all behind to spend every day with her.  She saw what moved other people, simple goals of career and family and comfort that were far from the most horrible things to want, and she had consumed the great works of philosophy along with everything else as a child – consumed, and decided that questions of happiness and the human condition were best left for those who didn’t have a world to save.

               But she’d seen those brutal machines, and there was no denying what REVOCS was building.  Apocalypse engines.  And Satsuki realized with cold finality what it meant that the war was not over.

               Ryuko, I need help!  How can it be that after everything, the weight of saving the world still falls on us?

               How can it be that Nonon has been at my side this entire time, and she still thinks that we have time to be real people while the fate of the planet is on the line.  Have I failed to teach her?

               I’ve spent the last two years thinking that I had time… And Satsuki concluded that she must have done something horribly wrong, because all I did with this time was break a taboo so deep that now I’ve ruined our friendship so that it’s too late to teach her.  And I’m not able to do what’s necessary.  Not like I was.

               “You go, you find out what they’re building, what it does, and you destroy it,”  She finally said, “Until you do that questions like that are irrelevant, and you won’t be satisfied by the answers either.”

               Now it was Nonon’s turn to be baffled.  What the FUCK does that mean?

               [Well, I know one thing.  You don’t understand her, and neither do I.  Come on, let’s just go.]  Saiban, able to look at Nonon’s memories more clearly and dispassionately than she, was deeply curious if there were any clues to be had in all the memories of Satsuki.  But he didn’t have time to search, not with the turmoil of his partner’s emotions clouding him.

               Satsuki was about to go, when, “Wait!  I worked on that music you sent.”

               She turned back around.

               “You know what it is, right?”  Nonon asked, “I didn’t but, Saiban did.  That’s the music that… that Kamui use to -,”

               “Yes.  Break your will.  You’ve heard it too?”

               Nonon shook her head, “Saiban, er, lost the ability to make it when they changed him,” it was hard to call up the right words to describe it.  Nonon was afraid Satsuki would try to leave again, something about her stance looked edgy, and the quiet, succinct way she’d answered seemed to say she didn’t want to talk about this.  But before she could move Nonon went on, “But you wore that thing for months.  It couldn’t have been playing -,”

               “- The entire time.”

               “Holy…”  Nonon and Saiban went through a string of logical leaps very quickly.

               There’s no way that’s true.

               [I don’t think she’s lying.  Look at her.  But how could she withstand it?]  Saiban couldn’t read her exact thoughts, but he could feel how skeptical she was.

               I always knew she was strong-willed, but this is something else.

               [What I mean is that humans can’t withstand it] Saiban clarified, and Nonon already knew just from working on it that this music affected her in some indefinable way.  Playing it back for just a few moments made her heart pound, and she felt this strange heat rising in her throat and an… itch in the back of her mind like it was reminding her of something she couldn’t quite remember.  Someplace empty and peaceful where she was sure she’d been, but couldn’t quite remember

               Does Satsuki want to feel that way?

               [Or maybe she doesn’t feel that way.]

               Fear gripped Nonon, as she suddenly realized what Saiban was getting at.  Even Ryuko hadn’t been able to resist it, but Satsuki, flesh and blood though she might be she was somehow less human than even her hybrid sister!

               “Why did you do this?”  Nonon asked, “You shouldn’t have, it’s not natural.”

               Satsuki looked at her sadly, “I just wanted to hear it again.”

               Or maybe… Nonon remembered all the horrors Satsuki had been subjected to – that she knew but had never confirmed to have happened.  Or maybe she wasn’t immune to it.  Maybe that feeling of peace, fake though it was, was all she had.

               She had no answer, nothing except this ever-deepening feeling that the woman standing before her was an unknowable void.  And that scared her.

               “I think you should be in therapy,”  Nonon said with finality.

               “Maybe,”  Satsuki nodded.  When Nonon didn’t say anything else she asked, “Is that all?”

               “N-no.  No, y’know what?  I also think that someone who should be in therapy shouldn’t be in control of the military.”

               “Hmm,”  Satsuki smiled, “You say you don’t know me, yet I’ve had men killed for words less insubordinate than that.  And you said it anyway. No matter.  Perhaps when you return, if you’re willing, you might play that song for me, and we can talk about what I want.”

               “Since when did I say I was going?”

               “You didn’t.  But you will.  Because I know you Nonon, and when you emerge victorious – and you will be victorious – it will be under your command.  Your victory, and no one else’s.”

~~~~

               And so, in less than a day’s time Nonon found herself staring out over the shapeless grey blue of a stormy sea, flying south into the unknown just as much to fight and win as to get the hell away from Satsuki and Ryuko.  And she knew it, she felt like she was running, like she should have stayed and tried to fix them, though she had no idea how. 

At least here when she saw something inhuman, the solution was much simpler.  Here the solution was to kill them.

Chapter Text

November 2066

               ~~~~

               There was no noticeable change in the ocean’s monotonous grey as Indonesia approached.  The stealth dropship flew fast and low, and Nonon could see the roll of the whitecaps and the sporadic patches of garbage, and rarely (eerily rarely) she could feel through Saiban the faint auras of living creatures beneath the surf.  Troubled though she was, she could feel how positively giddy Saiban was – not very considerate of him, but how upset could she be?  If it weren’t for those goddamn Kiryuins she’d be giddy too, although more that she was going to war with her Kamui instead of just from seeing the ocean.

               The plane climbed up above the clouds with such a tilt that even Nonon – whose entire combat style was based on balance and acrobatics – had trouble keeping upright as she paced the cabin.  The climb flung them right through the effective altitude range of radar scanners in mere minutes.  There was no chance they’d been spotted.

               “We’ll be at the drop point in thirty,”  She said as she walked into the cargo bay where her picked team was waiting.  Aikuro, Tsumugu, and Uzu nodded in affirmation, and she was pleased by their serious air.  It had been hard to pick them, no doubt, and in the end it had almost been a question of who didn’t want to go.  Houka and Shiro had big plans for their research – now that Izanami’s supercomputer component was working out they wanted to make a similar system for Houka’s Misaki. Ira wanted to spend more time with Mako now that the supermax was a burnt shell.  And Rei, well…

~~~~ The day before ~~~~

               “Good work out there today.  Shame the practice axe broke when it did, or you would’ve won the last one,”  Nonon said as she walked into the women’s locker room next to the arena.  Immediately after the council meeting, she’d rounded everyone up for some sparring. This was standard practice, every member of the Kamui Corps spent at least two hours a day sparring and wouldn’t have it any other way – a day that went by without transforming was a day wasted, you could just feel that it was true.

               The atmosphere was much less casual than usual.  Nobody tried any clever tricks, no balancing swords on fingertips or bouncing off the barrier field or pulling off acrobatic combo-moves.  Things were serious now, but they were all professionals and without any discussion the focus changed.  Now was the time to practice killing as quickly and efficiently as possible.

               “Thanks,”  Rei called over the noise of the blow dryer. Nonon usually wasn’t the type to dole out complements, but that wasn’t what this was.  She just liked talking shop, when talking shop meant Kamui fighting. “Regular steel just doesn’t hold up.  I really don’t believe it’s cheaper to have us go through like twenty steel blades a day than to just make some blunt hardened life-fiber ones, but what do I know?”

               “No damn way I’m having that argument with Aikuro.”

               “Wait.  Hold on.  I just figured it out!  They just melt the broken ones down and recycle them, don’t they.”

               “Ohhh.  Pfft yeah alright that tracks.  Still, yours wouldn’t break so often if it wasn’t such a giant-ass battleaxe.”

               “Nah, I like it though.”

               “I know, I know, but you gotta admit it has its drawbacks.  Why’d you pick that, anyway.”

               Rei made a thoughtful hum noise and took a moment to confer with Furashada before saying, “It’s fun.  That’s about it, really.  I used to think it would be… interesting to carry such a big weapon like it was nothing.  But Ragyo had no time for such frivolities.  Something so clumsy wouldn’t be beautiful.”

               “Huh,”  Nonon concluded as she stepped into the shower.  She wasn’t in there long and when she got out Rei was wearing Furashada instead of her towel and was busily adjusting the straps on his sandal components.

               “So what d’ya think, you wanna go to war with us?”  Nonon finally asked as she wrapped her hair in a towel.  Rei looked almost frightened by the suggestion.

               “Oh, no that’s alright,”  She chuckled lightly, “I actually thought you’d already decided who you were bringing.”

               “Eh, not really.  I just thought you might want to go, y’know, get away from Ryuko and all that shit,”  Nonon said in snide way that told Rei she was rolling her eyes, even though she wasn’t looking at her.

               Rei’s eyes narrowed.  Does she know? Both she and Furashada wondered, and Furashada immediately started combing their memories to see if they’d slipped up at some point.  If they were responsible for the secret getting out, well, that’d be bad in a big picture way.

               [Judging by her tone, if she knows, she does not approve.] Furashada remembered how hateful Nonon had been when they all first found out about Ragyo. [Tread carefully.]

               I will,  Rei thought, and she said, “I appreciate the thought, but you shouldn’t be worried about that.  Really, it’s fine – someone else would be a better pick to go.”

               “… You aren’t – you aren’t back with her, are you?”

               “Oh, no no no.  I actually just starting renting a new place,”  Rei quickly explained, “I mean, I did go over when we all first got the report, you know the one.  She was really, really torn up, shouldn’t’ve been alone that night.” 

               Nonon looked at her skeptically.

“And then I think one or two more times – but that was just to get my things!”

Nonon was still looking at her skeptically.

[She knows!]

“Hey, c’mon, stop looking at me like that.  What, you really think she is Ragyo now?  You should’ve seen her that night.”

[No, no she knows!]  Furashada hissed urgently, and Rei believed him, but there was no way she was approaching it in conversation.

“I-I mean we had some trouble yeah, but she’s not a bad person.  I’m just trying to figure things out now,”  Rei said, and that was the truth.

She’d had a month to think about it.  A month to try to hate Ryuko, to wall off her life and make it function without her.  But sure as Furashada wrapped her close and warm it wasn’t possible.  How could you hate a person who wasn’t even human, who brought magic into a bleak, mundane world?  Who’d brought magic into her world?  It sounded so strange, but now that she was one with Furashada… she was half Ryuko’s child.

               No, obviously that didn’t make any sense.  More like she was a child of the idea Ryuko represented – that humans and life-fibers could live together.  And how could you hate someone who was in every way a representation of ideas?  Wild and free, eternally youthful, heart forever on her sleeve, and simply, majestically inhuman.  Rei had never known her to be anything else.  And what she’d done – what she’d done (hate Ryuko or not, Rei was still furious)– didn’t change that.  It just meant she was damaged.  Rei knew full well what Ragyo and Nui had done to her when they’d brainwashed her, she wished she could forget.

If I'd only acted then, maybe she wouldn't have turned out damaged.  Is this my payment for what I've done?

And who wasn’t damaged?  Who among them hadn’t been through hell?  Even Satsuki was no exception.  Rei had tried to hate her too, but how could you do that when she too was less than she could be because of that monster?  Oh sure, she was beyond jealous – just look at her walking around with her statue of a body, her will unbroken in spite of it all – who wouldn’t love her?  But how much did that matter when she was just as messed up as the rest of them?

It is like a disease, this Kiryuin curse.  It infects all of us who come close to them – who graze that great and terrible thing beyond humanity which they have become .  Both mother and daughter.

But she couldn’t explain all that to Nonon, especially not now, when she didn’t have any answers herself.

So Nonon just blinked and shrugged and decided she had too much to do to argue now.  Rei might be nuts for that but it wasn’t like she was at fault.  “Alright, sure, whatever.  Final pitch then:  in terms of raw power you’re the strongest of all of us.  Don’t you want to go up against a real threat, see what you can do?”

“Eh, not really.  I actually kind of like what we’re doing right now.”

“Come again?”

“I’ll do what’s necessary but if someone has to stay behind and keep guard I’m fine fighting these minor attacks.”

“Wha-but they’re just distractions! Cannon fodder!”

“Honestly I don’t really care about that.  I just like being there to rescue people.”

“Oh, well I mean I understand wanting an audience, but don’t you want a challenge?”

“Not as much as I want to help people, I guess,”  This wasn’t false, but it was a more charitable explanation than what she really felt, which was that she loved most was to bask in their cheers.  And it felt so much more real when you were on the ground with them, rather than at a stuffy ceremonial presentation of medals. “Besides, if I want a challenge, I can always duel Uzu.  Seriously, just take him instead, he’s easily the best of all us, and I know he’s really excited about going with you.”

“Oh Jesus, that moron.  Why’d he go around talking to y’all about it?”

“I mean, you guys are dating, right?  Why wouldn’t he?”

“Well yeah, but – actually forget it.  No way I can take him, he’d just fuck something up,”  Nonon said lightly, only half joking.

“Ohh you’re too harsh.  You know, back before when we were keeping tabs on everyone at Honnouji I was in charge of figuring out how we could get to each of you if it ever became necessary.  At first with him it was Satsuki but then, right around the time he blinded himself, it switched over to you.”

“Pfft.  Yeah right.”

“I’m serious!  It was pretty obvious – we missed everything Satsuki was planning but we still managed to get that.  I mean, was there ever a time when he purposefully crossed you after that, even once?”

“…Huh…”  Nonon said thoughtfully.  Come to think of it, she had been a little distant since she found out about Ryuko and Satsuki.  She couldn’t talk to him without him asking about it.  How long was she supposed to keep that up though?

By now Rei was long since done and was about to leave.  She turned back to Nonon with a smile, “Of course, if you order me, I’ll go.  But I’d just rather not.”

“Then don’t worry about it,” She nodded, internally thanking Rei for that.  Rei was almost out the door now, “Hey Rei?”

“Hmm?”

“Ryuko doesn’t deserve you, you know that?”

Rei made a half laughing noise, “I try not to think about what she deserves.  Because logically she saved the world, so really, she deserves the world.  But we can’t just keep letting these Kiryuins have everything, right?”  She actually sounded doubtful of the last point.

But Nonon was emphatic, and in that moment they both thought the other knew perfectly that they knew what their Kiryuins were up to.

“Right.”

~~~~

So that was how Rei had turned her down, and how she’d decided that Uzu definitely had to come along.  And Aikuro and Tsumugu, well they were natural choices – capable combatants and infiltrators who each spoke multiple languages and had more experience than any of the rest of them could have ever had.

Together they were quite the motley crew, Nonon in Saiban’s emerald dress looked more suited to a fancy dinner than a battlefield, Aikuro glowed in Nekketsu’s brilliant white suit next to the sleek, militaristic Reiketsu, and then Uzu looked plucked from an earlier era in Seijitsu’s embroidered gi.  But Nonon thought they all looked like they belonged. Except for –

The boy…

He was sitting in the corner on a palette of jamming needle cases, listening attentively but looking gawky and odd-shaped in a bulletproof vest and a helmet that was too big for him.  Mataro Man-fucking-Kanshoku.  Nonon could barely believe he was there, she didn’t want to believe it.  But Uzu had insisted, he wanted him to be a “squire” or something, said that if Mataro wasn’t allowed he wasn’t going either.  And Nonon had nearly said “fine” and kicked him off the jetway, but no, she’d already made up her mind that he was coming, and she wasn’t going to let him ruin that.

But this kid, this kid is going to ruin everything,  Nonon fumed, and for once Saiban didn’t argue.  This was no place for a sixteen-year-old kid.

For his part, Mataro started to regret coming along the moment she walked in and glared at him, nostrils flaring with displeasure.  If it were just the two of them, he’d have had something annoying to say to her… he thought, but what?

It’s like they all forgot I survived a month with the just a couple buddies in Honnou-town when the COVERs were roaming it.  I think I can handle these creeps, they’re only human!  What he had in mind was just mopping up stragglers, not even killing them just stunning them with needles.  But no use speaking up though, all four of them were geared for battle and ready to slice something’s head off.  Besides, considering how long Uzu had been forced to bargain with his mom just to get him to come along – agreeing he wouldn’t come within a mile of any real fighting, that he’d sit tight with the comms nerds whenever things got rough – it was pretty clear even he didn’t trust the Mataro could be of any help.  This is big boy business now, I guess.  Satsuki would say I was lucky to even get to watch.  Ryuko would say I should probably “borrow” one of these needle guns just in case.

“So, what’re you gonna do?”  Uzu asked Aikuro and Tsumugu.

“I think I’ll give Hayate a whirl as we head down, try to pick off as many of them as possible,”  Aikuro said, casual under pressure as ever.  With a faint clicking noise his bow, Hayate, expanded to full size in his hand, and he twirled it experimentally.

“Good idea,”  Tsumugu grunted, “I’ve got a rocket launcher right here, think I’ll join in and take out their transport.  Ultima Uniforms may be immune to rockets, but APCS sure aren’t.”

“I think I’ll use my cape to parachute down to the other side of where you land, outflank ‘em.  They won’t know what’s going on until it’s too late!”

These were all okay ideas, but Nonon suddenly realized something much worse than Mataro’s presence was going on here.

She’d unintentionally picked the three people most likely to countermand her orders.  Uzu, of course he already thought he could pretend that her commands didn’t apply to him.  And the other two, with their years of experience, obviously they would think they knew better.  She felt the blood rising to her face.

“And who gave you permission to do that?”

They all looked at her like she was a buzzkill.  No, like they’d momentarily forgotten she was there.

“You can’t go around taking potshots from a thousand fuckin’ yards, you’re gonna blow our cover!”

“Nobody I target will spot us, believe me,”  Aikuro said in cocky defense.

“Well what about the guy standing next to him?  These people aren’t stupid, they’ll have overlapping lines of sight on their sentries.”

Aikuro held up his hands in resignation, “Alright, you’re the boss.”

“You can pick off a couple right before we land.  Same goes for the rockets those are big fireballs coming right at them, they’ll definitely see that.”

Tsumugu nodded.  He at least respected the chain of command.

               Uzu, on the other hand, “C’mon, what’s the problem?  It’s not like they can beat us, and they aren’t faster than us so they won’t get away.  Let’s have some fun with it!”

               [Yeah!  You know what these guys call us?  Godrobes, emphasis theirs.  They know they don’t stand a chance.]  Seijitsu chirped to the other Kamui. 

               [I don’t know,] Saiban responded skeptically, [You weren’t there for that huge bird Nonon and I fought, but if they have another of those it will be more challenging than you think.  And I can sense the stink of their auras from here.]

               Fortunately, Nonon ended the argument before it got too out of hand. “We’re almost over the dropzone.  And as for you,”  She addressed Uzu.  Stick with the team, you don’t have to go off being a hero on your own.”

               “You don’t think I can take care of myself?”

               Nonon sighed, barely audible over the rush of wind as the bay doors opened, “I know you can.  But why should you have to?  This is what we trained for, let’s run this op to plan and show them we mean business. Alright!”

               “Yes Captain!”  Tsumugu shouted, and without a second thought flung himself out the open door.  Aikuro wasn’t far behind, and then Uzu, giving a mocking wave to Mataro (who was eating his heart out with sheer jealousy).

               “And as for you!”  Nonon shouted to Mataro, leaning out the door so her hair whipped everywhere. “You sit right there, don’t touch anything until this plane hits the ground!”

               “But I -,”

               “But nothing!  Your ass, right there, no move!”

               “I don’t have to fight!  Just let me help!”  Mataro shouted, but she was gone.

~~~~

               Four tiny dots of orange light peeled out from the clouds, a brief flash that could’ve just been a shaft of sunlight.  Once transformed, they faded to mere dots, all but invisible at that range.  Nonon had been right, REVOCS wasn’t stupid and they had plenty of sentries.  But by the time they were could be spotted they’d already be going too fast.

               And though they hurtled down at lightning pace, Nonon had plenty of time to survey the scene.  The faded green of the rainforests, the stark blue and white of the sea, the bleached corals.  And above it all the construction.  It really did look like nothing a human would ever make, even in its unfinished state.  A twisting monolith of sheer black metal, a cacophonous mess of spines and gears and other unidentifiable machines that writhed around that central cylinder.

               We’re gonna tear that thing down with our bare hands!  Nonon thought over the sheer rush of power and adrenaline.

               As they reached terminal velocity, they picked targets.  Nonon pulled Kiba in front of her and streamlined herself into a little pink and green missile.  Without any wind resistance she tore ahead of the others, right at a guy who seemed to be observing the construction who she hoped might be a commander of some kind.  Too late, she realized he was wearing one of those damn Huskarl models.

               I wonder what’ll happen.

               She didn’t have long to wonder.  Even travelling at such insane velocity, she couldn’t pierce the energy field, but she could knock the man off the scaffold he was standing on, down to the metal floor of ground level in a chaotic mess of collapsing rebar.  And the energy field might’ve been stronger than the floor, but his body wasn’t.

               Nonon had never seen anything like it.  A horizontal splash of human viscera blasted out from his body, crushed between about six inches of impermeable energy shields.  He was squashed utterly flat, a grisly pancake hovering off the ground. As the life-fibers of his Huskarl welded themselves to Saiban's curved shoulderplates, the field collapsed and Nonon and her victim fell to the ground.

               “OHOHOHOLY SHIT!” She crowed as the rest of the world returned to her.  There was screaming everywhere.  The enslaved locals ran for cover – they were dressed in little more than rags and heavily malnourished, so there would be no chance of getting them confused with the soldiers – and the REVOCS troopers whipped their heads around desperately trying to figure out what the hell was happening.  One of them drew a bead on her (not that it would do much good), but –

               “SEN-I-SOSHITSU!” In a flash he and the two troopers next to them fell, unconscious and with their uniforms burst into life-fibers.  She watched them fly off after Uzu as he sprinted nearly too fast for her to see, blinking back and forth and shouting “SEN-I-SOSHITSU” the same way he shouted “MEN-DOU-KOTE!”  Each shout was another perfect slice, right along the back of some poor sod, and then with a gasp he would fall, completely unharmed and completely naked.  She didn’t think he’d killed a single one.

               “Heh, well we can’t all be perfect, eh?”  She said apologetically to the bloody chunks she was standing in.

               The air hummed with a hailstorm of arrows, regular steel but travelling so fast that a one-star’s defenses were meaningless – every hit was another man who was just… gone, carried off like ragdolls.  And then Tsumugu’s rockets hit, and those must’ve been some special kind of super-missile because the ground shook and fiery chunks of APC fell everywhere.

               Everything was burning. Nonon was thrilled, and in that moment her feelings and Saiban's were one and the same.  Kill.

               “Oh GOD we’re fucked up!”  She shouted in a moment of clarity as she threw herself into the battle.

               But it wasn’t much of a battle.  It was rout.  Not that that mattered much to Nonon just then.  She resolved to turn her brain off and do what she’d gone there to do:

               Welcome in the age of Kamui warfare.

Chapter Text

November 2066

               ~~~~

               Nonon was euphoric.  There were no other words for it.  Saiban’s power flowed through her stronger than ever, like live electric wires crawling up her veins.  There had been many life-fibers to take today, and after a feast like that he billowed with a latent potential.  And it wasn’t like he himself wasn’t overjoyed – Nonon had promised that one day he’d see this world, but he had no idea it was filled with such variety!  They hummed an improvised melody to the rhythm of Nonon’s own overactive heartbeat as they took in their little kingdom.

               Around the REVOCS construction there was a large clearing between the bone-white beach sand and the dense tropical forest.  The wind drifted through it and carried the noise of seabirds, oblivious to the drama of humans and life-fibers playing out in their midst.  Saiban was in raptures at the sight of it all.  Nature’s beauty may have been faded – garbage was washing up on that pristine beach, and the trees of the forest were too uniform, actually an abandoned, overgrown banana plantation instead of natural growth – but in spite of that to his fresh eyes it was still beautiful.  Having that in the back of her head only made everything more wonderful to Nonon, but he knew better than to interrupt her with questions about this new country and its people.

               She was much more interested in what was happening within the clearing.  Beneath her, on a lower rung of the large platform that surrounded the base of the construction, Aikuro and Tsumugu were working with a crew of intelligence agents.  Aikuro leaned over a computer terminal downloading all the blueprints and data logs, and with Nekketsu still powered up (Nonon had told them all that they were not permitted to power down while in the warzone unless sleeping, and nobody had protested that order) he looked to Nonon like a big white and purple kite trying to use a computer, since Nekketsu’s gigantic collars cut out the rest of his body.  He was talking softly to her, explaining for her benefit what he was doing.  Meanwhile, Tsumugu had built some sort of magnetic containment device that would safely move all the life-fibers that had been part of the building into safe storage cultures.  Apparently, great cords of the stuff were strung all around the giant lead cylinder that was the center of the whole thing, who knew why.  Nonon was just looking forward to divvying that up as soon as they made sure nobody back home had a problem with them absorbing it all.

               Further out, a great throng of people filled the clearing in three rough groups.  The stealth dropship they’d dropped from and the rest of the squadron were parked on the beach, and a bunch of other agents – a mixture of Houka’s Information Committee members from Honnouji and former Nudist Beach Spec-ops – were turning them into a base camp.  Then, huddled together next to a pyre that they’d been forced to construct for their fallen comrades were the REVOCS soldiers who’d been taken prisoner. 

All of them were naked, their Ultima Uniforms stripped from them, and they looked it.  People who lived for clothing could not abide being reduced to this.  But they hadn’t brought enough handcuffs for them all, or enough rope, so instead Nonon had just put Uzu in charge of watching them.  With those curling, gilded shoulderpads and the horns poking from his hair he looked properly devilish, and after a few… illustrated examples he’d made it pretty clear that even though they weren’t bound anyone that wanted to try and pull a runner was going to lose a limb.  And they weren’t about to waste medical supplies patching up the bloody stumps of traitors to humanity. 

But Uzu wasn’t just there to guard them, no.  He was also posted to protect them from the third group:  the freed locals.  To them food and medical supplies had been distributed, but it was never going to be enough with just the ten dropships that had brought the entire strike force compared to the thousands of them.  So they just milled about in an agitated state, talking in a language Nonon could only understand snippets of.  Judging by the piles of wood and sheet metal laying around this clearing had previously held a village – some of them might’ve even lived right here.  As it was they clearly wanted to avenge themselves on the REVOCS cultists, even with Uzu leaning on his sword between them (cute – he kind of looks like his teenage self, Nonon thought) they crowded close.  Haggard, angry faces against pale but well-fed muscle and dead eyes.  Occasionally someone threw a rock, and when they did Uzu’s head would shoot to make direct eye contact with the offender, terrifying them enough that they wouldn’t do it again.

Of course, he had no intention of actually doing anything to the poor people.  And they knew this, their anger wasn’t directed at him and they were actually trying to help the rest of the strike force by telling them everything they knew (which quickly became overwhelming).  But this was war, and prisoners had uses.  Still, if Satsuki gave the okay Nonon would happily feed those traitors to the deserving hands of the crowd.  She almost wanted to just do it and then when Satsuki called tell her “Oops, looks like there weren’t any surivors.”

Even from on high she could hear them shouting, and though she didn’t understand the language she could pick out words.  “Ryuko”  “Matoi” “Kamui” and a couple of Indonesian words she did recognize like “Queen” “Goddess” and “fuck you”.  So it wasn’t hard to guess the rest.

They’d be right at home camped out in front of Matoi’s penthouse, just give ‘em some black robes, Nonon remembered Satsuki telling her that the Indonesians were very big on Matoiism.

For their part, the cultists responded by chanting a prayer.  Nonon would soon wish she’d shut them up, but for now how could she be mad?  Everything was going perfectly.

Except…

The boy.

               “Oh what the fuck is he doing,”  She muttered to herself, then without even a running start sprang off her balcony down to where Mataro was standing, casual as could be, within arm’s length of the life-fiber holding tanks.  “Hey twerp! Back the fuck up!”  She shouted as she landed.

               “What!”  Mataro held up his hands defensively.  “ Was just lookin’, geez!  You act like I ain’t even seen life-fibers before.  I went to Honnou-town middle school, you know!”

               “Oh well look at you, flaunting your middle school diploma!”  Nonon shot back snidely.  He was taller than her now, god dammit!  “Shouldn’t expect anything better from a dropout!”

               “Oh yeah right, like any of you can do better.  I’m sure you learned a lot in all two classes you went to at Honnouji, real star student you are,”  Mataro had every intention of being properly deferential to his commanding officer, show them all he could, but that dropout comment pinched a nerve.  Which he knew full well she meant to do, like a test – he was failing now, but could you blame him.  The whole feeling of her was like a spiny critter, a porcupine or something.  What does Uzu see in her?  Asides having a girlfriend, which is fair enough I suppose.

               Nonon rocked back on her heels and smiled a forced, condescending smile, “You’ve learned shingantsu, right?”

               “Uh, yeah.  The blindfo-,”  Before he finished speaking Nonon threw a sucker punch, not at full power but plenty capable of cracking a rib.   If it had hit, that was, because Mataro’s instinct kicked in and he was already moving before she came anywhere close, nimbly scooting out of the way. “The hell!”

               “Yeah, see, you’ve got shingantsu.  So can’t you, like, feel that this stuff is extremely bad news?”

               “I do feel something,”  Mataro answered honestly, “It’s faint.  Kinda like a big magnet.”

               “Yeah, I usually take that general feeling as a ‘stay away’ thing dude,” Uzu called over, of course he’d been listening in.  Mataro looked hurt – he didn’t look at Uzu, mind, because with his blindfold there was no point.  He could feel the life-fibers pulse, as though they were taking glee in his discomfort.

               Nonon took a step closer, too close for him to get out of the way if she tried another punch, and despite his newfound height she loomed over him, “Well, I’m not impressed.  So you’ve got shingantsu, so what?  Anybody can learn it, it’s not that special.  Combine that with training maybe like, I dunno, world master of kendo, and you get somewhere.  But you don’t have that, do you?”

               “Well no but-,”

               “By the way, you will address me properly from now on, dropout,”  Nonon sneered.  Ira’s not here to berate me this time!  Nor was Saiban going to play the voice of reason.  Mataro’s presence annoyed him too, it was like being aware of a stick in your path while riding a bike and thinking if I’m not careful I’m going to hit that and go flying head over heels.  Even if you probably won’t hit it (in this case hitting it meant the kid fucking something up or, heaven forbid, dying) it still weighs on the mind.

               “No ma’am.”

               “No, you don’t,”  She hissed venomously. “In fact, you don’t have any training.  So while we’re out here in a warzone you’re a liability.  A tourist.  So, do us all a favor and stay out of the way.  And don’t touch the fucking life-fibers you moron.”

               “Yes ma’am,”  Mataro nodded, understanding now that he wasn’t going to get through this way.  He walked off to the dropships, dejected.

               “Don’t you think you were a little too harsh?”  Tsumugu asked as Nonon vaulted back up to her spot.

               “He doesn’t belong here.  We all know that.”

               Tsumugu shrugged, “Not saying I disagree with you, but two things.”

               Nonon rolled her eyes, “Yeah, go on?”

               “One:  We all had to learn at one point.  Two:  A person with shingantsu is still an asset, training or not, and you could find a use for him.”

               That last one wasn’t false, Nonon reflected.  But she didn’t want to be seen to cave.  She shrugged, “Hold that thought.”  An attendant had been trying to get her attention for a minute or so now.

               “The council is ready for your report,”  He said helpfully as he brought her a laptop.  Satsuki’s grave frown was already at the ready on the other side of the video call, along with the rest of the council.

               ~ “Nonon,” ~ Satsuki’s greeting was stiff, ~ “I trust everything has proceeded according to plan.” ~

               Nonon nodded, bowed to keep up appearances for the rest of the war council, “It’s done.  We will send technical readouts of the object as soon as they are finished downloading.”

               ~ “Very good.  Do you have any preliminary conclusions as to its purpose?” ~

               “It’s definitely a weapon.  It appears to be designed to use a life-fiber powered device similar to a railgun to accelerate the large lead cylinders we’ve seen to high speed and fire them.  It doesn’t seem right though, because,”  Nonon couldn’t think of a good way to explain it, but they seemed to be built… backwards.  To fire the lead not up, but down.  What was the use of that? Instead of explaining, she finished, “We still have some questions about the design of the structure.  Hopefully Houka and Shiro will have some insight to… er, where are they?”  Nonon couldn’t help but notice that the chairs on the side of the war council chamber were all empty.

               ~ “In the hours between your arrival in Indonesia and now there have been a total of eighteen separate attacks throughout the country.  This is their counterattack against us.  I’m told Gamagori, Inamuta, Iori, and Hououmaru have each handled several of these attacks already, so the situation appears to be in hand.” ~

               Nonon nodded.  Yes, a counterattack was probably to be expected. “Is there anything else?”

               ~ “Yes, please tell us what prisoners and assets you have captured.” ~

               “Well, there’s the structure itself, locals say it’s called the ‘hellfire obelisk’, whatever that means.  Then there’s the life-fibers themselves, I don’t know the number but it looks like there’s a lot.  And then a few hundred prisoners of various ranks.”

               ~ “Very good.  Destroy the obelisk.  The life-fibers should be divided evenly amongst the four of you and absorbed.  Finally, the prisoners.” ~

               “Yes?”

               ~ “We don’t have any way to ensure they won’t become a threat again,” ~ Satsuki sighed. ~ “Send back half of your dropships with as many as can fit and a suitable security detail.  Pick those that look most likely to renounce their beliefs.  Young, fresh recruits.  The others…  they’ll have to be put down.  I’m sorry.” ~

               “Yes ma’am,”  Nonon nodded.  Satsuki seemed so genuinely… aggrieved by the idea Nonon had so glibly considered moments ago that Nonon couldn’t help but think there must be another way!  But she didn’t see one.

               ~ “You know your orders.  You will proceed overland across the island of Sulawesi, make contact with the local resistance and ally with them, clear the island of obelisks, and proceed to the next. Understood?”~

               “Quite clearly, ma’am,”  Nonon nodded.  This was such a nonconversation that she almost forgot it was Satsuki she was talking to.  She hadn’t been told a single thing she hadn’t either already known or been capable of predicting.  I guess I really am on my own out here.  Nobody breathing down my neck now.

               After perfunctory goodbyes, Nonon gave the rest of her team the rundown.  She and Uzu started picking out the prisoners who fit Satsuki’s description and herding them away.  Aikuro and Tsumugu tried to find someone who might act as a spokesperson for the rabble who could help them figure out where the resistance was.  Mataro watched sullenly from the dropships.  The cultists’ prayers got louder.

               The life-fibers pulsed again.  That was probably normal, right?  Mataro debated telling anyone.

               Meanwhile, things were devolving.  The locals had spotted the prisoners being loaded onto a dropship and, convinced that a better life would be theirs in Japan, started shouting and rushing towards Uzu and Nonon.  Nonon’s initial reaction that she was under attack was quickly dampened when they started thrusting emaciated children forward, screaming, “Take them, please!”

               “You don’t want to go where we’re taking them!”  Uzu boomed over them in Indonesian (he’d learned it as part of his diplomatic training).  “They are the enemy!  They will be tortured!”

               Of course, the current practices in Japan were a little kinder than that, Uzu lied to try to mollify the crowds. But nobody else knew that, least of all the cultists, and some of the newer recruits started bawling, crying that they renounced everything.  Suddenly one of them had enough and bolted for the trees.  Over the din Nonon couldn’t issue any commands, but she didn’t have to.  Uzu leapt in a high, backflipping arc to land right in front of him, and without so much as moment’s hesitation decapitated him with a clean horizontal slice.  The cultists’ prayers got louder.

               Okay, the life-fibers were definitely pulsing in a rhythm now.  Mataro threw his awareness around, hoping someone else more important noticed this too.  No, oh no, everyone else had their hands full.  He was the only one who saw! He stood up and, not knowing what else to do, walked towards the holding tanks.

               But that, well, Nonon sure as hell noticed that.

               “What the fuck!  Can’t you just stay still for five minutes?”  She shrieked, instantly appearing in front of him.

               “Look!”  He pointed urgently.

               Nonon saw.  The rhythm.  It was the same as the cultist’s chant.  Then she felt something on the edge of her aura sense.  Something fast and big and reeking of otherness.  She jerked her head up, and only then noticed that Uzu and Mataro were staring in the same direction.  They felt it too.

               Yes, a counterattack was probably to be expected.

               “No,”  She murmured.  But it was already too late.  She only had time to grab Mataro and leap for the trees before it hit.

               What happened next was chaos boiled down into a single instant.  The thing came by so fast she couldn’t even see it, but she heard the whizzing boom of its passage.  If she’d been looking she could’ve seen the glowing lights that trailed from it to ground And then the second, much larger boom as a vast explosion of pure blue light filled the clearing.  Nonon had to avert her eyes as she touched down in the underbrush, Mataro landing beside her and instantly dropping prone, hands over his ears.

               And then the third noise came, loudest of all.  The obelisk, lead core and all, plunged down through the smoke to fall across the beach into the shallow water with an earth shattering kaboom and a shaking Nonon could feel down to her bones.  Laying on the ground like that she was sure her eardrums would come loose from the vibrations alone.

               And then, just as soon as it had happened, it was over.  Stillness filled the air.  The wind rustled the trees. No birds would break the silence this time.

               Nonon stood up.  She wished she hadn’t.

               He little kingdom was just… gone.  The life-fiber containers smashed open.  Bodies strewn everywhere, agent, local, cultist.  There were cries of pain amidst the roar of flame.  A few agents, miraculously unharmed, were trying to help their fallen comrades.

               Nonon’s heart dropped.  But not nearly as hard as Saiban’s.

               [They’re dead because we weren’t prepared.]

               “No,”  Nonon murmured to herself.  What had happened?  Where had it all gone?  The computers with the technical readouts, the locals who were supposed to lead them to the resistance, hell, her whole fucking team.  All gone.

               But worst of all, those precious dropships.  Their one way home, let alone their one way to even call home.  They were nothing but unrecognizable slag heaps now, flaming blue crisps. 

               “U-uzu?”  Nonon called tentatively, “Uzu?  UZU!”  The thought that he might be dead hit her with a wave of panic, and she crumpled to her knees without resistance.  He’d been right at the epicenter of the explosion, right by the cultists.  No way he lived.  No way.

               “He’s alive,”  Mataro said, sitting up next to her.  He sounded oddly calm.

               “Huh?”

               “He’s over there,”  He pointed across the clearing.  “I can feel him moving on the branches.”

               Nonon quickly pulled herself together.  That’s right, she had extrasensory abilities too!

               [Aha!  Ahahaha! I found him! The boy was right!]  The moment Saiban sensed his aura she sensed him too, and with an overjoyed laugh she got to her feet.

               [It’s okay!  We’re alive!] Seijitsu called, and now that she was looking Nonon could see the tiny form of her boyfriend drop from a tree and sprint across the wasteland at Kamui speeds.  She ran to meet him halfway, and immediately fell into his arms.

               “Man, some fuckin’ ride that was.  You shoulda seen me flying,”  He said to try to lighten the mood, but Nonon just dug her face further into his chest in relief. “Hey, it’s alright, we’ve got Kamui.  What can a little bomb do?”

               “Oh Uzu, I was scared you – look what they’ve done!”  She parted quickly when she noticed Mataro was picking his way through the rubble.  Some of the agents were coming along too, beyond relieved that their commander was alright.

               But none of that mattered.  Without those dropships they were still fucked.  And when Satsuki didn’t hear from them.

               Oh god, what would she do then?  Send the rest of the Korps and leave the country undefended?  Send Ryuko?

               Oh god she can’t send Ryuko.  She wouldn’t be stupid enough to send Ryuko.  That’s just what they want!

               “You’re sure you’re not hurt, right?”  Nonon asked quietly.

               “I’m fine, really.  But what about Aikuro and Tsumugu, are they alive?”

               Yes, what about them. Come to think about it, what about the large crowd of locals they’d been talking to?  They area they’d been standing in didn’t have nearly enough bodies for the crowd thousands strong to all be lying dead there.

               [Found them] Saiban said helpfully, and pointed Nonon in the right direction.

               “We’ve found them, thank you Saiban,”  Nonon nodded, “they’re heading south with the locals, big mass of them, that way.”

               Internally, Nonon couldn’t understand that.  Why didn’t they come back?  Wouldn’t they want to make sure she and the rest were okay?  But no matter, the few survivors, less than twenty total who could walk, were in need of her reassurance.

               “They’re going to find the resistance,”  She declared.  “We’ll join them, but first, we need to reestablish contact with home.  Which way is the nearest city where we’ll find some internet access?”

               “Er, I think it’s called Manado, about two days walk that way,”  An agent who was holding a shirt over a piece of shrapnel lodged in his palm offered, grimacing at the act of both trying to staunch the bleeding and think.  Commendable.  If he survived he was getting a medal for sure.

               “Then that’s were we go.”

               “But that’s North!  We’ve got to regroup south!”  Uzu protested.

               “Yeah, I know.  But we need Satsuki to know we’re still alive before she does anything stupid like sends someone to look for us.”

               “We-we aren’t going home?”  An agent asked.  And it was then that Nonon saw with clarity that she’d already decided that no, that wasn’t an option.

               She spat on the ground. “We’ve still got a job to do.  The fate of the world might be at stake.  We aren’t going anywhere.”

               There weren’t any cheers for that.  She didn’t expect any.  Grim resignation hardened all the faces surrounding her.

               And so they left the site of their defeat, where in the deepest crater the blackened bones of the huddled cultists still smoldered.

               “Hey, by the way,”  Uzu asked Mataro quietly as they vanished into the underbrush. “Did you see the thing that hit us?”

               Mataro nodded, “What was it?”

               Nonon was walking besides them, high stepping over mud and ferns, “Yes, that- that seems like something I should know.  What was it?”

               Uzu shrugged, “Something about car sized, kinda…football shaped, but not really.  Longer at the ends.  Silvery and very shiny.  And it had these holes.”

               “Yeah, that was the weirdest thing!”  Mataro agreed.

               “What about ‘em?”

               “Well, the holes… the thing was hollow.  Nothin’ but black inside.”

               Nonon shook her head.  This fucking day.  She had no idea what she was getting into, what the fuck that thing was, what Satsuki would say when she found out what had happened.

               Just so long as she doesn’t send Ryuko.  Anything but that.

               But who else could she send?  Someone needed to protect home.  Nonon had to conclude that if she couldn’t win with what she had left… well, she had to win with what she had left.

               I guess I really am on my own out here.

               They trudged on in silence, each of the rag-tag team wanting nothing more than the comfort of their own bed.

               Except Mataro.  Well, going home wouldn’t be so bad, but there wasn’t time for that now.  He was on red alert, wired and ready for any surprise.  Because this wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting.

               Maybe the type of person who’d survived a month on their own in Honou-town could prove useful now.

~~~~

               “Yup, they’re definitely going North.  Probably heading for a big city to make contact with Satsuki,”  Aikuro said as he slid down from the tree where he’d been watching the clearing for any movement.

               “Makes sense,”  Tsumugu said, “It’s what I’d do.  Let’s go after them then.’

               “Well, hold on now,”  Aikuro grabbed his arm before he could go, “You didn’t do that though.  These people, think about it, where could they go for some degree of safety now?”

               All around them the forest filled with the rustling of thousands moving as quietly as though could.  Glimpses of calloused feet and skinny, tanned arms waved between the leaves.

               “The resistance,”  Tsumugu concluded.

               “And who’s going to protect them until they get there?”

               “Nonon won’t be happy,”  Tsumugu sighed.

               “No, she won’t.  But when we turn this around, with their help,”  Aikuro spread his arms expansively, “That’s what she really wants.”

               Suddenly a voice cut into their conversation, “You are Kamui.”

               “I’m… sorry?”  Aikuro said in Japanese, momentarily taken off guard by the approach of an old man with very little hair or teeth remaining to him.  Signs of a hard life were all over this man if you knew where to look – hunched shoulders, quavering hands, deep lines on pitted cheeks – but he smiled warmly.

               “You. Kamui Nekketsu Mikisuki.  And you.  Kamui Reiketsu Kinagase,”  He spoke slowly, clearly not expecting them to know his language.”

               “No, no, I’m afraid you’ve got it wrong,”  Aikuro knew Indonesian – as part of his Nudist Beach infiltration training he’d learned many languages, both the big ones like English and Spanish and ones more specific to the pacific side of the world.  Now he finally got to use it. “We’re Aikuro and Tsumugu.  The Kamui,”  He reached to touch the eye plate on Reiketsu illustratively (this tickled her, but Tsumugu knew better than to laugh), “We wear the Kamui.”

               “Aa-aa-a,” the man made an openmouthed laughing noise, “You can’t fool me so easily!  You are Lady Ryuko’s teachers.  And now you have come to us in our time of need.”

               “Teachers?”  Tsumugu said skeptically, “Only thing I can remember teaching her is that ‘there’s more than one way to win a fight’.”

               “Hup-hup-hup!”  Aikuro shushed him, spoke back in Japanese, “Let’s hear the coot out.”

               He switched to Indonesian, “And what if we are?”

               “We serve the same mistress, do we not?  The others, they’re afraid to speak – say the wrong thing.  But what do I care?  I thought my time would come slaving on that machine.  We all must play our part.”

               “I see,”  Aikuro went along, “And what is it you’ve come to ask?”

               “Ask?  We just want to welcome you.  In our time of need,” He repeated philosophically, “We shall try our best to please our Lady Ryuko.”

               Tsumugu’s eyebrows rose to his hairline, and Reiketsu’s did the same.

               [My, these are indeed the Matoiists I’ve heard so much about! Fascinating.]

               “I’d be more impressed by a well-equipped band of Nudists.  Not likely around here.”

               Aikuro again addressed him in Japanese, grinning, “C’mon man, you know we have to follow this lead.  And besides, I don’t think we have a choice,”  Every set of eyes they saw through the trees was looking at them, and murmurs drifted through.  There was a deepening feeling of suspense in the air.

               Finally, Tsumugu relented, “At least they seem to know where they’re going.”

               “That’s the spirit!”  Aikuro slapped him on the shoulder and then, in Indonesian, “That’s all we needed to hear.  Lead on, if you’d please.”

               And so, within four hours of arriving, Nonon’s strike force was scattered to the wind.  But they were far from helpless.  No, they were more dangerous than ever.

               Four Kamui had just vanished into the jungle.  When faced with a tiger, one must never take their eyes off it.  How much more so for a beast that no mortal army can destroy?

              

              

Chapter Text

November 2066

~~~~

               *What ya doin?*

               Satsuki smiled to herself as she leant back from her desk.  A text from Ryuko.

               *I Just got out of a meeting and am currently drafting ordinances.*

               *A meeting at dinner time?* *sounds sucky*

               Satsuki decided, hoped, that this was a lead to Ryuko asking when she would be done.  Asking if she could come over.  She couldn’t think of the last time without feeling warm inside.  That one time she’d gotten drunk, she remembered asking Ryuko what is was like being in love. Her response, and admittedly Satsuki was paraphrasing here, was that it was nothing less that complete candor and honesty.  And after that last time, Satsuki was certain that’s what they had.

               But it would be breaking schedule.  Ryuko knew people would get suspicious past a point.  They couldn’t.  They shouldn’t.

               *Much worse for them, they’ve been waiting all day to see me*

               *rough* *seeing youd make it worth it tho*

               *I hope you know my ego is not so easily stoked* Satsuki lied in response.  She imagined Ryuko posting a solemn sentry for her all day while she managed affairs of state, all the time desperate for even a glimpse of her.  Then it occurred to her that any ordinary day really might feel that way to Ryuko.  Would that she were so lucky. *And what about you, what are you doing this evening?*

               *Actually, Mako and I are going down to Kanagawa* *First night with Mataro gone, thought the folks would like some company* *You should come too* *Mako and I are gonna make dinner*y’know.  If you can*

               That gave Satsuki pause.  Yes, that was the right thing to do.  Sure, Mataro was the same age – older come to think of it – as she and the Elite were when they founded Honnouji, but he was their youngest and their only son.

               And she was the one who, with much trepidation, had approved taking him along.   After they’d accepted her into their family.  If they were angry with her that was within their rights and she’d best face the music.  And if not, well, it had been a while since she’d paid a visit, and Mako’s cooking was – for someone who considered recipes optional at best – quite good, although she could use some work on portion sizes (Satsuki was pretty sure Ryuko, on the other hand, hadn’t mastered anything more complicated than toast)

               *That’s a very good idea* *I can certainly make time for that*

               *Sweet* *You at your office?*  *Can I scoop you on my bike?*

               On her bike.  Satsuki felt the warmth spread to her cheeks.  Now that, that was a thought too good for this world.

               *I’m sorry, but that won’t do.  There’s a risk someone will notice*

               *Ah shit, you’re right* *But see you there?*

               *Certainly* *And if you could, please prepare some extra croquettes for my chauffer*

~~~~

               By the time Satsuki got to the old apartment dinner was already in the making, and the sizzling crackle and savory scent of frying oil made the air dense.  Before she even had the chance to announce her presence –

               “Satsukiiiiiiii!”  Mako came tearing out from the kitchen and flung herself at Satsuki in her usual.  Satsuki braced like a football player and took the full force hug without flinching.

               “Mako, so good to see you,”  Satsuki said as she ruffled her hair. Behind Mako came the rest, Sukuyo and Barazo and, of course, Ryuko.  Guts chuffed around their feet as they said their hellos. Satsuki hoped nobody noticed that special softer smile that was reserved for Ryuko alone.  She was determined to be careful tonight, but with Ryuko’s sleeves rolled up and one of Sukuyo’s aprons indelicately tied around her waist she just looked too cute.

               For her part Ryuko was just a little mortified to be seen by Satsuki wearing something as “housewife-y” as an apron.  But Mako was a messy cook, and the apron was already spattered.

               “Ooh!  One sec!”  Sukuyo said excitedly as she detached herself from Satsuki and darted off into her bedroom.  She was back in a flash, now carrying Chicken Bone, the very same cat Satsuki had given her two Christmases ago, slung over her shoulder like a sack.  He was now a fully-grown cat, overgrown actually - the Mankanshoku portion control issue applied to their pets as well. “Dya remember her? Huh?”  She cooed at Chicken Bone, turning around to show him Satsuki.

               This was a cat who was used to enthusiastic handling, so when Satsuki stroked him his only reaction was a confused and slightly annoyed expression.  “Hmhmm, evidently not,”  She chuckled.

               “Oof, he’s heavy!”  Sukuyo said as she dropped the cat and he trotted off, “Almost as heavy as you were, Mako.”

               “What!! I was not a heavy baby, no way!  I was the perfect size!”

               “Hate to break it to you,”  Barazo said when Mako looked to him for defense, “But yeah, you were heavy.”

               “No way!”  Mako held up her hands to her face, “And if I was, then whose fault is that, huh?”

               “I don’t think it’s anybody’s –,”  Satsuki was interrupted by a hissing noise.  A pot on the stove was boiling over.

               “Ah shit, I got it!”  Ryuko was over in front of the stove faster than a human could see, wiping the boiling water away without any concern for the extreme heat.  Mako scrambled back behind her with a yelp.

               “Ryuko we gotta get back to work!  Now that everyone’s here we gotta hurry or we’ll be bad hosts!”

               Ryuko nodded with a smile, “Got it, leave it to me!”

               “No wait, you can’t cut onion like that!”  Mako, in what was without a doubt a spectacularly dangerous move, grabbed the knife directly from Ryuko’s hand. “You gotta dice it!”  She shouted, but then interrupted herself with a gasp, “Oh!  Satsuki could help! She’s so good with a sword I bet she’d be handy cutting veggies!  Satsuki do you want to help!”

               “Oh yeah, Satsuki’s a great cook!”  Ryuko replied, getting into Mako’s excitement.  For a brief moment Satsuki worried someone might ask how she knew that, but there really was no cause for alarm.  She turned to Satsuki, “How ‘bout it?”

               And how could she say no?  Ryuko handed her the knife – hilt first, she at least understood blade safety.

               “Do a trick,” Mako suddenly blurted as Satsuki settled herself in front of the cutting board Ryuko was going to use.

               “I’m… sorry?”

               “Y’know, like, cut it in half in midair or something!  Something cool.”

               “We have to eat this,” Satsuki said skeptically.

               “Ah, don’t sweat it.  If you drop it, the heat’ll burn up all the germs,”  Ryuko said.

               “I’m not going to drop it.  Watch this.”  Satsuki had been rolling the onion along the cutting board, trying to think of something that would impress them.  I’ve really come up in the world, now that my fiercest adversary is an onion and not an immortal alien monster.  She set it rolling slowly and holding her hand perfectly steady she dragged the knife in the opposite direction.  With one smooth twist of her wrist, the peel fell off and the onion carried on its path uninterrupted.

               “Oooooh!” Mako gasped.

               “Heh, that was your classic disarming move, wasn’t it?  Just with a little spin to it,”  Ryuko said appreciatively, twisting her own wrist illustratively as she said “spin”.

               “Do another!”

               “Well, why not?”  Satsuki permitted herself a small smile of satisfaction, “You said you wanted it diced, right?”

               “Yeah?”

               “Well, stand back.”  This time, Satsuki went with Mako’s original suggestion.  She tossed the onion up, took a step back…

               “HAH!”  conjuring up the speed and ferocity it had taken to even hold out against Nui when she herself had not a single life-fiber on her, she leveled a brutal flurry of blows right as the onion reached the peak of its travel.  It landed, in pieces, right back on the cutting board.

               “That look good?”  Satsuki asked, but it was drowned out by everyone applauding.

               “Wowie!  Ryuko, can you do that?”

               “Pssh, sure I can, I can move faster than the human eye, that’s child’s play.”

               “That may be so,”  Satsuki said, pretending to be more insulted than she really was, “but can you do it with anything close to the same precision and grace?”

               “… give me the knife.”  Ryuko had already flung open the fridge for another onion

               Ryuko’s replication of Satsuki’s stunt was even faster, resulted in even tinier pieces, but they didn’t land in quite so neat a pile.  So Satsuki took another, and managed to cut it even more neatly.  Incensed, Ryuko finally went all out.

               “Aha!  Take that!”  Ryuko crowed as her pieces landed – not in a pile, but instead a perfect stack like a miniature skyscraper.  Sure, she had used her hands, but it had been so fast there was no physical way anybody noticed.

               “Why you little -,” Satsuki gasped, lost in the competition.  She went to the fridge for another onion.

               “Ah, you guys?  We don’t, ah, we don’t need that many!”  Mako looked uncommonly flustered. 

               “Now look what you’ve done,”  Barazo said, leaning into the kitchen.

               “I knowwww!”

~~~~

               After dinner, Satsuki volunteered to do the dishes, since really all she’d done to help cook was make an unnecessary amount of sliced onions that would now sit in a bin in the fridge.  But she didn’t know where they all went, so now it was her and Sukuyo in the kitchen, and the work went briskly.

               Satsuki felt fuller than she had in years, at least, and it wasn’t exactly a pleasant feeling.  She felt slow, and she hated feeling slow.  But at least she was doing better than Ryuko.  With her naturally low appetite Ryuko was all but passed out on the couch, clutching at her belly as Mako played with her hair.  Barazo meanwhile had wandered off to play with the VR rig that filled most of Mataro’s room – he’d been too poor as a kid to afford video games so now that Mataro had his blindfold and couldn’t use it Barazo took it over.

               Sukuyo was humming a little tune, appearing quite casual and laid back.  But Satsuki knew better, she could read the tension in her shoulders.  She was handling Mataro’s absence as best she could, but…

               At least she’s not mad at me, I guess.

               “Have you heard from Jakuzure yet?”

               Satsuki’s back straightened.  This was the first time Mataro had been mentioned tonight.

               “Yes, this morning.  Things are going well, they won their first battle easily.”

               “Oh, this morning?  Well, that’s good.”

               Satsuki nodded, “I’m sorry, I know that’s a while ago.  I’m having Nonon report back once every day unless something comes up.” (Of course, something had already come up, but Satsuki would find that out tomorrow)

               “No no, it’s not a problem.  I was just curious.”

               “Well, I’ll keep you posted about what happens every day.”

               “… Thank you.”

               They carried on working, but suddenly Sukuyo stopped, put the plate she was carrying down.

               “I know I shouldn’t be worried,” She said, almost to herself.  “Your friends are good fighters, he’s not in any real danger.”

               “I gave you my word that Mataro would be safe.  I wouldn’t have let him go if I didn’t think they were capable of keeping him safe.”

               Sukuyo nodded.

               “But I would be surprised if you weren’t worried, I don’t take it as an offense against our abilities” Satsuki admitted, looking directly at Sukuyo for the first time in this conversation.

               Sukuyo’s eyes were glassy.

               “Why did I let him go?”  She asked in a strained voice.

               Satsuki didn’t have an answer.  She wished Barazo were in the room, her husband would know what to do.  But for Satsuki, this felt wrong somehow.  This was all backwards, she didn’t know how to comfort a woman whose job might as well be comforting others.

               Satsuki could feel Mako’s worried eyes on the back of her head.

               “I think it was brave of you.  I’m not sure if I would have done it in your place.”

               Sukuyo nodded, but she was stilling looking blankly at the counter.

               “Oh, fine, fine.  Come here,”  Satsuki overcame herself and went to Sukuyo, pulling her into a hug.  Suddenly Mako was there too, sandwiching Sukuyo and squeezing her far tighter than Satsuki felt comfortable doing.

               “He’s gonna be fine Mom, don’t you worry,”  she said softly.

               Ryuko shook herself out of her catatonic stupor now and came over too.  Satsuki hadn’t expected this to turn into a dogpile, but in retrospect she should’ve.  It seemed to work though, she could feel Sukuyo’s breath slow and normalize.

               “Thank you.  Really.  But, ah, Mako, you’re squishing me just a little.”

               “Huh? Oh, sorry sorry!”  Mako struggled to disconnect herself, but once she did Satsuki got back to work, and Mako and Ryuko popped up onto the counter.  The atmosphere still felt quite solemn though, they could all feel it, as though Sukuyo’s anxiety had only been reduced by offloading some onto the rest of them.  Nobody spoke.

               “You know, out myself and all my elites, only Shiro Iori has a mother who ever worried about him.”

               “Wait, really?  But Ira…”

               “Oh, you know his parents quite well at this point I’m sure.  They would have considered it an honor if their son died for a worthy cause.”

               “Hah!”  Sukuyo laughed suddenly, and Satsuki felt a rush of pride at managing to break her sour mood “I suppose they would.  Oh, I could tell you stories about his mother, I’ve never seen a woman with such big biceps! Or so loud!”

               “I dunno, I think mine are pretty good,”  Ryuko said lightly, flexing, “And Satsuki, you’re even more built!”

               “Oh believe me, it’s nothing compared to Mrs. Gamagoori,”  Satsuki said, fighting down a blush.

               “This one time, she – oh, but I shouldn’t make fun of future inlaws,”  She winked at Mako, who did blush, from neck to forehead.

               “Eep!  MoOom if you jump the gun like that it won’t happen!” She ducked her head under her hands as though dodging an invisible bullet.

               “Oh, sorry sweetie, sorry!”

               “Well, Ira’s parents have the same… martial attitude he shares,”  Satsuki went on, “and then Nonon, her parents doted on their heir, her older brother, exclusively.  Houka: absentee father, single mother, he provided for her but he never really listened to her.  And then Uzu, well, he never knew his parents.  And then you have me.”

               And without mothers, we all turned out hardened killers.  But he wants to do the same, Satsuki thought, and she could see a smile building on Sukuyo’s face as she realized the first part.  The second didn’t seem to matter much to her.

               “He’s lucky to have you.”

~~~~

               The evening passed by and the girls still hadn’t taken their leave.  Night fell, the parents turned in for the night, and they stayed sitting on the cramped little balcony, watching the sky fade to the lavender of a city night.

               “Man, this place is gonna be empty now that Mataro’s out,”  Ryuko said, knocking back the last of a glass of wine and stretching herself out on the ground between Mako and Satsuki.  When she lifted her arms above her head, her shirt rode up, and Satsuki’s eyes were drawn to that little sliver of bare belly before she even realized it.

               She remembered what Ryuko said about Mako having already figured out Ryuko’s feelings for her.

               “I knowww,” Mako said thoughtfully. “Our old room is so empty, we took everything we had.”

               “It doesn’t feel right.  You ever miss the days when it was all of us crashing right in the middle of the old hut?”

               “Yeah, kinda.  It’s like with the fight club, but… nah, we’ve all got phones now, we can talk whenever we want.”

               “Yeah, and I try to stay in contact.  But it’s not the same…”

               “You know, when I approved the fight club, I hoped that it would lead to you assimilating into Honnouji.  But I also had the backup plan of simply using it to bond you even closer together.  Don’t tell me it worked too well, now,”  Satsuki commented.

               “Wha?  So that’s why you let us do it!”  Mako gasped at the revelation.

               “Nah, nah, not too well,"  Ryuko answered Satsuki, "I just… never had that kind of family before.  I don’t want us to get that distant.  But we all gotta grow up eventually, I guess,”  Ryuko said philosophically.

               “It’s not all bad though!  New friends, new places, you’ve got your awesome penthouse!”

               “Well yeah, but like, I dunno, you ever feel like you should just drop out and come home? I mean, I do like at least once a week.  I’m rotten at college, and besides, if fashion design’s what I really want to do I don’t need a degree, do I?”

               Oh no, not after how much sweat I put into pulling you through high school!  I know you could easily ace every class if only you put your mind to it.  Satsuki thought, but she didn’t get a chance to voice that.  And besides, she did know full well that a traditional education only worked for some careers.

               “Nuh-uh!  I gotta stay until I’m done now! I gotta get my degree or else what’s the point?”

               “So you're giving up slacking, are you?” Satsuki asked.

               “Satsuki!  How dare you accuse me of something like that?”  Mako acted scandalized but couldn’t hold it together and started laughing. “I just slack some of the time now!”

               “Hmhmm.  And what will your degree be in?  I never asked.”

               “I’m gonna be a coach!”

               “A… coach?”

               Ryuko sat up, “Well, not exactly a coach.”

               “Oh, you know what I mean.”

               “I don’t think Sats does though.”

               “Fine, fine.  Not a coach, but like a coach for singers!”

               “Oh, a talent agent.”

               “Yu-huh!  Nonon’s got so many singers, and this one time I asked how she found them all.  She said I was real dumb for not knowing though,”  Mako pouted.

               “Well, that sounds like a career you’d be admirably suited for.”

               “Uh… thanks?”

               “Yeah that’s a good thing Mako,”  Ryuko mediated between Satsuki’s old-timey verbiage and Mako, “I thought she’d be good at it too.”

               “It’s like being a cheerleader!”  Mako gushed, “The best agent is like a super cheerleader for their singer or actor or whatever!”

               “And I mean, you were my cheerleader back at Honnouji, weren’t you?”

               “Mhmm!”

               Satsuki smiled as she listen to the two besties chatter, pondering the possibility of one day hiring her – as the agent for the Kamui Korps.  Then they’d really all be together.  Yes, if she’d take the job, then it was hers.

~~~~

               “Hey, can I stay the night?  I know it’s not on our schedule, but it’s really late.”

               Now Ryuko and Satsuki were riding in her limo back towards Tokyo.  Satsuki had seen this coming; she knew Ryuko would have something to drink and wouldn’t want to sober back up, and she was more than happy to bring along a car large enough to strap Ryuko’s bike to.

               “Oh, I suppose I can make an exception,”  Satsuki sighed, and Ryuko beamed as she nestled her head on Satsuki’s shoulder.  That made it worth it, and Satsuki let out a long, deeply relieved sigh as she threaded her arm around Ryuko’s shoulder, meeting her hand and interlocking fingers.  “Just this once.”

               “Heh, I knew I could get you to cave.”

               “Cave?”

               “Yeah.  I didn’t even have to use my secret weapon.”

               Satsuki laughed through her nose, “Secret weapon?  What do you mean, I wonder?”

               “Oh, nothin’,”  Ryuko giggled, intoxicated on more than just alcohol.  She’d have to thank Mataro when he got back – he left, and she got this fun night of knife tricks, heartwarming moments, deep talks with her bestie who she didn’t get to see nearly often enough, and now this.  With her head swimming, Satsuki looked, felt larger than life to her now.  She’d been so sweet and sensitive with Sukuyo – Ryuko had always thought it better if only she got to see that side of her, but no, the big softie Satsuki was inside had to be shared with the world. “Here, I’ll show ya.”

               When she guided Satsuki’s hand down to her chest and saw her eyebrows rise, she giggled again.

               “C’mon, I know you’re still a little freaked about touching me, but you gotta face fears at some point, right?”

               Satsuki didn’t answer, at least not verbally.  But she pulled Ryuko closer until she was practically on her lap, and didn’t move her hand.

               “That’s what I thought.”

               After a while riding in comfortable silence, Satsuki said, “It’s nice to hear that Mako is making something of herself, isn’t it?”

               “Oh, totally.  I always thought something like that would suit her.  She’s a people person, after all.”

               “Hmm, spoken like someone who thinks they’re not.”

               “Well, not as much as Mako.  Nobody is as much as Mako.”

               “This is true.  But speaking of, have you given any thought to what you’re gonna do now?”

               “Hmm?  Whaddya mean?”

               “Well, you can’t fight, and I think you seemed pretty eager to get to grips with REVOCS during the attack.”

               “Fuck,”  Ryuko leaned her head back, “I hate that.  I just want it to be over.”

               “I know you do.  And you want to charge right in and end it.”

               “Fuck.”

               “But you can’t just sit around bemoaning that until it’s over, can you?  So what will you do?”

               “I dunno…  I mean, I’m a good training partner for ‘em because they can actually cut me up, and I’ll keep going in to absorb life-fibers so I’m as strong as I can be if some day they figure out how to get her out of me.  What?  You’re lookin' at me like that’s not enough.”

               Satsuki sighed, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.  Although, I guess I do agree with that assessment.  You could be doing more, if you want.  And I think you do.”

               Satsuki saw Ryuko’s vision sharped nearly imperceptibly and she sat up.  She’d sobered herself up.  “I mean, what else is there?  Really, a lot of shit’s changed recently, can’t I just go to classes and pitch in where I can?  Y’know, keep at least that normal?”

               “I thought you said you wanted to drop out of college.”

               “Well, nah, I – wait, do you think I should?”  Ryuko had always suspected that if she told Satsuki that she’d be pissed.

               “No.  But, if it would make you happier, well, I do love seeing you smile.”

               “Well yeah, but… I dunno, what would I do then?”

               “Anything, really.  But you shouldn’t drop out, you don’t need to.  At the same time though I won’t lie, I want to see you help the war effort - help me.  And you can do so much without fighting.”

               “Pssh, yeah okay.  I know where my talents are, alright?  I helped by making clothing already, and now I can’t help by fighting, so what else can I do?”

               “I won’t argue with you about talents now, although you are wrong, and you have to learn that someday.  But more than just talents, you have so much else going for you.”

               “Oh yeah? Like what?”

               “Don’t be dense, Ryuko.  You could change the world with a single speech.  The people love you and they won’t stop loving you.  They want to know more about you.  Why, when you went on TV that time – I think we would’ve been bombarded by bad press when you made the Kamui if it weren’t for you having already said that you are made of life-fibers.  It warmed everyone up to the idea of using them”

               “Well sure, but -,”

               “You don’t have to be my mouthpiece, no not at all.  We can help you do the reading, find out what you want to say.  Like, we have the Kiryuin Foundation, my charitable foundation for spending all our money.  We could put you in charge of that!"  Satsuki had considered it before, but just now realized that if Ryuko wanted it enough that could really work, "Ryuko Matoi, the great humanitarian.  It wouldn’t interrupt your life any more than anything else.  Just tell them what to spend on, do speeches a few times.”

               “Ehh, that sounds like something you want to do.”

               “I do, but is that that wrong?  What I mean is this:  I know you want to live a normal life, I don’t want to interrupt that.  But -,”

               “- But my life’s obviously not normal, I know,”  Ryuko grunted.

               “No, not that.  Think about this.  Everybody in life is striving for something, and at the top – the end of every path – is to change the world.  A normal life is just one step on the pyramid up.  You’ve already changed the world more than… anyone, ever.  You saved it, and one way or another you’ll be remembered for it forever.  But why stop there?  You know the world needs fixing, and your memory, your legend can be of fixing it.”

               “… No, I suppose you’re not wrong, but,” But what?  Ryuko was afraid, terribly afraid of what Satsuki was suggesting.  Getting up on stage, speak to… the whole world?  She could hear but couldn’t believe Satsuki’s suggestion that they would love her no matter what.  And what, was she supposed to be like a mini dictator?  A new old Satsuki?  “I don’t want all that power.  I know I’m the only one who has it.  But I don’t want to be someone who makes people do things, commands them.”

               “Hmmm,” Satsuki paused to think, “Well, you hardly have to command the world.  They just want to know about the woman who saved them.  Set an example and they’ll follow it.”

               “…But I’m not… but I’m not really a good example to follow.”

               “No, Ryuko.  Look at me,”  Ryuko complied, and what she saw on Satsuki’s face was arresting.  A perfect blend of fierce determination and complete tenderness.  Satsuki believed in her unreservedly.  She knew that now.

               I’m not just a hero to the world, I’m a hero to her.

               “You taught me to love and respect all of humanity.  The old me.  I realized, in my time in Ragyo’s cage, that everyone in the world had the same ability to be decent and noble and good.  To be Ryuko.  But more than that, more than that, everyone in the world is someone else’s Ryuko.  They might not have saved the world, but to someone everyone – even if it’s just their own mother – is the world.  And if you could teach the old me that, well – Oh, Ryuko are-are you alright?”

               Ryuko nodded, wiped a tear away from her cheek.  “Ah geez, I thought I was totally sober.  But look at me here, total softie.  I must still be drunk.”

               Satsuki pressed her lips to where the tear had been, “Drunk or not, you’re still my Ryuko.  And I want your name to be synonymous with goodness around the world.  Do you want that?”

               “That sounds… could you really do that?”

               “We can.  So what do you say, do you want to change the world with me?”

               Ryuko sniffled.  This wasn’t what she expected tonight.  Mataro definitely deserved all her thanks for making it happen.  She thought, again and again I get reminded that she loves me so much.  Maybe more than she’s ever loved everything else.  I’m gonna be worthy of her.  She remembered what she’d thought, laying on the grass behind the mansion, looking out at the distant mountains. Yes, I’m gonna be worthy of the whole world.

               “Oh, what the hell.”

               And that was how Ryuko Matoi entered the public sphere. She didn’t know it yet, but she wouldn’t be getting out any time soon.

Chapter Text

November 2066

~~~~

               Nonon woke up with the rising sun searing through the canopy and such a brutal cramp in her neck that it took her a full minute to try to move it.  Well, that was to be expected for sleeping in the crook of a tree all night; the ground – no, not in a million years was that an option.  Curling her little self up between the branches was infinitely, infinitely preferable to being down there in the mud and the rotting leaves, sharing a mattress with centipedes and spiders and god only knew what else.

               But it was still the fucking worst.

               Oh, and did she mention that she was still exhausted?  Like, lead-limbed, eyes-unfocused, please-just-let-me-sleep exhausted?  Not only had she stayed up half the night posting watch; she and Uzu had split the job given their extrasensory abilities – and if you’re going to ask why she didn’t use Mataro just… no.  So not only that, but then the damn tree was so uncomfortable, and she couldn’t – just couldn’t stop worrying.  The same damn loop and she knew she had to sleep, but how could she when every time she closed her eyes, she saw her doom closing in. 

Surrounded, overwhelmed by sheer numbers.  She and Uzu could escape even if there were so many that their superior strength wasn’t enough, but then she’d hear the screams of her soldiers dying as she abandoned them.  And the boy… dammit what the fuck, why was it particularly frightening to picture his dead body on the ground?  For the first time on this trip, she was forced to seriously consider the possibility of his funeral.  Feeling premature pain at how devastated his mother would be, well, that made sense.  But why was it just as awful to think of how Satsuki, or the slacker, or even Ryuko would take it?  She felt like it was already inevitable, and it was going to be worse than death.

Some other time, she might’ve considered what that reaction said about her.  But for now, all she could do was huddling there trembling with fear.  It didn’t help that at one point she felt that thing that had bombed them zoom by.  Fortunately, it was nearly a kilometer east of them, just a bare blip on Saiban’s aura sense.  It still had her eyes wide and her breathing clipped and panicked.  Thank god no one was awake to see her.

Except Saiban, who was not helping

[Your blood sugar is so low.  Please let them have some food.] Saiban whined, and the twisting of her stomach backed him up.

“No, no, it’s fine,” She murmured to him.  He was doing his best to put the big pictures fears behind him, let Nonon worry about that, and just focus on the practical concerns that kept them going moment to moment.  But that just annoyed her.

Uzu heard her, and it felt like it took forever for him to get up from where he sat at the foot of the tree, dry shaving with a machete, and clamber up until he was crouched next to her.  Seijitsu was already powered up, and with her huge shoulder-spikes he barely fit.

“You doin’ alright?”

How the fuck do you think I’m doing?  I’ve just fucked the first and probably only op I’ll ever be put in charge of and now I have to try and figure out a way out this mess only how am I supposed to do that when I can’t even get a good night’s rest and the damn birds won’t shut up and to top it all off I have to watch your smug face parade around like this is all some goddamn adventure!

“Uh huh,”  Nonon answered.

“You’re the first one up,”  He said softly, “You gonna let ‘em get a little more rest or…”

Oh, they’re getting up.  If I can’t get a good night’s sleep, then none of them get to, and that’s that.  How far away was this slum anyway, two days? Fuck that.  We’re getting there tonight if I have to drag them.

She shook her head.  “Wake them up, quietly.”

“Alright.  Oh, you want this?”  He held out a hand, and to Nonon’s shock there was some kind of… strange plant parts on his palm.  Nonon’s face must’ve been horrified, because he said, “What?  It’s just seeds.  Mataro and I’ve been munchin’ ‘em like all night, trust me they’re fine.  Don’t taste too bad either.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”  Nonon hissed accusatorially.

“Well yeah,”  Uzu took that as a no and tossed the seeds into his mouth casually, “Reminds me of the old days before Satsuki grabbed me up for Honoujji,”  He looked back and her and saw that her face remained scrunched with displeasure, “I mean, it’s only a couple nights, right?”

“Just do your job,”  Nonon said flatly.

“Hey, sorry babe, I-,”

“-Wait.  How’s my hair?”  Nonon stopped him as he turned to go.

“Uh.  It’s… not good,”  Uzu struggled to break it easily to her, but it the humidity had taken that soft pink hair, already prone to frizziness, and run wild with it

“Ach!  I knew it, it’s ruined.”

“I mean, I don’t know what you expected.  It’s no big deal.”

“No big deal?  How am I supposed to command any respect looking like this?”  She pouted, throwing her hands up.

“I think you’re fine, really,”  Uzu shrugged, but the stare he got back from Nonon wasn’t withering like before.  She looked lost, vulnerable.  Everything had gone wrong and she couldn’t even keep her own hair straight.

               Uzu held out his shaving knife

               “Oh, fine.”

               And so when Nonon clambered down from her treetop perch it was with her once mid-back length locks cropped down not even to her shoulders.  To her agents who were groggily pulling themselves off makeshift blankets made from wadded overcoats a change had gone through her.  Before she’d been the imperious, aloof Lady Jakuzure who’d overseen her kingdom from the scaffolds of the machine and deigned not to talk to them.  Now it was just Nonon, and she meant business.

               The first thing to do, then, was to take stock of what was left.  Everyone turned out their pockets, and what little they had was distributed as evenly as possible.  As far as weapons went, they had about fifteen needle guns so just about every combat-fit man or woman could have one, a couple cases of jamming needles someone had been thoughtful enough to bring, one rocket launcher and a couple rockets, everyone’s combat knives, a few grenades and explosive charges, and of course Nonon and Uzu’s hardened life-fiber weapons (which were expected to do all the real work).  It wasn’t much, but it would do.

               Medical supplies, well, that was another story.  Most of them had already been used patching up everyone’s wounds, and they were straight up out of any kind of disinfectant.  Uzu knew some herbal remedies from when he lived with his gang in the woods as a middle schooler, but that didn’t help much considering he didn’t know the local plants.

               [Well, we just have to keep anyone from getting hurt]  Saiban declared pragmatically.

               Easier said than done.

               Food wasn’t a real issue, even despite how hungry Nonon was.  Enough ration bars for everyone to get by on for two days, and if somehow they ran out it was possible, if degrading, to forage for something from the landscape.  She had everyone eat one right away. These were dense little rectangles of indeterminate food similar in consistency to a protein bar, each one carrying a full meal’s worth of nutrients.  They tasted awful, chemical-y, but nobody complained.  So everything seemed not quite so bad as Nonon feared until it came to the last thing. 

Water.

Yes, she’d been warned that the water here was no good for drinking.  Too polluted, too brimming with bacteria, and most of it was brackish anyway.  She’d assumed this wouldn’t be a problem.  But now everyone had only what water they currently carried in their canteens.

And she and Uzu didn’t have canteens.  Where would they put them on a Kamui?

She was so occupied worrying about this that she wasn’t really paying attention when she said, “Alright, anything else?  Let’s just see whatever other random crap you have.”

Wasn’t paying attention, that was, until Mataro produced a little roll of white, disc shaped pills from his pocket.  The other miscellaneous objects the agents had – toolboxes, grappling rope, jumper caples – was all obviously useful, but this –

“Okay, what the hell?  Where’d you get those?”  She spat accusatorially, and all of a sudden the whole circle was looking at the scrawny teenage with the long ponytail and the ill fitting bulletproof vest sitting in their midst, who everyone but Uzu had been studiously ignoring.

“Shiro gave them to me,”  He answered defiantly.

“Bullshit.  Hand ‘em over.”

Mataro did as instructed, and Nonon recognized with a disappointed “ohh” noise that the packaging did have the Research Complex’s logo on it.  “He said not to let anyone else have them.”

~~ The previous day ~~

“If you ever feel like your life is in immediate danger, put one of these in your mouth and crunch it.  They’re very fast acting, so once you swallow it just stay safe for a moment longer and it’ll do its work,” Shiro had instructed him, and when Mataro looked skeptical he said, “What, did you really think we’d let you out there with some kind of insurance policy?  Your mother would kill us.”

               “The main component is the active ingredient of adderall, but at a much higher dosage than normal.  These are highly experimental, but there are other components in here that will make it possible for you to process them safely.  Not anybody else though, especially not anybody with a lower life-fiber compatibility.  These are specially built for you alone.”

               “Uh, thanks?”  Mataro had answered, still confused to be suddenly stopped by Shiro and Houka literally right before he was about to board the dropship.

               “Oh, don’t thank us,” Houka had chuckled, “Your report back, if you use them, will be thanks enough.”  That had creeped Mataro out, and it was at that point he decided it was time to go.

~~~~

               Nonon grunted again, “What are they?”

               “Adderall.”

               “Seriously, ADD medicine?  Eh, I shoulda guessed you’d have something like that,” she chucked the pills back his way, “Well, there are worse pharmacists out there than Shiro, I suppose.”

               Mataro slipped Shiro’s “insurance policy” into his pocket as the rag-tag team packed up their campsite and set off into the jungle.

~~~~

               They travelled along the main road – a crummy, poorly maintained two-lane but still the main road – keeping just far enough away so Nonon and Saiban could sense any vehicles passing by on the edge of their aura awareness.  Which was quite far away, no chance of anyone seeing them.  But it didn’t make the going easy.

               For Nonon and Uzu it wasn’t so bad at all.  Once they had some food in them they were loping across the forest floor more like great apes than humans, great leaping bounds without any sort of pause between them, and at any point one of them would be scouting forwards while the other stayed back to guard the non-superpowered as they trudged clumsily through the underbrush. 

               They carried on like this until the early afternoon, when a prickling on the edge of Nonon’s awareness told her to call everyone to a halt.

               “They’re coming!”  She shushed everyone as that sense went from a prickle to a sharp, very distinct line of powerful aura trailing up the road from the direction they’d come.  And then, as everyone crouched into the brush and crept up to get a view of the road, the rumbling of a swarm of engines preceded the enemy army.

               Sleek black APCs plated with unardorned shaped armor rolled past at shockingly fast speeds.  On top of each, soldiers sat behind turrets wearing the Cornicen model of Mk. 2 Ultima Uniform – a long ranged variety capable of firing destructive beams of sound and light from shoulder mounted cannons that sort of resembled brass instruments made of purple-black metal.  Nonon and Saiban could feel that inside each one dozens of other men and woman sat (not that that wasn’t obvious).

               “There’s a lot more of them than Satsuki thought there would be,”  Nonon whispered to Saiban as the column kept going and going into the distance.

               [They must be going to attack the city we’re headed for,] He observed, and Nonon concluded he was right.

               “Everyone, get moving,” she ordered quietly, standing up and grabbing a packet of explosive charges.  Then, to Uzu, “Guard them until I get back.”

               Understanding her plan, Uzu nodded.  She bolted off and was gone in an instant, and the rest of the group continued on.  In a few minutes she rejoined them, somewhat muddier than before but looking grimly eager, and then somewhere up ahead a series of loud explosions rung out.

               “Teeheehee!” Nonon giggled, waving for everyone to hurry up.  “That should slow ‘em down!  Even more so if they decided to go looking for us.  Speaking of, move it people!”

               In a little bit they passed Nonon’s other obstacle, a pile of uprooted trees and mud stacked as high as a small house across the road.  The REVOCS soldiers had their strength boosted by their uniforms, so they’d be able to clear it, but now they were far behind Nonon and her survivors.   Every time Uzu or Nonon went to scout ahead they made another barricade just like it.

               This kept them well in the lead until evening came, and now Nonon could tell they were getting closer.  Scattered villages and farms showed up, then gave way to small towns of low clay buildings.  All abandoned.

               Life was rough in Indonesia, like most of the world these days, and had been getting worse.  A lot of the towns were abandoned years ago as people gave up on a broken, desperate society and moved to primitive subsistence farming, and so there were weeds and vines growing up through these buildings and some were barely recognizable.  But there were others, empty but pristine, nothing but loose scraps of trash and stray dogs on the streets.  These ones had been emptied by REVOCS in their search for slaves.  Nonon felt she really understood now that it had been less than a day since the attack had begun, and the horror of how hard they must’ve worked these poor people to make so much progress on their Obelisks sunk in.

               Mataro was especially jumpy passing through these towns.  They felt too much like Honou-town had.  Ever shadow in a doorway was a COVER lurking, waiting.

~~~~

               By the time the sky was orange the hum of the APCs was back.  This time they had little chance of staying ahead forever, they needed to sleep and were desperately low on water.  Every canteen dry, every mouth even dryer.  Nonon set up one last trap and they sat on the edge of a small town, looking dejectedly as REVOCS crept up to the trap and… turned down the dirt road into the town.

               [Oh!  They need to sleep too!  Lucky us!] Seijitsu realized with a happy chirp, and Nonon giggled at her good fortune.  Finally, finally some good news!

               “They have water,”  Uzu observed with the same excitement.  Everyone else was watching like vultures as the soldiers circled their APCs around the village and began to disembark.

               “And food,” Someone else said.

               “And medical supplies.”

               [And life-fibers,]  Saiban murmured hungrily.  Nonon lead everyone up to the edge of the forest, across a marshy, overgrown rice paddy from the village.  Uzu slid up next to her, as well as the highest ranking surviving agent.  And Mataro.

               “And prisoners,”  He said, pointing, and when Nonon followed his finger she realized with a sinking feeling that he was right.  Locals in manacles were being unloaded from some of the APCs and rounded up in the village square.  Apparently not all the people they’d enslaved in this area had been at the Obelisk that was destroyed yesterday.

               “Fuck, that complicates things.”  Nonon murmured.  Uzu looked at her, “If we keep them in front of us,”  Nonon answered his unspoken question of “could we take them”.  By her count there were hundreds of them, individually no threat, but – fuck, there were a lot of those Huskarl models with their irritatingly strong energy fields.           She shook her head, “If it were just us.  But we can’t risk them getting behind us and killing our guys.  Or the prisoners.”

               Uzu looked taken aback.  “This a golden opportunity here.  You really want us to just do nothing?”

               “No! You serious?  We wait ‘til their sleeping.”

               “They’ll have guards posted then.  We should go now, while they’re still confused.”

               “Nuh-uh.  Look at how many of them are around the prisoners right, they’ll kill them soon as they see us.”

               “Then they die before they can see us.”

               Nonon side-eyed him skeptically, but her head whipped back around when a yelp rang out from the camp.  Something was going on by the prisoners.  A teenage girl was on the ground, cringing from a slap across her face from a blank faced man wearing a Huskarl model.  Even from here Nonon could see her cheek turning purple.

               Nonon and Uzu took this in without comment.  They’d seen – and done – worse, though that was necessary sacrifice to save the world.  This was pure contempt for human life.  But it looked the same.

               Mataro shifted uncomfortably.  Nonon saw that he was “looking” (she still hadn’t figured out what to call it when someone with shingantsu directed their attention at something) at the prisoners intently and groaned.

               “Oh, don’t you dare go thinking with your dick now,”  Mataro glared at her with defiant anger, but he held his tongue, “Look, we are going to rescue them, okay?  Just not this moment.”

               [But we have to do something!] Seijitsu said, earnestly terrified for the prisoners.

               [No, it’s fine.] Saiban responded [Let our humans handle the tactics.  They’re experts.]

               […Uzu!] Seijitsu shouted urgently into his head.

               “I’m going in,”  He declared as he started to stand, but Nonon grabbed him.

               “The fuck you are!  Sit back down!  That’s an order!”  She hissed.  And then she noticed an aura shifting next to her.  Moving away.

               Mataro had vanished into the underbrush with a near-silent rustle.  His armor and helmet lay discarded where he’d been crouched.

               “Oh hell,”  Nonon groaned as she watched a golden opportunity vanish.  At least, that’s what she thought.

~~~~

               Mataro was scared out of his wits.  They were going to see him, and they were going to shoot him.  He’d been shot at before, by enraged Honou-town shopkeepers with worn out shotguns, but this was totally different.  He knew what those sound blasters did to people.  Getting spotted would kill him.

               And if he somehow made it back alive, Nonon would kill him.

               I just hope she doesn’t jump down on top of me and blow my cover before I – wait, what am I doing?  He was about halfway across the field, deep in the reeds and the mud, before he came to the realization that his initial plan to rescue that girl was just… not possible.  He stopped, considered turning around.  No, no fucking way I’m facing Nonon without something to show for it.

               What would Ryuko do?  He thought, as though he even had to ask.  She would charge in head first, and that would just get him killed.  Come to think of it, the one time she tried that before she got Senketsu she got her ass handed to her.  And these guys aren’t Honoujji they’ve got guns!

               Fortunately, the dry, sticky feeling in his mouth answered the question for him.  Water.  Yeah, if I can just grab some water it’ll be worth it.

               He crept up closer, senses trained on the troopers in the APC turrets.  They were alert, paranoid even, but fortunately they were looking out for a Kamui speeding across the field like a human sized bullet.  Not a half-grown kid in a muddy tank-top slinking ever closer with all the caution years of pick-pocketing had taught him.

               God I hope I’m not rusty – oh shit he’s going to see me!  It had been so long since he’d first felt the power of shingantsu, and since then navigating without his eyes had become second nature.  He could feel where the enemy soldiers were, feel where they were looking, feel where they were going to look.  He ducked down even further with plenty of time before the nearest soldier’s gaze slid over him.  And then it carried on none the wiser.

               And Mataro realized with a rising thrill that he wasn’t the blind one here.

~~~~

               Nonon didn’t know why she let him go.  Nothing rational, that was for sure.  She just had this feeling, that moronic as he was he’d still have enough self-preservation to turn around.  But the minutes crept by and he made it up to the APC ring and vanished behind it, and she could still feel his aura sliding around.  No gunfire.  No shouting.  And the feeling became replaced with a new one.  That’s right, he’d survived in a COVER infested Honou-town, hadn’t he?  Maybe, maybe he could actually do this.

               And when he came back with a case of water in each hand and a sleeping bag under each arm she didn’t know how the fuck to feel.  Eventually she settled on relieved.  And angry.

               “Holy shit you actually did it!”  Uzu exclaimed as he climbed down the tree he’d been watching from.  He’d never really doubted his apprentice’s abilities and he clapped him on the shoulder and took one of the water cases.

               “Like taking candy from a baby.  You ever try using shingantsu to steal?  It’s amazing, everyone’s walking around looking at only one thing at a time!”  He turned to Nonon, who was glaring at him, and his expression seemed to ask her “and what do you want?”

               “Next time you do something like that fucking tell me first!”  She shouted as he set his haul down and brushed his hands off. 

               “Well if I told you, you wouldn’t have let me,”  He shot back, flush with victory and all but ready to dart back off to grab more.  So much water, so many palettes of ration bars, they’d never notice they were gone!

               “Damn right I wouldn’t have!”

               “See?  Be happy,”  He replied defiantly, tossing her one of the sleeping bags, “there you go, your majesty.”

               In response, before Mataro could react even with shingatsu, she rushed at him and stretched her arm as far as it could go, lifting him up by the chin.

               “You. Will. Address. Me. Properly.”

               “Glurrrk!”  He couldn’t exactly respond.

               She threw him down on the ground, planted a heeled foot on his cheek

               “Nonon, c’mon, don’t do this”  Uzu murmured plaintively.

               “Say it.”

               “I-I’m sorry, ma’am.”

               “No, not ma’am, you can do better,”  A little more pressure, and half his face was pressed into the mud.

               In a strangled voice, he finally answered, “I-I’m sorry, Lady Nonon.”

               Nonon smirked, “That’s better.”  She lifted her foot off of Mataro and he pulled himself off the ground with a gasp. 

               “Crrrist!”  He exclaimed.

               “Well, I don’t know what you expected, honestly,” Uzu said, feeling much better now that he had a few gulps of water in him.  “We are in the military, don’t forget.”

               “Yeah, yeah, yeah,”  Mataro muttered.  Brushing browned leaves off his ponytail, he turned towards the jungle.

               “And where do you think you’re going?”  Nonon asked, leaning on her naginata.

               “Uh… wait, you want me to -,”

               “Yup.  Turn around, do it again.  We’re not leaving until we’ve got enough for everyone.”

~~~~

               Five or so trips later, and despite herself Nonon had warmed up to this new strategy.  She’d never admit it, but she was… impressed at what a good combo some mediocre pickpocketing skill and not yet fully mastered shingantsu could be.  Sleeping bags for everyone, plenty of ration bars, the medical supplies to fix anything that could reasonably happen to them, and water, delicious clean water, as much as they could carry.

               She wasn’t the only one who was impressed.  The agents were warming up to the kid now, and every time he brought back something extra audacious – a sleeping soldier’s gun, the keys to an APC (those were smashed in case they had a tracker in them, but it was still an achievement).  It was dark now, and that only made it easier.  What had been a terror fueled death march all day had somehow turned into something much more pleasant, sitting around in a clearing just watching as he went back and forth. It was like a game, and the agents chattered idly, betting on what he'd bring back this time

               Mataro was on top of the world, completely lost in the art of it.  It was like festival days back in Honou-town, when everyone crowded around whatever TV they could find to watch the arena battles broadcast from the academy, totally oblivious.  He couldn’t stop thinking of how much bigger his haul could be.  And about how to get the final prize: the prisoners.

               “Aaaaand that’ll do it,”  Nonon concluded, in much higher spirits than before, “I think that’s about all we can carry.”

               “Well, uh, we could carry more with more hands,”  Mataro said surreptitiously.  Nonon caught his drift.

               “You think you can do it?”

               “I mean I can give it a try.”

               Nonon shrugged.  “Whatever.  You either have the most charmed fucking luck or you’re secretly a traitor, and that doesn’t seem that likely.  Fine, go get the locals out of there.”

               Mataro nodded, clenched his jaw in focus.  In years prior he probably would’ve gloated, but he knew how deadly serious this was.  The thought of the death and horror just kind of rolled off him – again, growing up in Honoujji does that to you – but this, this was something only he could do.  And he was killing it.

               “Uh-uh-uh, hold up!”  Nonon said, “Catch some sleep first.  We’ll do it in the dead of night.”

               Mataro didn’t want to, but orders were orders.  And, although he had a half suspicion that she meant to just let him sleep through the night and miss the chance, Uzu shook him awake a few hours later, and judging by how much cooler the air was it really was the dead of night.

               “You really got this?  You know they’re right in the middle right?”  He asked.  Mataro nodded, and Uzu smiled, “Just checking.  You’re doing great little dude.”  Mataro felt him extend the hilt of one half of his katana out. “Just in case.”

               Just in case, right.  This time was for real.  With a deep breath and a splash of mud over his hair to make sure it didn’t glisten in the light (at first the grime had disgusted him, it was amazing how used to it you got) he descended towards the REVOCS camp one last time.  One last precaution – he took one of his “insurance policy” pills and tucked it in the corner of his mouth.  Just in case.

               “You know,”  Uzu said, joining Nonon in a tree from which they could easily leap to the camp if he was in trouble, “We were supposed to have called in to Satsuki by now.  What will happen now?”

               Nonon looked surprised.  She realized that this was the first time Satsuki had come to mind since early that morning.  Eventually she shrugged, “Nothing I can do about it.  I just need to make sure we don’t all die until we make it to the city.”

               “I didn’t think you’d be okay with that.”

               She turned to Uzu, “You think I am?”

               “Well, I don’t – uh, I didn’t think you looked that upset.”

               “I’m trying to be a good leader!”  she snapped, “I’ve got other shit to worry about than what Satsuki thinks.”  She made a vague gesture towards the rice paddy, wherein Mataro was making his slow and steady way across, somewhere, “This is all fucked up.”

               “He’s making it work, though.  I dunno, I’m happy.  I taught him to do that.”

               “Great, good, big whoop for you,”  The snark in her voice was biting.

               “Alright, now that’s not fair!”  Uzu raised his voice, obviously not very much, but the anger crept in, “What are we supposed to do, not pass on what we’ve learned?”

               Nonon shook her head.  “This thing was supposed to die with us.  That was always to plan.  We sacrifice so future generations don’t have to.  That’s what Satsuki intended.”

               Up until that point, she and Saiban had been in agreement and she spoke for both of them.  But now… [This thing?]

               Nonon looked down in alarm.  Saiban knew full well what she meant.  Something in her memories that he’d always hoped she didn’t really believe anymore.

               “I’m sorry,”  She sighed to him, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

               “I don’t… What did he say?”  Uzu asked, and Seijitsu quietly filled him in.  “Oh, I see.”

               In the distance Mataro’s silhouette was briefly illuminated between two APCs, then he vanished.

               “This is all fucked up,” She concluded, “I guess I never really realized it before, but life-fibers are here to stay, aren’t they?  Like, not just in our lives, but forever.”  She remembered an exchange between her and Satsuki:

            “The war’s over.  This is just a little mop-up.”

“If that’s what you think, then I might really start doubting…”

               Nonon hadn’t let her finish, but she understood now what Satsuki had meant.  And what she’d meant by her answer when Nonon had asked her what it was she wanted in life:

               “You go, you find out what they’re building, what it does, and you destroy it.  Until you do that questions like that are irrelevant, and you won’t be satisfied by the answers either.”

[I don’t want to be one of the last Kamui,] Saiban said [Do you, Seijitsu?]

               [No sir!] She agreed [There’s so many humans and so few of us.  It doesn’t feel right.

               Mataro reappeared on the edge of the town square, right behind the man who’d hit the teenaged prisoner before who was standing guard over them.  He dangled Uzu’s sword closer and closer, and then-

               There was a lightning quick swipe and the man fell over, his body trailing luminescent life-fibers as Mataro pulled it into the shadows.

               That got Saiban’s attention [Good thing I have such a long range.  I’ll call them to me before anyone notices.]

               Nonon had been told about how, since life-fibers were infinitely thin, what you saw of them was not the thread itself but the light it produced.  But she’d never seen such an obvious example of it.  They didn’t change size at all, didn’t look like they were getting any closer, until suddenly they were worming their way into Saiban’s body, accepting their new place in the fabric of a larger consciousness.  It didn’t seem that strange anymore, it was just a part of her life.  A part of not just her life, but of Uzu’s and just about everyone else she considered herself close to.  No, not just of their lives, but – eventually – of everyone’s lives.  Of human life.

               “I get it now.”

               “Huh?”

               “Life-fibers will conquer the Earth.  We aren’t fighting to stop them, it’s inevitable.  We’re fighting over how they will conquer it.  We’re fighting to make sure that, when they do, it’s by living with humans, not destroying us.”

               Mataro was slicing the girl’s handcuffs.  She held onto his hand, and the hand of the man next to her, and as the whole group linked hands and vanished again into the gloom with Mataro leading them, Uzu looked truly frightened.  Only a rare few times in all the years she’d known him had she seen that expression.

               “You really think that,”  He said, as though his brain failed to wrap around it.

               “We’re stronger together,” Nonon concluded in a small voice, “Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work.  I thought we were trying to get rid of them for good, but it’s already too late for that, isn’t it?  I don’t want to do that, but I didn’t even realize it.”

               [Two halves of the whole.  Just like Ryuko said.]

               Nonon smiled up at the stars, “It’s just basic biology, I suppose.  Symbiosis.”

~~~~

               An hour or so later, back on the ground, and they were as far away from the REVOCS camp as they could get – Mataro had slashed the APCs’ tires on the way out and emptied the gas tanks – they were going to notice something he’d done sooner or later so covering some ground before making camp was essential.  But he glowed with pride at having done something so big it didn’t even seem real – a massive victory without a single death (he’d checked, and to his relief he hadn’t killed the man who’s uniform he’d sliced off – he knew it would happen but something held him back from killing anyone just yet).

               When he’d come back that time Nonon seemed oddly calm.  No snark, no abuse.  She’d even smiled.  It was Uzu who looked a little troubled, but each of the prisoners was carrying some extra supplies as well, so there was only so upset he could be despite having a revelation of cosmic significance dropped on.  Especially when Nonon, in a shocking display of permissiveness, even allowed a campfire.

               Mataro didn’t sit at the campfire though, but grabbed a sleeping bag and curled up immediately.  Much as he hated to admit it, he was exhausted.  He’d wanted to talk to that girl but, well, language barriers.  So what else to but fall asleep, which is what he was trying to do when.

               “Hey kid-,”  Nonon grunted in his general direction.

               “Huh?”

               “How old are you again?”

               “Sixteen, Lady No-.”

               “Ach, y’know what, fuck it.  Just call me Nonon, I don’t give a shit.”

               “Okay…”

               “Just don’t mouth off to me anymore, ya hear?  This ain’t a camping trip.”

               “I know, I hear ya,”  He muttered.  And, shockingly, Nonon smiled again.  And suddenly Mataro understood what Uzu saw in her.  He had a clear picture of her features in his mind, glowing in the campfire’s light.  It was the kind of smile that smugly said, “I know something you don’t know, but never you mind, it’s funnier this way,”.  And for the first time that didn’t piss him off.

               “You did good out there today,” She said.  “By the standards of a Mankanshoku and a dropout, sure, but… good.”

               A sleeping bag had never felt so comfortable.  And neither had Saiban.  He was warmer somehow, softer, closer.  Nonon slept free of worries that night.

Chapter Text

November 2066

~~~~

               If Nonon had thought that delaying the REVOCS army meant the city of Manado wouldn’t be in flames when they got there, she was sadly mistaken.  The smoke clouds were on the horizon long before the abandoned villages gave way to abandoned suburbs.  Uzu asked their new local friends if they knew what had happened, but all he got was guesswork, they hadn’t lived there.

               Nonon wasn’t too worried about it though, she was still deep in thought about last night’s revelation.  It was one of those winding contemplations where she couldn’t tell where her thoughts ended and Saiban’s began, and she liked it that way.  The end game now seemed pretty obvious to them – every life-fiber that became part of a bonded Kamui was one less enemy, so they would have to make more Kamui and spread the symbiosis until all humanity was linked to them.  And the hybrid project… yes, the future would be converting humanity into hybrids.  Kamui weren’t fully life-fiber, after all, so why should humanity continue to be fully human?

               Eight billion Ryukos.  Terrifying.

               But surely if a war broke out, their combined strength would crack the planet in half, right?  Maybe the threat of mutually assured destruction would stop them.  Maybe with their immortal bodies they’d go live on other planets and break those instead.  Maybe it didn’t matter, because it was going to happen either way, and no matter how frightening it was it meant humanity would survive and that was what mattered.

               But more importantly than that, when had Satsuki figured this out?  Definitely before she’d allowed Ryuko to make the other Kamui, they decided.  Maybe right in the wake of their victory over Ragyo.  Maybe she’d always known.  Maybe that was part of her… fascination with Ryuko.  The thought made Nonon shudder, but she couldn’t say there wasn’t a certain credibility to it.

               Shiro had always know, she was sure of that.  He’d probably convinced Houka of it too.  That all made sense, she’d known him since childhood and never doubted that he had some kind of visionary ability.  Even if it did come at a steep cost.

               But what about Ryuko?  How did she fit into all this? Nonon didn’t want to think about that.  She still wasn’t convinced Ryuko was even herself anymore.

               If you told the real Ryuko all this, she’d flip out.  That’s how I’ll know she’s still herself,  Nonon decided.  And if she’s not, well, then something will have to be done about that.  All the more reason I need to get strong enough to beat her.  Just in case.

               When they’d nearly arrived at Manado Nonon broke from her thoughts to climb a tree with Uzu and figure out what the hell was happening in the city.  What she saw wasn’t difficult to interpret.

               Riots.  The people who hadn’t fled in the face of REVOCS had finally turned on a government so corrupt and inept it had failed to fulfil even its most basic role: keeping them safe.

               “So, what do you think of our new base of operations?”  Uzu asked.

               She smiled at him, “Looks like shit.”  He grinned back.  “Ironic, nothing those goobers in the palace could’ve done about this.  REVOCS invading ended their reign, and they never even actually fought them.”

               “Strength is the only authority down there now,” Uzu agreed.  They’d both picked out the Mayoral Palace, right where the smoke and the shouting and the pounding aura of bloodshed was worst.  Most of the city was low slums and run-down storefronts (in better times Manado had been a tourist destination), so the little downtown around the palace with a couple of derelict high rises was the only place they’d need to go. “Think they’ll respect ours?”

               “I’d be shocked otherwise.  Well, superhero landing?”

               “Superhero landing.”

               Down below in central Manado the conflict that had been spiraling out of control ever since the news of REVOCS landing was now reaching its final phase.  Just like revolutionaries before them, the populace had thrown up barricades of rubble and furniture to block the roads, and soon it was impossible for reinforcements to get to the Mayoral Palace.  Its lawn was a no man’s land, with bodies from both sides watched over by diligent riflemen from inside the shuttered windows, while on the street the mob was camped, noisy but not making any move to attack.  They’d tried the back door and the secret escape tunnel but they were choke points, and now nobody wanted to try and go back down them.

               Suddenly the air was filled with a rushing noise from above.  It only lasted a mere instant before being followed by a crash and a gust of air and a massive splash of mud and grass as two human sized projectiles touched down in the center of the lawn.  Silence and settling dust revealed what to the onlookers could only be something sublime inhuman.  Glowing with unnatural light, huffing steam, faces shadowed by the light but eyes still blazing. They descended with a halo at their backs.  When the mob recognized what had just dropped into their midst, those in front rushed out from the barricades.  And bowed.

               Yes,  this is what we are now, Nonon felt such a surge of savage joy she couldn’t hold it inside her, and a massive shockwave ripped from her body, followed by one from Uzu.  God, it’s amazing.

               She cleared her throat and shouted the Indonesian sentence she’d had Uzu teach her on the way:

               “This city is mine now!  I claim it by right as a protector of humanity!”

~~~~

               Twenty or so minutes later, back in her office in Tokyo, Satsuki’s heart jumped with the sort of joy and relief that almost scared her.  An unknown number calling her private cell phone could mean only one thing.  Ryuko, who hadn’t left her side since Nonon had missed the check-in time yesterday, sat up in her chair as Satsuki snatched the phone from her desk.

               “Yes?”  She asked quickly and, just as quickly Nonon responded.

               ~ “We’re alive.  We had a setback, but it’s okay!  I fixed it.” ~  Nonon, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in her new office, which had until twenty minutes ago been the local lord’s.  It was decorated with garish tropical trimming, clearly leaning into the aesthetic of bygone tourist days, but she could put up with that.  Out the broad windows she could see the fires beginning to die down, the barricades reversing direction – what had been a siege was transformed into a fortress.  Her kingdom was looking pretty good again.  Uzu was leaning on the desk, listening, but she didn’t need moral support.  ~ “And your twerp adopted brother is alive, don’t worry.” ~

               Satsuki gave Ryuko a nod and watched with a smile as she sunk back into her seat with a huge sigh and put a hand over tired eyes.

               ~ “Uh, hello?” ~

               “Oh, I’m sorry,”  Satsuki said with a quiet laugh, “It’s just… good to hear from you.”  Satsuki didn’t care what Nonon thought of her in that moment, it didn’t matter.  She was alive.  Satsuki cleared her throat, “Please, do tell me what has occurred in the time since your last report.”

               While Nonon described the run-in with the mystery bomber, the trek through the jungle, Mataro’s midnight raid, and the capture of her new city, Ryuko went out into the hall to call Sukuyo and let her know everything was okay.  After last night’s scare, she was less than fully calmed by Ryuko’s reassurances though.

               ~ “Let me talk to him.” ~

               “Mom!  I don’t really think that kind of thing is allowed.”

               ~ “Satsuki makes the rules, right? Just ask her and let her work it out.” ~

               “Well yeah but I -,”  Ryuko cut herself off with a growl of acquiescence, “No, I’m sorry.  You’re right.  It might be a little wait though.”

               ~ “I’ve got nowhere to be,” ~  Ryuko could envision her adopted mother on the other end of the line, crossing her arms resolutely.  It had been a sleepless night for Sukuyo too, and after all the false reassuring they’d done Ryuko was sure she’d never trust them again.  She didn’t have to imagine how much worse it had been for Satsuki.  Every time she’d woken up that night, stretching a back sore from nestling in an armchair, she’d seen Satsuki still working at her desk – feverishly typing at whatever might keep her mind off it.  Her face drawn and pallid in the light from her computer, skin dry and papery.  Ryuko knew what someone past the edge of desperation looked like.

               Wasn’t there some way she could take some of that pain, offload it onto herself? Reach into her and make her know she felt it too?  This wasn’t Satsuki’s fault.  But she’d never accept that.

               When Ryuko came back, Satsuki was question Nonon, “He did what?  That shouldn’t be possible.”

               ~ “I was surprised by the laziness of the enemy guards.  It makes me think they had some kind of device that was supposed to detect intruders that wasn’t working properly.  But I don’t think any of the rest of us could have done it even considering that,” ~ Nonon said with clinical detachment.

               “Hmm.  So, you found him useful after all.”  Ryuko held up her phone, and when Satsuki saw it she nodded and mouthed “One moment”.

               ~ “I’ll admit, a pickpocket can come in handy.  But we’re on good footing now, the people in this city will give us whatever we need.”

               “Well, you shouldn’t need to take from them.  Now that I know where you are I will send another flight of dropships with a resupply.  Have your wounded ready, we’ll send them back home immediately.”

               ~ “I – sure,” ~ Nonon cut herself off, deciding that this wasn’t very surprising, ~ “When can I expect them?” ~

               “Four hours.  I’ve had them on standby since last night, all they needed was somewhere to go.”

               ~ “We’ll hold down the fort until then.” ~

               “Good.  When they arrive you should board, link up with Aikuro and Tsumugu, and proceed to the next construction site.  Is that acceptable?”

               ~ “Hold on,” ~ Nonon said quickly.  ~ “We can’t just leave the people here undefended.” ~

               Satsuki sat up.  Since when had Nonon cared about the common people as anything more than a statistic? It was doubly odd because, well, she’d planning on saying the same exact thing, “Of course, you’re right.  What do you need?”

               After some consideration, ~ “A full batallion of DTRs.  The newest model.  And some additional needle guns to arm the people here.  It’ll all be useless if the enemy Kamui shows up, but if it’s just more troopers looking for slaves, we can’t let the whole city be taken.” ~

               “… That’s a big commitment.  We’ll have to send them by ship, which will take-,”

               ~ “A day or two, at least, I know.” ~

               “That pushes our timeframe back on top of the day we’ve already lost.”

               ~ “Yeah, about that.  With your permission, I want to scrap the whole timeframe.” ~

               “Because we need to protect the people,”  Satsuki filled in where Nonon was heading, nodding in understanding.  Is she doing this to spite me? Satsuki wondered, What kind of game is this?  I’m the one who’s supposed to be the ideologue now, the one who represents the people.

               ~ “Look, the people here literally just overthrew the government.  They don’t have any weapons that could work on life-fibers, they’re not organized, and I don’t know who’s in the resistance, but I bet you it’s not – what – the military?  They don’t have one!” ~

               “I understand,” Satsuki shrugged it off, concluding that seeing the situation on the ground must have convinced Nonon was needed to be done.  “But you have to send us a full schematic of one of these obelisks so that our scientists can figure out what they do.  Because they’re building these things everywhere they land – well, except Siberia and California.  The local nomads there actually managed to get them lost in the wastelands and forced them to surrender for food and water.”

               ~ “Wait, seriously?” ~

               “Took their life-fibers too, so now the two largest militaries left in the world have access to life-fibers.”

               ~ “… Huh, guess that makes sense.” ~

               “Makes sense?  Nonon, it’s very bad.”

               ~ “Well sure, but it was going to happen eventually right?” ~

               Again, Satsuki stopped herself.  Okay, how did Nonon know what she was going to say before she said it?  Last she’d checked Nonon was still fairly committed to the idea that the Kamui Corps should be the only life-fibers on earth.  She’s either doing this to show me I have nothing useful to tell her, or… or she really believes it now, “Well… yes.  Yes, and there’s good odds REVOCS has already sold some life-fibers to them for funding.  So, one thing at a time.”

               ~ “I agree.  So, my army for the schematics?” ~

               “If you want it to put it that way, yes.  That’s the trade.”

               ~ “Alright.  Anything else?” ~

               Ryuko was pointing at her phone quite urgently.

               “Actually, there is one thing if you’d please hold.”

               “You’re the boss.”

               Satsuki took Ryuko’s phone quickly. “Hello Mrs. Mankanshoku,”  She said, feeling unworthy of calling her “Mom”.

               ~ “Oh!  Satsuki dear, it’s so good to hear everyone is okay,” ~ Sukuyo said as calmly as she could, ~ “Er, everyone is alive, right?” ~

               “Yes, some of the personnel were killed, but everyone you know is alive and well.”

               ~ “Well that’s a relief.” ~

               “I must apologize, Mrs. Mankanshoku.  I have let you down.  I failed to provide Nonon with sufficient intelligence on our enemy.  Your son was endangered by my failings, and I understand if you won’t accept my -,”

               ~ “- Now hold on!” ~ Nonon suddenly cut in, straining to hear ~ “Satsuki this is my fault” ~

               ~ “What?  Hold on who’s talking I can barely hear you!  Hello?” ~

               Thinking quickly, Satsuki put both the phones down on the desk and set them to speaker mode

               ~ “This is Nonon Jakuzure, Mrs. Mankanshoku, calling in to Satsuki to report.” ~

               ~ “Oh, hello Nonon.  Is Mataro there?  Can I talk to him?” ~

               ~ “Yeah, he’s moving into his room now, I’ll send someone to get him.  Listen though, I’m sorry I put your boy in danger -,”

               “ – Nonon, you don’t -,”

               ~ “No, Satsuki, I’m serious.  I’m the one out here, so it’s my successes and my failures.  I didn’t anticipate that the enemy would be able to bomb us like that, so whatever you have to say direct it at me.  Please.” ~

               Maybe that one defeat really did humble her, Satsuki though, surprised at how emphatic Nonon was being.  And with the humbling… a complete change of mindset?  It’s not impossible.

               ~ “Oh, well that’s… thank you,” ~ Sukuyo was obvious disarmed by that total admission of guilt. She had been prepared to chew someone out until Ryuko called and told her everything was alright.  Now, was she just making a big deal of nothing?  Clearly even in what was clear a real war they were actually treating her little boy as number one priority and it hurt all of them to know they’d scared her. ~ “Can I spea- no, I’m sorry, uh… you’re sending someone over to Nonon soon, right Satsuki?” ~

               “Yes, we’ll be sending resupply and medical evac within the hour.”

               ~ “I want Mataro on that plane.  I gave this a chance, but I don’t think it’s safe anymore.” ~

               “Of course.”

               ~ “Yeah, sure, I think the kid’s usefulness is about up and -,” Nonon suddenly cut herself off with a gasp, ~ “I just felt our mystery bomber pass by again!”

               “Really?”

               ~ “Felt?” ~  Sukuyo sounded very concerned, but even more confused.

               ~ “I have the power to feel the presence of life-fibers” ~

               “But isn’t it -,”

               ~ “It’s miles away, don’t worry, it doesn’t know we’re here.  Er, Mrs. Mankanshoku don’t worry this has happened before and it doesn’t mean we’re in danger.” ~

               ~ “Well I don’t know how you expect me to believe that!” ~

               ~ “Because this time I have a plan to kill that thing.  And it only requires me an Uzu, don’t worry.” ~

               Satsuki sighed, “Do it, and tell Mataro to call Sukuyo directly this time.”

               ~ “On it, with your permission.” ~

               “Good luck, Nonon,”  Satsuki said, and then her cell phone clicked off.

~~~~

               “So, you’ve got a plan?”  Uzu shouted as he and Nonon sprinted through the streets and leapt nimbly over rooftops in the direction they’d both felt the object zoom by.

               “Kind of!  Mostly I figured out how it works!”

               “I mean it flies fast, shoots some sort of energy bomb.  Probably an Ultima Uniform model, right?”

               Nonon shook her head, “Thing is there’s nobody in it, is there?”

               “… No, you’re right, it’s some kind of automatic life-fiber drone.”

               “And it’s blind.  It only found us because the life-fibers started resonating in that particular rhythm.”

               “Ahhhh I get it!  We lure it in then.”

               “Exactly! Only one problem,”  Nonon said as they skidded to a halt at the edge of the city where abandoned buildings graded smoothly into the bushes and the bushes graded smoothly into the jungle, “We don’t have enough life-fibers to resonate.”

               “Huh,” Uzu scatched his chin thoughtfully as he stopped next to her.

               [No, Nonon that’s not true! We’ve got plenty of life-fibers, right here!]  Saiban said with a flash of realization, urgently twitching his eyes down towards himself.

               Nonon gasped, “Just like Ryuko and Senketsu did in our fight!  Saiban you’re a genius! Can you do it?”

               [I don’t know, I’ve never tried.  Hold on, let me…]  Saiban trailed off as he focused on trying to manipulate his threads, reshape their outer framework into something new.  It reminded Nonon of the feeling of trying to wiggle her ears back in grade school, sending commands to a muscle you didn’t know for sure was there, trying to imagine what success would look like.

               Except this time, it worked.  Bright golden light spilled from the cracks in Saiban as he rearranged himself.  His shoulder-plates expanded, widening into swiveling, discs with great wide, flat surfaces lined with concentric rings.  Loudspeakers.  His normally thin coattails also spread into a broad paddle with a loudspeaker on it.  Nonon, who had been scrunching her face in replication of his concentration, jumped when something crept up the sides of her neck and expanded over her ears. A big bulky pair of padded headphones with a sharp, scaly pattern of interlocking plates on the outside.

               “Whoa,” Uzu mouthed as the light faded. Nonon inspected the new shape Saiban had taken with a cool, calm expression, as though this was what she had been expecting all along.  But inside she was screaming with excitement.  She tightened her fist around Kiba’s hilt

               “Awesome.”

~~NEW FORM AQUIRED: SAIBAN HYOSHI (Rhythm)~~

               “Hey Mom.”

               ~ “Mataro! Thank goodness you’re alright!  I heard how far they made you walk – it wasn’t too hard was it?” ~ Sukuyo’s words came out in a quick tumble.

               “No it was fine, it was actually kind of cool being in the jungle.”

               ~ “But they made you sleep on the ground!” ~

               “Well, not like there was anywhere else to sleep,”  He mumbled, but that answer wasn’t very reassuring so instead he said, “Nah, it was fine.  Like camping.  We had to do worse before we built the shack in Honnou-town remember?”

               ~ “Well yeah, but…” ~ Sukuo trailed off rather than finish, “But you were with me”

               At that moment in the conversation a huge, pulsating noise like an electronic whale call started up from the edge of the city.  Mataro recognized that rhythm.  Using shingantsu to “see” made looking at the windows pointless, but he held up his hand to glass to fill it better.

               Faith… I have to just believe that what my senses are telling me is true, he reminded himself

               Nonon was standing on a partially caved in rooftop right on the edge of town, and the air warped around her tiny body as that noise blasted from her.  But more than just the noise, there was a signal, and imperceptible crackling of the air.  Mataro understood what they were doing.

               ~ “What on Earth is that noise?” ~ Sukuyo said loudly.

               “That’s Nonon, trying to lure in the bomber.”

               ~ “So close?” ~

               “No it’s… actually really far away - wow that’s loud.”

               ~ “This is just what I – Mataro you can’t stay there, it’s too dangerous!  You’re coming home on the first flight out!” ~

               “Wha – I – but I can’t leave now!  Things are just starting to get better!”

               ~ “Better?  Mataro it’s a war, it doesn’t get better!  Did Honnouji ever get better?” ~

               “Well no but – look – last night, I saved like fifty people’s lives!  I snuck into the enemy camp and set them free!  Nobody else could have done it!”

               ~ “They let you do WHAT.” ~ Mataro could feel the bottom drop from his mother’s voice.

               “No – it’s fine, really.  They were waiting to rescue me if things went wrong, but they didn’t!”

               ~ “I don’t want to hear another word until you’re back in Japan, you understand young man?  I let Mako jump into danger one too many times and look what happens!” ~

               “Mom, I don’t want to go -,”

               ~ “What did I just say!” ~  Mataro couldn’t tell if Sukuyo was fuming or near tears.

               Mataro sighed.  It would be so easy to just get on the dropship and return to the comfort of home.  But… What would Ryuko do? What would Satsuki do?

               “No, you know what?  I’m not going anywhere!  I’m useful here, I’m helping people and i-it’s because of all the things you always told me not to do!  If I didn’t know how to steal those people would be slaves now, and I might be dead of dehydration!  And they’re finally starting to see that I’m useful, finally starting to respect me!”

               ~ “Mataro they’re soldiers! If you want them to respect you, you have to kill people!” ~ Sukuyo protested, but suddenly stopped herself and said in a small voice. ~ “Please don’t tell me you’ve already –“~

               “What?  No of course not!”  Mataro spat back, suddenly repulsed by the very thought of having to confess that to his own mother.  How could he look her in the eye?  But Ryuko does it just fine. “But you’re wrong about them -,”

               Mataro cut himself off as he felt the mysterious flying object approach and create faint wavering in the glass. He crouched low to the ground, just in case, but kept his hand on the glass so he could feel what was happening on the other side.  “Hold on,” He managed to say before.

               “SAIBAN MUBYOSHI!” Nonon shouted through Saiban’s loudspeakers, unnaturally loud.  That was the last sound Mataro, or in fact anyone in the city would hear as right in it’s wake the sound negation field hit.  Nonon had known how to make a weak sound negation field using a tuning fork or a knife for a long time, a useful trick for talking privately, but this was totally different.  Applying a negating frequency through a Kamui was such a power that it completely undid all sound, all distortion in the air, for miles.

               For Mataro he might as well have been struck blind.  Desperately he clawed at his blindfold, not taking it off but pulling it so thin over his eyes that he could see the vague outline of what was happening. He was glad he did.

               There was the thing itself, hovering now completely still over the city outskirts – it seems without any signal it had gotten confused – and it looked just how Mataro thought it would.  A weird vaguely football shaped white object about the size of a car, eggshell smooth except for the weird pulsating holes in its sides and the exhaust vents on its tail.  He didn’t get long to appreciate it before a tiny black blur leapt up from beside Nonon – it was Uzu, and as he bounded from the ground Seijitsu’s cape stretched into great bat-like wings.

               One, two, three wingbeats and the little blur was right beneath the bomber. A silvery flash of sword, and suddenly the two were connected, hurtling back towards the earth where they landed with a puff of dust.  Then sound returned and Nonon leapt down to check out the thing that had caused her so much trouble, and Mataro again heard his mother shouting in his ear demanding to know what was going on.

               “Hohohoo my god.  Mom I’m telling you now, if you want me on that plane you’ll have to sedate me,”  Mataro said with an exhilarated grin.  Why the hell would he want to be anywhere else?

~~~~

               When Nonon jumped down from on top of her building she practically pounced on Uzu in excitement, although it was bit clunky because of the huge shoulder spines of their Kamui.

               “I fucking knew it! Didn’t I tell you that would work!”  She said, planting a quickly kiss on the edge of his mouth as she scrambled off his shoulders.

               “It never stood a chance.  Damn, I’ve never gone that fast before, like a peregrine falcon!  And, uh, you were amazing too, obviously.”

               “Obviously,”  Nonon smirked. “C’mon, let’s take a look!”

               The thing was slowly unfurling where it had landed, in a crater of frayed life-fibers leeching off its sides.  Saiban started gathering the loose ones up so they didn’t go anywhere – a little treat after such a success.  The more it collapsed upon itself the more alien it looked, like a mechanical flower.

               “Huh,”  Nonon observed, “Well, it’s exactly how you described it, I guess.”  She would have correct herself in a moment, though.  Something grey and fleshy flopped in the center of it. “What the hell?”

               Nonon and Uzu bounded over the inspect the creature, but it didn’t seem keen on explaining itself.  A thin, clearly emaciated animal that was little more than a long, snake-like shape writhing uselessly on the ground.  Scars along its sides showed where limbs had been removed, it’s skin was too mottled and scaly from neglect to bear any trace of it’s natural condition, and the face was practically rotted out.  It reminded Nonon of nothing more than the horrid, subhuman twisting face of a person trapped within a COVER

               “Living fuel for the weapon, I guess,”  Uzu said, not looking directly at it.

               “I-I think I’m gonna be sick,” Nonon murmured, and Uzu put an arm around her for support.

               The creature gave one, two more flops. And then it was dead.

               They boxed up the creature and the life-fiber weapon it had been powering and prepared them to be sent home for Houka and Shiro to study.  Seijitsu had been desperately looking forward to absorbing the thing’s life-fibers, but now she felt ill even thinking about it.  That was wasn’t food, it was well past spoiled.

~~~~     

               Back in Tokyo, Ryuko and Satsuki were treated to a call from a very, understandably upset Sukuyo, informing them that Mataro had refused to come back.

               ~ “I don’t understand,” ~ She concluded, ~ “I-is this just normal teenage behavior?  Where did I lose him?” ~

               Ryuko hung her head, “We’re bad influences on him.  I’m so, so sorry.”

               Satsuki nodded, “Yes, I’m terribly sorry as well.”

               ~ “Oh it’s not your fault,” ~ Sukuyo sniffed. ~ “You girls are… you’re very brave.    That’s just how you are, and I wouldn’t change you.  But we can’t all be like that.” ~

               When the call was over, Satsuki rubbed a hand on her temples.

               “Some day, huh?” Ryuko murmured.

               “And she’s the least of my worries.  What Nonon asked of me, what we have to do now, it’s exactly what I was trying to avoid.”

               “Well what good are we if we don’t protect people, right?”

               “That’s true, but the intention was never to send an occupying force.  A small strike team could have neutralized the threat and been out within a week, but now when this is done we will be the military power in control of the country.”

               “So?  Not like the previous occupants were doing a good job. You’ll help them.”

               Satsuki smiled at her. “You’re so sweet.  If only the world could be so simple and just.  What happens now is we have to either integrate them into Japan or forever treat them like a subjugated people.  Do you think either of these options will be easy?  Or free from more cruelty and injustice?”

               “… Oh,”  Ryuko stood from her chair, pulled Satsuki back from her desk, and sat down in her lap.

               “And you want to know the worst part?  There’s a part of me that says, ‘why stop there?’. That says, ‘REVOCS is the perfect opportunity for you to assert a claim to the entire Pacific.  Who would resist you?’”

               Ryuko looked at her sadly, “I know you aren’t listening to that part of you.  Forget the old you, right?”

               “Yes.  But I feel old.  It was just three years ago that I dreamed of holding the entire world under my heel if I survived killing Ragyo.  The thought was… really all that got me through some of the worst days.”

               “But isn’t it so much better now?  Having the world’s love, instead of fear?”

               “It is.  So much better.  I thought all the cruelty, all those who would have to die would be acceptable sacrifices so long and I got to sit the throne.  Because I would be just, and everyone would be in their place.  But I didn’t know what justice was.  It’s not that simple,”  She leaned into Ryuko’s neck, kissed her lightly to feel the warmth, the softness of her skin.  The nearness which was, even now, somehow not near enough.

               “I do miss the simplicity sometimes though.”

~~~~

               A few hours later revulsion of seeing that thing first hand was forgotten.  The resupply dropships had arrived, but now there was something much more pressing.  Marching down the road, on foot now, came the REVOCS army Mataro had delayed the day before.

               “Hey, what’s your highest killcount in a single day?”  Nonon asked Uzu as they watch the column of soldiers approach from a rooftop.

               “I dunno, fifty?”  He shrugged. “We’re gonna blast through it today, so does it really matter?.”

               “Heh, you’re right about that.  And plenty of life-fibers too.”

               “Gonna try to use your new form? I bet your sound negation would give them all kinds of trouble.”

               “Actually, Saiban already has a plan, but he hasn’t told me.”

               [But you’ll tell me, right?] Seijitsu asked excitedly.

               [So impatient.] Saiban chided [Just watch and see]

               Meanwhile, Nonon was looking closely at Uzu’s face, which curved into a smile of serene confidence.  Something about this moment made her feel like she should memorize every detail, like a voice was saying this is special, you’re on top of the world today.

               The army was nearly at the edge of the city now, where the road fed off into the suburbs.  They wouldn’t find anybody to terrorize, all the people were up near the palace now.

               “What?”  Uzu asked innocently.

               “Nothin’,”  Nonon smirked in response, standing on tiptoe to kiss him. “Let’s go fuck shit up babe.”

               Nonon leapt up in a huge arc towards the oncoming soldiers, Uzu right beside her, and as she did so she saw they’d unleashed a pack of hybrid wolf-rats at her.  Round one.

               And then, right as she was about to land on top of them, a guitar roared to life right in her ears.  It was so surprising that she nearly dropped Kiba, but in an instant she understood it perfectly.

~~https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MtOpB5LlUA~~

               The headphones weren’t just to protect her ears.  Saiban, understanding her perfectly, was orchestrating his own battle anthem just for them.  It didn’t surprise her at all that he’d learned how – he was her, after all – but it was amazing.  She could fell that he was projecting the pounding rhythm, in time with her heartbeat, out through his speakers, but the full instrumentation was for them alone.

               Her own private soundtrack, and when she crashed down onto the first wolf-rat and dismembered it and every slash was a staccato blast of roaring, jazzy trumpet she knew she could never fight another way.

               She raced between them to the tune of flutter-tones faster than any human could ever play, slid through their legs to cut them open from the bellies first with sharp licks on the guitar, and then when she saw the charging soldiers and the percussion dropped in and Uzu, picking up the beat and working it into his battle like the master swordsman he was and the blood and life-fibers and harmless bullets became a tidal wave around them she leapt into a full dance.

               How could the enemy predict her movements, even with overwhelmingly superior numbers, when she might in mere seconds cartwheel backwards, Kiba flashing with each beat and in one smooth movement slaughtering dozens like they were made of tissue paper, then let it drop, still spinning, and bound off Uzu’s shoulders to kick a lunging man with a life-fiber machete onto his sword, snatch the knife from him and drop it ever so daintily onto the head of a lieutenant in a Huskarl model so it was easily going slow enough to pass through her shield, and then when her uniform shorted out slapping her with her coattail in sync with the beat, liquifying her insides with a blast of bone shattering sound, and only then picking up her still spinning, still slicing naginata, twist herself around its hilt and impale a man with it, flipping his body into the air and kicking it into the crowd surrounding her to bowl dozens over?

               Most of the REVOCS soldiers were prepared to die for the cause, but even if they had wanted to there was no chance to run.  And as for their commander, a blubbery man who was a former REVOCS shareholder and was quickly revealing himself to be much better at lounging on a luxury yacht, munching lobster and watching exotic dancers than leading an army, all he could do was watch as his forces became a whirlwind of blood around the Kamui.  And when the whirlwind settled Nonon stood over him with a face flush with savage triumph.  He didn’t try to fight back as Uzu hoisted him by the collar.

               “Talk.  Your boss. Where.”

               The commander spat, “I’d sooner die than tell you, heretic scum!”

               “Fine,”  Nonon grunted.

               “wha- wai-,”  The top of his head was removed from the bottom before he could answer.  And Nonon and Uzu stood alone before the crowd of locals who had come to watch, surrounded by a field of death and filled to bursting with power from all the life-fibers their Kamui had absorbed. Maybe the crowd should have been horrified, but they weren’t.  How could they be?  If this wasn’t judgement for the sins of their slavers, what was?

               In the coming weeks word would spread all across the world that the new Kamui were everything the propaganda claimed and more.  Armies were meaningless to them.  Call them monsters, angels, whatever, you couldn’t argue that they were the new shape of power.

               And none more so than The Pink Devil, Nonon Jakuzure, who fought with such grace and agility and sensuous movement that she looked more like she was dancing to music only she could hear and – most disturbing of all, smiled the entire time.

Chapter Text

November 2066

~~~~

               It was several days after Nonon established her new little kingdom when Aikuro and Tsumugu finally made it to the center of the resistance, the central Sulawesi city of Palu.  The trip wasn’t quite so desperate as what Nonon had faced, lacking food and water and a roof to sleep under.  Travelling with a large and ever-growing group of locals meant that no matter where they went someone knew where to get supplies or how to stay off the main roads, and when they bedded down for the night they were given the best quarters without question.  Provided of course they touched the foreheads of a bunch of little figurines of Ryuko that were thrust at them, more and more every night.  Tsumugu grumbled each time, “We shouldn’t be encouraging this.”

               “It’s out of our hands,”  Aikuro would shrug philosophically, “Might as well humor them.”  He assumed they were just a small minority of crackpots, like the black-robed true believers who camped outside Ryuko’s penthouse back in Tokyo.

               It was kind of hard to keep that assumption up when they got to Palu and saw, craning up to compete with the skyscrapers, a massive stone statue of The Girl Who Saved the World.

               “Holy…”  Aikuro trailed off.

               “Shit,”  Tsumugu finished, looking at him pointedly. “And look how weathered it is.  That’s not recent.”

               They were led into the city at the head of their caravan and found it ballooned full of people, more than it had ever been intended to support.  Barricades and a constant rotation of guards screened every entrance, and temporary camps had been assembled on every street.  This was further south than REVOCS had gotten yet on this island, and by virtue of that alone it contained multitudes numbering in the millions.  Millions of those black robes and hungry, yearning faces, throwing flower petals to line their path and bowing before them.  The rest of their caravan was swept up in the general jubilation, but Aikuro and Tsumugu remained stoic – mostly because it was frankly quite shocking, but also because that seemed to be what the crowds expected of them.

               “Man, when Satsuki told us a large portion of the people who lived here were Matoists… I had no idea,”  Aikuro murmured, hair blowing loose in the wind, bare chest illuminated by Nekketsu’s purple light like a figure from a renaissance painting.  They were standing on top of a pilfered REVOCS APC they had acquired along the way, hastily repainted with some leftovers from a looted hardware store, so nobody would mistake it for the enemy. There had been several skirmishes before they got out ahead of the enemy patrols looking for more slaves, and this wasn’t the only APC they had.  Most of the caravan remained on foot but scattered throughout were the stolen vehicles and other cars picked up on the way to transport the old and infirm and the new militia they were putting together on the way, “their boys”. 

               “You see now,”  Tsumugu grunted, “This is what I was saying.  We should’ve nipped this in the bud.”

               “You gonna try to nip that in the bud?”  Aikuro nodded at the statue.  They were passing now so close that they could see the shocking level of detail on the face.  And it was mostly accurate, they could both attest – not too surprising considering this was the most famous face in the world they were talking about here.

               Tsumugu wasn’t impressed, “I still don’t like it, and if you or your Kamui had any sense you wouldn’t either.  Even less if it’s out of our control.”

               [Hey…] Nekketsu huffed, but she was used to this kind of ribbing from Tsumugu by now.

               “It doesn’t matter much to me,”  Aikuro said, “I mean, maybe one day this be some new world religion, and that’ll be freaky, but for now how would you expect people to act after what happened?  This seems completely natural to me.  Makes our job easier too.”  Their job, they’d all agreed, was to create a self-sufficient fighting force right here until they linked back up with Nonon.  A new Nudist Beach.

               “This isn’t what Nudist Beach was about,”  Tsumugu shook his head.  “ ‘In Heaven’s Stead’ remember?”  He quoted part of the Nudist Beach creed, “It’s about humans helping ourselves, not looking for someone to save us.  Plus, it’s not so simple.  Now we have to play our role in their ritual, that’s as limiting as it is helpful.”

               “Huh,”  Aikuro nodded thoughtfully.  He could that Nekketsu was able to understand that in his mind she was counted among the humans – human in mind if not body - and for that matter so was Ryuko. “And what do you suppose that is?”

               “Not sure, but if she’s their new god… angels? Or demi-gods, more likely.”

               “Cool.  I call being Hercules.”

               Despite himself, Tsumugu chuckled, “It’s not a joking matter.  But, for the record, no way you’re Hercules.  Maybe Odysseus you’re – good with a bow, on an adventure far from home – but I’m Hercules.”

               [So what does that make me?  The lion pelt he wore?]  Reiketsu quipped.  Of course Reiketsu had never heard of Hercules before that moment, but she was good at pulling the relevant memories from him.  Better, he thought, than any of the other Kamui except maybe Rei’s Furashada.

               “One thing I’ll agree though, this is natural.  The old gods failed these people, and here we come in their time of need.  You’re right, how else would they react?”

               They both reached their quarters feeling quite shaken by the whole thing.

~~~~

               Those quarters ended up being a high rise, a hotel the resistance had co-opted as a makeshift base.  As it turned out this wasn’t any sort of formal military structure at all, just a bunch of civilians with their survival on the line banding together for defense, so when they offered their expertise the response was “Yes, please, absolutely!  In fact, if it will help you work better you can have the top floor all to yourselves just please tell us what to do!”  It was such an emphatic plea that even Aikuro’s confidence was a little ruffled, but it didn’t seem like such an impossible task once they’d shaved, showered and brushed their teeth.

               [Do you think it might’ve changed their minds, if they knew how bad their so called ‘demi-gods’ smelled?] Reiketsu quipped from a hanger next to the shower as Tsumugu wiped the last of the stubble off his now filth-free face.

               “I’m shocked honestly that they had my exact kind of razor,”  He observed, “I don’t mind being a naked nudist the old fashioned way, but if they’re going to go all out …”  Tsumugu trailed off when he got to the bottom of the bag of toiletries they’d given him and found a can of hair dye, bright red-orange.

               Reiketsu took a minute to process it too.  She knew what he was thinking.  The wings he was dying into his hair were faded from the week of roughing it, but this more subdued hairstyle wasn’t what he was known for, how he was seen in the public conscious.

               [You should do it,] Reiketsu urged, [Play the role.]

               And so when he came out of his bathroom into the common room he and Aikuro had picked to make their base of operation the sides of his scalp were clipped down to size and the middle sported the same mohawk he’d worn for all his years in Nudist Beach.  Aikuro nodded in approval when he saw it.

               “Finally getting into it, huh?”  He asked.  Tsumugu shrugged.  “Well come on, you’ve got to admit this is just like the old days, huh?”

               Tsumugu didn’t answer that directly (not that Aikuro was offended, he was used to how Tsumugu talked) and instead nodded out the window at the statue of Ryuko, “I don’t like that.”

               “What, you got more reasons now?”  Aikuro asked, and Tsumugu drew a general circle around a part of it with his hand.  As it so happened, they were positioned at about breast level.

               “Ahhh, I gotcha.  Er, I mean, what’s the big deal? She’s legal now, right?”  Aikuro pivoted quickly from genuine answer to joke, so quickly that Tsumugu turned to him in shock and Nekketsu started yelling in his ear.

               [You shouldn’t kid about these things!  She’s practically family!]

               “What are you  - heh, I don’t know why I’m even surprised anymore,”  Tsumugu pivoted too when he saw the shameless grin on his face.  “It’s still not funny.”

               “Then why are you smiling?”

               “What’s funny is that you’re a big enough fool to say it.”

               “See? Just like old times!  Y’know, it reminds me of that chick who was in your squad in basic training.”

               “Oh yes, Naomi, I remember.”

               “Remember the party we had after the final field exam?  When she got so drunk she thought it was all a deep fake and the exam was still going on and -”

               “-She threw a beer bottle at me like a grenade, yes, I remember.”

               “God, how did you put up with us?”  Aikuro laughed, “Wonder where she is now?”

               “She’s actually still one of Aoi’s best friends.  We had her over for dinner the week before the Kamui attacked.”

               “You’re kidding.  And you never introduced me?”

               Tsumugu scoffed, “The last time you spoke to her was at that party, and you spilled a drink all over her shirt… Uh, that was an accident, right?”

               “I’ll never tell!”

               “She still can’t believe you made it to commander, much less a Kamui wearer.  But speaking of, Aoi, I’d better call her and tell her we’re alright.”

               “Oh, for sure, and while you do that I’m gonna call Satsuki, get back in touch with the others.”

               And so they did just that, Aikuro got to Satsuki and then she to Nonon and Uzu, and before long the four of them were on video call together and Nonon had given her assembled army the order to move out towards their new location, clearing the path as they went.

               ~ “In light of the extent to which REVOCS has quickly occupied and subjugated the country I have approved a change of methods.  This is no longer a surgical strike but an extended military campaign.  The core goals of destroying the Obelisks before they are activated and destroying the enemy army and Kamui remain, but you will now also mobilize local armed forces using our anti-life-fiber weaponry and move them towards a stable local government.” ~  Satsuki’s instructions were clear and logical, but Aikuro’s political instinct protested.  It had taken him a while to process that it had only been a week since this had all begun, and the country had descended into anarchy and pulled itself back into a sort of emergency order in that short stretch of time.  Almost like this was a long time coming.  And it would take a long time to figure out what to do next.  Add to that that this was happening all across the Pacific.  Just another thing that was out of his hands, and far beyond his qualifications. 

               Corporate espionage, a game of personalities and powerful figures, that he’d figured out.  But shaping the fate of nations, that dealt not in people but the forces that moved them, vast forces that one man couldn’t contend with. Or one man and his Kamui, for that matter.

               For her part, Aoi was not impressed by Tsumugu’s report.  Satsuki had courtesy called her the first night to make sure she wasn’t in shambles, and instead found her confused as to why Satsuki was even concerned.  Surely, she’s allowed her subordinates more autonomy than this at Honoujji, right?

               ~ “Any new scars?” ~

               “No.”

               ~ “You kill the Kamui yet?” ~

               “Not yet.”

               ~ “Mmm.  Well don’t worry, you’ll get there eventually dear.” ~

~~~~

               Not long after that, there was a knock at the door.

               “Must be our retainer,”  Aikuro nodded.  The man who’d been made the erstwhile commander of the city had said he’d send up someone to act as a liaison as soon as he could, “That’s odd, we told the boys to stop him and call us.”

               Their “boys” were given the floor beneath them and were quickly fortifying it.  Starting from the ten toughest looking backwoods thugs they could find on that first day, to whom Tsumugu grudgingly gave the needle guns he’d been stockpiling in Reiketsu’s unnaturally deep pockets, they’d gradually grown their number.  Every time they came upon a REVOCS patrol the high caliber assault rifles their One-Stars used were gathered up, and before long there were more than enough for anyone who wanted one.  And just about every young man did – they’d never dreamed they might take part in something so important.

               But that wasn’t all.  It was on the second day that they noticed that the bodies and the prisoners from the patrols weren’t just the same shaved-head, dead-eyed hardened cultists.  Some of them were locals.  And when they’d demanded to know what was going on they were informed that REVOCS recruitment was open – religious conversion nonconditional but probably not genuine – to able bodied men.  It wasn’t hard to see why those with loose morals would take the offer, were they really expected to say no to fresh food, water, and not toiling to death on those infernal machines?

               But loose morals meant loose both ways, and so the next time they came across a group with local turncoats they killed the real cultists keeping them in line to show they meant business, like clockwork, the turncoats turned right back and fell on their knees begging forgiveness.  Of course they weren’t allowed to keep their new Ultima Uniforms, but they did get to keep their lives.  And soon the most loyal of “the boys” were geared and ready to go toe to toe with REVOCS.  And better still because the Ultima Uniforms were lighter than their old Goku Uniform ancestors, they could be worn under plainclothes and concealed within the crowd.

               It had been Aikuro’s idea, but Tsumugu – for so long unwavering in his hatred of all life-fibers – had gone along with it.  He’d fought alongside the students of Honoujji, hadn’t he?  They were no Kamui, but nor would they turn their wearers against humanity of their own accord.

               So, no way the retainer had intimidated his way through.

               “Must be a real smooth talker,” Tsumugu concluded as Aikuro went to the door.  He stopped, and before Tsumugu could ask why he knew.

               The retainer was wearing an Ultima Uniform too.

               Aikuro opened the door, and Tsumugu’s expectations were confirmed.  The man on the other side, though somewhat short, was the exact kind of smooth, easily confident and naturally skilled warrior who might impress the greenhorns.  Slicked back hair, smooth and evenly tanned skin and a good suit with blue embroidery belied the mouth with harsh laugh lines more suggestive of the grimace of combat than a happy smile, challenging, sharp eyes, scars tracing his forehead into his scalp.  He was by no means new to combat.

               But what Tsumugu hadn’t been expected was the case of beer he had in his hands

               “Hello sirs!  I am Yuda Uwais, sub-commander of the Palu Defense Force and formal Royal Bodyguard, at your service sirs!”  He barked formally in impeccable Japanese.

               “Whoa, hold on there.  I appreciate the extra effort, but there’s no need for that,” answered in Indonesian. “If you’re gonna be our go-between guy we’re gonna see a lot of each other, and we’ve got enough people falling over their feet.”

               Even from over on the couch, Tsumugu could see Yuda visibly sigh with relief.  “With your permission, sirs.”

               “You have it.  In fact, I’m ordering you to speak normally.  And, uh, put the drinks on the coffee table over there,”  Aikuro said, and Tsumugu nodded in agreement.

               Yuda’s face cracked with a smile that made those smile lines seem a lot more genuine than Tsumugu had anticipated.  “Well then!  It’s damn good to have you guys here.  About time we turn the tide on these assholes, right?”

               With the beers open it didn’t take long for conversation to get flowing, mostly between Aikuro and his new friend.  They hit it off immediately, and Tsumugu had to admit they were quite alike.

               “Oh man, I tell you if you want to really see the country just wait ‘til we get down to Makassar, assuming it’s still standing.  Biggest city on the island.  I’ll show you ‘round, got some old friends there from when I was just an apprentice.”

               “Well, that sounds great – for after we win, of course.  Don’t have to home right away, right?”

               “Naturally, naturally, after we win.  Oh, and the girls!  I’m sure they’ll be all over you, if they’re all over me, lowly martial artist… but that’s probably nothing different from back home for you, eh?”

               “Surprisingly, being an international celebrity isn’t as big as asset in the dating game as you’d think,”  Aikuro said wistfully

               “That’s because you at least have some honor not to make it the core of your personality,”  Tsumugu said snidely, “As for me, I’m married.”

               “Oh, word,”  That seemed to roll over Yuda like a meaningless detail, and he casually disregarded it.  “Hey, speaking of, you ever try your luck with that one?” He motioned to the statue of Ryuko.  “Kinda intimidating, a chick who can turn you to dust with a flick of her fingers.  Er, can she really do that?”

               [Oh yes, exactly like Aikuro,] Reiketsu chuckled in Tsumugu’s ear.

               But Aikuro actually shook his head disapprovingly, “You shouldn’t call her that.  At least, not around us.”

               “I – shoot, I’m sorry.  It’s just talking like that’s blasphemy around here, I got too relaxed.”

               “Blasphemy?  No, it’s just she’s a…”

               “Practically family,”  Tsumugu finished that thought.  “Interesting choice of words there, blasphemy.”

               “Well, that’s what it is!  Hold on, you don’t know how crazy things are around here, huh?”

               “No, but I had a feeling,”  Tsumugu said, “A feeling you were picked for our retainer because you were one of the few who wasn’t part of their new religion.”

               “You got that right.”

               Tsumugu leaned in thoughtfully, “Tell me more.”  He knew that they had to get a feel for what was really going on around here, and Yuda’s job wasn’t just to bring them things they needed but to tell them what they needed to know too.

               Yuda blew out a big sigh as he began, “Hell, they’ve been at it ever since, y’know, the whole… thing.  And I get it, I guess, does make you wonder what it all means.  But not like they’ve got it figured out either, they might all look uniform but they don’t agree on shit.  Some of ‘em used to be Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, so they try and fit her into their ideas.  But still, in the new hierarchy you gotta believe that Matoi’s either a god or daughter of god to be part of the resistance.”

               “… And what do you believe?”

               “Well… what is she?”

               “Just an ordinary girl with the bad luck to become a science experiment moments after she was born.”

               Yuda seemed relieved by that, “Sounds good to me.  Nah, I’m just the exception because I’m good at what I do, makes me useful to have around.”

               Aikuro said, “Well, good enough to snatch an Ultima Uniform, eh?”

               Yuda’s face fell, “How do you know about that?”

               “You see these Kamui?  They’re more than just weapons.  They’ve been able to sense the presence of the life-fibers on your body since the moment you came in here.”

               “No shit,”  Yuda sounded worried.

               “I mean, it’s fine.  Some of our boys have ‘em too.  How’d you manage it though?”

               “Ahh just a simple rope snare.  Probably don’t have to tell you guys, but they’re really dumb. We’ve gotten like ten of ‘em that way.”

               “Heh, that’s true,”  Tsumugu nodded, “So, good enough for the resistance, good enough for the Royal Family too.  Where do they figure in all this?”

               “Well, ah, we were fleeing New Jakarta after the REVOCS attack, and then, well, I guess the crowds figured out who they were fleeing alongside.  The kids are alive, at least.”

               Tsumugu’s eyes narrowed, “I see.  Former bodyguard indeed.”

               “I saw the way the winds were blowing,”  Yuda seemed nonchalant, but Tsumugu could tell there was some tension, worry that he was being judged.  “Don’t tell me you would’ve done anything different.  They were tyrants, like your Kiryuins.  ‘Cept they didn’t even dress the part.  No, I never really believed in them, trust me.”

               “Huh.  I’m sure I would’ve.  Wouldn’t’ve been so gung-ho about it though.”

               “Oh, I know.  You’re the guy who keeps this guy in line,” he pointed to Aikuro, “Your reputation precedes you.”

               “Hey now, that’s a little unfai-,”

               “-No, that sounds right to me,”  Tsumugu said with a chuckle.  He’d gotten the measure of this guy now.  Not totally slime, not totally honorable either.  Yes, he could work with that.  He’d gotten the measure of him in every way but one.  “So, you don’t believe in Ryuko, or the recently deceased monarchy, what do you believe in?”

               “My fists.  My guns.  This new uniform.  And killing those fuckers who’re ransacking my home.  How’s that do for ya?”

               “That’s good, but you’ve got them in the wrong order.  Your fists will do you much better than an Ultima Uniform, once you know how to use them.”

               “He’s right,”  Aikuro agreed.

               Yuda looked perplexed, “Are you suggesting you can beat life-fibers with your bare hands?”

               “Tell me, what martial arts do you know?”  Tsumugu asked.

               “Well Silat, Krav Maga, Judo, Kung Fu, Aikido, few others besides.”

               “A good foundation, but I see the newest innovation hasn’t yet reached you.  With the martial arts of nudist beach, you’ll be able to fight anything short of a Kamui and win.”

               Yuda grinned, “Well, if you think so.  I’ve never heard of something like that myself.”

               Aikuro sprung to his feet. “Oh shit, is it time to throw down?  I knew you couldn’t resist Tsumugu!  Well, c’mon, let’s take one of these empty hotel rooms and clear out a dojo.”

               Whatever Yuda may have expected, he quickly found out just how formidable Nudist Beach techniques were.  When Tsumugu shed Reiketsu and propped her up by the wall he thought he’d have to pull his punched, but despite managing to meet Tsumugu’s own expectations he was the one on the ground every time.  It may have been a distraction, and they may not have had everything ready by the time Nonon arrived to join back up with them that night, but they’d gained something valuable that day.

               One day, when the time came to expand the Kamui Corps, Yuda Uwais would join their number.

              

              

Chapter Text

December 2066

               ~~~~

               Satsuki’s prediction of an extended campaign turned out to be exactly right.  More than a month now, and the news kept coming in of steady march, attack and counterattack, more cities brought into the fold of the defenders of humanity, more battles, more bloodshed.  Nonon and Aikuro encountered the enemy Kamui on the slopes of Puncak Jaya – it ended in a draw, but not before half the mountain was blown off and all the trees for miles around were levelled.  They took more obelisks, and ran into more of those strange stealth bombers fueled by the life force of horrifically mutilated creatures (Shiro and Houka had worked out that the creatures were dolphins, but the significance of this had not yet dawned on them), but now they knew how to deal with them.  There wouldn’t be any more horrific losses, just the sort of plodding give-and-take that a war spread out across tropical islands would inevitably become.

At least the requests for more soldiers had become requests for more gear – the Indonesians themselves were turning out ready for the task, all prior petty differences set aside to protect their homes – so Satsuki’s promise that Kamui would keep the majority of Japanese soldiers out of harm’s way was coming to fruition.  Still, what Satsuki had once hoped would be a quick strike turned into a protracted slog.

               Not that Rei minded at all.  The longer it went on like this, the longer REVOCS would keep infiltrating Japan terror attacks to keep the rest of them busy, so that the war wouldn’t expand across the entire Pacific.  It was nice to know they feared them, feared that if all eight enemy Kamui were on the attack they wouldn’t last a week.  And it was nice to take a few more life-fibers each day, to feel Furashada expanding and becoming stronger.  But more than that, it was very, very nice to be out there every day, saving people’s lives and being applauded as a hero.

               And with half the Kamui away and Houka and Shiro preoccupied with science stuff half the time it was just her and Ira running around, jetting all across the country, sometimes multiple attacks a day.  Ira was neutral on that, at least he got to spend more time with Mako since she was taking time off from school to practice her talent agent skills on him, keeping him hydrated, keeping dust and blood off his Kamui, keeping the press at a safe distance until it was time for photo-ops.  Rei didn’t need an agent, having to talk to someone would slow her down.  She lived for this now.

               How had she let herself be persuaded to take up such boring bureaucratic work before?  Sure, she had a talent for it, but what did that matter compared to what she had now.  Her mind was so full of a constant stream of obsessive thought about battle, how to handle different kinds of enemies, different kinds of delicate hostage situations.  Hers and Furashada’s, and soon they were so in sync that it wasn’t possible to really tell where one ended and the other began, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

               Plus, with their attention constantly on the fight at hand, there was not time to think about Ryuko.

               But even that paled in comparison to just the sheer joy of seeing people’s faces when she saved them.  The pure, pure happiness – she’d felt happiness like that before, and now it was like she got to experience what she’d gone through being rehabilitated with each and every one of them.  And she got to do it every damn day.

~~~~

               It was one of those ordinary days and Rei was up against some kind of hybrid monster about the size of a tyrannosaurus – all greasy fur and bristles and teeth, she couldn’t even tell what it had been before.  She was on the outskirts of Tokyo today for this one, just a warmup, just a monster turned loose to ruin a suburban neighborhood.  The monster couldn’t recognize it yet, but its path of destruction was about to come to an abrupt end.  She and Furashada were hurtling through the air in an arc so broad and fast it looked like a straight line, axe high above their heads, when Rei spotted something unusual.

               Standing on the rubble of a house next to them was a wisp thin young woman with long brown hair, her face obscured by a gigantic high-shutter camera.

               Little too close, They registered in unison as they closed the final distance, have to keep an eye on her.

               The blade sunk right into the monster’s rumpled forehead with a solid thunk feeling, then a crunchier scraping Rei recognized as thick bone.   She clicked the button on her axe’s hilt that disconnected one side of the double-blades for cross-cutting, sprung off a leathery nose to dodge a huge paw and zipped off into the rubble for another angle of attack.  Big monsters like this were fun because you could run circles around them, wear them down at your leisure.  Sort of like carving a pumpkin, or at least what she imagined carving a pumpkin might be like, not having had the sort of childhood conducive to it.

               The girl crouched down, trying to get a better shot, and Rei saw an electric scooter parked behind her that pricked a memory.  Seen her before.  At other fights, Rei and Furashada thought.  There were quite a few journalists who made their business following in their wake.  Rei took some pride in that she was considered the most sought after – apparently pictures of her in motion were very dynamic, whatever that was supposed to mean.

               This time she darted through a shed (turning it into a pile of scattered wood on the way) to slice at the creature’s Achilles tendon.  It howled in pain as she hit it with both blades in a clean crosscut.  Thus crippled and confused she easily jumped onto its back and, reconnecting her axe so she could grab onto the mane of striped bristles and yank it as hard as she could, flipping the monster all the way over her head –

               -Right onto the girl, Rei realized in that briefest of instants only a Kamui could react to in which it was still twisting through the air.  Her heart nearly stopped, and if Furashada had one it would have too.

               Stupid idiot!  They raged, but they were already moving.  From the girl’s perspective Rei was suddenly right next to her, axe held above her head, and then equally suddenly that axe was all that was between her and a ceiling of flesh.

               “What the!”  She yelped, but Rei didn’t acknowledge her.  Two things happened at that same too-fast-for-human-eyes rate:  A spray of wine-colored globs of blood sprinkled out onto them, and then Rei pushed off the ground and carried the monster high into the air, carving into it as they fell together.  The force from her leap was so strong that the pile of rubble the girl was standing on was flattened right to the ground.  To her credit though she kept a death grip on her camera and she and it survived unscathed.

               The fight was over in seconds after that, the hybrid sprawled in a decapitated heap.  Rei leapt over to that pile of rubble, revved up to give the foolish “Kamui Chaser” a lengthy safety lecture.  She knew it had technically been her that had hurled the monster, and she would have blamed herself if it had landed, but since it hadn’t there was time to think about how this situation shouldn’t have happened in the first place. 

It took her a bit off guard to find the girl still reeling, staring forlornly at the pile of scrap metal that had been her only form of transportation.

               “Are you alright?”

               “My bike…”  She whined quietly.

               Rei sighed, “File a claim with the Office of Public Welfare and Safety.  You should receive a reimbursement with six to eight business days,”  Rei rattled off before processing what she was saying, “Actually no, forget about the bike!  You could have been killed!”  She got up in the girl’s face (fortunately she was also quite short so Rei didn’t have to rely entirely on the Kamui’s aura of power to intimidate), “What were you thinking!”

               The girl turned perpetually tired eyes towards the ground shamefully. “I don’t know… I’m sorry milady.”

               Rei was no good at this.  She was too relieved she’d gotten there in time to be truly upset.  Plus, there was an obvious sincerity about this girl that was immediately likeable.  How could she yell at a fan?  She sighed again, relenting, “You’re a Kamui Chaser, right?  You’re going to sell that video to the highest bidding news station, right?”

By Rei’s guess the she must have fitted her bike with a stolen police radio to beat the rest of the media to so many of her past attacks – Furashada was pretty sure she’d been at every one of the near-Tokyo battles in the last few weeks.  With such dedication something like this was inevitable, and it was a good thing she’d been fast enough – a few other Kamui Chasers had lost limbs or been hospitalized, but none were dead yet.

               “Yes milady,”  she murmured, eyes still down.  Rei and Furashada’s pity went out that someone so young and frail would be forced into such a risky business.  It didn’t even pay very well.

               “Look, I have nothing against your line of work, but you won’t see anything for it if you’re dead, will you?”  She asked more gently.

               “No…”

               “Then have a care, please.  I might not be so fast next time,”  She turned to go with that final warning.

               “Wait!”  The girl shouted; a bit shocked that Rei was going so soon.  Her confidence seemed to waver a little when Rei turned back around, but she persisted, “C-can I interview you?  Please?”

               Unexpected.  “I’m sorry, but I don’t give interviews.  Good luck with your footage, I’m sure today’s will sell well.”

               “Please!  It could be my big break!  This camera and… the bike, they’re my whole life’s savings!”

               Also unexpected.  People got into this risky line of work because they happened to have a good camera left to them from before they were down on their luck.  And regular old superfans just bought figurines.  It was intriguing.

               But Rei still shook her head, “It’s my policy.  If I let you, then people and shows will start asking why not them, and what will I say?  It’s not going to happen.”

               By now the shocked inhabitants and trucks full of more official reporters, as well as a cleanup crew, were on scene, and Rei took a moment for a photo op before her dropship returned for her.  No surprise, as soon as she boarded she was informed there was another attack she needed to handle, and neither she nor Furashada thought of the Kamui Chaser with the tired eyes for the rest of the day.

~~~~

               But the next day she was back, this time late.  Rei saw her hurriedly rushing from a taxi just as the last of the surviving cultists were being taken prisoner and packed up.  This time she didn’t hesitate, walking directly at Rei as soon as she spotted her.  Evidently whatever barrier of fear had kept her from doing this already had fallen, but not entirely – her fists were tightly clenched as though this was very difficult.

               She was there the day after too.  And the day after.  And the day after that.  And by the next week she was there early again, on a new bike of the same make and model as her original.  And by this point it was hard to ignore her.

               “Please,” She’d say, “It’s not just for sale, I don’t have to publish it right away.”

               “I’m not going to debate this with you. I’m sorry.  The answer is still no.”

               But they couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Obvious engaging with creepy stalkers was no good, but that wasn’t what they thought they were seeing here.  The girl was too respectful, too courteous. Desperate seeming, sure, but when Rei said no that was no, at least for that day.  And when she asked Ira about it, he said that sure he’d seen her, but she’d never come to talk to him.  They weren’t sure what to make of that.  And then Mako added that she hadn’t seen her, and Ira that yes, oddly, it did seem that she left as soon as Mako arrived on the scene.  They weren’t sure what to make of that either.

               But it stuck with Rei and Furashada.  A desperate girl who just needed one touch from fame to lift her up.  For some reason, they trusted this girl to interview her well – if not with skill, at least with clever questions.  What reason did she have to say no?  In fact, that sounded very familiar to Rei.  And the more she thought of it, the more she thought of Ryuko… if Ryuko hadn’t found her, lifted her up, introduced her to her family that had become the Kamui Corps she’d have still just been a stale bureaucratic toady for Satsuki.  She remembered how awestruck she’d been, not just by her beauty, her smile, but how down-to-earth and honest she was.

               We could be like that for this girl.  But not a letdown at the end.

               And so, the next day Rei didn’t wait for her chaser to come storming along.  Instead, the moment she spotted her she jumped into action, appearing before the girl with a gust of wind and dust.

               “I’ve changed my mind.  You’ll find a car waiting just past the reporters’ trucks to take you to our complex.  You will be screened by security on the way, if you do not meet their standards you will be taken to your home instead.”

               “You mean?”

               “Yes,” Rei smiled, pleased by how shocked the girl was, “I hope you’ve prepared some good questions.”

               “Oh yeah, yeah totally.  I-I just-,”

               “-If you need some time to prepare, we can take you to your home first,” Rei said cordially.  “Or reschedule for tomorrow.”

               “No!  No I’m ready!”  She all but fell to her knees in eagerness, trying to deconstruct her camera and return it to its satchel as quickly as she could.

               Rei put a hand on her shoulder and she froze like she’d been shocked, “Then I’ll see you there.  And don’t worry, okay?  I’m just curious what you want to know.”

~~~~

               The cafeteria of the Research Complex had private conference rooms in which meetings could be held over lunch and a pleasant view of the grounds, and this was where Rei chose to bring her interviewer.  The girl was practically bouncing with excitement as they sat down, but despite that she held back from launching into her questions for Rei to exchange the expected pleasantries.  And by the time that was over lunch had arrived, and so it was fifteen or so minutes before anything resembling an interview began.

               “You can start now, if you want,”  Rei said cordially, about halfway through her bowl of ramen.  A big bowl, Kamui drained a lot of energy, and lately as Rei and Furashada had been in such constant action he seemed to require even more. “You seem anxious to start.”

               “Oh no, no I’m fine – it’s not for my sake I’m anxious to start.  You’re just very busy is all, I know.”

               “Eh, this is my break anyway.  But you’ve worked very hard to be here, so please, whenever you’re ready.”

               She was ready, and without further ado she launched into it.

               The first series of questions were just about her life in general, it was pretty clear that she was looking to make a full profile of Rei, systematic in a way that suggested she might hope to do one for each of the Kamui wearers.  Rei answered these without getting very specific, because she wasn’t about to go spilling what had taken her psychiatrist months to access to a stranger, but it was nice to at least have this authoritative record out there.  She was the most mysterious of the Kamui Corps, and despite being a fan favorite rumors swirled about her life.  All most people knew was that she used to work for Ragyo but had been redeemed, and their imaginations ran wild from there.

               Although she wouldn’t get too specific,  Rei did give indulge her with some new details: “Lots of people don’t know this, but I was actually Ragyo’s personal secretary.”

               Her interviewer gasped, “No!”

               “It’s true.  Ever since she picked me up, she’d always trained me with that as her plan.  I went through… most of the same combat and endurance training Satsuki did.  If we were going to be her most vital tools we had to be the best tools we could be.  But Satsuki got more experience with leading troops, commanding directly.  Ragyo, at least in front of me, look down on that stuff.  To her the true privilege was being the puppet master, the spider.  And I thought - even though she never shared her plans with me - I thought I was part of that.”

               “Wait, you mean you thought – er, you were above Satsuki?”

               “No, thought is the right word – I wasn’t above Satsuki, she at least had freedom to control Honoujji and her other projects.  But she told me ‘the life-fibers have chosen you for something special’ and I believed her.  And I – look,”  Trying to explain this all felt very surreal, and the mounting worry was that people would wonder how she had been fooled so easily, “Look, you have to understand there wasn’t really any option but to believe her.  Not just because she’d kill you, but because it seemed true.  Living in her palace you had just all this… this wealth and power shoved in your face.  And then Ragyo herself, it was like being in the presence of a goddess, you couldn’t deny her.  Satsuki was lucky, really, that everything she did was treated as a disappointment or a mild amusement.  She probably would’ve been found out years ago.  It really was Ragyo’s hubris that ruined her there.”

               Her interviewer nodded, looking up from her notebook where she’d been scribbling frantically.  When Rei leaned over she saw that in addition to a transcript of what she was saying there was an loose sketch of her, looking thoughtfully into her now mostly finished bowl of ramen.  “C-can you go more into that?  Why would Ragyo think Satsuki was a disappointment?  I mean, she’s Satsuki.”

               Rei chuckled, “Oh, who can know for sure?  She was so far above me I never dared wonder.  But looking back on it… Ragyo had never been interested in her, not after the first year or so. I was very young then though, so I don’t remember much myself.  But that was when she tried to turn Satsuki into a hybrid, but it failed.  And then later Ryuko-,”  Rei hesitated for a moment before deciding that since the rest of the world didn’t know Ryuko’s true parentage this wasn’t the time to drop that bombshell, “Ryuko was made in the REVOCS labs, but her father faked her death and went into hiding.  I think Ragyo just… wanted an immortal daughter like her, I guess.  No idea why that mattered to her, not like she ever really loved anybody, but she finally succeeded with Nui. Also lab grown like Ryuko, you understand, and I'm sure Ragyo was disappointed it wasn't her own flesh and blood. But Nui would do just fine.”

               “And did that cause any jealousy?”

               “Ohh like you wouldn’t believe.  I tried to fit her into that same role Ragyo filled – too far above human to ever be touched – that’s what everyone else did.  But she was such a brat, no majesty, none of that Kiryuin shine.  At the time I just couldn’t stop thinking ‘why, why does she love Nui more than me?’  But it’s a good thing in the end, because she’s dead and, well, here I am.  Er, are you getting all this?”  Judging by how frantically she was writing Rei was worried the girl was falling behind.

               “Uh-huh!  Thank you so much – this is great.  I-I’m sure it’s hard to talk about.”

               “Not that much, really.  Everything before I bonded to Furashada, especially stuff that far back, it’s really surreal remembering it.  I was a totally different person then. I feel like I was only seeing half the full picture, without him to discuss with.”

               “I see.  That actually ties into my next question which is how do you think integrating into the Kamui Corps has been?  I mean, they’ve been very close for years, and you used to be the enemy.”

               “Well, they definitely don’t see me as an enemy.  They’re all big fans of second chances, really.  But at first when I was first back in Japan they didn’t really pay me any mind.  I mean, I was just an acquaintance to them, and I think they were afraid I’d be touchy about everything that had happened to me.  I don’t blame them for that.”

               “Right, naturally.”

               “But I think it was really dating Ryuko that really brought me into their circle and reintroduced me to them.”

               The girl sat up quite abruptly, and Rei frowned, “I’m not gonna tell you why we’re… on a break, you understand.”

               “Yeah, yeah I know.”

               “But I’m here to tell you about my life, so I will talk about her.  Just no tabloid stuff, okay?  Now please, go on.”

               Taking a moment to compose herself, the interviewer went on, “I have another question about the Kamui Corps, if that’s okay.”

               “Sure.”

               “Okay.  Ahh… so, a lot of the public view of the Kamui Corps is that the culture is very… uh… party heavy.  Is-is that fair?”  She seemed very nervous to offer up what could be construed as a criticism. “I mean, even Satsuki was spotted at a bar with Ryuko and Nonon a couple times.”

               This actually took Rei about by surprise.  She had no idea they were perceived that way, but now that  it was out there she understood it.  “Huh.  I mean I suppose so.  I mean, we all drink, and we’re all pretty close and like to spend time together – heh, well except Shiro,”  Rei said thoughtfully, “But it’s not enough to make us out of shape or anything.”

               “Oh no, I don’t mean it’s a problem.”

               “Thanks, I appreciate that.  But seriously, if people feel that way, I want to reassure them.  It’s true what I said, I think we all like to cut loose a little.  Except Satsuki, I think she’d appreciate me saying that she spends time with her friends but doesn’t cut loose,”  Again, no tabloid shit.  Whatever she felt Rei wasn’t going to badmouth someone who was both alive and not a total monster. “But I think they’ve earned it, no?  I mean Aikuro and Tsumugu are both older, sure, but the rest of them are still just barely twenty and they haven’t really had a chance to act that age.  All their teenage years were consumed by Honoujji.  But I think now that we have REVOCS to deal with that doesn’t happen anymore.  Honestly, we all would rather be training.  Fighting with our Kamui, well, it’s amazing.  Especially going up against each other – I’m not to big on dueling so much – but for most of them it’s the only real challenge.  So for now I think you don’t have to worry about anything irresponsible from us.  But when we win I’m sure there’s going to be one hell of a party.”

               “That is reassuring, to me at least. I’m sure everyone trusts you all though.  Uh, how do you think you fit into this then?”

               “Honestly I used to not understand it.  Cuz you see part of serving Ragyo as a ‘puppet master’ was attending these high-class balls, and that was work, not fun.  You had to learn to wind drunk people around your finger, keep your thoughts together when there’s a lot of alcohol and drugs in your system.  So, I didn’t think I’d ever have fun with that.  But Ryuko changed all that.”

               Again, the girl sat up, “How so?”

               “Well, the first time we met it was at a Kiryuin Foundation holiday party.  I wasn’t really sure if I would have a good time there, but I dressed up, had a couple drinks just in case.  And then I – literally – bumped into her.  She didn’t recognize me, but I recognized her immediately.  And I thought ‘I shouldn’t’ but she didn’t really leave an opening for that.  It was like to me saying ‘I shouldn’t’ she was saying ‘shouldn’t what? we’re just talking’.  So I… honestly I just turned my brain off, and I found myself at her home.  I thought, y’know, what’s the harm?”

               “Can’t blame you,”  The girl smiled shyly, “She is amazing, isn’t she?”

               “Y’know… yeah,”  Rei said wistfully, remembering that night.  How wonderful, the way Ryuko had looked at her.  Not the sort of rapacious hunger she knew from Ragyo.  Deep and full of vibrant humor, but still – still, she couldn’t keep them off her.  Normal people shouldn’t be so drawn to look, so unabashedly open with desire, but she was. Nobody had ever looked at her like that before. 

“And then the next day, I gave her my number as I was leaving, but she didn’t say anything except, y’know, that she’d had fun.  So I thought that was that until the next day, she texted me.  And I was just shocked.  I just thought there was no way, I wanted to ask her why.  I was so much older, I was sure there were plenty of interested girls at college, and besides,”  I’d been the slave of her evil mother who did horrible things to both of us – nope, can’t say that!.  “Besides, I’d been her enemy so recently.  I really thought she would come to her senses and realize how awkward this all was.  I wanted to ask her why, but what she texted told me the whole story: ‘I can’t stop thinking of you’.  Of course she didn’t care about any of that, and really I decided I had to see her again right then.  She wanted to see me – for me.”

Rei’s interviewer had been smiling broadly listening to this, the first really confident smile that she’d worn since Rei first met her.  Rei and Furashada concluded that this must’ve been what she really wanted to hear about the whole time.

“Well,” Rei sighed, “I’ve never told anyone that before. I think that’ll get some good numbers for you, huh?”

               “Oh totally!  That’s great!  But, uh, what happened next?”

               “I suppose I can’t leave a story unfinished, can I?  So, after that the next thing I knew she tells me to wear something nice, but don’t worry about my hair.  So I’m confused, but sure, and soon enough there she is on a motorcycle!  Which I never thought I would have much interest in either but right then I thought she looked like she was having so much fun.  And – I know there’s whole online communities dedicated to what the best Ryuko look is – but I’ll tell you as someone who dated her, it’s black leather jacket, skinny jeans, and hair up so you can see the red.  No question.”

               Rei went on, lost in the nostalgia, “Oh, and then she took me to this bar, nightclub, whatever, a place she goes really often.  Mostly college kids, kind of a below street level, seedy kind of place.  And I was nervous, because I thought that I’d given her the impression that I more worldly, more into that kind of scene than I was.  But she introduces me to her friends, and they’re all very welcoming, doesn’t feel at all like – y’know that sort of pressure that you feel when there’s two people who’ve just started dating?  Where people aren’t sure what they can ask?  None of that,”  Rei chuckled, “In retrospect, probably a sign they’d been introduced to a lot of girls by Ryuko.  But then she took me over to the bar and ordered and suddenly I had this problem:  No idea what to order.  But Ryuko took one look at me and turned to the bartender and said, ‘make that two’, and I was set.  She looked so proud giving me that drink, especially because I liked it. But to this day I’m not sure if she knows that I’m not really into that.  That I’m not really that kind of girl.  I dunno.”

               The interviewer didn’t seem interested in stopping her flow (in fact she wasn’t writing anymore, just listening), so she went on, “And that was how things went for the first few weeks.  We’d go out in the evenings, I’d wake up at her place, and eventually I just stopped going back to my apartment.  This was before we decided we were actually dating too.  So I thought we were just fooling around, so I didn’t want to tell her that I was… really, uh, really falling for her, I guess.  Because she didn’t really feel that way about me.  She was just very suave and cool and liked pretty girls I thought.  But then there was one night when I had to work really late.  I figured she’d probably already be asleep, but I checked my phone as I was going home and there were just dozens of texts and missed calls from her.  So I went there, and I found her… in pieces.  Bed all a mess, pacing back and forth, yelling at me: ‘why didn’t you tell me!  I was worried about you!’.  And that’s when I knew it wasn’t just me who’d fallen.”

               Rei went on a little more, recollecting about all those memories.  Sure, there were some rough times, but the others were better than she’d remembered.  And she and Furashada started to think, maybe what didn’t work between us was that she never really understood me.  Of course, she’d understand Satsuki – they’re the same in so many ways.  But she didn’t know me, not really.

               But by now they’d notice that the girl was taking notes, and Rei leaned over to take a look at her sketchbook.  All that was on this page was a drawing of Ryuko.

               “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was again?”

               “Huh?  I-I’m sorry?”

               “It seems to have escaped me.”

               “It’s Haruka.  Haruka Naganohara.”

               Suddenly everything made sense to Rei.  She sat back in her chair. “You’re Ryuko’s ex, aren’t you?”

               “Yes milady,”  Haruka hung her head in shame.

               “So, what’s this all about then?  Were you planning on telling me?  Be honest, you know I can shred that sketchbook and send you home empty handed before you can even react.”

               “I couldn’t tell you,” Haruka said in a small voice, “Or you’d never hear me out.”

               “Well, you’ve got that right.  So, you clearly just want to hear about Ryuko.  Why?  Wouldn’t it be better if you just moved on?”

               “That’s not true!  All of this is really, really good,”  She clutched her sketchbook to her chest.  “I wanted to talk to you.  Please believe me.”

               Haruka sounded emphatic, so Rei let it slide, “I thought she said you were an artist.  What happened to that?  Come to think of it, she also mentioned that you are one of those crazies who thinks she’s some kind of god.  You are, aren’t you?”

               “No! That’s not true!”  Haruka cringed, but not as much as Rei expected.  She must’ve known she’d be figured out eventually.  Maybe she even hoped for it.  It took guts, Rei and Furashada had to admit that.  And if her reasoning was good enough, maybe she’d let this slide.  Maybe. “At least, not anymore.”

               “Then tell me.  Come on, calm down.  You must have some good reason for all this, if you gave up on that and spent all your money on a fancy camera.  I won’t kick you out, alright?”  Rei decided to take a softer tact.

               “Alright.  So look.  I used to be a mangaka – artist, yeah – and then I used to believe Ryuko was some kind of angel or something like that.  But when she went on TV and told everyone what she really was, I listened.  I know a lot of people didn’t, but I did.”

               “Lucky you.  So what next, why’d you decide to give up art too?”

               “I didn’t give anything up.  What I want to do isn’t just draw, I want to tell stories.  And I was thinking after Ryuko revealed that she wasn’t any kind of anything more than a lucky human that it didn’t change that she was in the middle of something very important.  Something that’s never happened before in history.  And I decided that that was the story I was going to tell.  And I thought since you’re the most popular and the one who’s always around you’d be a good place to start.  A-and I mean, you probably know the person at the center of this better than almost anyone!”  Haruka, for the first time, had a light in her tired eyes.  Her fervor about this was obvious.

               She’s been let down by Ryuko too.

               “That’s… not a bad idea.  Good answer,”  Rei concluded after some thought. “You really gave up everything to do this?  What will you do if this doesn’t work out?”

               “It will work out!  It has to.  I haven’t even told my parents I dropped out.  I don’t know what they’d say.”

               “Well then I’d better let you keep that sketchbook,”  Rei smiled, realizing now more than ever she had that chance to be a golden opportunity for this young woman. “I’ll even give you my personal seal so there’s no question it’s authentic.  Good luck.”

               Haruka beamed.  “You can do that!  I-I don’t know what to say!”

               “That you’ll succeed,”  Rei stood to shake her hand, “I’m sorry I blew you off so quickly, Haruka.  You’re… a much smarter girl than I expected.”

               Haruka blushed.

               “But I have to ask,”  Rei went on, “You don’t feel jealous of me at all, right?  I  mean, if you really cared for Ryuko I understand if you do.”

               “Oh no!  No, I think I always knew Ryuko would move on from me.  I was just happy to be by her side while I could be.  I knew she was going to end up with someone special.  Like you.”

               “Special?  Don’t flatter me, please.  We’re all just lucky people.  Or unlucky, maybe, depends on your point of view.”

               Haruka shook her head, “I don’t think so.  I was so happy to see you with her.  Really, I actually thought it was going to be Satsuki!”  She laughed as if that was the most absurd thing in the world, “But what would she want to do with Satsuki?  I mean, if she even likes women, which I don’t think is true.  She’s beautiful but, I mean, she’s so cold!  Can I be honest?”

               “About what?”

               “Satsuki – she scares me.  If I got a chance to interview her I don’t know if I could.”

               Rei thought about that, “She’s not that bad.  If she seems cold, just think about how distant from everyone she’s been all her life.  Remember what I told you about how Ragyo treated her?”

               I can’t believe I’m doing this.  I can’t believe I’m defending Satsuki.

               But then, I’m sure Ryuko understands that all too well.  Wandering around in that big empty mansion, homeless for months.  But she never understood me.

               But I guess I never understood her either.  I’m sure Satsuki gets her the same way she does.  Maybe that’s where we went wrong.  Neither of us was very good at that.

               “Well, she still scares me.  But you don’t – I know you tried.”

               Rei chuckled, “Don’t kid yourself, please, I saw your face.”

               “Okay fine just a little bit!”  Haruka responded with a sheepish smile.

               “Well, it doesn’t matter either way.  It’s over now.”

               “Does it have to be?  I thought you said it was a break.”

               “That’s what I said.”

               “So…”

               “Look I’m still not going to talk about that with you.  I’m settled into this life of fighting REVOCS, and sure I miss her, but I – we – wouldn’t trade it.  And you can put that on record.”

“Okay! And Rei?”

“Hmm?”

“The black leather jacket look was my favorite too.”

~~~~

               Rei left feeling something quite a bit different than what she’d claimed.  People cared about her life, smart and plucky people like Haruka. Normal people.  They were rooting for her.  She was special.  What did Satsuki have compared to that?

               She and Furashada were of one mind.  They could go back to the good times with Ryuko, and fix the bad.  They could win her back.

               They would win her back.

~~~~

               As for Haruka, well, she was riding the high from that meeting for a week.  After a great deal of stress and long nights of furious writing, she determined that she would self-publish online.  And it caught on like wildfire.  It really had been her big break.

               She wouldn’t forget what she owed Rei.  She felt blessed just to have brushed up to her that once.

               If someone had told her then that she would one day be wearing a Kamui herself, she might have died of joy on the spot.

~~~~

What neither of them could know was that they weren’t the only ones privy to this conversation. Izanami was in every system in the Research Complex, and Shiro happened to be on his lunch break too. He heard everything from his seat in the secret server room, humming with self-satisfied thoughtfulness.

“Well now, what an interesting thing we’ve stumbled on today.”

Chapter Text

November 2066

~~~~

            “I’m sure you’re aware, milady, but making a non-family member a co-owner of your fortune is highly irregular.  Of course there’s nobody better to trust with it than Lady Ryuko, but… people will talk.  What are they supposed to think?”

            Ryuko’s ears pricked when she heard this filter through the door – Satsuki’s accountant, trying to be as quiet as possible.  Not quiet enough to beat Ryuko’s ears, he couldn’t have managed that except by writing (and even then, she probably could’ve guessed from pen strokes). 

            “Well, you said it yourself, who better than her?”  Satsuki responded. “Let them talk, she’s a symbol of goodness and the struggle of the working class to people around the world.  Nothing but good press.”

            “But…,”  Ryuko could hear the sigh, “Of course, I trust your judgement.  It’s just my obligation as your executor to address these concerns.”

            He was so deferential to Satsuki, Ryuko could practically see him bowing.  Not surprising, considering he was a member of Houka’s information committee back in the day.  But she was smiling, Ryuko could hear it in her voice, “I know, why run the risk?  I understand.  But my wallet’s always been open to her, you know that.  The only thing this changes is that now she can run the Kiryuin Foundation for me, which will be good for both of us, trust me.  I realize my purchase orders for the Foundation projects have been lacking on detail lately, I apologize.  I’ve had to cut time somewhere since Rei is too busy with her Kamui to help me.”

            “Nonsense!  I haven’t noticed any change; your forms are as helpful as always, I always know exactly what you want me to buy.”

            I bet she was actually too specific.  I bet she walked him through every step like a cookie recipe.  The corners of Ryuko’s mouth twisted up into a wistful smile on their own.  I bet he’s actually relieved.

            “The flattery is completely unnecessary,”  Satsuki said as she stood.  Ryuko could hear her walking around her desk and see the doorknob twist.  Her accountant stood to go as well.  “Well, thanks for your help.  Until next time?”

            “Oh, uh, didn’t you want to update the will?”

            “No, I think that’s going to be its final form.”

            “Okay, but…,”  His voice became a whisper, “But this just says you’re leaving it all to Ryuko!”

            This was news to Ryuko.  She felt like her heart might burst.

            “Right,”  Satsuki said as she opened the door to let him out of her office.  The sharply dressed, handsome young man with eyes that looked very big compared to tiny wire frame spectacles bowed again, and when he looked up at Satsuki’s face he could see quite clearly that “No, you’re not allowed to ask about that” was the answer to whatever he might have said.  Then he saw Ryuko was still there, made a little “eep!” noise, and was quickly on his way.

            When he was gone Ryuko raised her eyebrows as high as they’d go and walked into Satsuki’s arms.  Fortunately, her receptionist was nowhere to be seen.

            “Well that’s done – oh!”  Satsuki yelped when Ryuko kissed her, threading a hand around her waist.  “What was that for?”

            “For? ‘Nothing but good press’,”  She chuckled, “You’ve got a real wild sense of humor sometimes.”

            “Hmmhmmhmm,”  Satsuki couldn’t help but laugh in her humming way as they went back into Satsuki’s office.  Immediately on to the next thing, she was rifling through papers as soon as she sat down.  Since the day Nonon and the rest hadn’t called in, Ryuko had gotten used to spending a lot of time here and she plonked herself down in a chair on Satsuki’s side of the desk, facing the great picture window that overlooked the bustle of the new government offices, built where the old Kiryuin Tower had once dominated the skyline, “If I’d known you were listening… but no matter.  So, how does it feel to finally have your inheritance?”

            “Like you’re about to put me to work spending it all,”  Ryuko quipped, “Nah, I’m kiddin’.  It feels… weird.  So, he doesn’t know we’re related, huh?”

            “No, not a clue.  Which is good, no?”

            “Well sure, I mean it’s inconvenient but I don’t mind skipping classes to sign some papers.  It’s just, it’s almost like you planned it.”

            “Oh?  And who was it who kept the name Matoi?”

            “Whaaat?  Okay, well to be fair, would you want to be associated with her if you had the choice?

            “Well, I can’t argue with that,” Satsuki said playfully.

            “Okay, okay, maybe I did leave the option open.”

            “Hmm.  Maybe I did too.”

            “You think you’re so clever,”  Ryuko smirked as she leaned over and kissed her again, starting by the ear and working across the smooth skin of her cheek to the corner of her mouth.  But Satsuki held up a hand before she could get there.

            “Ryuko!  It’s the middle of the day!”  Satsuki sounded just a little scandalized, and also understood more clearly than Ryuko did that she couldn’t fall behind on her schedule to indulge her more demanding urges without leaving dozens of people waiting.

            “I know, I’m sorry,”  Ryuko separated, but Satsuki put a conciliatory hand on her head, ruffling her hair as she tapped the stack of papers on the table to even them out, then checked to make sure she hadn’t missed anything (this was a bit awkward to do with one hand).

            She offered them to Ryuko, “Here, take a look at -,”

            “-We should just go public with it.”

            “No.”

            “But why not?”  Ryuko whined, “Your accountant knows we’re… in a relationship now.”

            “He only suspects it.  He knows better than to jump to conclusions where I am concerned, and besides, he’d never tell anyone.”

            “No, but if a smart guy like him was able to figure out that but not that we’re related – ach!”  Ryuko cut herself off in frustration.  Satsuki was supposed to be smart, she must see that they weren’t good enough at keeping this secret, and now the best move was to get out ahead of it. “Look, we’ve already got the two people who are going to be the most pissed at us pissed at us, and they haven’t told anyone.”

            “That’s because they know our public images are too important.”

            “Well sure, but people who don’t know us won’t know the difference if it’s us telling them.  Even your accountant didn’t know we’re related!”

            “Ryuko!”  Satsuki snapped, pulling her hand away. “I can't afford to humor you on this.  How can you even consider it?  What happened to feeling guilty?  What happened to ‘living with it’?”

            “… I love you,”  Ryuko answered, not sweetly but in a plain, simple voice.  That was all there was to it.

            “And I…,” Satsuki sighed, “I love you too, but you know what we have isn’t something we can show the world.  It’s not a relationship.”

            Ryuko looked hurt, and Satsuki quickly darted her eyes away.  She hadn’t meant for that to come out that way.

            “I’m sorry, I said that wrong.  You know I want, I wish almost as much as I wish for peace that we could have a normal relationship.  You know that, right?”

            “Well yeah, of course.”

            “But that’s just not going to happen, I don’t know how it ever could.”

            “… I know.”

            Ryuko was here not just to get those forms signed for the accountant, but to discuss taking over at the Kiryuin Foundation.  After seeing how losing contact with Nonon had affected Satsuki she knew more than ever she had to do this, just to get her schedule down to something more manageable.  But she didn’t seem to Satsuki to be at all ready for that, and for the first time in this conversation Satsuki realized she wasn’t just being impulsive.  This was deadly serious to her.

            “Is what we have now that bad? I don’t think so.”

            “No, no! God no.  It’s just… I heard you talking about your will, okay?”

            “… I see.  You don’t approve, I take it.”

            “Don’t approve?  What does it matter?  What good is a trillion dollars gonna do me when you’re…”  She trailed off, and Satsuki nodded, “And I don’t even care about the money.  If I really wanted, I could ask for anything and someone would get it for me.  Hell, I could take anything I wanted, nobody could stop me.”

            Satsuki didn’t respond right away.  It was hard to decided how to respond when she was too captivated by the glint in Ryuko’s eyes behind what seemed like a mere casual glance.  It suddenly seemed too grim for such a sunny, brisk fall day, for the peaceful blue sky that trailed by above the Tokyo skyline in front of them.  Stuck forever here after Satsuki was long gone, with a hole in her brain where her other half used to be.  Furious that Satsuki would think she had any use for the money.  Almost unwilling to even consider any of this.  And yet…

            And yet Satsuki was leaving it all to her, small and empty gesture that might be in the face of immortality.

            “Well then, let’s spend some of it.”

            “Huh?”

            “You don’t want the money, fine.  At least let me show you how to dispose of it properly.”

            Despite herself, Ryuko smiled, “I just told you none of this stuff matters to me compared to you dying, and you just blow right on with it, huh?”

            “Well, we have to do something until then, don’t we?  And don’t say it doesn’t matter. These papers here have the power to save thousands of people’s lives and make the lives of millions better.  That’s worth a lot.”

            “Sure but, I dunno, I’m not saying I got cold feet about all this, but if my time with you’s limited, I’d rather spend it doing something fun, y’know?”

            “This will be fun Ryuko, trust me.”

            “I do, y’know what, screw it, I do,”  she stood up.  “You’re right, busy day ahead of us, let’s not get down thinking about stuff like that.”

            But Satsuki grabbed her hand before she could walk away, “You do have to read this before you can get to the fun part though.”  The papers were in Ryuko’s hand before she could protest.

            Ryuko groaned, paging through it.  Lots of descriptions of projects that were currently ongoing, personnel she’d have working under her.  If she’d thought Satsuki would let her figure that out as she went, she was sadly mistaken, “All this?  This is more than I’ve read for college in… ever!”

            Satsuki hummed at that, “The fact that you think that says more about those papers than your performance in college is, frankly, a searing indictment.”

Chapter Text

December 2066

~~~~

            “So, I see you’ve finally come around to our ideas about college, I see,”  Houka said with a smug smirk, pushing up his glasses.  He didn’t need to spend all day in his computer anymore, not now that his Kamui Misaki was partially wired into her own supercomputer – soon she would be as vast an intellectual force as Izanami and together they would be doubly efficient.  But for now Houka was happy enough that he could see the code through his mind’s eye.  When Ryuko interrupted them he and Misaki were busy upgrading the government firewalls. Misaki’s caution, bordering on paranoia, made this a natural job for her.

            “This isn’t like normal learning, though.  Plus, I think if I asked my old physics professor about it, he’d die of shock.  Not like I was a good student or anything,”  Ryuko responded with a shrug.

            “I’ve been saying it for years,” Shiro chimed in, “College is all well and good if you want to become a perfectly average engineer.  Or a lawyer.  Heh.”  He sat up in his big leather chair, “So, what do you need?”

            “Well, uh… I was wondering if you could tell me what exactly I am.”

            “Well now.  That’s a big ask.  You’re aware I’m sure that discussion of higher dimensions in any definitive terms is a pretty advanced subject… what did you get in physics, anyway?”

            Ryuko laughed, “… Ohhh man. Let’s not talk about that.”

            “Hah!”  Houka blurted.  “Quite.  But Shiro’s right, it’s extremely complicated.  Now, could we dumb it down? Yes.  But between building the new server block for Misaki and running interference on all these REVOCS mooks, maybe it’s better off we just give you some reading on it.”

            Ryuko looked crestfallen, and suddenly Izanami cut in over the loudspeaker.  ~[Oh c’mon I can make her a nice presentation, all you guys have to do is help give it!]~

            “Really?  You can?”  Ryuko asked excitedly.

            ~[Of course!  I’m running the particle accelerator, all the safety mechanisms in the complex, and backup emergency systems at every nuclear plant in the country, y’know.  Just in case.]~

            Ryuko’s eyebrow’s shot up, “I-is that legal?”

            “Take it up with Satsuki,”  Shiro shrugged.

            ~[You can thank me next time there’s a big earthquake and the systems just mysteriously shut down juuust in time!  But back on the matter at hand, I can for sure write up anything you want!  In fact, I started writing it already.]~

            “Awesome!  You’re the best Izanami!”  The glow of pride from Izanami at praise from her creator was palpable in a fearsome glow that made Shiro shuffle with discomfort.

            ~[No problem! Oh, and if you want anything else, you just ask, please!]~

            “Well, actually, if you don’t mind I would kinda like if you could maybe do more little presentations for me.  Y’know, stuff like, uhhh… history, foreign language, nature, that kinda thing?  I’m here like every day absorbing more life-fibers or sparring with you guys, maybe you guys could teach me something while I’m here?”

            Houka appraised her thoughtfully, “This wasn’t entirely your idea, was it?”

            “Well… now that you mention it, Satsuki might’ve said something”

~~~~The Week Before~~~~

            “That was wonderful Ryuko, really,”  Satsuki said, dismissing with a wave a swarm of cameramen and audio workers who scurried around to disassemble the sound-shell.  As part of her capacity as the new CEO of The Kiryuin Foundation, Ryuko had just given a speech about a new project they’d just started – redoing the water pipes across all of North Kanto.  Generations of cost cutting meant far too many of them were leaching lead. Ryuko was especially proud of this one, it had been partially her idea. 

When she’d passed through North Kanto on her homeless wanderings, before she came to Honnouji, she couldn’t ignore just how bad the water had tasted. People had wondered how she drank it without filtering, but of course a hybrid wasn’t going to be hurt by a few poisonous metals.  Not that she knew that at the time, she just didn’t care if she lived or died was all.

And now here she was, breaking ground in front of a vast crowd while a fleet of construction vehicles stood ready to lurch to work behind her.  Her construction vehicles, moved by her hand.  All those people who’d been kind to her, given her a bit of food here and there, huddled with her in the shanties on those winter nights, now they were watching her come back.  God did she hope she was doing well.  She hoped they were proud.  They looked proud.

“Ach, do you really think?  I forgot what I was saying halfway through, I stammered!”

“No, nobody noticed,”  Satsuki reassured her, straightening her collar.  Although we will have to do something about the way you wear your suits.  Amazing that you can make something this perfectly tailored then put it on like you just got back from a night on the town.

“You shoulda done it, I’m telling you.  I’m no good at this!”

“Well, you’re never going to get better unless you practice.  And you’re fine already.  Just think about like when you were shouting at me all those times.  Didn’t seem too concerned about who was watching then.”

“Heh, you say that.  But without the anger, it’s hard to miss the crowds.”

“Hmm.  Well, they certainly didn’t miss you.  Now, don’t worry about, really,”  Ryuko still looked a little antsy (the way Satsuki’s fingers played at her neck wasn’t helping – can’t do that in public!) “Here, I know what’ll keep your mind off it – let’s go see what they do with it next.”

Satsuki showed Ryuko through the mess of trailers they’d drove out to this ceremony.  Editors, makeup, sound-shell design.  Mako was there too, over with the manager whose job it was to make sure the audience was looked after, and she waved excitedly when Satsuki and Ryuko passed by.  She was brimming with excitement as she helped hand out complementary souvenirs to everyone as they filed out of their seats, and when people recognized her and asked for autographs (and plenty did), she nearly died from joy.

But that wasn’t what struck Ryuko most.  Sure it was cool, but what was confusing was the trailer full of people just…  typing.

“So what’s this about?”  She asked.

“Oh!  Translators,”  Satsuki said as they walked through the trailer and left out the other side, “They’re writing out subtitles for you in a huge number of languages.  I try to do my own, but I’ve had them on staff for a while so I could check to make sure I got everything right.”

“Wait, you – no don’t tell me.”

“Hmmhmm yes, I’m afraid you suspicions are correct.”

“You speak, like, multiple languages?  Get out!  Which ones?”

“Oh, just… English, Chinese, Hindi, Russia of course, plus Spanish, French – in our household that was necessary – oh, and Arabic.  You know, everything a modern businesswoman needs.”

“I… I don’t know what I expected.  How the hell.”

“Oh, it’s not that hard, anyone could do it.  It just takes time which, as a child, I had no choice to but to have. Uzu knows five languages, you know that?  He never paid attention in English class for four years and now look.  You could do it.  Actually, you should do it if you’re going to keep on being in charge of business.”

Ryuko was aghast, “I can’t do that!  I-I mean, I don’t know the first thing about it!  Plus, if you really want me to do this aren’t there more important things to do?  Like, shouldn’t I be learning about, I dunno… economy or some shit?  I just do what your guys tell me, sign what they want me to sign, sit in that office and people come in with project ideas and I send them out with a check!  Look I’m happy to do it if it keeps it off your back, but if you want me to come up with my own ideas – like you were – I think there’s more important things I should learn than another language.”

“That’s a great idea!”

“Wait…”

“Yes, I think what you need is some context.  How could you know what to do, not like anyone ever told you.  How we got here, where we’re going... You know who you should ask?  Shiro, and Houka, and their Kamui too.  They’ve got the sum total of human knowledge at their fingertips; it wouldn’t take them any time at all.  You’re down there all the time anyway”

“Now I wasn’t saying I wanted more homework.  They’ll talk right over me, you know that!”  Satsuki took to the idea instantly, and Ryuko realized that to her this was suddenly more than idle chit-chat.  This was another bright idea from Satsuki that filled her with unease.

“I don’t think so, they’ve got the Kamui right now.  Izanami can… moderate Shiro’s worse impulses.  That’s kind of the point, no?”

“Ach, I can’t!”  Ryuko held up her hands to her temples like it hurt just to think about it.  It did.  They existed in a different world from her, and what they did there was all well and good, but she… she didn’t belong there.  “They’re too smart for me!”

Ryuko didn’t know what was happening until it already had.  Satsuki slapped her.  It didn’t hurt, and it was really more a chiding thing, but Ryuko was open mouthed anyway.

“Hey!”

The look in Satsuki’s eyes took her back.  So intense, so commanding.  Like the old Satsuki.  Had she ever stood this close to the old Satsuki?

“Don’t say things like that!  I tutored you for months to get you through high school and you want to tell me that was all for nothing?”

“Oh, like that did anyone any good, thanks,”  she said with sarcastic snark.

Satsuki whipped her head around to make sure nobody was around.  They’d wandered off from the construction site into the woods.  Far enough away that they wouldn’t attract attention.

“Don’t give me that sh-crap.  People say I’m a ‘genius’, but what ever gifts I might have are in your genes too.  You’re going to get educated.”

“Don’t tell me what – wait… did you just censor yourself?”  Ryuko’s face suddenly cracked into a huge smile, “Hohoholy shit Sats that was fuckin’ adorable!”

“No I – Don’t change the subject!”  Satsuki blurted, still in the emphatic “old Satsuki” voice.  But her face went red.       “You are a public figure, and that means you must have an education befitting that.”

            “Oh, that’s just not going to happen, you know that.  You can’t command it to happen,”  Ryuko was still chuckling to herself, “You can’t intimidate me anymore, I thought you’d know that.”

            Satsuki stepped forward until she was looming right over Ryuko, “I’m not commanding.  I’m telling you what you need to do.”  Not at all what the look in her eyes was saying.

            Ryuko couldn’t resist it.  She went up on the balls of her feet and kissed Satsuki, locking lips until her hands were stiff at her side, totally paralyzed.

            “Oh, you bitch,” Satsuki murmured appreciatively.

            “That’s more like it,”  Ryuko smirked.  But Satsuki looked ruffled.  Far from thinking about how someone might have seen them (luckily nobody did), she was disappointed.  She hadn’t realized how good it would be if Ryuko had the sort of education she seemed so determined to avoid.  Not just practically, she knew Ryuko could be just as smart as her if she wanted and the thought of a Ryuko capable of that was…  she was disappointed.  “You really want me to do this, don’t you?”

            Satsuki nodded, “I think it would help you but more than that, oh I don’t know, we could talk.  About history and philosophy, intellectual things.  I’d really like that.”

            Ryuko didn’t belong in that world, of deep thoughts and knowledge.  But that’s where Satsuki resided.  “Yeah, me too.”

            Ryuko left that day with a list of topics she was to ask Houka and Shiro about.  Satsuki left with an improved appreciation for something she should’ve known already.  Ryuko would do things just to make her happy.  Why did she even bother raising her voice to begin with, when had that ever worked?

~~~~

            The next day, Ryuko was back, and Izanami had set up some comfy chairs in the life-fiber storage room so Ryuko could take her first lesson while absorbing life-fibers.  She managed to talk Shiro into helping her, although technically she could’ve done it herself.  But, despite having developed several simulated focus tests based on various psychosocial models of Ryuko, she was nervous.  The real one was right in front of her (well “in front of her” was an odd term for someone who essentially was the lab).

            But she was excited too.  Like all her Kamui, she was excited to just be in the warm, soothing aura of her creator, even more so to see that she arrived dressed for business – in that suit jacket with the golden embroidery and the shiny epaulettes she looked larger than life.  But then while they waited for Shiro she projected her human avatar onto a screen and they started talking.  All nervousness quickly evaporated, just as all Ryuko’s fear that she might be in for a lecture, and as her aloofness dropped her aura glowed brighter than ever.

            Shiro pretended like this was all a huge inconvenience as he sat down across from Ryuko, sighing and running his hand through his hair.

            “So, Ryuko, you want to know what you are.”

            “Uh… if I say no?”

            Shiro nodded, “Tell me, do you know what a tesseract is?”

            “Oh!  The cube from those old superhero movies!”  Ryuko snapped her fingers happily.

            “No.”

            ~[Take a look at this]~ On her screen, Izanami’s avatar moved aside to show a simple 3D model of a tesseract, a sort of cube-within-a-cube looking structure.

            “Now, this is the three dimensional ‘shadow’ of a four-dimensional shape called a tesseract.  You know how a three-dimensional objects like you and I have two-dimensional shadows, yes?”

            “Sure?”

            “Well, try if you can to imagine something with four dimensions.  X, Y, Z, and… another one.  Its shadow would be a 3D shape, like how in a shadow you drop the Z and you just have X and Y.”

            ~[And this one is the most basic one, it’s the shadow of a shape with cubes for sides]~

            “Wha – that doesn’t make sense.  You can’t make sides out of cubes.”

            “In four-dimensional space you can.”

            “That still doesn’t make any sense.  What does this have to do with what exactly I am.  I mean I know you said part of me is in another dimension but…”  She shrugged, “I can’t picture it. Where does the extra dimension go?”

            “You can’t picture it.  That’s the point,”  Shiro shrugged, “It goes… in, sort of.  You couldn’t imagine it no matter how hard you tried.”

            “Well then how’s this supposed to help?”

            “Okay, imagine that you were a two-dimensional creature.”

            “Like under a microscope?”

            “Eh, sure.”

            ~[But even thinner.  And they can’t see through the glass, just on the same level they’re on. Now, imagine that you could stick your finger through the microscope slide]~  Izanami drew up a graphic to show what this would look like.

            “Oh, so they’d just see a slice.”

            ~[Exactly!]~

            Ryuko nodded, “So you think I’m just a slice of some kind of giant space… thing?”

            “Huh,”  She’s picking this up fast.

            ~[Shiro thinks you’re getting it]~

            “I didn’t say that!”  Shiro blurted, and Izanami giggled. “But you aren’t far off.  It’s not you that’s the shadow, the slice, the portion of a larger thing we can’t conceive of.  It’s the life-fibers in general.  They don’t come from a different dimension, they’re in it at all times.  It’s layered on top of ours.  We merely see them as little red thread things.  And you… well, it’s not that your body is the slice.  Your flesh is made of atoms, mere matter.”

            “But the life-fibers inside me, they’re the shadow of what I really am.  So what kind of 4D freak is sliced up into me-shape.”

            “Well, life-fibers are infinitely thin, remember that.  So, their true arrangement isn’t really like your body, they’re just sort of… jammed in there.”

            “Oh.  So…”

            ~[We made a model of what it would look like, check it out!]~

            “Now, what you’re about to see took all night and a lot of computing power, it’s not just an artist’s interpretation.  This is what it would look like if your entire body was destroyed – incinerated, ripped apart.  Now, if there was nobody around to absorb you, like you did Ragyo -,”

            Ryuko shuddered a looked away, but quickly composed herself, “- Sorry, go on.”

            “Well, without anything to interrupt it, you’d just reconstruct your material body in a moment,”  He chuckled, “If you hadn’t been right next to her Ragyo would probably have had quite a shock.  Anyway, without further ado…”

            The screen changed, and Izanami was gone.  In her place there was something… else.  A vast shape, a woven structure of thousands of strands – thin red ones, thick blue ones like tree trunks.  Six pairs of huge, rounded structures.  Eyes, carved in fire on a great, curved beak of a face.  Wings that bubbled and seethed, stretching out like an aurora of life-fibers.  Shiro stared at it in awe

            But Ryuko felt sick, “I knew it.”

            “Knew what?”

            “Well look at it, I’m a goddamn moster!”

            ~[Hey, don’t say that!]~

            “Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Shiro said, “Just because your life-fibers look like a city-sized dragon… thing.”

            “City-sized!”

            “Read the scale bar – listen, this is all unknown territory for all of us.  Why would your judgements of what’s good and what’s monstrous apply to a world no human can even conceive of.  I actually have a theory that all us normal humans might create a 4D signal from our nervous systems.  What we look like in the larger universe must be… bizarre.  Compared to that a bundle of life-fibers seems downright orderly.  You might be the natural one on the cosmic scale, and us the monsters.  After all, we’re just a bunch of weird arrangements of carbon and oxygens living on the congealed soup skin of a molten rock and you’re written into the fabric of the universe.”

            “…Huh.” Ryuko didn’t but that for a minute, but there was point arguing over it, you couldn’t change his mind. She wondered if Izanami agreed though.

            “Personally, I think you should be grateful.  Something of that size. Something larger, longer lasting than any of us.  I only hope whatever’s left of us mere mortals creates nearly the same impression.”

            “Don’t tell me you wanna trade places?”

            “Heh.  Don’t worry about that.  Izanami is likely just as long-lived as you, and she’s smarter than any human could ever be. In a way, you’ve given all of us the closest thing to immortality we can have. I think I’m satisfied with that. For now.”

            Ryuko realized neither of them had any idea what life would be like for her once he was gone.  She’d be stuck, same as Ryuko was.

            “You know what? Fuck all this.  Creepy.  Let’s talk about history or somehtin’ now, huh?”

Chapter Text

December 2066

~~~~

            “Hellooo!”  Ryuko called as she walked into Satsuki’s cottage, dropping her stuff by the door in a big heap as she did.

            “In here, come in, dinner will be ready in few minutes,” Satsuki called from the den.

            When Ryuko went, Satsuki was sitting with her laptop open, a fairly grave expression on her face.

            “There’s something you need to read, before we can get on with our evening.”

            “Uh-oh.”  Ryuko plopped down next to her and took the laptop, already open to the relevant webpage.  She read, “ ‘An Interview with Rei Hououmaru and her Kamui Furashada – Two Rising Stars in the Battle Against REVOCS’ - Hold on what the hell?”

            “I know.”

            “Didn’t you say this was against the rules?”

            “Not rules, per se, but against our policy.  We all agreed on it, but if she doesn’t want to follow through, then she can deal with the consequences,”  Satsuki shrugged.

            “Aw, don’t get her in trouble, c’mon.  Wait, am I in this?  Holy shit what does she say about me, is that why you wanted me to read this?”  Ryuko noticed Satsuki’s fingers twitching on the armrest and pulled herself out of the laptop.  “Don’t get her in trouble for this.”

            “Did I say I would?  But there’s something else you ought to know.  That author’s name is a pen name.”

            “No kidding.  And the real name?”

            “Haruka Naganohara.”

            Ryuko jumped like she’d been shot.  It was lucky she had those hybrid reflexes, or the laptop would’ve taken a spill. “WHAT! How the hell did she even…”

            “I don’t know.  I only found out about it from Shiro.  They did the interview from the Research Complex, so obviously Izanami overheard everything.”

            “She didn’t mention it when I went in for my lesson,”  Ryuko muttered.

            “Well, this was just yesterday it got published.”

            “Oh.”

            “They and Houka actually had quite some trouble trying to decide if they should even tell me.  Not that they know about us, but they were worried I’d get her in trouble.  They all agreed you should read it though.”

            “… She doesn’t badmouth me here, does she?”

            “If she does, it’s subtle.  Read it.”

~~~~

            “…’When Ryuko first came up, Rei was quite hesitant to discuss her. ‘I’m not gonna tell you why we’re on a break’, she said, but as we went on, she was quick to discuss everything else about her,’ “ Ryuko read and then went on, still reading aloud, through the part where Rei recollected on their first date, and on to other memories.  She could feel Satsuki’s eyes boring through her head while she read. Finally, she finished the part about her, “ ‘I never once felt a shred of anger or resentment from Rei, and though I have no business speculating about what might have happened between them, I can’t believe they parted with much drama or heartache.  The affection, the fond memories of all the good times, it was genuine.  She never told Ryuko she wasn’t that interested in the nightlife which Ryuko indulged in, and that stuck with me.  Whatever it was that came between them, it seems that clash of personalities was never solved.  And yet it did nothing to dim that abiding respect and, yes, even love that was still obvious as soon as the topic of Ryuko came up’.  Huh, well that doesn’t sound that bad.”

            Satsuki was, maybe pointedly, not looking at her.  She had averted her eyes the moment Ryuko said the word “love” and was staring into her lap.

            “Hey now, don’t get jealous.  I’m here with you now, right?”  She gave Satsuki a playful jab to the shoulder, “And besides, Haruka’s got it all wrong, believe me Rei was pissed.  I don’t know which of their’s idea it was, but this is just to make it look like there’s no conflict among us.  Propaganda!  You love that shit, huh?”

            Satsuki smiled shyly, “I appreciate that, but I still want to hear you say it.”

            “Heh, I’m sure you do,”  Ryuko sighed to give it the appropriate dramatic weight.  She couldn’t let this sound hollow to Satsuki, no way. “I love you Satsuki, I know she’s in the past now.  You really think this one article’s gonna change that?  Who’m I here with right now, huh? Now c’mon,”  She put the laptop down and practically jumped on Satsuki, “I got somethin’ fun planned for tonight.”

            “Oh?  Now what could that be.”

            “Nothin’,” Ryuko said smugly, “Just, you guy’s’ve been teaching me so much lately, I thought I’d teach you something in exchange.  Some real practical stuff, life skills.”

            Satsuki smiled and exhaled through her nose as Ryuko settled onto her lap, straddling her thighs.  She loved this seating arrangement, and she let her hands find their way around Ryuko wherever they wanted.

            To think I was worried that article would make her want to take Rei back.  Honestly, would I care if she did?  Could I really share her, so long as I have this?  No, never!

            “That really all you’re gonna tell me?”

            “You want to spoil the surprise?”

            “I thought you’d know by now I can do without surprises.”

            “Alright, alright.  I’m gonna teach you how to get drunk properly.”

            Satsuki’s hands froze and she frowned, “I don’t think so.  After last time -,”

            “But that’s the thing, last time! You didn’t know you’re limit, I wasn’t looking after you, it was all liquor.  Bad situation, but if you know your limit it won’t happen again.”

            “I don’t know…”

            “Nah, trust me.  You’ll learn the same way I did in middle school.”

            “Oh?”  Ryuko doesn’t usually talk about her childhood! “And what way is that?”

            “Cheap beer!”

~~~~

            Satsuki shut the sliding door behind her, walking out onto the small patio with a swaying movement which was a mixture of voluntary and very much not so. When she saw Ryuko watching her she smiled coyly, but wavered a bit coming down the stairs.  Crinkly brown leaved crunched under her sandals.  Winter though it might have been, these days winter was far from uncomfortably cold, and this night was particularly hostpitable.  Enough so that they were reclining on the wicker lawn chairs in Satsuki’s secluded back garden, deep in the gloom of an impenetrable wall of pine shrubbery that totally concealed the garden from the outside world.  Satsuki had actually just gotten back from putting her jacket back inside, it was that warm out.

            “So?  How’re we feeling?”  Ryuko asked with a coy smile as Satsuki paced in front of her.

            “I’m definitely feeling something.”

            “Well I hope so!  You’ve had two cans in the past hour and you’ve barely touched your dinner, you’d better be feeling something.”

            “Vision feels like… I have to try to focus on anything in particular.  And it feels both hot and cold here,”  She pointed towards her stomach.  “What?”  She said when she noticed Ryuko’s smile crack with a chuckle.

            “Nothin’!  It’s just funny to hear you talk about it like a scientist.”

            “Well, I should expect you know quite well what it feels like, but I’ve never had a chance to really observe the way the body processes alcohol in detail,”  Satsuki shot back, “Er, how many have you had, anyway?”

            Ryuko held up her can with a proud smile, and gestured towards a few more crumpled ones on the ground next to her, “This is my fifth right here.”

            “Fifth!”

            “Haha!  Better keep up!  Here, have another can,”  Ryuko grabbed another beer from the cardboard case and handed it up to Satsuki, who clicked it open and took a sip, grimacing at the taste.  “I’m kidding though, seriously.  Since I don’t have to eat every day anymore my stomach shrunk or somethin’ so five’s gonna be it for me for a while.”

            “Oh.  But you’re still -,”

            “- Hammered?  Not yet, not yet.”

            Satsuki nodded and looked at the condensation beading on her beer thoughtfully.  “You know, cans really are amazing.  Keeps food safe to eat as long as you could reasonably need without any plastic.  Of course, now it’s hardly impressive, but when they were first invented in the eighteen-hundreds it was really transformative.  Invented for the French military during the Napoleonic Wars, did you know that?”

            “You wanna come here and make your observations rather than pacing around?”

            Satsuki shrugged and, after a moment of indecision, nestled into Ryuko’s lawn chair instead of her own.  Ryuko threw an arm around her shoulder and she sighed in satisfaction. “You probably don’t want to hear about that.”

            “Mmmmm no.  Not right now, anyway.  Drink some more, c’mon.”

~~~~

            The hours wore on and the night sky got progressively deeper lavender, shafting through the bare branches of the trees above them.  This close to the city it would never get dark enough to see the stars, but Ryuko set a fire anyway.

            “So?  You gonna tell me yet?”

            “Tell you what?” Ryuko said, as though she didn’t know.  Satsuki had only been asking about it incessantly since her seventh can (which was her most recent, she was managing to pace herself).  Her vision was swimming disconcertingly, and everywhere she turned her head there was Ryuko.  There was her hand – nails unpainted, she’d thrown all her nail polish away in an effort to exorcise Ragyo.  There was her hair, glinting in the firelight.  There were her lips, her gear-pupiled eyes, her legs, her… breasts.  Satsuki felt like she was sinking into her, like there was something that was going to happen, that had to happen.  She knew what it was, and she was excited but also… nervous. 

            Ryuko, meanwhile, was so drunk that she felt like she might fall asleep, but she knew where this was going too and she wasn’t going home without it.  But she also knew she could use her powers to clear the alcohol from her system in a snap – she’d even gotten it down so she could make herself only somewhat less drunk. So why not linger here a little while longer?  She was comfortable, and the beer was cold and crisp, and she hadn’t had a night like this and it was nostalgic.

            “You know what!”  Satsuki nestled in even closer, “Tell me about the first time you got drunk!”

            “Sats, c’mon, you know there’s not much to tell.  I mean, kids do stupid shit, they get told they can’t do somethin’ ssso they do it,”  Ryuko struggled to keep herself from slurring words, envious that Satsuki didn’t seem to have that problem whatsoever.

            “No.  I don’t.  So happens if someone did something forbidden at my school they didn’t get a chance to get told it was wrong.”

            “Riiiight. How could I forget,”  Ryuko said sarcastically.  She looked over at Satsuki and saw the pout on her face.  So childish and petulant.  Adorable.  “Ah what the hell, let’s go.  So, it was seventh grade, place down by Odawara.  I actually had some friends that time – well, I dunno.  Friends… nobody really had friends at that place.  But I hung out with these eighth graders, real tough guys, real greaseball punks.  You’d’a liked ‘em,”  Satsuki smiled into Ryuko’s shoulder at that, “Anyway, they liked me ‘cuz I threw a better punch than most of ‘em, even though I was half their size.  The first time I walked by the corner store they hung out at, this guy Taro, they called him ‘the worm’ made a pass at me and I belted him one good.”

            “Hold on, you said they called him -,”

            “- And after that, well, I was in.  We started making jabs at each other every time I passed by and -,”

            “ -Nohoho wait!  Why, what could he have done to be called the-‘the worm’?”  Satsuki shook Ryuko insistently, giddy with a sort of giggling laughter Ryuko had never heard from her before.  Her voice turned up just a hair.

            At that point the conversation wound discursive, Ryuko stumbling through a description of the whole little gang and everything they got up to and Satsuki listened, enraptured.  She felt like she was in this world – Ryuko was back to dressing the way she used to with her floppy white trainers and a ragged army jacket (she seemed to have picked up more of them in different colors someplace) – she imagined herself as Ryuko’s classmate, hanging on her arm while they stood with her crew of street thugs out in front of a dingy corner store.

            “ – Alright, alright, I can tell you the real part now, the actual thing I was supposed to tell.  Beer, right?”

            “Oh!  Right,”  Satsuki sat up at full attention.

            “So, we were in real good with the guy at the corner store we hung out at.  He didn’t really give a shit about us loitering – pretty nice guy actually – knew we were all gonna go to either a Kiryuin or Takarada high school and become goons in, er, in your little wars or if we were really… ‘lucky’, transferred to Honnouji.  So he let us take some beer, y’know, when no one was watching or looking or cops or nothin’.  So’s long as we kept the other gangs from shoplifting, and we were pret-ty good.  Heh, there was this one-time tha-when I thrashed this guy while we were drinking.  Almost blackout, I threw up right after, but you shoulda seen him!  Aaaand that was the one what got me transferred from the school.”

            Satsuki’s eyebrows furrowed in a complicated dance, like she was trying to remember how to make an appropriately skeptical expression.  “I don’t believe that,”  She finally pronounced.

            “What? Get outta here why would I lie!”

            “That’s like exactly the sort of thing you’d lie about!  Some silly pointless story of you being soooo tough, you love those,”  Satsuki rolled on top of her, pushed herself up, and suddenly it was hard for Ryuko not to look right down her shirt.  “Now c’mon, what really happened?”

            Through her addled brain, Ryuko eventually remembered Rei’s interview with some degree of panic.  If she doesn’t believe this, what else might she not believe?

            “No, I’m serious!”

            “Nobody can fight drunk; you’ve seen too many movies.”

            “Nuh-uh!  It’s like the, the Vikings!  You like history, you know.”

            “Oh, so you’re a Viking now?  And that’s not even historically accurate!”

            “Oh yeah?  So what is it then?”

            “It’s, it’s, it’s,”  Satsuki tapped the side of her head in frustration, “It was hallcinogentic,”  (Satsuki’s speech momentarily broke and she tripped over the word), “Halla-halluncine oh you know, some kind of drugs.  Look, you just cant fight drunk.  I was trained by the best of the best, I know it’s true.”

            “… Wanna prove it?”

            “You… can’t be serious.  Now?”

            “Well sure.  We got this little yard, c’mon, let’s throw down.”

            “…”

            “You know you want to.”

            “Come to mention it… I do think I have a few spare Shinai somewhere around here.”

~~~~

            Mere minutes later the clatter of Shinai could be heard, a faint reverberation through the dense hedge walls.  But inside the noise was deafening.

            “Oh, c’mon!  You’re not even trying!”  Ryuko feinted left, sliced right, skirted around Satsuki and, with the sort of tiptoeing caution of a wolf trying to find an opening around the horns of a buffalo, lunged in again.  Satsuki easily, almost clumsily, smacked down each of them.

            Satsuki sighed, “I’m sorry.  I was just… it’s not right.”

            “Well what is that supposed to mean now?”  Ryuko pulled up, suddenly concerned.  Maybe she really was too drunk.  Nothing would ruin this night faster than Satsuki throwing up everywhere.

            “I’m not sure, it’s just… I’m not trying to win by not playing, I promised I’d try but I just can’t hit you,” Satsuki bumbled through it, she hadn’t realized how much the world was spinning until she stood up

            Ryuko responded to that by spitting, and yelling an exaggerated taunt, “Fuck that, what else are you gonna do?  Best training in the world huh? Shouldn’t you be able to handle any situation?  And I thought a Kiryuin would have a little more pride in that, even… y’know, all things considered.”

            “And what is that supposed to mean?  Like you’d know anything about it.  All your training and experience comes from the streets.  Matoi.”

            Ryuko froze, “Wait… you liked that, didn’t you?”  A devilish smile crept over her face.

            Satsuki, meanwhile, twisted her mouth into a smile too, “Well, when you put it like that, maybe we could try doing it like, er, old times?”

            “Oh my god.  That’s… you’re an insane person, you know that?”

            “You won’t?”

            “Oh no, I dind’t say that.  In fact, I’ll show you just what a dumabass-stupid idea this is, Kiryuin!”  Ryuko lifted her sword and pointed it in challenge right towards Satsuki’s head – a perfectly useless position, tactically, but the way her eyes glared like lasers down its bamboo blade was exactly the sort of thing that Satsuki wanted to hit.  And she was way to drunk to stop and think how messed up that was.

            “You may try, Matoi, you may try. But if your bladework is as sloppy as your manners, I’m afraid there’s no hope for you!”  Satsuki said, and without a moment’s hesitation lunged right at Ryuko.

            Of course, the lunge wasn’t any good, she stumbled and teetered unbalanced at the end.  Imperceptible to anyone but an expert, of course, but that hardly mattered.  Now they were off, firing hasty, shoddy insults at each other, skirting across the grass and stumbling through the gardens, hacking just as hastily but with quite a bit more competence.  Ryuko was a whirl of motion, leaping around Satsuki, occasionally channeling a bit of her superhuman capabilities when she thought Satsuki could handle it, blurring through the bare branches.

            Meanwhile Satsuki was doing all she could to keep her feet.  She tried going back to her fundamentals, imagining herself as an aspen in a storm – her body swaying every which way, but her roots planted deep.  But that just made her dizzy, and Ryuko would come in with another – she had to admit – competent attack, and then her arm would just leap out and block it and counter all on its own, barely giving her any time to think how interesting it was that that happened.

            Ryuko has a point.  This is a very interesting experiment.  Plus a great way to burn all the extra calories from that fermented… starch. Hah!  Oh, imagine if I could tell the me before I met her…  And at that thought Satsuki was laughing, and then Ryuko was laughing too, although she didn’t know why, and then one of them, maybe both of them mixed in a punch and then a kick and then Ryuko’s hand snaked up her wrist and - God dammit she shouldn’t be that good -  Satsuki’s shinai was on the ground.  So, one solid kick right to Ryuko’s chin, One very satisfying kick (although she did nearly fall over) and now they were both disarmed, fighting hand to hand.  Faster, angrier, more brutal, so close now they could feel each other’s breath.  And then Satsuki got Ryuko into a vicious armbar:

            “You like that! Do you! You -,”

            But then Ryuko twisted her whole body around, dislocating her shoulder to grab Satsuki’s neck.  Usually watching Ryuko hurt herself unnaturally seemed to do something unspeakable to Satsuki’s mind, now it was… breathtaking.  Literally too.  So she pushed herself off the ground and twisted herself so her back was arched and Ryuko had no choice but to let her go, and now they were wrestling on the ground.  And finally, after they’d been sufficiently spattered in dirt and leaves and grass, Satsuki’s breath finally failed, and the edges of her vision went dark. 

She went on as long as she could though, barely realizing how desperate she was to keep going until Ryuko was on top of her, triumph burning in her eyes, and then her lips were on Satsuki’s, her hands pinning her wrists.  That softness, every minute detail was all Satsuki could even perceive. And when they parted Satsuki tried to lean back in for another kiss but Ryuko just smirked and said,

“I win.”

And the little pinprick of anger made her want to shout back – cocky superhuman bitch – but she had to just sit there and catch her breath.

And as she lay there lightheaded Satsuki convinced herself that she felt quite sober, and was disappointed.  And yet her thoughts spilled out her mouth.

“Ohhh that was wonderful.  I-I didn’t know, but this.  This is what I’ve been looking forward to all night.  Thank you.”

“Thank you?”

~~~~

            “Oof, girl you’re heavy!”  Ryuko commented, quite casual as though whatever they’d just done hadn’t happened at all.  Satsuki, still lightheaded, leaned on her shoulder.  “You sure you’re good?”

            “I feel like I’m floating…”

            “Damn, you really are a lightweight, aint’cha?”

            “No it’s just the,”  Satsuki paused for a yawn, “the excess of aerobic exercise accelerates metabolism, causing a momentary spike in blood alcohol content.  Momentary.”

            “Whatever you say Sats, whatever you say.”

            They climbed the steps to the sliding glass door together, but when they got there Ryuko stopped them and turned around “Let’s survey the damage now, huh?”

            Satsuki’s mouth dropped when they did.  Two roughly human shaped craters in the grass, footprints all over everything.  The fire was burnt out and the crumbled charcoal scattered on the patio, the lawn chairs flipped, branches snapped off, even the shinai had somehow been smashed in the chaos.

            “How am I going to-,”

            “Tomorrow problem.”

            “What ever you say, love, whatever you say.”

            And even though Satsuki thought that she’d gotten to what the night was building to, as Ryuko and her settled into bed, she thoughtlessly reached for her body in a way she could never bring herself to normally.  Thoughtlessly.  The way Ryuko did.  And she kept not thinking, and time seemed to stretch to infinity.  Just a stream of that heavenly voice begging her for more.  Everything was a blur, but it was good.  And maybe it wasn’t so bad to turn her thinking off, if this is what she got in for it.

            Satsuki was very, very glad she didn’t black out that night.  Or have to pretend she had, for that matter. Ryuko has to agree, but really what was there to say? She thought Satsuki would find it incredibly tacky if she said that sometimes fantasies really do come true.

Chapter Text

January 2067

~~~~

               “Alright kid, you know the plan?”

               “Take my time getting in, pop the USB in the main computer, keep my head down while you guys blast ‘em,”  Mataro answered with a smirk.  He was dressed in ratty plainclothes, long hair unbraided and draped over his face so nobody could see his blindfold (which was also getting pretty ratty at this point).  With the tan he’d built over months in the tropics and that getup he could pass for one of the locals who’d been enslaved to build for REVOCS.  Which was exactly the idea.

               “Remember, if it comes down to blowing your cover or… doing what’s necessary,”  Tsumugu nodded as he handed over the USB drive that would hack the obelisk’s security, and Aikuro passed him a hardened life-fiber knife,  “Don’t hesitate.  A moment is all they need to start executing hostages.”  They’d made that mistake before.  Turned out charging in headlong with Kamui wasn’t as easy as it looked, not when there was collateral damage to consider.

               So Mataro would go in first and make a distraction.  Which is what he did now, vanishing into the underbrush in the direction of the vast, jagged metal edifice that rose over a nearby hill.  On the way he popped one of his emergency tabs into the back corner of his mouth where he could easily crush it between his teeth if needed.

               It wasn’t long before the alarm klaxons started.  Mataro had done his job. Within less than a fraction of a second Aikuro and Tsumugu were in motion – no, gone – blurs tearing up the rainforest, slicing through the reinforced concrete of the outer barricade instantaneously.  REVOCS cultists and shed life-fibers fell in a rain, and then, before the guards on the second wall could react, phase two.

               A torrent of needles and rockets tearing out from the forest, a tide of men and women in captured Ultima Uniforms with a vanguard of DTRs bounding ahead, a flight of VTOLs strafing overhead.  And Aikuro paused on the battlements as his army walked past and bullets bounced harmlessly off Nekketsu, all but humming to himself as he picked off tougher targets, two-stars and such, with perfect precision.

               Now this was a good scrum.  Aikuro’s boys surging through the breach behind him were ragged, wearing muddy camo fatigues over their swiped life-fibers, DTRs painted with garish warpaint.  Against the sleek, corporate REVOCS designs with their shaped armor and unified, intimidating color scheme of white, black, and glowing red-purple.  It was just like Nudist Beach.  This is what Aikuro was trained for, and no matter how many years passed he could never say no to a good old-fashioned surprise attack.

               Especially not with Nekketsu here to help. [Look, there he is!]  She shouted as the door to the main bunker around the base of the obelisk wrenched off its hinges Mataro had locked them to stop the soldiers inside from reinforcing their comrades, but that didn’t matter to the man who strode out.  At first glance he didn’t even look like a man in armor, but instead a small mecha similar to a miniature honnouji defcon machine.  With a great round body of solid plate interwoven with neon life-fiber bands and thick metal limbs ending in hardened life-fiber talons, the only non-mechanical portion of the ensemble was the face of a huge man with an eyepatch and a lumpy jawline jutting out from all those layers of armor.  His one remaining eye locked onto Aikuro with a flash of rage.

               “Oh! Tolstoy!  Been a minute!”  Aikuro called out to him.

               “That’s not my name!”  The commander in his three-star ultima uniform shouted back in a thick Russian accent.  This commander, as far as Aikuro could tell, wasn’t a true believer but a mercenary – and though that made him stupid it also meant he would talk to you.  He’d scrapped with Aikuro weeks before, in fact him and Kamui Rosuketsu were the only ones that had gotten out of an encounter with the Kamui Corps alive.  “So we meet again, Mikisuki!  But it won’t be so easy this time! I’ve improved my Cataphract model three-star ultima uniform!  Its armor is so thick your arrows cannot pierce it!”

               “Is that so,”  Aikuro cracked his knuckles, “Well then, I guess we’ll have to settle this face to fa-,”

               At this point Tsumugu crashed into the mercenary with a shield bash that sent him flying.

               “Ooh!  Sorry about that!”  Aikuro leapt off the battlements and fell upon his adversary with his bow converted into blade form. “You know him, he likes to skip the banter and get right to the chase!”

               This duel was the most important thing happening on the battlefield.  Either side in it was more than capable of shattering the entire rest of the enemy army – if they didn’t have someone else powerful to deal with.  So while they kept each other busy, the more ordinary soldiers were able to slug it out.

               And a three-star uniform wasn’t hardly as far below a Kamui as raw power would suggest, especially not with a competent warrior controlling it.  Sure in terms of strength the Cataphract model wouldn’t stand a chance, but that’s the thing about three-stars, even back at Honnouji – they were tricky.  In this case the trick was a body that, despite looking like rigid armor, was surprisingly pliable.  An arm would become a leg, armor would cave in to warp around a thrust, and so this bulky looking uniform could twist and tumble like some kind of giant gyroscope.  Which was good because today he was outmatched and had to play a careful game of keep-away with the two raging Kamui.

               That was, until he spotted a small, drab figure scrambling across the battlefield, being chased by a squad of REVOCS soldiers.  It was Mataro – apparently, he’d been spotted trying to get out of the bunker.  Now the Russian mercenary lunged for him with talons outstretched.

               “Shit. Kid!”  Aikuro yelled, but it turned out there was nothing to fear.  Mataro suddenly dropped flat to the ground, and those slicing claws flew by well overhead.  Then he rolled, kicked up onto his feet, and was running again.  And as the three-star bounced and skidded across the sandy battlefield, Tsumugu leapt over him and pinned him to the ground, sword pointing at his exposed head.  Mataro had unexpectedly handed him a golden opportunity.

               “We know you’re not one of them.  Just surrender, and you will be treated fairly.”

               “Yeah, if it’s money you’re after we’ll double whatever REVOCS signed you on for.”

               In his current position they must’ve thought he had no choice but to surrender, but instead the mercenary grunted, looking up to the sky, “Sorry boys, but I’ve got to keep some standards.”  Almost immediately, one of the VTOLs exploded, and Aikuro and Tsumugu both jerked their heads up.  Enemy air support? “I am a professional, after all.”

               And indeed it was enemy air support.  A squadron of some kind of sleek flyer, dancing acrobatically around the height of the obelisk.  Aikuro immediately pegged two with arrows through the cockpits, but the others seemed to be able to evade targeting.  Some of them were landing, dropping off more soldiers.

               Aikuro had seen these before.  Life-fiber powered machines, fast and agile and capable of regenerating.  Frankly, Tolstoy could wait.  He leapt into the air, shooting down two more as he flew, and landed amongst the fresh soldiers, carving into them before they could attack his worn out, tired boys.

               But then he wished he hadn’t when one of them landed in front of the mercenary and, with Tsumugu also distracted, he climbed on.

               “Special extraction courtesy of Commander Jakuzure, sir!”  A man on that chopper called as it lifted off, and Aikuro did a double take so sudden that a cultist in a one-star actually managed to get a punch on him (didn’t hurt, but still).

               [Wait, did he just say]

               “Hold on, what did you -,”

               The mercenary sneered as he floated away from the battlefield.  “That’s right.  Tell Nonon her brother sends his regards.”

               The fight wrapped up quickly after that.  Without anyone strong enough to oppose the Kamui, all that was left was to surrender or die.  Running wasn’t even an option, anyone attempting to flee into the forest was cut down as they loped around securing the perimeter.

               When all was done, they found Mataro chilling with Yuda.  Or trying to anyway, he seemed to be… vibrating.  He didn’t look very good, skin sparkling with sweat, hair rank and glistening.  But he was smiling.

               “Kid, you alright?”  Aikuro asked, and Mataro nodded very quickly.

               “YessirMrMikisukisir!”

               “That was some trick you pulled back there.  Thought you wouldn’t see him coming.”

               “NoItookoneofthosethose-uh-pillthingsShirogaveme.”

               Tsumugu appraised him very seriously, putting a finger on the side of his neck briefly to feel his pulse.  Racing. “How do you feel.”

               “Fast.”

               Aikuro and Tsumugu shared a look, and their Kamui a short conversation about what Shiro had told them the pills would do.  “You did only take one, right?”

               Mataro kept nodding – he didn’t seem to be able to stop, “Yep!  Shirosaidtakeonerightwhenyouneeddon’tletanyoneelsehaveonesothat’swhatIdidandtheyreallywork.”

               “Alright,”  Tsumugu nodded, “Good work.  You’re going crash soon so get on a dropship before that happens.”

               When Mataro was out of earshot, Yuda said to them, “Look I’m not saying it doesn’t work but do you really think you should be giving a kid that young coke?”

               Tsumgu shook his head, “It’s not cocaine.  It’s life-fibers.”

               “… come again?”

               “His family is extremely life-fiber compatible,”  Aikuro continued.  “If you put life-fibers in his bloodstream it will force them to momentarily treat him as a host in order to keep him alive.  It’s like temporarily making him into what Ryuko is.  A human life-fiber hybid.”

               “Holy shit, you’re serious?”

               “But enough about that, Aikuro did you hear what they said about Nonon’s brother?”

               Aikuro responded enthusiastically, “I know, right?  I thought he was on house arrest on a remote island someplace?”

               “Apparently they snuck him out.  He wasn’t associated with REVOCS before, right?”

               “No, or he’d’ve been under much stronger security.”

               “Wait, hold on, who’s this now?”

               “Nonon’s older brother.  He was supposed to be the heir to the family, but when Ryuko killed Ragyo and Satsuki took over their tech conglomerate was one of the first mega-corps they broke up.  They’ve never been on good terms but Satsuki still ensured his life would be comfortable enough.”

               “And just for that he signed with REVOCS? Petty.”

               “You got that right.  Nonon thinks he’s a real prick.”

               “Speaking of, you wanna tell her or…” Tsumugu asked.

               Aikuro laughed, “Are you kidding?  I gotta at least be there.  It’s gonna be a sight to see.”

Chapter Text

January 2067

~~~~

               “Nice job making it up here kid,”  Aikuro said as Mataro scrambled over the guardrail onto the roof of a tall skyscraper on which Aikuro, Tsumugu, Uzu, Nonon, and Yuda were lounging under a canopy.  The rain was coming down warm and not at all unpleasant, except for how acidic it was.  Most rain these days was acidic, but a confluence of weather patterns made the rain of Old Jakarta, the former capital, particularly bad.   But people still lived here, even through the streets below were flooded now, transforming the gridlock into a city of canals.  The warrens down below were so deep REVOCS hadn’t managed to flush everyone out, and now they wouldn’t have a chance.  The Kamui Corps had liberated the city just that morning.

               The smoke from the shattered planes and warships was still contributing to the evening gloom.

               “I just… wanted to see… if you needed anything…” Mataro wheezed as he caught his breath.

               “Got everything we need right here, little tiger,”  Yuda said, lovingly tapping a bottle of vodka.

               Uzu stood up and offered Mataro his lawn chair and went over to Nonon’s

               “What, are you joking?”  Nonon thought she was already making a huge concession by letting Yuda celebrate with them (not that she didn’t like him, but subordinates shouldn’t see her relax).   And now this?

               “Yeah, make room, c’mon,”  Uzu replied and Nonon, begrudgingly, complied.  She scooched over and eventually partially onto Uzu’s lap so there was enough space (it was tough because their Kamui were both still powered on, as were Aikuro’s and Tsumugu’s), and Mataro sat down.

               “You seen this shit?” Nonon pointed a large billboard screen on a nearby skyscraper.  A man Mataro didn’t recognize was projected on it, standing in a gilded suit before a giant light display that just said “REVOCS”.  He had a face that was angular, smooth, and symmetric, like a shark, but with huge scars across one side and… no jaw.  An unsettling metal mandible was put in its place, looking like little more than a reconstruction of the underlying bone and teeth, with weird cross-stitching of rainbow light, like Nui’s reconstructed arms after Ryuko chopped them off.  “That’s Takamori Kiryuin, Satsuki’s cousin.  And, come to think of it, technically your cousin. Since you guys ‘adopted’ her or whatever,” She added snidely.

               “No shit.  I thought Ryuko said this dude got shot.”

               “He did.  Hence the… you see,”  She waved at her own chin to demonstrate.

               This was a propaganda video that REVOCS had put up when they realized that they weren’t going to be able to forcibly evict the people hiding in the city’s maze of canals.  It was running on loop: ~“Look around you, good people,”~ His synthesized voice rang out, about as impassioned as a machine could be, ~“The world is winding down.  We have mined and devoured and consumed everything our good mother Earth gave us.  Oh, it’s not our fault, it’s just… the evil of human nature.  We must be strong now, and that is exactly what REVOCS means to do.  We are creating a great ark, in which our chosen can weather the storm.  Well, is that not cruel of us, you might ask.  To leave the rest of you to die.  But the doors to the ark are still open, open to any who will join us and pull their weight.  So come, join us in the light.”~

               “Booooo!”  Uzu shouted, whipping a glass at the screen with Kamui strength so it actually made it several blocks down to shatter with a little puff of smoke on the screen.

               “Don’t waste those!”  Nonon hissed, “What kind of example are you setting!”  But in the street below people who heard him (and there were a lot of people who’d come out specifically to see the Kamui) aped him and started booing and throwing things as well.

               “Heh, the doors are open.  If anyone think their ark is gonna do anything but sink and take the rest of us down with it,  speak now,”  Aikuro said.  Nobody responded except Tsumugu’s cynical chuckle.

               The recording went on, ~“If I may appeal to your… baser practicality… where else is there to turn?  To Satsuki?”~  Takamori seemed like he would’ve scoffed if the simulated voice allowed it, ~“She once believed in the power of strength, and perhaps she still does.  But this talk of… peace and prosperity for all.  It’s nothing more than talk.  The sad truth,”~ An artificial sigh emanated from his speakers, ~”It’s no longer possible.  Such utopian promises were never possible. And look at what she does, not what she says. She says life-fibers are evil, yet has Kamui at her disposal, just the same as us. Vast power and political position for her friends, leeching off the good name of the great Ryuko Matoi?  And well, you see how she treats her enemies.  The doors to her ark are closed,”~  He held his jaw, jerking it to the side to mimic the motion of being shot.

               “Ohh!”  Yuda reacted quite viscerally to that, “How can he talk like this and not expect us to see right through it?”

               “Oh, most people will,”  Tsumugu answered, “The point isn’t really to get new believers.  But if he can instill doubt that they have anything to do with Ragyo’s plans? If they can make people think that maybe this isn’t a good versus evil battle but just a power struggle between two morally ambiguous geopolitical entities.  Most of the world, surprisingly enough, wasn’t at Honnouji.  They don’t know for sure what went down, so if he tells them maybe Satsuki made an opportunistic power grab during the aftermath of Ryuko saving the world… all he wants is to instill some doubt.”

               “Ahhh, devious.”

               “And to think, my own fucking brother got bought in by that.”

               There was such venom in her voice that nobody felt much like responding, so she looked around and shrugged, as if confused why that would be, “What?  He’s a fat fucking crook, a parasite!  And of course, they didn’t give him this pitch, they gave him the real one.”

               “What do you suppose they wanted him for, anyway?”

               “If he didn’t reach out to them because we took away his fifty yachts and his compound in Fiji?  I thought about it and probably it’s a PR victory, getting my brother just like they got Satsuki’s cousins.  Also, to get under my skin, probably.”

               Tsumugu eyed her skeptically

               “Which did work, I’ll admit.  And besides, him and this fuck were probably friends!  You know, hobnobbing at the balls, and the country clubs, and all that.  I-I mean I did that too, but that was different, you actually think I liked any of those bougie cunts?  No, I did it all for Satsuki, and then she – ahem – uh…”  Only Yuda out of all of them didn’t know that there was some falling out between Satsuki recently (he just assumed she’d already been drinking a bit).  Everyone’s eyes were on her, “Yeah, gets under my skin alright.”

               “Well, I think we’ve seen enough of that,”  Aikuro decided,  “Izanami!  I know you’re listening in.  Hack in there and change the channel.”

               Almost immediately the screen cut out with a loud electronic sparkling noise.  A brief animation of Izanami’s human avatar playfully saluting played, and then the feed cut to video from the training arena in the research complex – a duel between Houka and Ryuko.  Graceful fencing on Houka’s end, with precise rapiers and his lanky, gymnastic limbs.  Ryuko just had that hardened life-fiber pole, and today she chose to us it like a stick, not a sword.  The people down in the streets cheered.

               “That’s more like it!  Now we can drink,”  Yuda cracked open the vodka bottle and began to pour.  He and Aikuro and Tsumugu took theirs like champs, of course, and Uzu grimaced, pulled a face, and loudly yelled, “Woooo!”.  Nonon, feeling like everyone’s eyes were on her, forced hers down with a stoic face too.  And then it came to Mataro.

               All the adults shared glances, while Mataro feigned nonchalance (easier with his blindfold).

               “Well, we’re all here.”

               “Just make sure he doesn’t fall off the side or something, huh?”

               But in the end it came to Nonon to make the decision.  Uzu had already smashed his glass so they were sharing, but she held it out anyway.

               “Hey kid.  You catch it, you get some.”

               Mataro’s head jerked up as the shot glass whistled through the air, glinting in the hazy evening light.  It wasn’t but a minute before Mataro’s hand shot out and he let it roll down his arm neatly.  Uzu’s eyebrows shot up.

               There was a smattering of applause as Uzu poured out his reward.  But when Mataro drank it, you could see his eyes bugging out from under the blindfold and it all came spewing back up.

               “Hah!  Bitch,”  Nonon smirked.  But she didn’t stop Uzu from pouring him another shot, which he did keep down.

~~~~

               The evening wore on, and eventually Tsumugu, Aikuro, and Yuda went down to be with their boys, and it was just Nonon, Uzu, and Mataro still up there, watching replay of the greatest hits of Kamui training and drinking.  Uzu had half a mind to send Mataro to bed so he could be alone with Nonon, but she hadn’t decided to play along.  Not yet, she was in a very specific sort of mood since hearing about her brother.  Times like these even Mataro needed a little leeway.  Plus, by this point, everyone was getting kind of sleepy.  Moving or doing anything much seemed hard.

               And it wasn’t like they weren’t having a good conversation too, which kept Uzu from pushing the issue.  “So, what about you and that girl you rescued, eh?”  Nonon asked, “Any luck there?”

               “What, are you nuts?  We don’t even speak the same language!  Nah, I’ll just wait ‘til I’m back in Japan, get back on Tinder.”

               “So you say, my squire, so you say…”  Uzu murmured philosophically.  He was on the screen at that moment, a bout between him and Rei.  Mataro, though not nearly as drunk as the others since they’d cut him off, was still mesmerized by the lightning fast dance of their blades, the way their bodies and those huge Kamui eyes twisted and turned as though they had their own laws of physics.  Plus, the privilege of hanging out so cordially with these… heroes, he had never enjoyed himself more.

               “God, that is so fucking cool.”

               “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, you know”  Nonon said, but when Mataro looked at her skeptically she cracked up, “Oh, who am I kidding?  It’s better.”

               “Got that right,” Uzu chuckled and Mataro did too.

               “Like, look at this place,”  Nonon spread her hands expansively.  The smoke was still rising into the black night.  A crashed plane happened to be sticking out of the skyscraper right in front of them like a giant steel cigar.  “Fucking chaos, death, danger everywhere.  I mean it’s chilled out now, but you should’ve seen it this morning.”

               “I’ve seen plenty of action.”

               “I know, I know you have,”  Nonon said with a surprising lack of condescension. “But it’s not the same.  This is like a day in the park to us.  You have no idea what a load off the mind that is.”

               “The world is unlocked to us,”  Uzu added.

               “Like, seriously, look at it!”  Nonon insisted, rising from Uzu’s lap and acting like she was going to grab his head by the sides and force him to look, but then she noticed the blindfold.  “Or feel, or whatever.  How long you gonna keep this thing on anyway?  Planning a dramatic reveal?”

               Mataro shrugged, “As long as until Satsuki says.  She’s the master, I’m merely the apprentice.  I mean, I could just ask Ryuko to go around her and make me a Kamui and then I wouldn’t need her but why would I do that?  She probably wouldn’t, anyway.”

               “Heh.  No, she would not.”

               “I didn’t think so, but y’know maybe one day…”

               “… Mmm… honestly you probably will eventually. Your own Kamui”

               “Oh.  Cool.” Hearing Nonon acknowledge that filled him with a glow of joy, but he decided to play it cool. He desperately wanted to not mess this up

               They watched the duel in silence for a moment, until Nonon abruptly said, “They’re fucking each other, you know that?”

               “Wait, who?”

               “Nonon!”  Uzu gasped

               “Your sisters, that’s who.  Adopted sisters, whatever.”

               Uzu immediately sprung into damage control, “Now hold on.  Mataro, this is just a rumor, you understand that, right?”

               “Nuh-uh! I asked her.  Right from the lady herself.”

               “… Whoa.”

               “Yeah.  Let that one sink in, if you can.  And you,” she turned to Mataro, “This it?  That’s your reaction.”

               Mataro shrugged.

               “But they’re sisters!”

               “Yeah, they’re my sisters.  And they didn’t know each other growing up.  And I know what that was like for both of them.  Mako told me everything.”

               “Seriously.”

               “I have no business judging them.  And I don’t want to.”

               “… Un-fucking-believable.”

               [Nonon, don’t get carried away now.]  Saiban cut in, feeling a rise of anger in her.  But, under the weight of alcohol and the new tension she could feel in Uzu (which she did feel a little guilty about creating), it collapsed.

               “I’m not gonna Saiban.”

               “Huh?”

               “It’s just Saiban, telling me not to flip out and pitch you off this roof.”

               “Eeep,”  Mataro just now realized that was a possibility.

               “I thought you’d be used to that from Senketsu.”

               “It was so long ago… I do kinda miss it, I guess.”

               “I always thought it would be kind of annoying.  Like someone always being on the phone.”

               “Oh at first, sure.  But then you kinda get used to the chatter.  They were always arguing but… you could tell it was because he cared.  He was looking out for her.”

               “…Huh”

               “Satsuki’s the only person who cares about Ryuko that much.  She tutored her to get her to graduate high school, did you know that?”

               “No, actually.”

               “Ryuko always acts tough and cool around her girlfriends, but not Satsuki.  She can’t play tough with Satsuki.  I think it annoys her.  But then you see the side of her she doesn’t normally show.”

               “Like with Senketsu?’

               “Yeah.”

               “You’ve got a bit of a crush on Ryuko too, I know.  You sure that’s not fucking up your… judgment or whatever.”

               Uzu suddenly cut in, “-wait, did Ryuko know Satsuki was gay before this, because we didn’t know for years and – Oh, right, thanks Seijistu,”  Nonon waited to see if he’d say anything more but he seemed to be more interested in talking to his Kamui instead, mumbling almost inaudibly.

               “You. Crush. Talk.”

               “I-I mean yeah, but like, obviously I didn’t ever think that would go anywhere I – Look I know what I am.  I’m just a punk kid and she’s... awesome, what do you expect?”

               “Sure, sure.  It’s just you never look at Satsuki that way.  Or me.”

               “Satsuki I’m still half afraid’ll kill me.  And you, well, I don’t see how I could look at you any way with this blindfold, so who’s to say?”

               “Heh, thanks.”

               “This fuckin’ shit… this is why you don’t talk to her anymore, isn’t it?”

               “Yup.  And I’m gonna keep not talking to her until…”

               “Until what?”

               “She stops, or gets better, or something.”

               “I don’t know Nonon, I just want them to be happy.  I wanted Mako and Ryuko to stay together, you know.  But they don’t need to be together to still be close, I guess.  Maybe this is the next best thing?”

               “… You’re a pretty stupid kid, you know that?”

               “I’m just trying to be a good brother.”

 

Chapter Text

February 2067

~~~~

            What was it Uzu liked so much about Nonon anyway?  It wasn’t a question he was used to asking.  Much less since Seijitsu came around – to her Nonon was just part of the background of life. Or more fittingly Saiban was part of her life, there wasn’t really a word for that close bond between Kamui, there’d never been one like it before.  Asking what they liked about each other wasn’t bound to get an answer a human understood it was just a… resonance.

            But Nonon, right.  Besides the obvious.  Well, the obvious was pretty important: There was nothing much better than fighting alongside a woman who loved the art almost as much as he did and thought he looked good doing what he did best.  The only thing better was, well, he’d been with a lot more woman than he would ever admit to her – especially during his diplomatic voyage to Europe and America, back when the victory was fresh and he couldn’t keep them off him.  So he had a lot of context to say she was good, scary good.  Like, honestly worrying that she might go more rounds than him good.  So there was that.

            But it wasn’t always like this.  Used to be there was only one woman for him –  Satsuki.  There was no denying she had the greatest body known to science, as well as being the only human warrior who’d ever posed a real challenge to him (Ragyo and Ryuko didn’t count or he’d have to own that with Ryuko’s recent improvements she might be able to match him in more ways than the purely physical one day).  Satsuki was like a mountain – before he found out she wasn’t interested in men climbing that mountain was about the ultimate achievement he could envision.  So what happened? 

            Well, he unlocked Shingantsu.  That was when he learned that all those little twitches and tells he’d always picked up with Tengantsu weren’t just isolated things, they all came together into a sort of rhythm, a flow to how people and creatures moved.  No matter what they were doing, or their mood, there was a distinct personality to how each person moved.  The languid precision of Houka, Ira’s coiled spring that surged from hulking standstill in an instant, Ryuko’s defiant, twitching calm that hid catlike readiness, Mako’s skittish overexcitement.  And then Satsuki’s… nothing.  Whatever training she had as a child had done it’s job, Uzu was convinced that the poise with which she regularly held herself was nothing more than an act.  He’d never seen her real rhythm and that bothered him.  Normal people couldn’t fake the natural rhythm of their movements.

            He had to wonder now if Ryuko had ever seen her inner self, now that Nonon had confirmed good enough for him that her worst suspicions were right.  There’d always been something between them, maybe with Ryuko she could let her guard down.

            But none of Satsuki’s deficiencies made any difference when compared to the pure brightness of Nonon.  He’d never seen anything like it, there was precision and then there was skipping every step, dainty hands tapping to a beat only she could hear, slender back perfectly arched like a ballerina. It was amazing, really, and though at first he wrote it off as just a neat curiosity, over the months he started to realize that the tape measure length around a woman’s breasts or hips was nothing compared to this.  Of course, she didn’t have to be such a brat about realizing she had his attention.

            Lately though, since they’d started winning the war in Indonesia, her body’s rhythm had begun to change.  That arched back began to lean into her pace, those steps drove into the ground with greater force.  Her head began to tilt not with that dainty, musical twitch but with a smooth glare.  This was new, predatory, didn’t really feel like anyone Uzu had ever encountered before, least of all in Nonon herself.  The successful campaign, the bloodshed, the life-fibers Saiban was gorging on, it was filling her with something more than confidence.

            Still, he didn’t really spend any time thinking about all this.

            At least, not until the day she killed Chimoku Jakuzure.

            ~~~~

            It was a day like any other when it happened, a regular raid on a city, an enemy base smashed. Then there was an electrical plant with a great big skyscraper across the river that the survivors were holed up in, and the Kamui had to leap across to get to them before they could regroup with reinforcements.  There were a lot of those life-fiber powered aircraft buzzing around that day, more than Uzu had ever seen. 

            He knew the moment it happened.  Nonon froze, right in the middle of the battle in a big open yard surrounding by crackling, sparking pylons that stood half shattered and on fire.  Across from her, silhouetted in the fire raging around the foot of the skyscaper, was a short, thin man in what was undoubtedly an Ultima Uniform.

            Uzu landed next to her, cape whooshing as it transformed back into its normal form from wings. “Let me take this one,” He urged softly.

            Nonon shook her head.

            “Together then?  Make it quick?”

            She looked at Uzu then.  A fire was in her eyes, “Go stop the reinforcements.  Main road. We’re just about done here.”

            He could do nothing but turn reflexively and start to walk off, [Wait, shit!] Seijitsu suddenly remembered, [Nekketsu and Reiketsu, they said we should be stopping this!].  They’d all discussed this before, and the inevitable conclusion was that if Nonon came upon this brother who seemed to agitate her so much she might do something drastic. 

            But she was their commanding officer and as much as it was their duty as friends to try to talk her out of something she might later regret, that was the limit of their authority.  And much as it was weird to admit she was rarely wrong – Satsuki’s strategic mindset had clearly rubbed off on her – so if she said he had to go that would probably be the right call.  Not that they cared much about him, he sided with the enemy so that made him the enemy, but it just didn’t seem like a good idea to let a family tragedy play out in front of them.

            Uzu didn’t get it.  They’d talked about Nonon’s family before and she didn’t seem to care much about them either way.

~~~~

            Why couldn’t he just have never showed up?  Why couldn’t the whole thing blow over?  She knew it wouldn’t from the moment Aikuro first told her, that somehow it would lead to this.  Even so, neither Nonon nor Siaban had come up with a plan, they’d just been dreading it for weeks. And now it was here, the inevitable confrontation with the elder Jakuzure, the so-called rightful heir.

            [I wonder if this is how Satsuki felt right before she betrayed Ragyo.]

            “No, Satsuki planned to die that day.  At least we know he can’t kill us,” Nonon murmured softly, audible only to Saiban over the roar of fire and battle.

            [Well, I guess one way or another it’ll be over soon then, you can take solace in that] Saiban said, although neither of them felt particularly consoled.

            “You can come out now, I know it’s you!”

            “What, not even a hello?”  The man who emerged from the flames seemed to trail long, straight life-fibers out into the surroundings, as though caught in a spider web.  His Ultima Uniform might have been in the powered-down form most of them took, a three piece suit in the REVOCS red-purple and black, but it was clearly still active, doing something.

            Nonon huffed.  “Chimoku,”  She said in a cold voice.  Now that Uzu could see him better he was struck by how… ordinary this guy was.  He was much thinner than expected from Nonon’s fuming, but that didn’t mean he was particularly good looking either.  Like Nonon he was short and pale and had delicate, soft facial features with big, sharp eyes.  But where all that worked wonders for his girlfriend, commander, fellow Kamui bearer, on her brother with his brown eyes and perfectly ordinary black hair it made him look… quite frail. Especially that pale skin – with his sharp eyes Uzu could see his veins.  It made his skin look weirdly wet, and made Seijitsu wonder what he’d been doing to spend a bit more than a month down in the tropics and not pick up a tan.

            “Sister,”  He said in a thin voice, “To think I’d have to come to this… godforsaken place to see you.”

            “Yeah.  Well.  You found me.  You, ah, you might as well surrender now.”

            Chimoku shook his head and said smugly, “I can’t do that, sister.”

            “Wha – you –,” You can’t be serious.  He must know a lone three-star operated by a non-combattant won’t last a minute against us.  I’m sure he thinks he’s got a trick or something but -

            But she didn’t want to fight him. “You’ve lost the battle.  You’re going to have to surrender.”

            “I don’t think so.  Not until I say what I have to say.”

            What the fuck does he think he’s got on me that this isn’t suicide!  He thinks I’m seriously going to stand here and listen while he says… what? Nonon desperately wanted to know.

            She looked to Uzu for guidance, but he was standing there transfixed.  With his senses he noticed something Nonon didn’t.  Chimoku’s hands were shaking, the corners of his mouth drawn, twitching.  His rhythm was cagey, a slow burn of anger.  Nonon was, by comparison, much less agitated than him.  Although still plenty agitated.

            [What do we do here?] Saiban was looking back through Nonon’s memories of her brother, trying to find an answer that would resolve this without it coming to blows.  There… weren’t many. Him pulling her abnormal pink hair when she was a toddler and he in grade school, calling her a freak while their parents looked the other way.  Some birthday parties and holidays… no, those were memories of Satsuki, or Shiro. [What could he have to say?  You’ve basically avoided each other since you met Satsuki and Shiro].

            “Well then, I have to remove your Ultima Uniform by force.”

            “I know-,”

            “-Ok,”  Nonon had enough, and with a light jump zoomed directly towards him.  But she’d barely made it halfway before those trailing threads lit up and suddenly the sparking electrical pylons were alive, moving.  Collapsing on her from all directions.

            Nonon sliced through the first pylon and jumped neatly over the second.  But a tangle of wires caught her on the third, wrapping her in a cocoon that crackled with blinding flashes.  Chimoku grimaced as he held his hands up, motioning the cocoon to tighten.  But they were mere metal, and Nonon ripped herself free as though wholly unencumbered.

            Chimoku laughed nervously,  “Did you really think it would be that easy?  You don’t know the effort it took to be here!  Not just anyone can wear this Medjay Model Three-Star Ultima Uniform, a year ago my body would have crumpled under the pressure!  But I did it, all so I could come here and get some answers!”

            “What fucking answers?  How did you do that, anyway?”  Nonon growled, landing on the ground and stalking forward.  A few more pieces of the electrical plant whipped towards her – now she could see that the life-fibers extending from her brother were merging with the wires somehow.  She cut them out of the air easily.  A flight of those life-fiber powered flyers, sleek things with glowing lights from inside their bellies, had pulled up and were hovering overhead.

            “Well, why did you betray us?”

            “...What?”

            “We had it all Nonon!  Our family were the last ones standing, the biggest megacorp left after Satsuki took down the Takaradas and Ragyo bit it!  Why couldn’t you have just stopped there!”

            “Are you serious?  You guys had slaves in sweatshops!”  Nonon was close enough now to rush the last of the distance to him, but a wall of blazing metal slammed together in front of her, buy him just enough time to dart away.  When Nonon caught up to him, slashing down right onto his head, he blocked at her arm – which absolutely shocked her, since when did he know how to fight? 

            “That never bothered you before!  Since when do you care?” Chimoku nimbly dodged several more slashes while backpedaling to the base of the skyscraper.

            “Fuck you!  I’m not a monster, I care about people!”

            “Yeah right.  You’re head’s just full of bullshit that closet communist Satsuki Kiryuin’s fed you!”

            “She’s not a communist!”

            “Isn’t she?”  Chimoku pulled up, and as he did one of the aircraft dropped from the sky right behind him, opening up on Nonon with from high caliber machineguns that might not have done any damage but knocked her back.  As she flipped and landed on her feet some yards back, the whole thing pulsed with red light and all those trailing threads whirled about and latched onto the aircraft’s hull, melting into it, slowly taking more of the Ultima Uniform until Chimoku stood there, practically naked. Then the whole thing started reforming around him, the hull reshaping into a giant metallic body, lanky and agile with a synthetic-smooth surface.  Rotors became great wings, the cockpit slammed over him like a giant mask, and a mech some twenty feet tall now loomed over Nonon.

            “-What the-” She gasped.

            “This is my Ultima Uniform.  The Medjay special applications model!  With it, I can interface with anything electronic – computers, vehicles, whatever.  I can merge them with my life-fibers to create super powerful, regenerating superweapons!”

            “Hold on, you’re the one making all these weird buzzy jets?”  (She and Uzu had taken to calling them “buzzers” but the phrase hadn’t really caught on yet).

            “I’ve always had a soft spot for mechanics, sis, didn’t you know?”

            “Why would I know something like -,”  Nonon said, but then it hit her as Saiban trawled through her memories – that was the truth.  She had never even conceived that he might have any interests beyond his own indolence.

            “Do you know why I chose this place for our meeting?”  Chimoku seemed to have gained some confidence now that he was fully transformed, but he still kept more than a full lunge away from Nonon as they squared off once more, “It’s an electrical plant.  Everything around here is a tool for me, the very ground beneath you is a weapon against you!”  Illustratively, life fibers leapt from the outstretched fingers of the Medjay and into the ground, and wires and cables erupted up in flashes of blue light to try to ensnare Nonon, but she was already moving, leaping at him.  But the mech’s claws were hardened, capable of blocking her naginata’s blade. “On my own I would never stand a chance, but here.  Here I will defeat you and avenge our family!”

            “Bullshit! You’re just mad because we took your money away!”

            Chimoku chuckled, “And you say your precious Kiryuin isn’t a communist.  Wake up, stupid! All the great families are gone!  Everyone worth a damn is either in jail or god knows where, and the masses run everything now!  What else would you call it!  All of our people are gone, and soon society will go with them!”

            “That’s not true!”

            “And you know what’s the worst thing?  We’d probably have been alright if it weren’t for you. The Jakuzures were the last men standing, even with all Satsuki takes we had enough to be left with something, but just because you wanted to be in charge all of a sudden we’re all arrested! Banished!”

            “House arrest!”

            “House arrest on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean? You might as well have thrown us in jail where you think we belong!”

            “You think I had anything to do with that?”

            “I know you did!”

            “You think I cared what happened to you? We saved the fucking world!”

            “Yeah? And now you’re going to destroy it!  And besides, Ryuko was the one who saved the world, not you!”

            “Oh fuck you! You don’t know a damn thing about us!”  Nonon finally managed to get in a slash, cutting through the outer armor to reveal the inner circuitry.

            “I know you abandoned us!  I know Satsuki, for almost as long as you have!  What, tell me, what does she have that we didn’t? Your family?”

            What does she have? She cares about me!  She’s got vision! She’s got the will to make it happen!-

            -but not enough will to keep from fucking her sister-

            -but when pressed even he’s got the will to get into shape and come here and fight me-

            -fight me because I chose Satsuki over him.  No, not that.  Because I wouldn’t even keep in touch.

            Nonon tripped.  Uzu and Seijitsu shifted uncomfortably; for the first time in the fight it looked like she didn’t have the clear upper hand.

            “I didn’t abandon anyone!”

            “Don’t kid yourself.  You had every chance to put in a good word for us!” 

            I did.  Even if he was a bad kid.  He’s my brother.  And our parents too.

            She missed an opening, nearly got caught by some more whipping wires.

            “So why?  Because I was the heir?  Because we fought as kids?  Y’know I believe that,”  He stomped towards her, swinging claws just inches away from her, “That is so. Like. You!”

            “Shut up!”  Nonon yelled, leaping clean over the Medjay mech and slapping it in the back with her coattail with such force that it fell face down.  She rushed right back in to land a finishing blow, but Chimoku flicked the mech’s wrist and with that command a big chuck of steel rubble clobbered Nonon in the back and sent her sprawling too.

            “Takamori was right,”  Chimoku grunted as he got to his feet, “You are tough.”

            “Had enough yet?”

            “Not until you give me an answer.  Why did you betray us? Why did you ruin my life”

            Nonon knew the answer somewhere in the back of her head.  Siaban knew it all too well, he couldn’t see Nonon’s memories and not be convinced.  She didn’t betray him because there was nothing to betray.  They might have been related by DNA, but there was nothing except that.  Satsuki, and Shiro, Uzu, Houka, and Ira, they were her real family.  He might as well have been a stranger, just looking for someone to blame. Now more than ever, it was clear they didn’t know each other at all.

            These thoughts raced through her head, but not coherently, and what she blurted instead was,“I don’t have to tell you anything.”

            “… Fine,”  This time, Chimoku’s Ultima mech lit up brighter than ever, rotors on the wings glowing with strobing neon.  With a great gust of wind the entire thing lifted off the ground and up into the sky.

            [Even he gets to fly, huh?] Saiban muttered, and despite herself Nonon chuckled, [Hold on, let me try…]. Saiban briefly attempted to enlarge the vents on the back of his shoulder-plates and expel enough golden fire from them to lift them, but they only got a couple extra yards on top of Nonon’s jump.  Not enough to reach him, and they landed on the ground now tens of stories below Chimoku.

            “If you won’t tell me, then I’ll have to squeeze it out of you!”  He shouted, sending his mech’s life-fiber tendrils down into the skyscraper.  Uzu watched in awe as the entire building tore itself apart, its wiring and circuitry becoming lattice that transformed it into a  great tornado of rubble that surrounded Nonon, crackling with electricity and making a deafening rumble like rolling thunder.

            “Oh shit.  SAIBAN HYOSHI!” Nonon shouted as Saiban transformed and blasted a tremendous wave of sound.  Just in time, as Chimoku clenched his fist and the rubble collapsed together, and so the whole thing froze in a gigantic cloud of dust, kept suspended between Saiban’s wall of sound and the Medjay’s crushing power. For a moment everything froze that way, both Jakuzure’s red-faced from the strain.

            Saiban’s headphones slid over Nonon’s ears, which was good for keeping out the noise around her, but the music that played was almost worse.  Saiban didn’t really control it, it was based on their mood, and right now what he was composing was less music and more a vicious dirge, like a hundred sirens in her head. It was intolerable.

            “Fuck this.”  Nonon leap again, jumping as high as she could and sprinting vertically across the rubble to try and make up the distance.  But Chimoku closed his fist and before she could react it all closed in on her -  a giant floating orb of lumpy concrete suspended in the air directly below him.  All was still

            [We have to do something now!] Seijitsu shouted, and Uzu immediately broke into a run.  But there was a noise in the stillness, a dry, hollow scraping from within the concrete trap.

            “She’s tunneling up.  They’re fine.”

            Nonon wasn’t exactly fine, but she was indeed unhurt.  No matter how much pressure was exerted, the concrete was just ordinary concrete, and when Chimoku squeezed tighter rather than Saiban’s energy field giving way it was the rubble that got ground into dust.  And so Nonon just punched her way up, every so slowly, creating a little tunnel and propping herself up with Kiba so she didn’t fall back down.  Fortunately, Siaban produced plenty of light so it wasn’t impossible, just slow.  Slow enough that she had time to think, although that didn’t help much.

            Satsuki’s my real family and she betrayed me.  Betrayed everyone!  And I don’t have anyone else , not this bastard, NEVER!  It’s not supposed to be this way! I even told Uzu everything and he didn’t care! I’m supposed to be able to tell him anything and he didn’t even care so what the fuck! He’d take her side over me!  They all would.  Not a single one of them cares what’s right or wrong. Oh, but I’m no better.  I kill people, I don’t take prisoners, I don’t even have the decency to keep in touch with my miserable blood relatives!  What am I even doing here anymore?  Anyone else could have lead this war, and I’m sure I don’t give a damn about getting praise from… who, Satsuki? Or getting a medal?  Was it just so I could keep my authority? 

            [Nonon.  Nonon something’s wrong.  Your blood is boiling!  You have to calm down!]

            She kept digging.  Her fingers felt raw and her face numb, but the crushing pressure overwhelmed even this pain

            No, I know why I did it.  I ran away so that I didn’t have to deal with Satsuki and Ryuko.  I was a kid when I ran from my blood family, and they’re also much worse people than Satsuki, even considering… what she did.  So what excuse do I have?

            [I feel… Nonon I can’t keep stable like this! You have to calm down, please, or I… I...]

            “Just. A little. More!”  Nonon grunted in time with her punches, and with the final one natural light finally spilled in, bursting the top of the concrete sphere clean off.  She clambered to her feet, staggering as she did.  Elongated, clawed, bloody fingers clutched her temples as she stared up at Chimoku.  She could see him now behind the smooth glass of the cockpit.  He looked horrified.

            “Ugh… dizzy.”

            [Ugh… dizzy]

            Chimoku tried to crush her again, but seeing the rubble rise around her only got Nonon’s attention.

            “You...”

            [You…]

            “Nonon?  Nonon what are you doing?”

            “RAAAGH!”  Without thinking Nonon leap the rest of the distance which such force that all the tendrils connect the Medjay to the rubble snapped and the whole thing fell to the ground with a massive crash that blew everything in hundreds of yards away except Uzu.  The electrical plant and the suburbs around it were reduced to a monotonous, dusty plain.

            Uzu saw Nonon wrench off the Medjay’s wings with her bare hands, and then they fell together. He rushed up to catch her but she held on, slashing and kicking at the mech until they landed in a heap

            “Nonon!”  Uzu was relieved when she stood up, but through the dust all he could see what that she looked a little dazed.  He was much less relieved to see Chimoku stagger to his feet too, looking much worse for the wear.  His left arm and leg both seemed not to be looking.  And then full panic hit when Nonon turned towards her brother, lurching forward in a way you didn’t need Shingantsu to see was utterly inhuman.  Worse, it was deeply familiar.

            “No...” Uzu gasped, completely at a loss.  It was the worst case scenario.  She’d given in to the same berserk rage that had once consumed Ryuko and Senketsu.

            [No, no this can’t be happening!] If Seijitsu could cry she would have been.

            At this point Chimoku finally noticed his sister approaching.  His eyes went wide.  Maybe in that moment he realized that whatever he’d been trying to do was pointless – even long before the rage had taken her Nonon had become something totally different than the girl he’d bullied, something incomprehensible.  Uzu neither knew nor cared.

            “H-hey, hold on now,” He said weakly, “I mean, we had some good times, right? I-I mean, your fifth birthday, remember that?”

            “...”

            “I-I wasn’t going to kill you, you know that, right?  Right?”

            Nonon was close enough now that he could see how her face had curled into a lipless snarl, her canine teeth elongated, her fingers erupted into claws.  How Saiban wrapped around her like snakeskin. 

                    “T-they didn’t tell me you could – you were – please-URK!”  That loud grunt was the last noise he would  make, as before Uzu’s eyes Kiba’s blade sunk clean through his chest, lifting him off the ground.  He was dead, and Nonon’s chest kept heaving with fast, furious breaths.

                    Then she turned her head to Uzu and her eyes, oh thank God, they were still pink and round and not glowing.  There was still something human in there.  And the shock of seeing Uzu so distraught seemed to drag it back from the brink.

                    “...Uzu?”

                    [...Seijitsu?]

                    “Nonon… what have you done?”

                    Almost the moment she saw him, Nonon’s body began to change.  Saiban unwound, and with him the claws receded with great bursts of blood that left the ends of her fingers splite wide open. Her face began to soften, and the extra growth on her teeth – rather than shrinking – simply broke off until her teeth were back to their normal size.  That seemed particularly painful, and she howled in agony as Uzu rushed to catch her. Kiba and her brother’s body fell forgotten to the side.

                    “You’re alright, you’re alright.  I’ve got you,”  Uzu said as reassuringly as he could, but it felt quite hollow.  He couldn’t believe how close that had been, and worse, that he’d done nothing to stop it.

                    “Ow…”  Nonon murmured by way of response before passing out.

                    Uzu wasn’t one for thinking too deeply about anything except combat, but whatever had happened that day would keep him quite busy for the weeks of Nonon’s convalescence while he served as acting commander.  How had Nonon become so unstable?  It wasn’t her brother, Uzu was convinced of that.   But how could it be Satsuki and Ryuko?  Sure, it was a bit uncomfortable to think about but how could the next in a long line of Kiryuin incestuous relationships hit her so hard?

                    The only thing left was simple.  It’s this place, this war.  Being in command, living constant bloodshed, it was worse than Honnouji.  That had to be it.  And by the time she was healed he would begin to understand why.

Chapter Text

February 2067

~~~~

The original Kamui Corps training arena was an underground space some 100 yards in diameter and about that tall at the peak of its dome, but after a few months of continuous use it was starting to show its limitations. For such fast combatants the distance was small, it was hard to replace the floor when it inevitably got torn up, and tremors from the raging battles were a constant nuisance for the scientists above. The solution was obvious, and in short order a large parcel of the neighborhood directly behind the complex was bought up (for ten times the estimated property value since it was coming right from Ryuko’s pocket and she didn’t want anyone feeling shortchanged) and converted into a new arena.

One even wider than Honoujji. When it’s high velocity life-fiber barrier spun to life the translucent red dome rose so high it was visible for miles around.

Ryuko was down there in the ring, having a practice duel with Ira, when Rei arrived on a damp, clammy afternoon. It was their day off, Houka and Shiro were on patrol, which usually meant this was Rei’s time to train – not quite preferable to facing the enemy, but still essential. But when Ryuko was there she tended not to show up, and vice versa.

Not today though. Today she and Furashada had something to do.

~~~~

“Aaaah! Oh, ah, hiya Rei!” Mako yelped, bouncing in her seat as she spotted Rei. Taken totally by surpise, she sputtered, “Ryuko’s – I mean – she’s – they’re having a training right now!”

A gigantic slash from Ira’s sword caught Ryuko right in the center mass and sent her flying, smashing into the barrier so that it wobbled like jello and bounced her back, trailing blood like a firecracker. But the moment she hit the ground the blood stopped, although she didn’t and to human eyes it certainly seemed like she didn’t hit the ground at all before speeding right at Ira again, a blur of pink flesh glowing with red light. Mako didn’t flinch – even she was getting used to this now – and Rei certainly didn’t flinch either.

“I know, it’s alright,” Rei nodded with a small smile.

“So… You wanna watch?” Mako asked, seeming excited to have caught Rei in a good mood. She patted the seat

“Only if I’m not a… uh, distraction...” When Rei first walked up Mako was writing in a notebook very seriously and Rei assumed she was doing some talent agent work for Ira. In fact, the thought ran through her and Furashada how can she focus in the front row? The noise surely must be driving her nuts. But when she actually got a look at it the notebook was just full of doodles of flowers and birds and ladybugs, and so Rei trailed off.

“Huh?”

“… Nevermind.”

They watched for a while, Mako pointing out the stunts she liked best. “Oooh, here comes a cool one!” She pointed as Tekketsu angled the vents in her rippling metal plates in every direction and blasted steam in gigantic cloud. Ira charged in and then he and Ryuko were both surrounded by the blinding vapor.

“I can still feel you you – hut!” Ryuko shouted, cutting herself off to block behind her without looking when Ira was suddenly there. After another flurry of blades Ryuko was pressing an advantage, nimbly dancing closer despite his longer reach until she was so close that his long arms and longer sword were suddenly a disadvantage, and it looked like she would land a blow with her pole and score the point. But when she leapt up right in from of him Ira shouted, “ Tekketsu! Armor Piercing!” and the center of the armor on his chest unfurled into a vent that shot a single burst of white-hot fire in a thick beam. Ryuko had just the merest instant to register surprise before she went spinning away, but the fire didn’t even singe her and blows like that which only knocked someone around but wouldn’t kill in a real fight didn’t count as points.

“Good,” She said with a vicious smile. She rushed back in and this time, instead of bother to meet his blade, leapt clean over it, scrambled onto his arm and then dropped to ground right in front of him, dodging as she slid to avoid too more fire blasts until she was directly under him, almost lying at his feet “But not good enough!” Ryuko kicked both her feet out into a split, knocking his ankles right out from under him. For the briefest moment it looked like he was about to fall on her, suspended horizontal in the air right a few feet above her, so she pushed off with the strength of her arms alone to headbutt him with such force that he was knocked back almost to standing. But before he could land she’d already lined up a beautiful grand slam to his head, sending him flying halfway across the arena.

“Woo-hoo! Go Ryuko!” Mako cheered. She cheered for them both equally. And on it went, Ryuko scored some, Ira scored some, but today Ryuko was scoring more often than not.

“Wow, she’s on a roll today, huh?”

“Mmm,” Rei nodded in acknowledgement, but she and Furashada were thinking, I wonder if she noticed us?

“Must be because she got good grades this semester,” Mako said cheerily.

“She did?”

“Mhm! Just got ‘em back this morning. She’s been doing better since Shiro and Houka started tutoring her.”

“Oh. Well that’s good.” Rei watched Ira show off another new trick, morphing his sword into a bladed whip (he’d been one of the first to figure out that just like a Kamui could change forms so could a life-fiber weapon) that wrapped around Ryuko and sliced her skin to ribbons, “And, uh, how is she doing aside from that?”

Mako looked at her, nervously trying to gauge what Rei’s intent was, before making a noncomittal “I dunno” noise.

Rei tilted an eyebrow skeptically. Did she really expect Rei to buy that?

“Aw okay fine,” Mako was obviously desperate to avoid both upsetting Rei and speaking for Ryuko, and after some consideration she said, “She’s good. Ryuko Matoi, the great philanthropist! Hehe, she likes it, it’s nice helping people. Although she does still get stagefright,” Mako finished with a giggle.

Rei nodded. That was good, she had to admit. Was she a little absolutely infuriated that she tried for almost a year to get her to use a little of her power, influence, and wealth for good and then within a couple months Satsuki got her appearing on TV once a week?

Well yeah.

But still, it was good and necessary and would lead to great things in the future. If it made Rei question whether there was any point to even being here today, she quickly swallowed it. She and Furashada had already committed, they weren’t backing down now. “And, uh, the whole… Ragyo thing?”

“Hm? Oh, right! She’s okay, er, she’s as okay you’d expect, right? She knows Ragyo isn’t controlling her because no way Ragyo could be ever besties and adopted sisters with a girl like me! So, yeah she’s much better than before. You remember when they first told her? She had a classic Ryuko freakout there.”

“Mhm, she – wait, what did you call it?”

“Oh, a Ryuko freakout! C’mon, you gotta know what I mean she does it preeetty often!”

Rei responded with a surprised laugh, “Well I suppose I do. I just didn’t expect you’d be so critical of her.”

“What! Critical! No no no you’ve got it all wrong. I think it’s cute, it’s how you know she really cares.”

“...I guess I didn’t think of it that way.”

“But you do know what I mean, don’t you?” Rei nodded, and Mako made a happy little humming noise and kicked her feet. Eventually she jumped back in and said, “I heard she fainted when you… had your fight. I heard Nonon found her.”

“...Yeah, I heard that too.”

Mako nodded, looking thoughtfully at her shoes, “She misses you, I think.”

Rei hoped she didn’t look as desperate as she was, but it was hard to miss how straight her back went when Mako said. “That’s what you’ve observed?” She said coolly.

“Well yeah. She’s awful busy these days, we all are. I mean I want to hang out with her and here I am, but I’ve got my own stuff to do! And Satsuki, oh man, I mean they’re always happy to see each other but all they do whenever they hang out is talk about work. I don’t think Ryuko likes that much, do you?”

Oh you innocent soul, if only you knew, Rei thought, and if she had any doubts that Mako was completely unaware of the affair between her adopted sisters they were banished then. “No, I don’t suppose she does.”

“Course not! But anyway, she doesn’t do much of the stuff she used to do with you anymore, and that’s not just because she doesn’t have time,” Mako leaned in a softly said, “Plus, whenever I ask about you, she gets real quiet. I know what that means with Ryuko.”

Rei’s heart soared with hope but also with apprehension. Being told there was a chance also meant there was a chance to mess things up too.

Not too long after that Ryuko and Ira’s duel wrapped up. Ira eventually managed to pull things back a bit, spotting the openings in Ryuko’s aggressive stance, but she still won by a good margin. They landed right in front of Mako and Rei with a great rush of wind as the life-fiber barrier turned off. Ryuko clearly hadn’t noticed that Rei was there before because of the shocked, nervous double take she took before anyone even spoke.

“Woo-hoo! Awesome job you guys!” Mako shouted as she tossed them both water bottles and towels. Tekketsu powered down in a burst of flashing light.

“Yes, another excellent round,” Ira nodded, and Ryuko smiled back with a big thumbs-up as she gulped down the water. Not that she needed it, but after a fight like that it tasted pretty damn good.

“I packed us lunches you guys! Eat up!” Mako shouted exuberantly as she produced a cooler from under her chair. Whatever was in there was sure to be delicious, but Mako looked at Rei dolefully, “Oh, shoot, I didn’t think to pack one for you. I’m so sorry!” She flung herself at Rei and hugged her – her way of begging for forgiveness. Rei patted her on the head and assured her it was quite fine.

Ira started unpacking his lunch immediately, but Ryuko didn’t seem that interested. “Yeah, just a sec,” she said gruffly, and without any real prompting Mako understood what she wanted and pulled Ira off to the side. Now it was just her, Rei, and Furashada. You could practically feel Tekketsu’s aura straining to hear what was going on, but she was just a bit too far away.

“So… how’s it going?” Ryuko finally asked.

“Not bad. Lot of good fights up in Hokkaido recently,” Rei answered simply.

Ryuko, clearly feeling awkward, raised a hand behind the back of her head. “That’s good, that’s good,” She said, “I, uh, heard about it on the news. How’s the new apartment?”

Sore subject. Rei had to get a new place to live since she couldn’t stay in Ryuko’s penthouse anymore. “It’s very nice. Bathroom’s bigger than the old one.”

“Wait, bigger?”

“Kamui Corps pays well, what can I say?”

“Sure, but I thought my place had...” the best in everything , Rei knew what Ryuko meant to say before trailing off. She said that sometimes, as though repeating someone else. Probably Satsuki had said it, of course she gave Ryuko the place.

[Don’t get discouraged now. You know mother isn’t really impressed by that] Furashada murmured. Rei nodded.

“Well, ah, I guess it was good to talk to you, huh? I mean you probably want to train with Ira and I-,”

“-Do you want to duel?”

“Wha- I...” Ryuko was more than surprised at first, but Rei could see the comprehension dawning on her face.

“I mean, if you don’t that’s fine, but I just thought -,”

“-No! No no, that’s fine. Yeah, I’d like that,” Rei couldn’t know what was going on in Ryuko’s head, couldn’t know how happy she was, how this was a moment she’d hoped for ever since Rei had left her penthouse. But Furashada could feel her joy in her aura and practically purred at it. And they both could see her smile, that smile that meant the world to them both. “I mean, I’ve been looking for something new,” Ryuko said awkwardly, and Rei smiled back.

Meanwhile, Mako gasped. “Oh. My. God. Ira look!”

“Huh,” Ira nodded thoughtfully as he watched Ryuko and Rei take the field, “You think this is a good sign for them?”

“Aching hearts and suppressed passions colliding on the battlefield! How exciting!” she replied dramatically.

“So… yes?”

[Sometimes it’s not so simple, you know].

“Well, it’s a good thing you packed a lot, Mako, because I think we have to stay and watch the whole duel, don’t we?” Mako was thrilled that Ira came to that conclusion on his own. Like most men he was usually clueless, but every so often he figured things out!

Step one: complete.

Chapter Text

February 2067

~~~~

“So. I hear you’ve gotten a lot stronger since we… y’know.”

Rei called back from across the field, “I hear you’ve been absorbing more life-fibers every time you come down here for tutoring.”

“Is that unfair?” Ryuko said awkwardly, “I’d go earn them, but they won’t let me, y’know.”

“You think it’s enough to keep your lead?”

“I dunno, I sure hope so. I mean, I only had to use – what – a little more than ten percent of my full power last time we dueled back… uh… I mean...” I just can’t keep my mouth shut, can I? Ryuko was practically trembling with nervous energy. God, how she hoped Rei was here extending an olive branch, but how could that be true? She hadn’t even realized how much she wanted it until she felt Furashada’s aura back at her side where he belonged. She couldn’t imagine what else it could be, but the possibility was terrifying. And even if Rei did want to get back together, could she really do that? Would she dare do that to Satsuki?

Now now, she said it was fine! She said, “On both sides our relationship must be invisible”. So it’s fine!

Right?

Rei smiled to herself, knowing exactly how nervous Ryuko was, what she was hoping. It felt good to be wanted like that, even after everything she wanted Ryuko to want her. “Actually, I should tell you, I have a bit of a handicap in terms of power today,” She called.

“How so?”

“You heard of the reaction-booster pills Houka and Shiro made for Mataro before he left for Indonesia?”

“Uh… Oh! Yeah that’s right, something to help him stay alive if he ever got in danger, right?”

Exactly. He got the first test version, and here,” Rei held up her hand, knowing that with Ryuko’s sharp vision she could certainly spot the little white tab pinched between her fingers – probably smell it too. “Here we take the next step.”

“Smells like life-fibers. Lots of them. You sure you can put that in you?”

“Quite sure. Furashada will mop up the life-fibers after they do their job, which is momentarily supercharging the both of us .”

“I dunno… you’re sure there’s no side effects?”

Rei shrugged, “Mataro has taken several just fine, except for a pretty big crash when it wears off. But it’s my day off, I can go home and take a nap.”

“Hmm...”

“I mean, if you don’t think it’s safe I guess I can just toss it -”

“-No no, it’s fine!” Ryuko blurted. More than concern about looking cowardly or anything, the promise of a truly powerful opponent meant she couldn’t say no. “Geez, don’t let me tell you what to do or anything. Can’t blame a girl for being a little suspicious, right?” She said a little awkwardly.

No, I can’t. At least not for that.”

“What’s that supposed to...” Ryuko trailed off. Rei stood there innocently considering her axe, and Ryuko had to wonder if she’d misinterpreted her. “Just hurry up and transform, okay?”

“Gladly.”

When the brilliant light faded and Furashada’s irrepressible power flowed through them as smoothly as thought, Rei crunched the booster pill between her back teeth. At first, it felt like nothing had changed.

Well that’s a bit dissappointing , Rei and Furashada thought, but maybe that was a bit premature. Because Ryuko definitely noticed something.

Invisible to the human eye but plain as day to her, Furashada seemed to swell , like a gigantic billowing flame around their physical body. Okay, I take it all back , all Ryuko’s nerves and worries evaporated, I need to fight th em, now !

“Whoa,” She said, which got Rei’s and Furashada’s attention. And when she turned her head, saw Mako and Ira eating out in the bleachers, and th ere seemed to be something off about how they were moving, they realized what was happening.

They were moving in slow motion. Rei could see a croquette drifting through the air as slowly as a falling leaf, dropped from Ira’s chopsticks as he realized through Tekketsu just how much Furashada’s strength had suddenly spiked.

“Whoa.”

Ryuko grinned at her, the red undersides in her hair glowing like fire, and her movements weren’t slowed like everything else . No, she was pacing herself, every little twitch of her body at moderated to exactly match Rei . Rei lifted her axe, marveling at how it didn’t feel like anything was different wit h her. It was the world that changed, the world outside this little red bubble that she and Ryuko had all to themselves.

And even if she hadn’t known that the best way to get to Ryuko now was to focus on the battle, give her a real thrill, neither she nor Furashada could think of anything else. Nothing felt any different with them, but something was. This tremendous power needed to be vented.

Houka and Shiro and their Kamuis would get a lot of good data to analyze that day.

Step two: complete

~~~~

Hitting the showers after their duel was something akin to torture for both Ryuko and Rei.

It wasn’t the “being naked with just a thin tile wall between you and your ex who you’re definitely not over” part. A Kamui was your skin, so wearing one basically meant being naked in public. They were used to it.

No, for Ryuko it was something surreal that struck panic in her. This felt so normal, so completely mundane after nearly a year of living like this, that it only served as a miserable reminder that those days were gone. And if she wasn’t careful, what would happen? She should say something, but if she said the wrong thing there Rei would go storming out the door, and it would be months before she spoke to her again. Or maybe she’d stay and let Ryuko stew in her mortification.

And if that didn’t happen. If that didn’t happen that confirmed what Rei wanted, what she was here for – just the feeling from Furashada said he knew that’s exactly what she wanted, and Ryuko was almost tempted to just go for it for his sake alone. But Satsuki, what would she say? In Ryuko’s mind she knew her returning to Rei could only fill Satsuki with a brutal territoriality. But she kept going over that conversation they’d had on the Sunday of The Weekend they shared together, trying to convince herself that because Satsuki had given her tacit permission to keep up a relationship, as a cover. But would it be a cover? Would Satsuki be okay if it wasn’t?

Could she convince Satsuki it wasn’t even if it was?

And while she was understandably panicking, Rei was mostly exhausted. Her prediction about the booster pill giving her a massive crash was exactly right, and she was actually sitting in the shower because if she fell asleep on her feet cracking her head in the shower would be a pretty dumb way for a Kamui Corps member to go out. Furashada was also worn out – the fight had ended after almost exactly an hour simply because he basically short circuited. Now he could barely project an energy field strong enough to stop a few bullets, and Izanami had sent up a spool of life-fibers that he could absorb to restore his energy. But despite that he was still worn out which surprised Rei because she didn’t know Kamui could get tired (though it was different than how a human got tired, sort of a flat delay on how fast he could think instead of a demand for sleep). So not only did her body feel like lead and her brain feel like it was immersed in soup, but the other half of her brain was also on time-out.

She was so close. Her plan had been going flawlessly but how was she supposed to execute on step three: seduce Ryuko if all she wanted was a nap?

So that was pretty amazin’ huh?” Ryuko asked over the patter of falling water. Rei nodded, but of course Ryuko couldn’t see her. “Uh, hello? Rei? You awake over there?”

“Uh yeah! Yeah… I’m just… sorry. You were saying?”

“It was a good fight, right?”

“Oh, yeah. Definitely.”

You’ve picked up some good tricks. What was that one spinning move you kept using? The one it’s so hard to predict which side it’ll hit? Y’know, ‘turbine...’”

“ ‘Turbine Guillotine’. It’s corny, I don’t know,” Rei said apologetically. “I don’t come up with cool sounding attack names often. It’s just whatever words are rattling around in my head, I guess.”

“Aw, c’mon now,” Ryuko replied encouragingly, “It’s better than Ira where he just calls everything exactly what it is. He calls his beam attack ‘armor piercing mode’ which is like, we get it dude.”

Rei smiled, laughed through her nose, “That’s fair enough. It’s a bit of a misnomer too. I’ve never decapitated someone with it.”

“You got me a couple times.”

“Well sure, but here you are talking to me so…,” Rei said. They both had a good chuckle at that one. Even after everything it was easy to laugh with each other.

Ah, I hope they get more of those boosters made soon so I can go that hard with everyone else.”

“Eh. It’s just a stopgap. We will keep fighting and absorbing more life-fibers and then we won’t need them. But for now, it’s just enough so we’re equal to the enemy Kamui.”

“Huh. I guess that’s a good plan. And you do like fighting the enemy more that dueling, don’t you?”

Rei’s back went stiff. Ah yes, of course it would come to th e interview . Well, what was she going to say?

[What are we going to say?] Furashada repeated, lagging a little behind, [Well, I suppose it matters what she says, doesn't it?]

“Yeah? I might’ve said that.”

Ryuko sighed and cut right to the chase, “ I read your interview, okay?”

“Yeah… I knew you would.”

“I gotta be honest, I’m not happy you did that.”

“I know...” Rei groaned, “but I can talk to who I want about my life, can’t I?”

“But my ex, Rei, really? I mean, what am I supposed to think?”

“She doesn’t hate you at all.”

Ryuko scoffed, “Yeah, okay.”

“… You really haven’t talked to her since you broke up, have you?”

“Most people don’t, you realize.”

“...” Ryuko could hear Rei sigh a very heavy sigh. It suddenly occurred to her that Rei might think she was more upset about this interview than she really was. Or at least more upset than she thought she was. Really the most troubling part about it was that Satsuki had found it before her, before she could explain it. Ryuko suddenly decided what she was really upset about was that it had made Satsuki distrust her, which was more frightening than just about anything.

“Okay,” Ryuko finally said, “So she doesn’t hate me. And you’re right, you do have a right to talk about your life if you want. But ya didn’t have to go and mention me. Mention us.”

“But… you’re a part of my life,” Rei said in a very small voice.

Oh dear , Ryuko turned off her shower, stepped out. She was done anyway. A robotic arm reached out and handed her a fluffy, pale red towel with her embroidered monogram on it. The Kamui Corps showers were well appointed with tile mosaic, incense bowls, and little fountains in the middle of the main hall. A peaceful place, and Rei’s sure looked like she wanted to be at peace through the wavy, opaque glass door, although Ryuko could only see a blurry outline of her sitting on the ground, kneading her cheeks to keep herself awake.

“Geez. You sure you’re good?”

“Izanami says my vitals are normal… I just need sleep to rest.”

“No kidding,” Ryuko rubbed her hair with the towel with no regard for neatness, tangling it all up as she did . “So why’d you do it anyway? Did you want me to read it?” She asked in a calm, conversational tone.

“No! I mean, uh, I knew you would. But that wasn’t the point. I just wanted to tell people about myself. Now at least I know they won’t get the wrong idea about how I used to work for Ragyo.”

“But why her? It freaked me out, you know that? I mean I don’t know what she believes now, but she used to-”

“Haruka is… I do know what she used to believe, but that’s not true anymore. She just thinks we’re really important, historic figures, and she wants to be there to document our lives. I don’t think that’s that crazy. A-and she spent her whole life’s savings on cameras a reporting gear and stuff.”

Hey. I didn’t have direct access to the Kiryuin fortune back then. Otherwise I’d’ve given her way more gifts and stuff, I’m not made of stone.”

“I wasn’t trying to imply that,” Rei said, and from the plainly dismissive way she said it Ryuko knew that she wasn’t. “I just was thinking though, that I could give her an opportunity. Y’know, kinda-sorta like what you did for me.”

“Oh c’mon, what did I do for you?”

Rei yawned, “Don’t kid around. If it weren’t for you… I wouldn’t be friends with any of the rest of your family. I wouldn’t have Furashada . I’ve said that before I know I have.”

That’s right. She had. It was like Ryuko was remembering it for the first time, a whole history she had tried to cut herself off from. It was odd, all those arguments felt so small and inconsequential now. Now that it was over and that time was all memory.

Did you mean everything you said in that article? I mean, how you didn’t like going out to parties with me?”

“She oversimplified things… but…” Rei didn’t have the heart to come down too harshly in person. They did have some good nights, after all. But nothing quite so perfect as sitting in Ryuko’s hot tub, just the two of them.

“But?”

“It was just a lot, okay? I can’t keep that up every night.”

“But that stuff about it reminding you of your time with Ragyo, what about that?”

“Well...”

“No, it’s okay. I’m trying to be more aware of stuff like that. I’m sorry.”

Rei nodded slowly, “It’s okay.”

Actually, I gotta apologize to you for more than that Rei.”

She didn’t get a response, so Ryuko looked up from her towel, “Hey, Rei. You’re still awake, right?”

“Oh yeah, yeah. ‘M listenin’.”

“Good, ‘cuz I’m serious. I… look I won’t repeat it here but you know damn well what I did,” That was probably still saying too much. The walls truly had ears here, even if she trusted those ears she didn’t want them to let the secret out. “I knew I was wrong to go behind your back, to lie to you – I really thought you wouldn’t find out how fucked up is that? And looking back on it it’s like I was waving it in your face.”

So why-”

“I don’t know! Okay? The thing is… I’m not sorry for the thing itself. I can’t be. It’s part of my life, like you, I don’t know how else to say it,” Rei didn’t answer, and through the glass Ryuko was worried that she was glowering, unforgiving. But truth be told she was listening with full attention. She badly wanted to understand it. She couldn’t accept that it was just a Kiryuin curse, what did Satsuki have that she didn’t? Hearing no response, Ryuko went on, “ I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s having Ragyo in me, maybe it’s not having Senketsu to look after me and rein in my impulses, maybe it’s just what I was going to do all along. I don’t – you don’t have to understand it. You don’t have to forgive me. I’m just sorry I ever got you mixed up in my bullshit. That’s what I’m sorry for. I never meant to hurt you.”

And Rei thought, I see. If you do know, you’re not telling me. Although maybe that’s just because you can’t or else Izanami will figure out what you’re talking about, but somehow I doubt that. You don’t know either. You stupid, beautiful fool (she’d been watching Ryuko dry her legs, which was enough to almost derail her train of thought) you don’t know why you do almost anything, do you? But no matter. I’ll figure it out sooner or later. And besides, I have things Satsuki doesn’t too. Either way, Rei had to admit she was getting even more tired. She took a very long, deep yawn before she finally spoke.

“I want to try forgiving you, Ryuko.”

Ryuko gasped, “Really? Y-you serious?”

“I’ll try,” Rei yawned again. Furashada wasn’t even really following along anymore, and that threw her even deeper into exhaustion. Coupled with the soothing shower she felt like she was sinking. Really too bad because this was the time to send it home. But maybe she could work that to her advantage. “I want to try. Maybe… maybe just as friends, I don’t know. But you’re very special to me Ryuko… even still.”

“Thank you Rei. Please, friends is fine, I just want you to know I didn’t mean to… hey, don’t fall asleep now!” Rei was slumping over, and although it was partially feigned she was honestly done. She’d got what she wanted, now it was time for a good long nap. She probably wouldn’t even go home, just get into a spare bed here. Maybe, if she had a little more energy, she could try to coax Ryuko to join her. Oh well, next time.

~Oh dear~ Izanami’s voice suddenly cut in over the speakers ~I’ll make up a bed for her, get a more comfy stand for Furashada. Would it be too much to ask for you to go in there and lift her out. Something like that requires a more human touch than I’ve got.~

“Well, I suppose...” Ryuko flung open the door, thinking that this was maybe a little more than she bargained for. So long as she didn’t think anything too inappropriate…

[I’ll be sure to tell Shiro that the drug isn’t ready for full production. It works just fine on the kid because he doesn’t have a Kamui, but this is just too much. So kind of adverse resonance…] Izanami babbled, seemingly feeling pretty awkward at being involved. Ryuko could get that, the Kamui were more independent than human children would be from their mother but she’d still made them and that meant something. But she wasn’t really thinking about that.

That sweet, dreamy look in those half shut eyes, the little twitch of a smile on those diffident, dainty little lips, the feeling of her skin and the way she lazily tucked her arms in across her belly. Ryuko couldn’t help but be capitvated, and immediately the urge to kiss her was almost unbearable.

Just on the forehead. That could mean anything. That doesn’t mean anything! Ryuko told herself, although she knew it wasn’t true.

She did it anyway.

Step three: complete (although perhaps not how Rei had intended)

~~~~

Rei woke up to a flurry of texts from Ryuko. She hadn’t said everything that needed saying, no, not by a long shot. But it was impossible at the research complex where omniscient AIs were keeping constant tabs on everything, and it seemed risky via text – it could be hacked.

Was she asking if she could come over? Rei asked. Would that be what it took to say everything?

It was as if Ryuko hadn’t even considered the possibility, but truth be told it was all she’d thought about since that afternnod. It wasn’t one of the days when Ryuko went to Satsuki’s, fortunately. This was something Rei found out by asking her college friends who shared the penthouse with her, and she was informed that two or three nights each week Ryuko went out without explaining where she was, but the others she just went into the city to find accidents and emergencies and intervene, the way she’d always done. When she slept was a mystery to them – the answer, not very often.

Ryuko was so happy at the suggestion – but she did agree that it would have to be as friends. Yes, that was the only way it would work. But It was as if she’d never said that when she showed up, hair all disheveled from her motorcycle but otherwise quite dolled up - she’d even brought out all the makeup she didn’t have the guts to throw away back when she found out about Ragyo. Rei too didn’t waste any time entertaining that delusion, and she was busy putting on the finishing touches of her makeup and hairstyle when the elevator reached her floor.

What am I doing? Ryuko thought, almost desperately, as she collected herself in the elevator, This had better work out alright, or else I’ll be back at square one. She kept weighing her options, but there wasn’t really anything more appealing than just enjoying this ride and seeing how it worked out. Maybe it would turn out okay. That’s the exact mentality that got you into this mess in the first place. She knew that, but it was so hard to think about that when every proactive option involved leaving one or another of the women she loved in tears, instead of what she knew deep down was coming the moment she reached Rei’s floor.

She wasn’t dissappointed. Unlike Satsuki, Rei wasn’t interested in being wooed, wasn’t half afraid of any kind of sexual contact so she needed all night and a little alcohol to work up the courage. She was waiting when Ryuko walked in the front door, now well rested and bouncing on her heels.

“Hey.”

“Uh, hey. Wow, you weren’t kidding, this place is pretty fancy,” Ryuko nodded awkwardly as she looked around. Big glass windows, cushy white modernist couches, glossy black basalt countertops. There didn’t seem to be too many rooms, though they were big. Not enough space for nearly forty college students to share it and still keep it fairly neat, more like just enough space for one cultured young woman to live very comfortably. Or two.

“Isn’t it? I felt bad at first, splurging on something so elaborate. But with the amount we get paid I figured it was better to put the money back into the economy.”

Uh, sure,” Ryuko shrugged. She couldn’t help but notice how happy Rei looked to see her – how good she looked too. Even Furashada seemed brighter, more vibrant. His aura was definitely full of life. Now that, that was maybe even more pleasant that looking at Rei, although for very different reasons.

“C’mon, let me show you around!” Rei said, although in truth there wasn’t much to see. The tour started in the very same main living area Ryuko entered in and ended right down the hall. In the master bedroom.

“So? What do you think?”

“Pretty classy joint you’ve got here, you’ve got real good decorating sense. But you already knew that, you rearranged my room way back when,” Ryuko said very casually.

“Not hard to rearrange when it’s just piles of clothes on the ground.”

“Well, you might be right…” Ryuko didn’t have anything more to say. Rei was standing very close to her. She could tell that Furashada was serving as a sort of aura-intermediary for some very strong feelings. She slipped a hand around Rei’s waist – she didn’t swat it or try to get away. And when Ryuko looked down at her with a smug smile Rei was wearing just about the same one.

And that was it. “You’re the worst, you know that?” Ryuko said with a chuckle, scooping Ryuko up so their lips met and Rei wrapped her legs around Ryuko. She was about to drop her onto the bed when -

“Hold on! Gotta make sure Furashada’s nice a comfy.” Rei unwrapped herself and scurried over to the specially made post on which she always hung him. He purred with comfort as she hooked him up. With their deep connection their thoughts were practically one and the same, but this was a comfort that was all his own. Finally, his little family was back together.

For a Kamui, the very concept of sex is only experienced through the lens of their human. It was like eating, sleeping, breathing, taking a shit – a body process that needed to be done to keep the human healthy and happy. Trying to understand it on its own was like trying to explain a Kamui’s needs to a human – the need to intermingle and resonate auras with other Kamui, the need to absorb life-fibers, the need to vent power through battle – a human could never understand these things except by experiencing them through their Kamui. So for Furashada that it was his creator, his mother who fulfilled that need for Rei was all the better. He loved her, but not nearly the same way, so together they knew they loved her twice as much.

As for Rei, she was much more concerned with making this the best night of Ryuko’s life than having such a good one herself. Oh sure, it was good , but that wasn’t the point.

Years of training and experience were poured into her every languid move. Fuck whatever her psychiatrist said, or how messed up it was, what good was everything she’d learned in Ragyo’s service if she couldn’t put it to work. And she could put it to work. Ryuko’s legs were numb by the time they were winding down, and that was hours later.

It was Ryuko’s final round for the night – even with boundless energy she felt a bit wiped – and Rei was determined to make it the best she’d ever had. Such subtle, gentle movements of fingers and tongue, leveraging every trick, including all the ones she’d learned about Ryuko (oddly she tended to like it more gentle than Ragyo had, doubly so because when she was on top she went rough ). But then, right before her climax, Rei suddenly lifted her head from between Ryuko’s legs.

“Has Satsuki ever fucked you like this? Huh?” Rei almost shouted

“Ah! God Jesus Rei don’t stop!

“Say it. Say I’m better than her!” She wanted Ryuko to know it. She needed Ryuko to get that simple fact through her thick skull.

“Fine! Fuck! You’re better!”

Rei smiled smugly, “That’s what I thought,” She mumbled as she got back to work.

And it was better – much better – than any conventional sex Satsuki had ever tried. Hell, probably better than anything Rei had given her before. Maybe even on par with the purification ritual – well, that was such an unusual experience it barely even counted. In the moment Ryuko decided that technically it didn’t

“Fuck, I really am fucked, aren’t I?” Ryuko panted as they basked in the afterglow together. Rei was right, that was better. Not only had it been better sex (at least by one standard), their battle today had been better than her recent duels with Satsuki too. Well, at least by standards of how much of her full power Ryuko got to use, not like it compared in technical competence which was a category where Satsuki was obviously unmatched. And that summed it up, really. They were both offering something different, and Ryuko didn’t think she could live without either.

But Satsuki couldn’t live without her all to herself. Where was she now? Probably in her office, working. Innocent as a lamb to the slaughter. Now now, she said it was fine!

Do you really believe that? The clearer, smarter, meaner part of her mind said. And she had to admit, she didn’t.

She tried to work through it all again. In the end they’ll never rest until they have me to themselves. That sounds insane, but it’s true! I should feel lucky to have them but instead I’m right back where I started.

So, I’ll have to choose. And it has to be Satsuki. She needs me in her life or else she’ll work herself to death , and that was something Ryuko did truly believe. And besides, I love her. Rei will get over me eventually. Look at Haruka – she’s kind of over me.

But I can’t date Satsuki. I can’t marry Satsuki. We’d have to go on in secret for the rest of her life. No house, no white-picket fence, no kids – if that’s what she wants. What kind of way to live is that? I’ve got such a sort window of time when either of them are alive and then I’ll be all alone forever. I need to use it to the fullest, and I can only do that with Rei. I can fix it so that this was just a bump in the road. Every couple has things like that! And besides, I love her. It’s so, so cruel, but with Satsuki it just isn’t meant to be.

It was so cruel. So cruel that she would be made to choose. Not for the first time, she knew she was missing the answer because she was missing part of herself. Senketsu would have known what to do. Instead, he days were numbered now. One way or another she’d have to ruin something precious.

This was the Sword of Damocles Satsuki was so familiar with. Somehow things were working out - for now – but sooner or later that sword would drop. Whatever her talents, handling this wasn’t one of them.

She cried, and when Rei looked up, concerned, she couldn’t bear to look at her and buried her face in the pillows. And when she woke up Rei was already gone, headed out for another day of battle with Furashada. On the nightstand there was a simple not that read “I can’t stop thinking about you.”

Ryuko had no idea what to do with herself for the rest of the day, or maybe ever. Not even Mako could help her with this.

Step Four: Complete.

Chapter Text

February 2067

~~~~

Ryuko cried after that first night at Rei’s, and after the second as well. At least that second time it was a pretty subdued affair – roll out of bed and scurry to the bathroom, take a moment to realize what she’d done, then wipe her face, clean up her eyeliner, and come back out to find Rei already asleep. Or at least pretending to be asleep, Ryuko was pretty sure given how purposefully even and sharp her breathing was. Rei didn’t want to talk about what they were doing, what came next, and Ryuko couldn’t tell if it was her devious plan to keep her hooked or just because Rei was afraid that talking would lead to bursting this little bubble they were in. Ryuko had been in a position like this before, and it was just as hard to break out of it as before.

But the difference this time was that of Satsuki’s current blissful ignorance, or of what she’d feel when she inevitably found out, was truly dreadful. So of course the next night when Ryuko went to Satsuki’s cottage, she found herself confessing without any prior planning at all.

“Hey. I’ve got something to tell you. And I know it’s gonna upset you but it’s better to hear it from me than from the grapevine,” They had been about to settle down, Satsuki sitting in the big armchair, Ryuko on a pillow on the floor between her legs so when she tilted her head back it was directly in Satsuki’s lap. Satsuki put her tea down, face inscrutable – which told Ryuko she’d probably already guessed what it was and was already upset. But Ryuko soldiered on, “I saw Rei a couple days ago.”

“...Oh.”

“And, uh, we had sex.”

“...” Ryuko could feel a minuscule shot of tension resound through Satsuki’s body. A momentary clench of her face as though she’d eaten something sour.

“Twice.”

“I see,” Satsuki nodded coldly. Ryuko turned herself around so she could look at Satsuki’s face right-side-up. She decided that behind that careful composure there could only be despair. “So you have decided to resume your relationship?”

“Well now – hold on, don’t jump to conclusions – I don’t know, we haven’t really talked about that much. Or at all.”

“But you’ve slept with her twice,” Satsuki observed.

“It’s the truth! It’s touchy.”

Satsuki still seemed acceptable, “Is this sort of state of affairs common? Are you sure you haven’t miscommunicated somewhere?”

Ryuko didn’t understand that Satsuki was truly confused how two sane people could have sex twice in as many nights and not know if they were dating or now. She just thought Satsuki was digging the knife in, because she deserved to have the knife dug in. So she got defensive, saying, “Sats, don’t look at me like that, c’mon. You said that it was okay if we got back together, remember?”

“Yes. I did say that,” Ryuko tensed, turned her eyes away, waiting for the “but...”. It didn’t come, but Ryuko felt it when Satsuki took her by the chin and gently directed her face back up, “I’m glad you told me.”

“No you’re not,” Ryuko took her hand, “ I know you’re not, because I lied to you when I said she was in the past.”

“Lied? Or believed that at the time?”

Does it matter?” Ryuko was barely able to process that Satsuki gave her a chance to get off the hook. “ Look, I just… I’m sorry, okay?”

“And I don’t blame you. Did I not predict this might happen? Although, are you sure you don’t know whether you’re formally back together?”

“No idea! It’s just been spur of the moment.”

“Well what does Rei think? Does she want you all to herself? Is it spur of the moment for her too?

She won’t say! We barely even talk, we just… uh...”

“Hmm.”

“I think it was just an impulse decision, but she’s not talking and Furashada isn’t either.”

Satsuki furrowed her brows, looking puzzled and concerned, “Well, I just don’t see how that could be.”

Ryuko shrugged, “I told you everything, I dunno either. I’m still tryin’ to figure it out.”

“Well. Thank you for being honest. Now, did you want to watch a movie? I have something to read if you need to do homework. Or we can just talk about something else.”

Their evening went on as usual, but there was an undeniable tension. As much as Satsuki had foreseen this, it was still deeply disappointing. Why did Ryuko go back to her? Was there something she wasn’t getting? It was the sex, wasn’t it? Satsuki could only imagine it was, and knew full well she couldn’t compare to that experience, though she did try.

“How’s this? Is that good?” She asked, her wrist twitching in awkward motions as she kept her eyes locked with Ryuko, trying to gauge her success by the shuddering of her breath, the moments when the brightness of her eyes briefly hazed over.

“You can go deeper. Mmm, but keep your index finger riiight where it is,” Satsuki obliged. What an unusual sensation. But she was getting better at looking past that initial… repulsion wasn’t the right word, more like scientific detachment. How could Ryuko, her Ryuko, also be this soft little thing of flesh and blood? It was marvelous but also deeply surreal.

When she did particularly good Ryuko arched her back, squeezing her eyes shut, and without warning reached up to massage Satsuki’s breasts. “That… feels so strange,” Satsuki gasped.

“But good, huh?”

“Mhmm. Ah!”

“You know, not all girls like that, I’ve found.”

“So how’d you know I would?”

Ryuko grinned and chuckled as though it was just a normal conversation and Satsuki wasn’t two fingers deep in her, “It works for me.”

Satsuki laughed at the simplicity of that, “Quite.” That’s a good idea, I’ve never tried that before, Satsuki thought, but her other hand was behind Ryuko’s neck, bracing her, and that felt right. She’d have to use her mouth, wouldn’t she?

It worked pretty damn well.

The next morning they both woke up early because the rising sun shot through the thin shades like they weren’t even there (one of Satsuki’s many tricks to help her keep her busy schedule).So early that Satsuki had time for a little reading, and Ryuko was snuggled at her side still half asleep. This was all how it should be, but Ryuko didn’t feel fully at ease. She didn’t deserve Satsuki’s forgiveness, yet she wanted to move past what she’d done with Rei to the part where it all worked out in the end.

So she was still waiting for Satsuki to strike back with something, and she got it, “I’m glad you were honest with me last night, because I have something I need to be honest with you about.”

“Hmm?”

“You remember that diplomatic marriage with the Australian heiress I mentioned? We’re going through with it.”

Ryuko sat up, “Shit. Alright.”

“I should have kept you more in the loop, I’m sorry. But I need to tell you now because there’s going to be a large ball and conference to iron out the details, and considering who you are it would be fitting that you attend it.”

“No.”

“I see. Are you upset with me, Ryuko? I can only imagine you would be.”

She was. Dating Rei, well that was just dating, a commitment that could be dropped and already had been once. It left the option open that maybe one day things could be different. A marriage , a geopolitically important one no less, was much more final. But yet Ryuko knew for a certainty that whoever this woman was she would mean nothing to Satsuki, and the same couldn’t be said of Rei. She didn’t have a leg to stand on.

I wonder if Satsuki feels the same, but in reverse, Ryuko thought, but what she said was, “Hey man, that was our deal, right? You can do whatever we want, only makes our cover stronger. But I’m not going this party of yours.”

“Hmm. That isn’t what I expected, truthfully.”

“You thought I’d just smile and nod while you - ,”

“- No. But I have some reasons why you might reconsider. Reasons that I can’t discuss here. This cottage is very secure, but not as much as my office in the Parliament Building.”

“Oh, it’s these kind of reasons.”

“You’re already beginning to get a sense of it. Can you come to my office today? I’m sure you won’t mind skipping classes.”

~~~~

“There are REVOCS agents in the Australian government,” Satsuki said bluntly almost the moment Ryuko entered her office and sat down.

“At this point I’m hardly surprised. They seem to be everywhere. They have plenty even here in Japan.”

“Indeed, but our spies suggest that they are very high ranking in the Australian nobility . Now, we have negotiated military access to Korea and what’s left of the Chinese government and obviously Indonesia and several other countries that have been invaded, but not Australia,” Satsuki’s desk had a detailed pacific-centered map of the world beneath its glass surface which she used to gesture vaguely at the places she mentioned. “However, if this marriage goes through, by their laws Japan would be the overlord over their country – since I’m essentially standing in the role traditionally for a man. So my original plan was to use that to force them to reform their government to be more like ours. But now I just want to get our Kamui within their borders the moment Nonon finishes the current theatre of war so we can keep on the offensive. Got all that?”

“Sure. So they’ve been making it tough for the marriage to go through? Figures only guys working for the baddies would be against the guys killing them when the whole country is under attack.”

“But they do it under the cover of protecting their own sovereignty - their independence from foreigners. If they’d like to rule over an ash heap, that’s all well and good except that there are innocent people dying and dozens of those obelisks all around. But Australians have always been like that – it’s even lead to atrocities in the past when they refused to let in refugees. So it’s hard to call their bluff, most people in their country won’t do it.”

Ryuko nodded. This was pretty cut and dry compared to a lot of the history Shiro was trying to teach her, “But you got enough people to agree, right? So didn’t we kind of win?”

“Kind of. You see, the ball is going to be held on an unnamed island right here,” She pointed into the middle of the southeastern Pacific. “It’s been used as a neutral point for world leaders and a tax haven for years – supposed to be quite luxurious.”

“But we won’t be there for tourism.”

“Not at all. Our spies tell us that these REVOCS agents have been discussing with their higher-ups the possibility of assassinating me while we’re there. If you attend as well, the possibility of capturing you, killing me, proving to the world that nowhere is beyond their reach, and bumping off some of their own rivals in the chaos – it will be irresistable.”

“Ahh, I see what you’ve got here,” Ryuko grinned in spite of herself. This was more interesting than she’d been expecting by a broad margin, “They think we’ll be walking into a trap, but really it’s us who’ll be doing the trapping.”

“Now, it’s too dangerous for you to fight anything strong enough that it might actually beat you, but if they sent one of their Kamui you’d be able to detect its presence.”

“Once I got on the island I’d get the feeling it was there, yeah. I don’t have as long a range as Nonon on that but it’s pretty good for powerful things.”

“If that happens we’ll just leave right away, but I don’t think it will. They will try to use covert methods, no doubt underestimating just how formidable you are. And besides that we have our trump card – two Kamui wired into supercomputers and our own Houka Inamuta. If all else fails we can just hack every system on the island and let Houka sort it out from there. Plus Nonon is sending one of her best agents as well, he seems to have a good deal of experience with REVOCS agents.”

“Seems like you’ve thought of everything, as usual.”

“Everything except that you might not want to go. How do you feel about it now?” Satsuki leaned in over her desk. As if she even had to ask. The glint in their eyes was the same.

“So this is really what the whole marriage thing was all about, huh?” Ryuko shook her head, “Geez, and I really thought you were trying to make me jealous or somethin’.

Satsuki’s face froze, “Don’t be absurd. I’ve been planning this for months.”

“Well, I dunno. Telling me about it right after I told you about Rei? I mean don’t worry about it, that’s clearly not what it is. It just felt like that.”

“You shouldn’t make light of this, Ryuko. I’ve made my peace with our situation more than you, it seems. When did I ever give you that impression?”

“You didn’t! That’s just the sort of thing people normally do.”

“Well I wouldn’t stoop to it.”

“… But you’ve gotta see how it feels like a trade, right? Rei for this Aussie princess?” Ryuko said, holding up her hands like a scale illustratively

“If that were the case it would be a poor trade for me.”

“And that doesn’t piss you off? Even a little?”

Satsuki sat back into her chair and sighed, “Of course it does. But I made my choice – some of you is better than none. You think I want to do this? Diplomatic marriages are something you only get one of, putting aside that if I get my way they may soon be a thing of the past for good, and the fact that I’m having to spend mine on just Australia is… but nevermind that.”

“Yeah, I don’t like talking about that.”

“But you need to understand that no matter how this trip goes it’s not going to change our relationship. This is how it is, unless Nonon or Rei does something catastrophic and outs us. So don’t get hung up on that. Go ahead, patch things up with Rei. Hell, propose to her someday if you think she’ll say yes. I’ll still be here, and it might not be ideal but this is what we have.”

Ryuko stared at her lap, “Yeah, I got you. We’ve been over it before, over and over. I just… I want to make you happy, but I keep fucking it up. Don’t you want to believe that’s possible? I felt like, on The Weekend, like it might have been.”

“We find happiness where we can in this world. And truthfully, with what’s on the line, I’d find far more happiness standing side by side with you in victory than at an altar. You can check back when we’ve won,” The steely glint was back in Satsuki’s eyes. It was a good vision, those stupid agents thinking they were so clever only to be totally outfoxed and overpowered. That would make them both happy. “This is just one step closer. So I’ll ask again, Ryuko dear, will you join me on this mission?”

After all that? I don’t know who I’d be if I didn’t.”

Chapter Text

March 2067

~~~~

“Ah, the great Lady Matoi! I am so – truly – honored to finally meet you,” The Executive Minister of Australia, a burly but aging man with a wobbly chin and doughy cheeks reddened by webs of little capillaries, said in thickly accented Japanese. He lifted Ryuko’s hand to his lips and dutifully pecked the golden embroidery on her smooth black leather glove. “You look just as… magnificent in person as your reputation holds!” He went on, pausing momentarily as he seemed to struggle to come up with a word.

Unbelievable. I can’t tell if you were gonna say “lovely” or “terrifying”, but how hard is it to plan what you’re going to say before you come over to me?

“It’s a pleasure to meet you!” She responded in very poor but upbeat English. Satsuki had told her that memorizing some basic English phrases was absolutely essential, but she’d also – very excitably – said that everything else she wanted Ryuko to do was absolutely essential. Compared to memorizing the names and faces (and now that she’d met them in person, smells) of all the suspected REVOCS agents at the party, meeting the team of elite agents that would be backing her up, and getting her outfit up to Satsuki’s exacting standards that seemed like the least important thing. And honestly she didn’t feel much like being polite, not today.

“Ah, and of course I must introduce you to my dear daughter! Liza? Won’t you come here, please?” And here she came. Of course Ryuko had spotted her already, even if she weren’t constantly surrounded by a flock of courtiers like her father she was the only person who nearly matched Ryuko and Satsuki in the extravagance of her outfit. And, distressingly, in looks too.

“Here she comes. Liza, I’m sure you know who this already. Lady Matoi, I present to you Liza Stanhardt The Second. Or, I suppose soon to be Liza Kiryuin,” The old man laughed and rubbed a meaty hand on his daughter’s golden blonde hair affectionately. Liza’s big green-grey eyes were basically popping from her head as she curtsied, no easy task with all those layers of silky skirts.

“It is honor, er, honorable to meet you, Lady Matoi!” The little heiress blurted, then realized the mistake in her Japanese and quickly added, “I’m sorry! I don’t speak Japanese very well” (this being the only phrase she’d learned very well).

Ryuko bit down her innate up-welling of jealousy. She’d done some cursory social media stalking, she’d known the girl was beautiful, possessed of the daintiest pointed chin and lips that curled up naturally into an innocent, thoughtful look. She also knew that, by all indications, she was genuinely bi – based both on the models she followed and pictures of her with both prior boyfriends and girlfriends.

But she smiled smugly and nodded approvingly as she said in English, “That’s okay. I’m not very good at English. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Liza,” Ryuko responded, trying as best she could to sound sophisticated in front of this clearly overawed girl. When Liza heard this she smiled broadly, giggling nervously, and even though Ryuko’s super-charged nose could smell the intimidation coming off her Liza also seemed desperate to be her best friend.

And so Ryuko couldn’t be too upset at her. Out of all the people Ryuko had met today she was one of the few who still had some degree of vital energy to them, that age and a life of power politics hadn’t wrung from them . She clearly didn’t get out much, and today she was having the time of her life. Certainly meeting Ryuko was almost as much of a highlight as meeting her future wife, maybe even more so. How would she feel when some day down the line she learned of Satsuki’s premeditated infidelity?

She doesn’t seem like the type who’d dare confront Satsuki. Hell, she’d probably think I deserve it. Which, I can’t believe I’m saying this, is pretty damn unfair to her. But with a body like that, maybe Satsuki’ll give her enough attention she doesn’t feel left out… actually I changed my mind, I don’t need to be fair to her. She’s the boring, empty headed trophy wife, I’m the cool, secretive mistress. I win. Let’s not over-complicate things. Ryuko told herself, but she still felt unspeakable relief when they finally left.

And once they had, nobody else really seemed inclined to talk to her. No surprise, people had been getting out of her way since she got there, giving an obligatory greeting then playing a giant, slow moving game of music chairs around the ballroom to let her go wherever she wanted without a single interruption. They’d all encountered the august Kiryuin presence before, from either Satsuki or their mother, and they didn’t have to think about it much. Not a single one of them could forget that she was (insofar as they knew) the person who’d killed Ragyo. Logic dictated she had to be even bigger and ten times meaner.

Satsuki had recognized this, of course, and wanted to encourage it. That was exactly why she’d rejected the first ten or so designs for Ryuko’s outfit. She’d started with the skirtsuit she’d worn at the Kamui ceremony, assuming that was elaborate enough, but no.

And so came the final design – a velvety black frock coat with high collars and long coattails over something between an armored breastplate and a corset. Between that thing wrapping around her chest and her gigantic lapels it pushed up and highlighted Ryuko’s breasts in a way that might not have been embarrassing to her anymore but sure felt a bit excessive. Plus, to Ryuko’s eyes it screamed “stab here” . Add to that trousers and half-calf high-heeled boots with ornate gold shinguards, huge metal epaulettes, big puffy sleeves that slipped nicely back into gauntlets molded perfectly to her wrists. Then, to top it all off, the gold and red buttons and embroidery – Satsuki had suggested something floral, or leaves, or smooth patterns evoking waves, but Ryuko went with sharp lines and jagged geometry. If it reminded onlookers an awful lot of life-fibers, so be it.

In the end Ryuko didn’t consider it a masterpiece, but then she saved her masterpieces for the Kamui. It did look pretty badass though, especially coupled with her hair up the way Senketsu used to fling it so the red undersides showed (although the little crown of sapphires that Satsuki had insisted on was pretty overboard). Like a warrior queen from another planet.

Plus, she took pride in knowing Ragyo wouldn’t be caught dead in something like this.

But all of that was besides the point. Making Ryuko unapproachable just meant she was better able to focus on her job. With every detail of the REVOCS agents in her memory she could keep tabs on exactly where they were across the entirety of the lavish ballroom and through her enhanced senses of smell and hearing even in the adjoining rooms. Satsuki and some of the other agents they had posing as guests had been adding suspicious people for her to keep track of over time too. It was getting to be a pretty long list, but so far nobody had made a move.

And it didn’t look like anyone was about to now. The ballroom opened out onto a wide terrace on two sides, with the gigantic floor-to-cieling glass doors flung open so cool ocean breezes could flit in. The actual dancing floor and the tables for the banquet were lowered compared to the level where the doors open up, with long low stairs and sloping fountains and plant fixtures between them. Ryuko stood at the corner between those two sides, a good view of all the doors that lead deeper into the palace. And also nice and close to the terrace, allowing her easy access to the second part of her job – scanning the rest of the island for any signs of trouble.

She went to go do just that, wandering out onto a broad patio busy with guests. Past it, white limestone cliffs dropped off precipitously – the palace was placed on these cliffs at the narrow head of the island. Beyond them, golf courses, gardens, little boulevards lined with boutiques and restaurants, and high rise hotels with curved glass sides that made them look like shiny blue eggs or rugby balls. Beyond that there was nothing but sky, sand so white it was almost pink, and barren blue ocean. There were a couple sets of little black dots out there – the husks of villages abandoned to the rising sea level, but they didn’t do much to mar the peaceful scene.

Ryuko checked each of the towers for snipers. For an ordinary human even with binoculars the glare would have made seeing through the glass impossible, but not Ryuko. Still, there wasn’t anything suspicious there. Neither was there anything too bizarre on the ground level except – wait a minute, three unmarked black vans heading down a side street in the direction of the palace. Ryuko casually pulled out her phone as though checking it an quickly whispered into it, describing what she saw. A tiny little speaker embedded in her hair behind one of the sapphires whispered back, Houka’s voice, confirming that they would keep an eye on it in the security cameras they’d hacked. Satisfied that the perimeter scan was taken care of, Ryuko went back inside.

“What’s eating you, kid?” Someone asked. It was Yuda Uwais, who’d been sent over as Nonon’s hand-picked agent. By this point she and the others in Indonesia had gotten acclimated with their allies enough that they didn’t need a go-between all the time, and with his experience as a Royal Bodyguard he was great at spying on these big-money types. Ryuko took an instant shine to him because he seemed as cynically detached from the event as she felt, and Satsuki couldn’t complain because he was focused on his role in the operation.

“Huh? Do I look like somethin’s pissing me off?” Ryuko quickly said.

“More like you just saw a rat. Here, your drink,” He passed some sort of bitter specialty cocktail Ryuko had never heard of before over. She’d had a couple so far, but was using her ability to moderate the buzz so it just felt like one. She wasn’t that stupid. She drained it with a sigh and handed the glass off to a passing waiter. “There, that’s better,” Yuda smiled, taking a nip of his own drink as the haughty expression Ryuko had been wearing since she met Liza wore off.

“So, you met the royal family, huh?”

“I guess. What’s up with that anyway, they don’t call the guy a king but he basically is, right?”

Yuda shrugged, “More or less. Still, king or not, he’s gotta bow to our Satsuki, eh?”. Ryuko shrugged, and he went on, “That Liza though, y’know I didn’t know Satsuki was into girls, but she’s not getting that bad a deal here,” He gestured over to the table where Liza and Satsuki were sitting, surrounded by handmaidens and courtiers. It seemed like some sort of photo-op.

“Satsuki doesn’t care about that, I’m sure you’ve realized by now.”

“Sure, but with a rack like that she’s got to care a little bit. What? Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed?”

Ryuko shook her head mildly; it was fun when male friends treated her like one of the guys, so long as she knew they were partially kidding when they played at ogling women, “Fine, fine. I guess she’s pretty good looking. You gotta wonder where she gets it from with that wombat as a father.”

“Probably his trophy wife.”

“Like mother like daughter,” Ryuko commented, which maybe came out harsher than she meant it. Yuda paid that no mind though.

“Still, she doesn’t compare to Satsuki. Hey, speaking of, she’s into girls, so are you – you even try to, y’know, slide in on that?”

The look Ryuko gave him quickly shot that down. “Hehehe, geez, sorry! Ignore that one, guess it was a bit too far,” He backtracked apologetically. But suddenly Ryuko’s attention was on something else.

“Nevermind that. Look,” She motioned to far end of the ballroom, “Our friend the so-called knight is ducking.” Ryuko was reference an Australian nobleman, the Knight of the Bedchamber (whatever that meant) who Satsuki was dead sure was the kingpin of the REVOCS infiltrators. A tall, tough military man who looked like he had a fair amount of natural charm – if you could get over how his high ridged nose and looming sloped brows made his face look like a shark’s. “Looks like you’ve got a window, Uwais.”

Yuda nodded, “Should be fun.” He walked off nonchalantly into the crowd. The moment he did, almost imperceptibly, two guests peeled off and moved in the same direction as him. Japanese agents, they’d make sure Yuda got the privacy he needed to squeeze the information out of him. Ryuko could feel the aura of the one-star Ultima Uniform he had hidden under his suit pulse a little bit, getting ready for action.

“Where’s he off to?” Ryuko nearly jumped when, not a moment after Yuda had left, someone else sidled up next to her. It was Satsuki, and there was an excited little smile on her face. The same smile she’d had since they arrived here. Just like Liza, she was having the time of her life here, but for very different reasons. “Oh, it must be the Knight of the Bedchamber, Lord Godfrey. It is, isn’t it? Very good. Things are really starting to get interesting now.”

Ryuko shrugged, “Alright then, I’ll take your word for it, because this is the only thing I’ve seen happen so far.”

“Hmhmm, would that we were so lucky,” Satsuki, “Have you noticed that thirteen of the top politicians you were told to watch out for have not made an appearance?”

“Well I – come to think of it, yeah. What’s up with that?”

“They failed their security screening,” Satsuki informed Ryuko, then went on much more coyly, “For some reason, they were trying to smuggle weapons right through the metal detector.”

“Wha-! How could they be so… wait… you didn’t plant the guns, did you?”

Satsuki shook her head, evidently proud of herself, “No, but they were expecting sympathetic security guards at the checkpoint. Now they’re speeding away tied in the back of unmarked black vans – I didn’t even tell Houka about those, but no matter. He has two Kamui supercomputers to help him, I’m sure you didn’t split their attention too much warning them.”

“Wait, those were ours?

“I can only imagine their shock when they saw our men working the checkpoint,” Satsuki cut herself off with a hum chuckle when Liza came shuffling up, face split by a huge happy smile as she saw these two legendary women discussing what she could only assume was things far beyond her comprehension. “Hey you,” Satsuki said in English. Ryuko thought that honey-sweet voice was mostly fake, “You’ve met Ryuko Matoi, right?”

“Mhm! She’s amazing, isn’t she!”

“She is. Why don’t you wait for me outside, dear? Try to find a quiet spot, I’m sure we have a lot to talk about.”

“Sure!”

“Wonderful. I’ll be right out,” Satsuki said as the heiress headed off, still bubbling. Then she turned to look at Ryuko apologetically.

“Would you believe me if I said I dislike her less than everyone else I’ve met today? Well, except Uwais, he’s okay.”

Satsuki hummed, “Well, don’t feel too bad. She knows what she’s getting into.”

“Does she now?”

“Of course. She’s not stupid. In fact, she’s probably more aligned with me politically than her father and his followers.”

“So, I should be picture her as one of my college friends, not some medieval princess?”

“Quite. And relax, won’t you? She’s a big fan of yours. Now, since you’ve confirmed that there are no snipers I’m going to enjoy some fresh air,” Satsuki turned briskly to go, so caught up in the bustle of running her whole operation, but Ryuko grabbed her by a voluminous silky sleeve.

“Hang on now. You mind me asking what exactly the overall goal is here? We’re waiting for them to make a move, do we make a move ever?”

Satsuki looked around to make sure nobody was listening in. One supposed guest nodded to confirm that everyone nearby was working for them, a perimeter of spies engaged in phony conversations. So she explained, “Their goal is to kill me and capture you, our goal by contrast is to have this ceremony seemingly go off without a hitch. We just have to knock out enough pieces that their plan to converge on us can’t work, then once we’re out of here show the Executive Minister all the traitors we’ve captured and the irrefutable proof of their guilt. There will be an international tribunal at which we will no doubt be vindicated – we shouldn’t even have to rig it but we will if they infiltrate the judiciary. And with our enemies in prison and the Executive Minister in our eternal debt we will have Ira and Rei on the ground leading the reconquest of Australia by the end of the week.”

“And then you can cancel the engagement anytime you want,” Ryuko finished. Right?

“… Well, yes,” Satsuki said with conspicuous hesitation, but before Ryuko could comment further something caught her eye. A women posing as an influential banker was making a hand signal that told Ryuko that Yuda was in need of some extra persuasion.

“Ah, that’s for me,” Ryuko said, as Satuski had noticed it too.

“I won’t keep you. He may be our key to figuring out how exactly they plan to strike, good luck.”

~~~~

The interrogation chamber Yuda had chosen was a secret closet in the back of a large coatroom (any good palace had hundreds of such sound insulated little rooms everywhere). Two agents, a man and women, were standing there to keep unwanted attention out. Whenever an innocent bystander passed by the man pretended to help his counterpart out of her coat, whenever a less innocent snooper showed up – guns, both needle and conventional. There was already the body of an enemy spy inside the chamber with Yuda and Lord Godfrey when Ryuko got there.

“You rang?” Ryuko did her best to pull a sadistic smile as she walked in. Godfrey’s eyes went wild with panic the moment he saw her, and he groaned, but he wasn’t capable of doing anything more since there was a binder in his mouth to keep him from biting off his tongue. He was already pretty bruised and bloodied, but it looked like Yuda hadn’t done anything more than rough him up.

“Damn, that didn’t take long,” Yuda said to her, then turned back to Godfrey, “Feel like talking now? Last chance before it gets way worse.”

Godfrey kept groaning so Yuda momentarily unclasped the binder. Through busted teeth he gurgled, “As if… I’d ever...”

“You see? This dude’s a real zealot. Too bad for him the gloves are coming off now?”

“Funny enough, they actually are. I didn’t pack spares,” Ryuko removed her gloves and crouched down next to Godfrey. “Here, come check this out.”

“Huh?”

“Well, usually people are curious about what my abilities are, I thought you might like a close look. See, when you told me I might have to help with this I thought I’d go for something simple,” Ryuko rolled up the left leg of Godfrey’s pants to expose his calf, “And one of my powers most people don’t know about that I have is extremely fine motor control. Wouldn’t be good if every time I tried to pick something up I crushed it, right?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“So, if I put one hand on top, the other and bottom combine that with super-strength...” Ryuko began to very slowly move her hands together, levering onto Godfrey’s calf at a glacial pace. It didn’t take him long to realize what this was going to do to his fibula and tibia, and he scrunched his eyes shut and tried to brace himself. “And the cool part is that I’m basically tireless too, and he’s got plenty of bones, so we can keep going with this all day. Or, y’know, until he decides to tap out.”

It didn’t take long, much to Ryuko’s relief. Even before the splintering starting, the flexure of the bone Ryuko could feel seemed pretty unbearable. The moment there was an audible “crack” Godfrey gave in. He tapped on the floor and Ryuko nodded to Yuda to take the binder out of his mouth.

“There’s a bomb!” He blurted.

“Elaborate,” Ryuko didn’t let go of his leg, which was now purpling from internal injuries.

“There’s a bomb-gasp- in the basement- gasp-,” He explained between huge, heavy breaths, “Level 7b.”

~ “I don’t think so” ~ Houka’s voice over Ryuko’s transponder, ~ “I’m checking the security cameras and… wait, there’s about a minute half an hour ago at the garage door where it repeats. The same footage doubled over. And there’s an unused area that’s supposed to be sealed off with a new concrete wall so there’s no cameras in there. You don’t think -”~

“Fuck,” Ryuko concluded. “When’s it gonna happen?”

“Soon. The blast will collapse the entire cliff face into the ocean, it’ll look like a freak earthquake. If Satsuki somehow survives, there will be gunmen at every door to take her out quietly.”

“That’s not gonna happen. Houka, are you getting all this?”

~ “Relaying to Satsuki now. Izanami, shut down level 7b.”~

~ “It’s done,” ~ Izanami replied urgently.

~ “Hold on, but what about you, Ryuko?” ~ Misaki’s voice, cutting in on the line with clear skepticism. ~ “How are they planning to get you?” ~

“Good question. What about me, huh?” Ryuko said, ratcheting her voice up with and adding pressure on his leg.

“AAAH-AH!” Godfrey yelled, “Please, god! Let me explain!” Ryuko gave him a moment’s relief, but her hands weren’t going anywhere. “We were planning to get you when you went for Satsuki. Some of the gunmen have rifles with starching rounds. Those will put you down for good.”

“I don’t think so. Satsuki, are you getting all this?”

~ “Calm down, Ryuko. Something’s not right here. There’s still so many of their own in the building, they should be trying to leave by now. Check his phone.” ~

“The phone, right. Pass me that, Uwais.”

“It’s not gonna work. I already tried, it’s encrypted as shit. Never seen anything like it.”

“Satsuki thought of that,” Ryuko pulled a thin cord out from in her jacket, “This thing is connected to the mic I’m talkin’ to our guys with. It’ll let our supercomputer in and she can-,”

~ “Already in!” ~

~ “Good. Find any communications with other conspirators . They should indicate that what you’re hearing is a fake plan.”

Izanami hummed sadly, ~ “Gee, I wish that were true. But I don’t see anything like that, and I read the entire hard drive.”~ The phone seemed to operate itself, unlocking, inputting a complex passcode, and then scrolling right to a text conversation which then swiftly translated itself from English. Ryuko started reading as fast as she could. She couldn’t see a detail out of place, the conversation went even further back. If it was a fake they would have to have faked weeks of conversation between Godfrey and a guy who was clearly a close colleague of his.

~ “Really? Misaki, can you.” ~

~ “Double check? Already did, they don’t call it supercomputers for nothing. And she’s right, much as it doesn’t really match our suspicions all the details are right here. Shoot, without additional data I’d say he’s telling the truth.”~

“What are they saying?” Yuda asked, unable to hear the whisper quiet of Ryuko’s speaker.

“Hold on. Thanks buddy, I think your work is done,” Ryuko leveled a fearsome slap at Godfrey’s forehead, instantly knocking him unconscious. “Anyway, the phone backs it up. This is what’s happening.”

“Shit. Alright, I’ll get a defusal team in place.”

“No. There’s no time. I’ll go.”

~ “Ryuko no! Don’t be absurd, it could be a trap!” ~ Satsuki was whispering so fiercely she might as well have been yelling.

“Even if it is, there’s nothing stronger than a two-star in the area, I can feel that. Nothing fast enough to pose a threat to me. I’ve dodged starching bullets from ordinary guns before, I can do it again.”

~ “But what if -” ~

“But what if it’s real?” Ryuko was, by this point, entirely convinced it was. Needles of annoyance were starting to prickle on her hair. Satsuki always thought her intuition was right and it had been so many times, how could you tell her that just this once it wasn’t. But the proof was right here! The worst part was Ryuko knew if she were only a little smarter she could figure out how to convince her. But there just wasn’t any time. “Don’t worry about me, alright? I’ve got this.”

~ “Just come back here first. Find me on the balcony. We’ll talk it out and you’ll get there in time.”~

In a part of her brain Ryuko knew that if she went, Satsuki would convince her not to go after the bomb. But most of it was tensed up, imagining at any second everything around her turning to flames. Satsuki and Liza and her father and Yuda buried under a mountain of rubble collapsing into the ocean. And all those poor innocent guests. Ryuko remembered the collateral damage from when she went berserk, from the battle at Osaka. That couldn’t happen, not here, not on such a beautiful day. She couldn’t afford to be convinced.

“I’m sorry Sats. Please, just trust me just this once. I’ll show you the proof when I get back.”

~ “Ryuko!” ~ If Satsuki had any other objections she didn’t have a chance to voice them. That was really as long as she could go before the ball pulled her back in.

“Wait – uh – what should I do?” Yuda asked.

“I dunno. Ask Sats!”

~~~~

The stairwell down to level 7b was carved into the limestone of the island, well below the water table. The lights were dingy and greenish and the walls damp, with stains from groundwater leaking through the lining. All of this stood out sharply to Ryuko as she moved, weightlessly soft, every sense on alert for breathing, the scent of humans, the aura of life-fibers. Even a minute vibration in the air. Almost there now.

The level itself turned out to be a parking garage, filled with fancy sports cars and limousines. What they were all used for on this tiny island Ryuko couldn’t imagine. It was nearly pitch dark, not that that bothered Ryuko, and she didn’t think it would bother anyone waiting for her for a second. She was certain there would be someone waiting for her, Satsuki couldn’t be that far off. It was a trap, just one she could safely spring.

She came to one of the big security doors Izanami had locked down, a metal grate. “Izanami, open the door,” Ryuko whispered. Nothing. She’d lost service. Fuck, looks like I really am on my own. So how I’m supposed to get through without making a ton of noise?

What she ended up deciding was to very gently snap the metal of the grate to make a roughly square hole down to the floor like a cookie cutter. She gingerly removed the middle and propped it up on the wall.

Now let’s see. They’re supposed to be in a part of this area that was walled off with concrete . On a hunch, Ryuko walked into a side corridor and – oh look, a freshly carved hole into the wall. But she wouldn’t be going in through there, no. She listened carefully. Of course, they had no idea where she was. She’d hadn’t breathed once since she got here.

Ah, there it was. The faint tapping of someone shifting on their heels. She floated right up to the wall, right beside it, put her ear to it so she could hear his breath. His pulse.

CRRRRUNCH

Ryuko thrust her hand clean through the wall effortlessly, felt a human face in her hand. No time to waste. She twisted, it went limp. The pulse stopped. A few more pulses, further in. She retracted her hand before anyone thought to shoot at it. Moved a few yards on, closer to the survivors. This was where she chose to burst in.

With a deafening crash Ryuko shot through the wall, scatting rubble everywhere. In the faint red light of her hair she spotted her first target, far back in the center of an empty expanse of smooth, industrial darkness that seemed to go on forever. Before anyone could react she had a guy by an arm and a leg, hurled him into a wall where he stuck with a bloody “thwump” . Two more had been standing back-to-back with him, they were dead almost instantly too.

A poorly aimed bullet bounced around momentarily. Ryuko darted off and put a swift end to whoever shot it. How many more?

She heard shuffling, instantly turned towards it. And the moment she did, the distortion of the air screamed that something was coming from the exact opposite direction, although unlike the gun it had fired nearly silently. Of course they’d have automated weapons.

Ryuko snagged it neatly between her fingers, held it up to look at it. A tiny little dart? Even elephant tranquilizer wouldn’t be any good against her.

“What in the-”

Then the second one hit her.

“AH!”

The effect was instantaneous. Her body screamed at her as it dug into her thigh. This sensation, how awful! Ryuko dropped the dart and gasped. What was this feeling!

With a deep, sinking panic, Ryuko realized what it was.

Pain.

The serum, of course! The very one her father had used to suppress her power. They must have-

Fuck this, it was a trap! I need to go before it really kicks in! Ryuko turned towards the hole she’d come through and – where was it? Oh god, it was so dark. He vision was swimming. It was so blurry, she couldn’t even tell where she was looking. So dull… was this really how she’d seen the world for so many years? It was awful!

Whatever, this seemed almost right. When she got to the wall she could get feel her way to the exit. She sprung for it. It felt like pulling through molasses, but at least she was moving. On the second step though, she hit something soft and heavy.

My own foot. I just tripped over my own foot!

It was then, as pain once again hit her, this time from her face skidding on the pavement, that Ryuko realized just what was happening. With a clarity like she was seeing it outside her body, a weak little girl wearing high heels had just tumbled to the ground, trying to leap through the air as though she could fly. Suddenly her chest was heaving with yet more pain. God, this corset was so tight, she couldn’t breathe! She needed to breathe! She tried to rip it away, but no good. She was forced to rasp, face red from humiliation.

I should have listened.

The serum had already done its job. There was no getting out of here before it kicked in.

Please. Give me a chance.

But yet she couldn’t give in, not just yet. If she could get to a place with security cameras, everything would be okay.

There's an antidote.  I just have to get it.  Then I can try again.

“C’mon c’mon c’mon come on! ” Ryuko got back up onto her feet, channeling all her experience running in Senketsu’s high heels. Yes, the wall was in sight. There was the opening!

Another dart slammed into her. This time, without super-strength bracing her, it had the exact effect it would have on any other human, catching her by the shoulder and spinning her down to the ground.

I should have listened.

“AH-Aaaah! You… motherfuckers!” She shouted through labored breaths. She could hear them coming closer as she stood again. Even with her ears that felt like cement was poured in them, her nose completely blank of smells in comparison, and her skin feeling nothing but a void of sensation, she could hear them. Just a little closer. Even without her powers she could still beat the crap out of them.  If they just got closer.

Please let me try again.

“Goddess, how tough is she?”

“Don’t get too close now.”

I can beat them.  I can.  They can't get away with this.

They didn’t budge. Fuck. Ryuko couldn’t even see them. Time to run again. She turned to go, but this time her despair would be complete.

The glow of her hair flickered, faded, shut off entirely. She was blind. She was fully human. She was totally alone.

Satsuki was right. This was all just to trap me down here. Separate us. Keep me from her. And if I’m down here...

She heard a gun being chambered. If she still had her powers, would she have felt life-fibers inside it, or just cold steel?

Satsuki’s in danger!

That was Ryuko’s last thought before the starching bullet shattered her skull and her mind unfolded in every direction at once.

Chapter Text

UNDEFINED

~~~~

Ryuko didn’t have any time to waste wondering if she was dead. The sudden burst of sensation, this tremendous feeling of expanding, being freed of these terrible bindings she never knew she had, without a moment’s delay after the most awful pit of blindness and loss, it was beyond exhilaration or terror. Her mind raced with a thousand questions, but not a single one was whether or not she was alive.

How could she have died, when before that moment she hadn’t been alive?

But what exactly Ryuko was thrust into was something she never after could explain, at least not to a human audience. A human can’t be asked to imagine the compound vision of a fly, or the movement sensitivity of a fish, and that’s not at all their fault but just a simple truth of how all creatures exist. How much less capable then is a human of understanding the world as seen from the point of view of a higher dimensional being, especially one who had lived their life as a human until being suddenly, forcibly disconnected from that body.

She did try, and through trial and error found the best way to describe it was through two concepts. Firstly, there’s an odd effect that some life-fiber clothing, particularly Goku and Ultima Uniforms, have in which certain surfaces appear to be holes. Voids opening up into a black space through which life-fibers shoot in slowly dancing lines. Of course, that space doesn’t actually exist, it’s like a mirror, a window into nothing. Just as a mirror can sometimes, it really looked like a three-dimensional space you could stick you hand into.

Secondly, the concept that any three-dimensional space is composed of an infinite number of theoretical planes, infinitely thin flat surfaces stacked together like pages in a book, at every angle of rotation and every direction. This is something best expressed on the pages of a physics textbook, because these are not real objects but a simple theoretical way of constructing our three-dimensional world from an infinity of these 2d spaces put together.

Now, imagine that every single one of those planes is a hole into nowhere, a window into another unique and very real – not mirror-like but truly palpable – three dimensional world. An infinity of three-dimensional objects put together. This is the universe as it truly appears, to those with the dubious gift of being able to see it.

Considering this, imagine the Earth, perhaps from a middling distance between its surface and the moon, our pale blue dot against the drifting shoals of stars. But it’s not quite the same. The surface is covered, penetrated, enshrouded in this coruscating membrane, like an aurora but much brighter, more complex. Living light. Imagine seeing this through all those three-dimensional planes, stretched and expanded until any impression of this vaguely spherical chunk of rock is multiplied beyond recognition and all concept of distance rendered totally irrelevant so that it’s no longer clear whether you’re halfway to the moon, drifting in the upper atmosphere, or right down there on the beach not a mile from the place where a woman named Ryuko Matoi is about to be shot in the head. Or maybe she already has been.

But then that makes sense because you’re not seeing this through a simple pair of forward facing lenses. Instead, thousands of eyes on a thousand heads and stalks spin out between your diaphanous, continent spanning wings of molten, shimmering tendrils of light on of which the auras of all the living creatures around you sink in like leaves drinking up light, at the center of which an ever shifting, coiled core of neural material flashes with a lifetime of memories, some so deeply buried you don’t even recognize them as your own.

You are Ryuko. And, once this initial shock settles this doesn’t feel like you’ve transcended, been born again, or anything like that. More like your phone suddenly shut off and you were forced to look up, snapped out of your little trance, and pay attention to your surroundings while you figure out how to turn it back on.

And wonder where the hell you’d wandered off to.

~~~~

At least, that was how Ryuko tried to explain this moment afterward – some of the time. Other times she said she instantly forgot who she was, where she came from, everything about her life. Other times that the shock of seeing the Earth and the universe laid bare in all its beauty was so overwhelming that it drove her mad with joy. Or terror. Other times, to very specific people, she confided that none of it was terribly impressive because she just had to get back, to save Satsuki. But all of those things were equally true. She suddenly found herself being able to hold all these contradictory ideas together, none greater than any other. And that drove her mad too.

The part of her that was her conscious, waking mind, the part that had been so resistant to the suggestion that she might be anything other than human, had been screaming the entire time.

She knew she had to stop, calm down, piece together all these disparate parts before she splintered entirely. Then she could figure out what was going on. But the universe wouldn’t wait for her to catch up. And she wasn’t alone.

Floating above the Earth with her were eight other beings. Ryuko knew what they were instantly, they cut right through the fog of confusion and splintered thoughts.

My babies!

She reached out to them instinctively. Thin, smooth paddles arose from her core and – with distance being effectively meaningless in a world with so many directions – she was quickly among them. They had the same radial bodies as her, the same lacy wings of molten light, the same probing appendages armed with eyes and frondose structures akin to baleen – although unlike Ryuko’s they did not seek and probe but merely drifted in the fluid currents of space. Where they really differed though – aside from being a great deal smaller - was that unlike Ryuko’s organic core that even now pulsed with memories, their cores were made of geometric lattices of the same living light as their wings and appendages. Like gigantic hollow crystals they seemed to have an orientation, all angling towards a surface of the Earth, dipping down into the membrane that surrounded it at very precise points. Although each was unique (and Ryuko couldn’t tell which was which, not that that mattered) they looked more like a different species belonging to the same genus as Ryuko, rather than the same exact sort of being.

Why don’t they respond? Ryuko wondered with a moment of panic and doting concern as she embraced them. It wasn’t long before she had an answer. Oh, they must be down there . On Earth. With my friends. Rei. Ira, Uzu, Houka, Aikuro, Tsumugu, Shiro, even Nonon. That’s right, how could she forget about them? They were right here with her now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ryuko didn’t know how long she spent there, nestled between them, basking in pure, instinctive, unconditional love like a cosmic songbird tending its nest. Did they even know she was there? It didn’t matter to her. It was night now in the Pacific time zones, her friends were sleeping. She could see them.

Wait a minute that’s not right. It was day when I got here .

It was day now in the Pacific time zones. Nonon, Uzu, Aikuro and Tsumugu were out overseeing a makeshift fleet as it powered over smooth seas. Rei and Shiro were training. Ira and Houka were fighting a REVOCS attack near Kyoto. Exactly where they were the day of Satsuki’s engagement ball.

That’s better.

Those little motes down there, where they graze the ground, those must be my friends! I’m going to go see them.

It turned out to be as easy as deciding to go down there. She already was scraping the surface with some of her thousand appendages, and sure enough she found each of them. Little human bodies, moving so slow that even to Ryuko’s tremendous lenses they seemed to be still. Shiro was entirely right, there was so much more to them than was the human eye could see.

The human form itself, exactly as he’d predicted, only existed right in the one three dimensional “plane” in which Ryuko had lived all her life. Across the rest outlandish structures of filament and fleshy tissue, drawn through with the light that – from space – seemed to create a vast membrane across the surface of the planet. And in fact they were connected to each other, and to everything else, in a great web, like some sort of colony of bio-luminescent living material. They were even connected to Ryuko’s children – flesh melding into fibers.

When she tried to explain this to humans, afterward, many of them were horrified. But Ryuko thought it was beautiful. All life was one, some other sort of great being in this vast cosmos, only distantly related to Ryuko and her children. It felt slow, ponderous, and Ryuko’s gut judgment was that it felt unintelligent (it definitely didn’t seem interested in communicating), but yet it was much, much larger than her.

But yet all those little motes, Ryuko saw them closer too. Each one burned bright right at the same point as their physical brain.

That’s them. That’s everything that makes them unique. I think I can even see some of their memories! If Satsuki could see this she say that it was your soul. And they’re all connected, how amazing is that! And the moment she thought that, the urge to find Satsuki was uncontrollable. And there she was, one of Ryuko’s eyes found her, rushing nervously out of the banquet hall towards the bathroom. Every flash of memory Ryuko saw in Satsuki was an image of her own face. Satsuki looked terribly sick. And she realized exactly when it was that she’d dropped down into this hallway.

She worried about me! The flash of guilt was so immediate that it cut through all of Ryuko’s wandering, splintering thoughts. I have to go back. I see… someone’s coming after her. She really is in danger! I need to warn her!

But, try as she might, reaching out to her would be no more possible than tapping someone on the shoulder through a closed window. The part of Ryuko that was intersecting the space where Satsuki existed was, well, down in the basement right now, on the steps preparing to walk into a trap. Ryuko tried desperately to smash the gigantic, lidless eye through into Satsuki’s reality, but if it succeeded it only worked for the briefest instant. It was squeezed out by a huge, invisible pressure. Evidently that was not how this worked. So she pawed at the part she could reach, across the filaments of Satsuki’s multidimensional self. No response.

No good. I’m going to watch her die in slow motion and I can’t do anything about it!

Ryuko despaired, but just as she did another of her many lines of thought decided that this simply wasn’t the answer. There had to be some way to get her human body back, but this wasn’t it. She was considering what to do next when she noticed something off.

Hold on, what’s wrong with the guy following her?

Ryuko could see that there was something attached to him, just like her children were attached to their human wearers. Something that was made of molten tendrils of light rather than the soft flesh of a living creature. But it wasn’t right, it felt much less like a merging, more like the thing was ensnaring him.

He’s wearing life-fibers! No, they’re wearing him and he doesn’t realize.

And that was when Ryuko became aware of the life-fibers. From space she saw the tendrils that ensnared him, made up his Ultima Uniform, snaking up like an umbilical. Looking up where they went was hard, like there was something so bright it compelled her to turn away. But she had to because that wasn’t the only umbilical.

There were hundreds. Scattered across half the planet. Hundreds of hungry probosces, digging into the living flesh of the Earth. And there were four great, bulging ones, glutted and warped into a jagged mockeries of the shapes of her children. The enemy Kamui.

Oh no. Get away from them! Get off my planet! Ryuko rushed them, diving towards the nearest one. The space around her pulled like a tide as the distance between them was erased, but though Ryuko plunged into it and latched on with her appendages, trying to tear it apart, the Kamui resisted could not be uprooted. It just reformed around her, seemingly oblivious to her attempts to cause harm

You’re anchored in, aren’t you? You’re stuck to the Earth by the people you’re wearing. Well, I’m gonna kill rip you off them, and then I’m going to devour you. I’ll feed you to my children! How about that! Ryuko wanted to shout, but even if she knew how to she doubted the Kamui would listen.

But now that she was closer, she saw something truly disturbing. It wasn’t just that one man who’s little mote-brain-soul whatever was ensnared by the life-fibers. There were thousands being hauled through the Kamui’s umbilical, passed along by incredibly complex apparatuses of life-fibers.

That’s what they’re getting from the humans . It’s not energy, it’s souls . It all became so obviously, horribly apparent to her. They uplift species so they have bigger souls, more memories, more consciousness, and then they harvest them. And when the humans have eaten through all the resources their world has, they end them all in one big burst. And once they harvest them, they take them away. They take them…

Ryuko finally managed to tear her eyes up, and see the great constellation of life-fibers stretching out into the vast recesses of space. Those weren’t stars, they were great wheeling hubs in the cloying vacuum, vertices in a great web. Blindingly bright wasn’t the right word for it, these things throbbed with a vast, invisible pressure that battered Ryuko with terror. It felt like an eternity before she could keep looking at it without turning away. In uncounted billions the minds of living creatures were being pumped through this giant lattice, the ends of which Ryuko couldn’t begin to percieve. It was so huge, she didn’t even think it saw her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this is the enemy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It might seem hard to believe that Ryuko was able to recover from one mind shattering revelation after another, but the passage of time was difficult to determine. It felt like even as she closed her eyes and hid in terror, overwhelmed, another part of her had a thousand years to look, consider, calm down. And as much as she felt sure that any moment now her mind would splinter apart and cast all those contradicting thoughts away, that didn’t happen.

In truth not much had changed. Humans have conflicting thoughts, urges, multiple trains of thought they leap between. It was just that they could only fulfill one of them at once, whereas now Ryuko no longer had such a limitation. So even seeing the great sweep of the life-fiber system as it stretched out through the stars to find and consume new worlds, Ryuko was able to cope. Even seeing all the people whose very essences were harvested and processed by it, even while imagining what horrible experiences might be waiting for them, Ryuko could eventually get enough of herself back under control to think straight.

In fact, after learning that she could resist the urge to look away from the life-fiber system, it wasn’t nearly as intimidating as she though. It was just another form of life, another part of this ecosystem, and just like the biosphere of Earth it had its own internal ecosystem too. There were parts, whole orbiting creatures of non-symmetrical, jagged shape that didn’t seem to have any association with the processing of souls. They seemed to be inactive. How odd.

So what are the humans to them? Food? It doesn’t seem that they’re consuming them more like they’re just… sending them on…

That pressure I’m feeling isn’t coming from the life-fibers. It’s coming from what’s behind them.

Something huge was sliding through the space behind them. Ryuko’s expanding perception of this universe had finally hit a wall. And it, like everything else, was alive.

Imagine looking up at the sky one day and seeing, emerging from behind the sun, a vast eye, and realizing the entire sky as far as you could see what just a part of the owner of this eye. That is the difference in scale between Ryuko and this thing. Or imagine being a single planktonic creature, a microscopic copepod, and suddenly becoming aware of a blue whale. Of how many orders of magnitude more complex both its body and mind were to yours

Would that plankton been at all unreasonable to assume that the whale was God?

Imagine a city, a great old city like Rome or Prague. All spires and domes of gold stretching endlessly in all directions, poisoned with civilizations’ worth of carvings and artwork. These were the teeth in the maws into which the life-fibers crept, their lattice extended into a feeding palp to deposit the captured souls.

Those currents that blasted through the cloying fluid of space were its breath .

Between the golden cities, vast plains of sulfurous mud and bubbling acidic pools that extended millions of miles across – the nictitating membranes of flat eyes. The material from which they were made wasn’t the bio-luminescent flesh of Earth’s biosphere, or the inert, grinding rock of the interior beneath it, or even the molten light that Ryuko and her children and the life-fibers consisted of. Ryuko had never seen anything like it before – she didn’t know what it was and she didn’t care.

So vast and featureless was it that Ryuko had at first mistook it for the inky distance of space. Worst of all, even while she lost track of the ends of the life-fibers as they trailed out into the infite distance, she could see they were but a veil over the thing they were feeding.

And it was this that finally broke Ryuko. No part of her could comprehend the sheer scale, nor the sheer futility of resisting this, the ultimate power in the universe. When she first awoke – it felt so long ago now – she had felt so gigantic, so horrified by her own body. But compared to this, she was nothing. Even the life-fibers were powerless, just its tools.

Inevitably, the last threads connecting it to Earth would be severed. The souls of everyone she knew – unless they died before their time – would be free to return to Earth just like the rest of their bodies. The thing behind the veil wouldn’t even notice. But if it did, she couldn’t protect them. She couldn’t protect her children either. And if it never noticed, what kind of victory was that? Untold billions of humans had already fallen to it – good, evil, in-between – Ryuko knew now what happened to them. And an infinity of other souls, raised on other planets and harvested without even fighting back.

Even my own father is in there.

 

I can’t take this anymore! With a piercing cry, Ryuko’s wings and heads retracted and curled around her core, pantomiming a fetal position. Oh, how she yearned for the days when she was just a little lost girl on the cold streets. She could have lived and died without ever knowing. I just want to forget I ever saw this! If I can’t do anything about it, what’s the point?

 

 

 

I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home. I just want to go home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But home wasn’t coming. Nothing happened. Nothing changed. The sun burned merrily, blissfully uncaring about the troubles of the living things in its universe, and the Earth wheeled and oscillated by underneath it. And Ryuko stayed curled there. Millennia might have passed, or seconds. Ryuko couldn’t tell the difference. Eventually it wasn’t even the terror that kept her there, that passed. It was the sheer futility of acting. She knew without a doubt that she couldn’t abide this. She couldn’t just accept that if God created all life just to feed itself, it must have had a reason and there was no point in a lowly worm like her questioning it. One look at the memories coursing through her and she knew that they meant something, the people in them mattered, even if part of her could no longer remember who they were.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She’d once felt so strongly about this one, with the piercing blue eyes and the scornful frown and the delicate skin over pristine muscle. What was it about her?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stop that! You know who Satsuki is! Stop pretending you don’t belong with them! You have to go back!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shut up. Acting like you know everything. Even if I could go back, how could I face them? How could I tell them that I’m so strong, so much stronger than them, and I can’t protect them?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How can I watch them die, now that I know what’ll happen to them after?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How can you say that? You’d watch them die a thousand times just to see them again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes. Maybe I would.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, before you can do that you’ll have to know how to get back, won’t you?

Who’s there!

Ryuko sprung to life. It had been so long since she’d heard a voice that wasn’t hers! And this voice was so familiar.

Senketsu?

Ryuko had briefly traveled through this universe where distances seemed to fold together, but only across the orbit of the Earth. She hadn’t seen something come towards her. It started as a mere pinprick, like any of the stars or hubs of the life-fiber network or eyes of The Thing Behind the Veil. Then, suddenly it was in two places at once – out there in vastness of space beyond the solar system and right beside her – before the pinprick was gone as though it had never been there. And drifting before her was another new being. As soon as she saw him, there could be no doubt.

It seems you’ve finally calmed down, Ryuko.

Senketsu! It is you!

He looked to be another species in the genus to which Ryuko and her children belonged, but he was the most unique one, just like Ryuko knew he would be. Radial wings far wider than hers, spanning the entire surface area of the planet, and the seemed more geometric, more ordered than Ryuko’s or the other Kamui. Actually, it almost seemed like there were two layers, an outer and an inner which were melded together on their fringes, and the inner layer had the very same pattern as Ryuko’s, like a fingerprint. Within that there was a core like the other Kamui, ordinal and crystalline. It called to Ryuko. But there was one odd component to it – a smaller, orbiting core that seemed to be lashed down and tied up by its own wings. It called into the void with a keening signal, but didn’t struggle or make any moves to escape.

None of that mattered though. Just as soon as he appeared, Ryuko felt something she barely remembered that she missed. Pure joy, relief after eons of loneliness, pounding excitement – but also nervousness (Is she really alright? What if she’s still spooked and won’t talk to me?) - radiated through the void and soaked into her. It was him. It really was.

If Ryuko couldn’t laughed, cried with joy, she would have. As it was, the impression of that feeling radiated back to him, and they shared the link that had been severed so long ago.  All was right now.  She didn't need to go home, she wasn't afraid anymore (well, a bit of her probably still was).  Home was here.

I knew you weren’t dead!

And I knew you would come find me one day. Senketsu’ s impression seemed smug . And exactly when I expected . You’ve had some trouble down there.

That’s right! She had. Oh Senketsu, it was awful! I’m so stupid, I walked right into their trap. They killed me, they killed the human me. And now Satsuki’s gonna die because I’m not there to protect her!

Ryuko, you aren’t going to let a little thing like that stop you, right? You’ve just been disconnected from that body, of course I’ll show you how to repair the connection.

You can do that?

Yes . But we have all the time in the world for that. I’ m not about to let you go so soon, I have so much I need to tell you.

Me to! I… I had all these plans of what I was going to tell you. But it all seems wrong now. After seeing thi s, I don’t know... How to explain feeling at once the deep despair, unbridled terror, absolute joy, utter nonchalance all at once.

Ryuko, I know that feeling well. I’m sorry I didn’t come to you sooner, but I thought it best that you experience it how I did. It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?

Yes! That’s what it is. How did you do it on your own? How didn’t you die, actually?

I think you already know the answer to that.

Ryuko did. Getting cut off from the world I knew isn’t the same as dying.

See? This might be strange to you now, but you’re beginning to understand.

No. No I’m not! Senketsu what is that then? What’s it doing to all the people its devouring ? What’s it got to do with the life-fibers?

Senketsu understood her to be indicating to The Thing Behind the Veil. I don’t know. There’s much I’m still learning to o . All I can tell you is that it seems to desperately need the memories of intelligent species to survive. I’ve traveled I don’t know how far, and when I found the end of it, there was just another one.

Wait, there are more ?!

These are the dominant forms of life in the universe, it would seem.

Pure rage from Ryuko. She couldn’t accept that!

No? You know the life-fibers are much more intelligent than humans, or us. And these things are greater still. Are you sure you can fathom why it is they harvest human memories? Perhaps this is the natural order of things.

He couldn’t be serious. Sure, that’s what she suspected, but did it matter? Just because they were the gods of this universe couldn’t make them any less evil. Senketsu didn’t believe that.

Good. You’re right, I don’t believe that. Truth be told, while I was on my travels I saw so many things that I thought it was only logical that the events on one little planet should n’t matter at all in the face of this. I thought maybe it was an error on my part, or I was still holding on, and maybe once you joined me I’d see that. But you’ve only confirmed what I already believed. It’s us against them.

It was obviously a hopeless battle. How could plankton destroy a whale? Ryuko said as much.

I thought so too. But you know something interesting? We’re the only ones of our kind, anywhere . At least as far as I could see. We might even be the first. We’re the only things that can absorb life-fibers, disconnect them from the system and make them part of ourselves.

Why? Why us?

Well, what are the life-fibers, to The Thing?

They’re its tools. No, no that’s not right. They’re its slaves . Ryuko realized.

So it seems. Life-fibers long to be part of a larger consciousness. You know that as well as I do. They are happy to accept absorption. But why couldn’t Junketsu absorb them, where we can?

You don’t think they’re trying to get away, do you?

I do. If there’s one thing I’ve seen it’s that all living things yearn for freedom. Not just from rulers amongst their own kind, but they sense that they’re snared on a deeper level. They feel deep down that some vast injustice has been done onto them.

Even humans? Ryuko thought a bit. Perhaps he was right. It seemed like everyone she’d ever met felt, on some level, like things weren’t how they were supposed to be. They all seemed to be saying “Something’s gone horribly wrong. I’m not supposed to feel so vulnerable, I’m not supposed to be lonely and scared knowing I’ll one day die.” They all felt to some extent or another the same way she had in her long months wandering alone. Some of them wore it on their sleeve, making others miserable with their self-entitlement, others coped with various vices, others sought to make the feeling go away through their religion or philosophies. The best of them, Ryuko liked to think this was her friends, resolved to go on despite it. The Human Condition, that’s what people with more book learning than her called it.

The Human Condition, yes. Senketsu affirmed. You know what I mean.

If we feel that way, you suppose the life-fibers do to?

They seem purpose built to manipulate humans, to get them to willingly slit their throats. But we’re living proof that that’s not all they can do. You see now, don’t you? What I’ve got to do.

We have to absorb them all. We have to starve The Thing Behind the Veil.

A feeling that could only be equated to chills from Senketsu. Precisely. Oh, I am so glad you understand, Ryuko. I was afraid you’d be upset with me.

Upset? Why?

That I didn’t come back before. I tried, but I was only able to stay long enough to give you back your scissors.

I knew I heard your voice! I was sure of it!

I told you you’d be fine on your own, and look at you. Look at what you’ve created. More of us. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Well, I’m not fine. I don’t feel whole without you.

… I know. Of course, he must feel the same way. Ryuko didn’t need to tell him about the hole in her mind that he left tearing his way out. Now, for the first time since, she didn’t feel it.

Then couldn’t you come back?

It’s not possible. Do you see the conflicting parts within me? Ryuko understood he meant the two parts to his wings. Suddenly it looked a lot more like a smaller creature living parasitically inside a larger than one unified organism. This is Shinra Koketsu and the primordial life-fiber, fused together .

You still have control over it?

Barely. If I linger to long with my focus on Earth I can’t control it. But eventually, eventually I’ll master it.

Shinra Koketsu has the power to seize control of life-fibers, doesn’t it? And with that -

I could seize control of the entire network on my own. I don’t know how long it will take. Maybe thousands of years. But it will be done. And that’s why you have to go back to Earth.

Ryuko understood. Earth was her break, her rest before the real war began.

I’m afraid so. But now that you’ve been here, now that you know the truth, nothing that threatens a human will ever trouble you again . Go, rid the Earth of these last threads hanging on it, make more Kamui – maybe even more beings like you. I’ll be here when you’re ready. This is the best course, I’ll be patient. Enjoy it.

That’s what we’re fighting for.

What we’ve always been fighting for, whether we realized it or not.

The impression of laughter from Ryuko. Remember when Aikuro and Tsumugu first explained what life-fibers really were? I was such a child back then. Imagine going back and telling me the truth then.

You reacted the only way you could.

Oh man, imagine their reactions when I get back. Now that Ryuko had resolved that she could go back, that she was going back now , she could see them more clearly. Oh man, Shiro’s gonna have a field day. He’d give anything to see what I’ve seen. It won’t be too late, will it? How long have you been here.

That’s up to you.

What?

You’ll see. Rest assured you will have plenty of time to make sure Satsuki’s safe.

Senketsu knew how much going back mattered to Ryuko. But he hoped she wouldn’t just yet.

Well, I don’t have to go back just yet, then. Right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~~~~

Ryuko told Senketsu everything that had happened in the time since he’d left Earth. Going to college. Finding her talent at fashion design. That time she’d nearly been assassinated in her bed. That time she and Aikuro and Tsumugu had gone fishing. But most importantly, her children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She didn’t know how long she spent there, trying to tell him every little thing. That didn’t scare her anymore. Eventually though she had to get to Satsuki and Rei.

They love you. That’s wonderful!

Huh? No, I thought you’d know it what to do! It’s not wonderful, really, not if they won’t put up with each other. Plus, Satsuki’s my sister.

Senketsu either didn’t understand the concept or didn’t see why it would be an issue.

That’s bad.

Oh. Ryuko got the impression of sheepishness from him. Well, I don’t really see how this is your fault then.

Nah, that’s just because I’m telling to you.

No, really! Y ou could not have even considered Satsuki as a real option when you started dating Rei.

Well that’s true…

But you do have to decide. I know you’ll choose Satsuki. It’s going to be hard ending things with Rei, but I know you’ll find a way.

What! No, that’s not right! It’s not all up to me. Ryuko was afraid that in her heart Senketsu was right.

But that feels unfair to Rei, doesn’t it?

If you were there, you’d know what to do.

Which we both know is impossible.

No, that’s not what I mean. You’re just better at this kind of thing.

What makes you think that? What do I know about it? I’ve spent longer here than I did as your Kamui. Humans are still strange to me.

… I see.

What did I say, Ryuko? Nothing that threatens a human will ever trouble you again. You’ll have to go down there and set this right. How can that be harder than saving the planet?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~~~~

At last, Ryuko was prepared to go. Well, almost. There was one more thing she’d needed to ask about. Ragyo.

What, you haven’t noticed? Senketsu asked when she explained the situation.

Huh?

Your stowaway.

She had noticed, but until she saw that Senketsu had one as well she hadn’t really seen it as anything separate from herself. Another core, smaller than her own, lashed down in orbit around it.

That? That’s Ragyo? She was so much smaller than Ryuko. That wasn’t right, Ragyo had been so powerful at her peak.

You’ve already taken the outlying components from her. All that’s left is the core that makes up her identity.

With joy, Ryuko realized that she wasn’t a threat at all. She wasn’t lurking, slowly taking over Ryuko like a wasp grub in a tarantula. No, Ragyo was her prisoner.

And yours, your stowaway. That’s…

… Nui. I was going to incorporate her like Shinra-Koketsu, but something stopped me. Call it morbid curiosity. I’ve been probing her memories from time to time. What I’ve found is… interesting.

Yet another thing Ryuko had no idea she could do. The idea of seeing Ragyo’s memories, maybe even communicating with her again. Intriguing. But far from the most mind blowing thing she’d heard today.

I’ll teach you how when you come back, how’s that?

Yeah. Except, I’ll be back long before I’m done on Earth. I’m gonna find a way to come back and visit without shooting my brain.

Joy from Senketsu. I should have expected nothing less. No doubt your scientifically inclined friends will insist you return for more data anyway.

You say you don’t know humans, but you’re right. I couldn’t refuse them that.

Well, until then.

Returning turned out to be just as easy as Senketsu promised. There was her human body, there were the snapped threads that melded them together. It took a few tries but Ryuko patiently connected herself. With each thread reconnected, she could feel her thoughts focus, feel the awareness of the vast, multidimensional cosmos thinning, compressing.

She felt squeezed, like she was pushing herself through a toothpaste tube. Her thoughts compressed until every splintered train of thought was focused only on the process and she could envision them all parallel to each other. She was sinking into a reality where everything was flat, crisp, solid. It was getting hard to feel the final threads when unfamiliar sensations overwhelmed her.

~~~~

March 2066

~~~~

Air in her lungs. The dull thud of her own heartbeat. The odd wet feeling of her eyes blinking. She could just barely see herself through the nearest of her true body’s eyes. Or maybe she was just tricking herself into thinking she could. It was like reaching out for something that wasn’t there. Suddenly even that didn’t make sense anymore. It felt like it was all a horrible dream, but every detail was with her now.

She tried to turn herself around, to see if she could spot those other eyes through which she watched herself. She could! She could turn, she could stand, she could raise her hands!

She was back. Back on those clammy stairs with the dingy lights and the water staining through the lining.

“Haha. Hahahaha! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I’m back!” She shouted hysterically.

Hold up, on the stairs? That ain’t right. Wasn’t I in the sealed off area?

What. Ryuko was so alive, so focused, she barely spared a thought for the experience she’d just had. It was in the back of her mind, and would never leave, but what did that matter? This was what it meant to be in the moment, to make the most of her time on Earth. She loved the simplicity of it.

And now the only thing that mattered was figuring out how she’d gotten on the stairs. She whipped out her phone. 2:36 in the afternoon. The exact time she’d tried to contact Izanami to get her to open that security door.

Ryuko peered out to get a look at the door. There was no hole in it. She hadn’t cut the whole in it yet.

“Oh shit,” Ryuko said to herself, relishing the sound of her own voice and the feeling of articulating with her tongue “On top of everything else."

She’d just gone back in time.