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Where Loyalties Lie

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Vision tends to take the longest to return whenever Yachiyo wakes up. Instead, it's her sense of touch that first recovers. Because her body demands satiation, she snuggles deeper into the warmth of her covers, sinking into the soft comfort below her.

Then comes her sense of smell. Yachiyo takes a deep inhale, expecting her usual scent of lavender mixed with her sheets. Instead, she's overwhelmed by a familiar musky scent that barely masks a light scent of jasmine.

Yachiyo's eyes snap open. She tries to push herself up, but only gets up about halfway before a jolt of pain stabs through her stomach and stops her from going further. She bites her lip, dropping back down and burying her face into her makeshift bed.

The bed that's apparently Mei Fan herself, the pillows actually being her chest. As the pain in Yachiyo's stomach ebbs away, she realizes that she wouldn't have been able to get far from Mei Fan anyway–not with Mei Fan's arms wrapped around her.

Calming down, Yachiyo turns her head so that her ear is pressed against Mei Fan's chest. The steady beat of her heart brings another sigh from her, dismissing the rest of her nerves. She shifts a bit, focusing on Mei Fan's soft breathing; though Yachiyo would actually call it snoring. Despite Yachiyo's movements, Mei Fan only purses her lips and frowns, staying asleep.

Yachiyo keeps her face pressed against Mei Fan as she surveys the room they're in. White, sterile, sparsely furnished, and boring–so the medical wards. She vaguely remembers a blurry figure of Akira's back towering over her, Shiori's gentle voice but painful touch, and Michiru yelling incoherently at Akira while tending to Mei Fan.

So the others brought Mei Fan and I back for treatment. Yachiyo closes her eyes and sighs into Mei Fan's chest. So we're both alive.

The door to the room opens, then clicks back shut. Yachiyo senses only a single figure, but her presence is enough to take up the entire room.

"I know you're awake, Yachiyo. Your aura is fluctuating."

Yachiyo sighs, opening her eyes. "That would be a dead giveaway. Especially since you're so good at reading auras, Akira-senpai."

"You haven't mastered yours enough to mimic slumber."

Yachiyo hums in thought. "Maybe I should ask Yuyuko-san for some pointers." Though that might just be a quirk of hers that's tied to her abilities, it doesn't hurt to try.

"Your brothers have been taken into custody, as with the current head of the Tsuruhime household," Akira continues, ignoring Yachiyo's last comment. "Though referring to Tsuruhime Hiroto as the head of the Tsuruhimes will be erroneous come a few days."

Yachiyo isn't surprised about her father. No matter how good of a schemer he can be, it wouldn't take long for someone like Akira to find the flaws in his plan; especially if she has Michiru to gather intel for her.

"I guess there was just too much evidence against him that he couldn't hide. The other two are too–" Yachiyo blinked. "Wait, Okuhiro is alive?"

Akira's frown deepens. "He's alive, if we follow the strictest definition of the term. He is no longer classified as a human, but he breathes."

"It sounds like I don't want to know what he did to himself."

"Rather cold for a family member."

Yachiyo stops herself from chuckling at the irony of being called cold by Akira, whose epithet as the Ice Queen has become her second name. Instead, she just shrugs and replies, "Hard to sympathize when said family members nearly killed me and Mei Fan. The hole in my body won't let me forget it, even if I wanted to."

Akira nods. "It was a severe injury. What are your pain levels?"

Yachiyo groans, snuggling into Mei Fan. The pressure pulls a groan from Mei Fan as well, who tightens her arms around Yachiyo. Yachiyo bites back a wince when Mei Fan's grip presses against her wound. At least she can nestle into Mei Fan's comfortable body to mitigate the pain.

"It's not pleasant, but not the worst." Yachiyo flashes Akira a smirk. "Would you be willing to give me a massage to help the ache, Akira-senpai?"

"Make Mei Fan do it when she wakes up," Akira responds without missing a beat. "Though the doctor will probably suggest against it. Any unwanted pressure will most likely only cause more pain, no matter how deftly Mei Fan's fingers work."

"You really just said all that with a serious face. As expected of our Frau Platin."

"Considering you're well enough to banter, I estimate you'll be discharged within a week. You'll need to continue recuperating for another month or so. Michiru has already planned for your leave of absence."

Yachiyo looks back at Mei Fan, focusing on the creases in her sleeping face. "What about Mei Fan?"

"She's been fit to discharge for three days already. Her injuries were also severe, but she heals faster than you due to her own superior physical abilities."

"I'm fit enough. Mei Fan just loves training–almost as much as you do, Akira-senpai."

Once again, Akira ignores her remark. "She insisted on staying by your side instead of recuperating in her personal quarters. Her reasoning was, 'Cuddling helps increase the healing process tenfold! So to help myself and Yachiyo heal, I'll keep her company with my body until she gets better!' And then inserted herself into your hospital bed."

Yachiyo bites her lip to stop herself from laughing. No need to disturb the person in question. "Akira-senpai, that was the worst Mei Fan impression I've ever seen."

"And this is why I am a Hunter, not an actress." Akira crosses her arms over her chest. "I leave the reconnaissance to you and Michiru for a reason. Though that will have to change until you recover."

"Oh? Is our Frau Platin going to step back from the frontlines and infiltrate the enemy with her feminine wiles?~"

Akira once more answers without missing a beat, "I could, but I have other matters to attend to. As of now, I'm leaving your duties to Shiori."

"Aw, I wish I could see Shiori charm a few unsuspecting rich men for myself."

"Recover, and you'll have all the chances you want." Akira turns to leave, but stops at the door. "Tsuruhime Hiroto's trial is still ongoing. He will most certainly be stripped of his rank, but now comes the matter of who will be his successor. He had declared both his sons as his immediate heirs. However…"

"They're both incriminated too, so it's not like they can take his place." Yachiyo shrugged. "Then it'll have to come down to something he's never wanted–leaving the family to my mother, a woman."

Akira hums in thought. "Perhaps. You may be right. Though I don't see it going in that direction either."

Yachiyo frowns, unable to follow Akira's train of thought. Before she could ask, Akira stepped out of the room and left Yachiyo alone with the still-slumbering Mei Fan.

Well, I can think about that later. Yachiyo sinks into Mei Fan's warmth, closing her eyes and letting Mei Fan's quiet snores lull her back to sleep.

The next time Yachiyo wakes up gives her no time for her senses to slowly come back. Instead, she's yanked back into consciousness thanks to an agonizing stab of pain coming from her stomach.

Something is pressing against the wound–soft, warm, but unwanted. Yachiyo tries to pry it away from her, but her hands are held in a vice-like grip. She has no strength to thrash around in protest, so she bites her lip to hold back the cries that want to spill from her mouth.

After some time, the pressure on her stomach fades, taking the pain with it and leaving only a numbing tingly warmth. As the pain abates, Yachiyo starts recognizing the familiar voices speaking rapidly around her.

"There. There. It's all done." A deep sigh. "I'm so sorry, Yachiyo-senpai."

"She didn't wake up the last few times you healed her," she hears Mei Fan mention, her tone worried.

"I think her body was too exhausted to react. But I heard from Yukishiro-senpai that she woke up a few hours ago. She said Yachiyo-senpai even had enough strength to hold an entire conversation with her."

"So Yachiyo's recuperation rate has been going up exponentially. It must be from your healing, Shiori."

"Eh? No no, it can't all be me! It has to be Yachiyo-senpai's own capabilities too!"

"Yachiyo's body isn't amazing enough to heal that fast on her own."

And this is where she'd better interject. "Excuse me." Yachiyo groans, clenching her eyes tightly shut. "My body is very amazing. Unless you don't want any more cuddles."



Ow. Talking hurts. Listening also hurts. She really wished she had Mei Fan's physical stamina now. How does she put up with so much pain and heal so fast at the same time? It's not fair that I have to be the only normal one in our group.

Well, not really. But Yachiyo isn't going to linger on those details. They are all superhuman in their own way.

"Yes yes, I'm awake. Not by choice though."

As if realizing loud sounds aren't good for her, Shiori lowers her voice to say, "I'm sorry, Yachiyo-senpai. I didn't realize the healing would interrupt your rest like that."

Yachiyo manages to peel her eyes open to catch Shiori's gaze. Her teal eyes are as sharp as ever, even accosted by the dark bags below them. When Shiori sighs in relief at Yachiyo's open eyes, it feels like a heavy force lifts from her shoulders.

When was the last time Shiori got a proper night's rest? Yachiyo couldn't help but wonder.

For extra comfort, she flashes Shiori a lazy smile. "That's fine. You're the reason why I'm no longer going to have a hole in my body. How can I be mad at that?"

Shiori smiled in relief, her shoulders slumping further in relaxation. "That's good. I've never healed a wound this severe before. I didn't want to make a mistake while repairing your body."

Yachiyo lightly pats the injured area. Any pressure more than a feather's weight feels uncomfortable for her, but it's definitely clear that the wound is closed. "I'd say you did a fantastic job. You're improving so quickly it's almost a little scary. At this rate I have to wonder if you can revive people from the dead."

Shioiri shakes her head vehemently. "N- That's– That's impossible! My abilities can't do that! I can only heal wounds, not perform necromancy!"

Yachiyo shrugs. "Who knows? You know how flexible our powers can be."

"Ah…" Shiori's eyes shift from Yachiyo to, no doubt, Mei Fan. "Um…"

The arms wrapped around her tighten. Yachiyo only needed to feel Mei Fan's wavering aura to know that she's probably holding herself back from trembling right now.

Yachiyo sighs. "Shiori, do you mind getting us something to eat? They probably only have something unpleasant for my mushy stomach, but anything is fine."

"Oh, um, sure!" Shiori shoots up from her seat so fast that she nearly topples it over. "I'll be right back. Mei Fan-senpai, do you want anything in particular?"

The other girl doesn't reply. When the silence drags on, Yachiyo pulls her elbow back to nudge her. "Mei Fan…"

That manages to snap her out of her stupor. Her frown lessens a bit, loosening to a sheepish smile. "Sorry, Shiori. I'm not really hungry right now actually."

Shiori blinks, at a loss for a moment. She quickly recovers, smiling kindly. "Oh, well, I'll see if the cafeteria has anything I can bring back for later. I'll go see what they have now."

Shiori pushes the chair she had been sitting in to the side, then exits the room. As soon as the door clicks shut, the silence returns with more weight than before. It's alarming considering, as far as Yachiyo knows, Mei Fan isn't someone associated with quiet for long.

When the pressure of the silence drags on, Yachiyo sighs and bites the bullet first. "So~ What's got you so upset that you'd frown at Shiori of all people?"

She doesn't get a reply. Yachiyo lets herself relax, pressing a bit more of her weight back into Mei Fan. That seems to do the trick–Mei Fan's tight hold on her loosens up as well.

"I almost lost you." A pause. "I don't like that."

Yachiyo shifts herself so that her head can rest in the crook of Mei Fan's neck. "I always wondered why everyone makes such a fuss about losing someone they cared about. All the crying and screaming–it all seemed like such an unrealistic exaggeration."

Yachiyo closes her eyes, drawing from the physical pain of being stabbed so she doesn't drown in the emotional pain of watching Mei Fan–

"Until I did it myself, I guess."

"I wasn't going to run."

"In hindsight, I should have known you wouldn't."

"Then you shouldn't have told me to leave you behind."

Yachiyo opened her eyes. Her gaze found Mei Fan's, or rather would have if Mei Fan wasn't staring straight ahead and not looking at her at all.

"Is that why you're sulking?" Yachiyo asked. She can't help the small amount of mischief that pulls up the corners of her lips.

Mei Fan's jaw clenches. "You made a bad joke."

"I wasn't joking." She says it, knowing full well that it's the wrong thing to say even before Mei Fan's aura explodes.

"Then you're not allowed to say that!" Mei Fan closes her eyes. She tilts her head so that the side of it rests against Yachiyo's. "I really won't forgive you."

Yachiyo giggles, pushing back against Mei Fan's head. "Your cute pout isn't really convincing me."

"I mean it."

Yachiyo takes a second to exhale, closing her eyes too and dropping her teasing. "I know. Will you forgive me if I say sorry?"

"Only if you promise not to tell me to leave you behind again."

"Sure," she answers a little too quickly.


One of her hands finds Mei Fan's, resting on her lower abdomen to avoid her wound. "I don't want to lose you either. So if it means keeping you alive, I'll say it as many times as I need to."

"Then I'll just ignore you."

"Seriously? You're so stubborn." Yachiyo chuckled wryly. "You're really trying to make me work harder than I'm used to."

"You don't get to die to save me."

"That's what I want to say." Yachiyo turned her face toward Mei Fan's neck, sighing into her skin. She briefly relished in how Mei Fan trembles under her breath. "You keep stealing the last word from me. Maybe I should return the favor."

"Yachiyo… we're in the infirmary," Mei Fan protests, but doesn't move away from Yachiyo. "And you need to rest. Anything you do will aggravate your injury. That goes for anything do to you too."

"More bedrest doesn't sound too bad."

"It is if you're making Shiori do more work than she needs to."

Yachiyo hummed thoughtfully. "I guess you're right. I'd love to see her substituting for me, and seeing her more while I'm in bed is always a plus. But the poor girl looks like she hasn't slept well in days."

"A week, actually."

Well, that explains the fatigue and the bags under Shiori's eyes. It also puts Mei Fan's anxiety in perspective. Seeing Akira so normal despite her busy schedule must have messed with her sense of time.

"Is that how long I've been out?" Yachiyo wonders. "No wonder I've gotten used to you as my bed."

Mei Fan moves her other hand so that it rests on Yachiyo's hand–the one already resting on one of Mei Fan's hands. "I won't let you go. No matter what you say, I won't leave you."

"Even if I order you? I thought you were a good, obedient Hunter?"

"I'll just ignore you. No orders are more important than keeping you safe."

Yachiyo's chest swells. She wants to retort, but realizes that she can't find the words. All she can do is rest against Mei Fan, accepting her defeat. "Well, I can at least say I tried."

It just means she has to make sure such a situation never happens again. She'll just have to keep Mei Fan–and herself–away from dangers that could take them both from each other. She's sure Mei Fan has the same thinking.

Strength has never been something Yachiyo has ever actively sought for except for her own amusement. Now, she has someone else she can use it for. She isn't sure what to make of this revelation.

Her thoughts are interrupted by a knock on the door.

Mei Fan tilts her head to the door. "Oh, that must be Shiori. Come i–!"

The door swings open. When Yachiyo sees that the woman who enters isn't Shiori, Yachiyo's blood runs cold.

Mei Fan frowns. "May I help you?"

The tall woman ignores her question, stroding to their bed and towering over both Yachiyo and Mei Fan. She had long, pink hair styled into a thick braid draped over her right shoulder. Her hard emerald green eyes glared down at them. Her gaze glanced at Mei Fan for a moment before drilling into Yachiyo. Her intense gaze was coupled with an extravagant outfit: a black yukata patterned with blood red roses, tied with a large gold bow. The heavy clothing, along with her wooden geta, stood out in the simplistic medical bay they were in.

Yachiyo's hand, still resting on Mei Fan's, tensed in her hold. "Mother."

Mei Fan looked down at her in surprise. "'Mother?' As in Tsuruhime Chitose, the wife of the current head of the Tsuruhime household?"

"Soon to be the widow of a disgraced fool," the woman said without turning to Mei Fan. "A shame that stupidity runs in the family. Wouldn't you say, Yachiyo?"

"I'm alive though. I think I should get some points for surviving."

"Only because Hiroto and his sons didn't have enough intelligence to form a proper plan." Her mother turned her head away to scoff. "Honestly, if they were going to plan a coup d'etat, they should have done a better job. There's no point to cheating if one gets caught."

Yachiyo raises an eyebrow. "So… I take it you had no idea about any of this? And that you don't want anything to do with 'gaining the right to throne' like Father wanted?"

"Don't put words where they don't belong. What do you think you're here for?"

Yachiyo freezes. Her stomach clenches against the sudden ache. Her free hand absentmindedly reaches under her covers to rest against the injury.

"You…" Mei Fan sucks in a breath. "Did you goad your own family to do this?!"

Chitose raises an amused eyebrow. "Oh? You catch on much faster than I thought you would. It seems Yukishiro Akira's division truly isn't a band of battle-hungry morons like Tendou's group is."

"You're not denying it," Mei Fan points out. Her hand clenches around Yachiyo's, and she has to squeeze her hand back to keep her grounded.

"I am not."

"But that's not all you mean," Yachiyo interjects. As her heart rate speeds up, Yachiyo has to keep her expression as calm as possible to hide her rising apprehension. "When you said 'here' you didn't just mean here right now in the infirmary. You mean in Akira-senpai's division, as a Hunter. There's a reason you agreed to push me away from life as just a noblewoman."

Her mother blinks, face expressionless for a moment before a wide grin splits across her face. "You've grown. I knew it was best to invest in you rather than those two buffoons."

Mei Fan glances from Yachiyo to her mother. "What is she talking about, Yachiyo?"

"There's only two ways to take anything from someone," Yachiyo replies, "stealing, brute force, or careful persuasion. The nature of the candidacy means stealing is impossible. Then, you determined that taking it from Akira-senpai, the current representative for the House of Yukishiro, would be impossible because of the family's history of absurdly strong fighters. So you planted a seed for the last option instead."

"And you've done well, far exceeding my expectations." Chitose walked past the bed, stopping by the window. 'I had honestly expected you to be nothing more than just a pawn for Yukishiro Akira. But judging from her excessive handling of Ichiro and Okuhiro, it seems the Ice Queen does in fact care for your well-being."

"Don't speak ill of Akira-san like that. Of course she cares about her comrades, just like any proper leader would," Mei Fan said, lowering her voice to a level of calmness that Yachiyo had never heard before. But her stable voice isn't enough to hide her shaking hands and her flickering aura, dancing in anger.

Her mother only raises any eyebrow at their intertwined hands. "Don't be mistaken, girl. Kindness is not common for the Yukishiro. I can speak from personal experience that that has been true in the past–for the father of your Frau Platin, and for his mother before him. They are not known for their explosive rage. Though I suppose that might be difficult for you to understand, given your aura's affinity."

"Being a pawn doesn't sound all that fun to me," Yachiyo quickly interjects before Mei Fan can retort. "Akira-senpai isn't too stingy with the freedom that comes with being a Hunter; with the exception of the occasional mission or two. Not that that can be avoided. On the other hand, now it's clear that it's not only Father who wanted to use me to steal a candidacy spot. Between the two, it's pretty easy to choose where my allegiance should align." Yachiyo shrugged. "And if you want to use your powers as the newly appointed family head to order me around, then I'll just–as Mei Fan just told me–ignore your orders."

"Order you? Ah, I see you still have much to learn." Her mother shakes her head. "After all this time of biding my time, do you really think I'd take the direct route to get what I want? Brute force will clearly never work–either on your leader or on you. This is by no means the path I expected we'd take, but there is no changing the course that Hiroto's stupidity has turned us toward."

"I won't let you hurt Yachiyo," Mei Fan declares with so much confidence that Yachiyo's heart skips a beat. "If not me, then none of the Edels either. Most certainly not Akira-san too."

"Hurt her?" Chitose shakes her head with a rueful smile. "Silly girl, I am not Hiroto. I will not hurt my daughter. In fact, my only intention for this visit was to provide a gift to her."

Her mother reaches into her yukata and pulls out a scroll. She passes it to Yachiyo, who takes it and unravels the parchment slowly. From a quick glance, Yachiyo recognizes it as a draft of a contract. Reading through it more carefully…

"You're planning to abdicate and pass the title of the next head to me?" Yachiyo looked up, staring at her mother incredulously. "This is the opposite of trapping me to do what you want. You're practically giving me all the power to deny anything you say."

"As I said, brute force has never been my intention. In fact, the candidacy was never for my own selfish gain. It has always been for this family." Her mother holds out her hand, wordlessly asking for the scroll back. Once it's tucked back into her yukata, she continues, "The Tsuruhime have begun to fall into ruin. I could lead it for a few years, yes. Or I can leave this dying family in your hands, having you spend the rest of your life rebuilding this family that Hiroto destroyed until the day you die. Or…"

"Until I move on to a higher position, like becoming King," Yachiyo finishes. "So it's either I'm locked in a job I don't want and drown in the responsibilities as the new head. Or I take the candidacy from an existing candidate, the most obvious being Akira-senpai, and get locked in a job I don't want. Regardless of what I choose, you get to sit back and laugh at my misery without lifting a single finger."

"That's… That's horrible!" Mei Fan protests. "You can't just force Yachiyo to do something she doesn't want to!"

Yachiyo sighs. "It's not so much forcing as it is using common sense to her advantage. Most likely, Akira-senpai and the other heads are discussing what to do with our family right now, and that draft has been passed to them for approval. Mother's old, so the others will most likely agree to this proposal even if Akira-senpai wants to object to it. Either way, she's passing the title to me."

Akira-senpai must have known when she visited me. So she already knew that…

Yachiyo shrugged. "I'm basically screwed."

"No way…"

Chitose turns to leave. Mei Fan prepares to rise, but Yachiyo keeps her hold on Mei Fan's hand to stop her. When Mei Fan looks back at her in confusion, Yachiyo keeps her gaze on her mother and doesn't answer.

"Mother," Yachiyo calls out one last time. "Did you ever love us?"

Chitose stops at the door and glances back with a raised eyebrow. "Of course I do. Everything I do is for the family."

"Okay, let me rephrase that." Yachiyo kills all expressions from her face, asking plainly, "Did you ever love them? Father, Ichiro, Okuhiro?"

Chitose doesn't answer, nor does she move. It's only when she reaches out for the door does she finally reply, "Killing you has never been part of the plan. A foolish mistake on their part. But I suppose it was my fault for believing they'd be useful tools."

And then her mother exits the room, taking her stifling presence–not aura–and leaving them in silence.

"Yachiyo, are you okay?" Mei Fan asks.

Was she okay? She probably shouldn't be. However, she feels strangely calm. She had thought being closed in from all sides and having her freedom taken from her would have been more terrifying. Then again, it might have been if Yachiyo hadn't arrived at the path she needed to take the moment her mother denied loving the rest of her family.

"Yep, perfectly peachy."

"Liar. You're shaking."

Oh, so she wasn't as entirely calm as she thought. She hadn't even noticed thanks to Mei Fan's comfort. It was easy to think with such a kind warmth surrounding her.

Mei Fan interrupts her thoughts. "Yachiyo, what are you going to do?"

"Hm? Well, asking someone who's barely in her twenties to think about the next fifty years of her life is a bit rude, but that's expected from someone like Mother. And if she wants me to play her game, I guess I just have to indulge her. Ahh, being the favorite can be such a hassle."

"But why?!" Mei Fan shakes her head. "There's always a different way. You can… You can run away! Run away with me!"

Yachiyo giggles. "Hearing you of all people suggest that just doesn't sound right. Wouldn't you say so too?"


Mei Fan's lips pulled down into a pout. It's so adorable that Yachiyo can't stop herself from shifting around to peck the corner of Mei Fan's lips.

"Would Liu Mei Fan really run away from a fight? Our esteemed Frau Rubin, so strong and capable that she's even earned the approval of our very own Yukishiro Akira?" Yachiyo pulls back with a smirk, challenging Mei Fan to refute her.

"Stop teasing, Yachiyo," Mei Fan grumbles. "No, I wouldn't. But you would. That's how you've always fought and won your battles. That's what Akira-san has praised you for."

Yachiyo hums, deciding to indulge Mei Fan just a bit. "Hm, you're right about that. I'd much rather run away with my tail between my legs if it means I can keep my life. Dying really isn't all that pleasant. Or even coming near death, for that matter."

Mei Fan turns Yachiyo over, then presses Yachiyo into her embrace. "So why not now?"

Yachiyo sighs into Mei Fan's shoulder. "Well, that only applies if I've determined that it's a battle I can't win. If I plan things out right, that might not be the case."

"You're not sure though. You always think your plans through."

Yachiyo shrugs. "I'm a flexible girl. Not as flexible as you in bed–"


Mei Fan's chest rumbles with her warning. Yachiyo is half tempted to let the gentle vibration lull her to sleep, but she's aware that Mei Fan's worrying would just keep her awake anyway.

I guess I'll need to reassure Mei Fan first. Yachiyo chuckles to herself. She's just too sweet.

"It's not so much that I think it's impossible to get what I want. It'll be hard this time, but I think I'll be able to adapt whenever I need to. Besides, I'll be relying on you to move forward from here."

Mei Fan frowned in confusion. "Me? What do I need to do?"

"Oh, nothing too different from usual. Helping me with the paperwork, going on missions with me–"

"That doesn't sound like anything you need to tell me to do."

"–stay your current innocent self so I can keep teasing you, keeping me warm, sharing my bed–

"Yachiyo, I think we should really stop that or Shiori is going to keep asking me que– Hey!"

"–and helping me get Akira-senpai onto the throne."

Mei Fan tenses. Her grip around Yachiyo tightens almost painfully; it doesn't help that her injury is still more tender than she likes it to be.

"Then… you're not going to steal the candidacy? What about your mother?"

"Hmm." Yachiyo snuggles into Mei Fan, hoping her touch can assuage some of Mei Fan's worries–at least enough to loosen her grip. "She can keep thinking I'll play her good little puppet. While she's preoccupied with her own misconceptions, I'll be playing my own part to turn things around."

It seems to have worked to an extent, as Mei Fan's arms stop pressing against her too painfully. "It sounds like you're just trading one confinement for another. But…" Mei Fan looks down at her with a deeper frown. "You are planning something."

"I don't want the throne, but I also don't want to drown in the problems and responsibilities of my deteriorating family. The easiest way out of my family's business is to either run away–"

"Which you refuse to do so, for some reason."

"–or have someone else solve them for me. The King can do that pretty easily, and Akira-senpai's already so good at being a workaholic. It's the perfect solution."

Mei Fan blinks as realization slowly dawns on her. "So… you'll help Akira-san win the candidacy. Then once she becomes King, you'll have her exercise her powers to lessen the burdens on your family?"

Yachiyo winks. "I'll use my feminine wiles on Akira-senpai if I have to."

"Do you really have to?!"

"Aw, are you jealous?" Yachiyo leans down and runs her lips across Mei Fan's neck, making sure her breath ghosts across the surface of her skin.

And just as she wants, Mei Fan shivers under her touch. "Yachiyo…" Mei Fan sucks in a deep breath, "this is serious! This is a long commitment you're gambling with. You're planning to survive as your family's head for at least another five years. You're barely in your twenties!"

Yachiyo's smirk drops. She pulls back enough that she isn't breathing on Mei Fan directly. "Akira-senpai and Maya-san have been doing it already."

"The House of Tendou and the House of Yukishiro are doing fine though," Mei Fan remarks. "They also still have their parents to guide them."

"Ah, you're right about that. Their family situation isn't a disaster like mine is." Yachiyo pauses for a moment, feigning consideration, then just shrugs. "Oh well. I'll handle it. Besides, as the head of my family, I can finally try that one idea we had a while ago–"

"Are you really thinking about power dynamics in bed?"

"Well, not right now–"

Mei Fan pushes Yachiyo down into her so that her neck muffles anything Yachiyo would have wanted to speak into existence. Yachiyo giggles into Mei Fan, her smile widening when she feels Mei Fan's heart skip a beat.

Mei Fan huffs. "Fine. Since you apparently have a plan for all this already, you can think about the rest later. Your job right now is to rest up. Akira-san won't be happy if you're out of commission for long."

Yachiyo manages to tilt her head up from Mei Fan's neck to remark, "I'm sure it's upsetting you too, since–"

"For the last time, no thinking about the unspeakables in the infirmary!"

"I was going to say because you have to stay with me the entire time, but that too."

"I don't mind. I want to be around you whenever I can."

They fall into a comfortable silence. Just as Yachiyo decides to stop herself from fighting the heaviness in her eyes, Mei Fan suddenly runs her hand through Yachiyo's hair.


Yachiyo closes her eyes, enjoying Mei Fan's tender touch. "Hm?"

"I'm still mad at you for telling me to leave you behind."

Yachiyo sighs. "I should have known you wouldn't listen to me. Running away isn't in your dictionary."

"I would have done so in a heartbeat if I could take you with me."

Yachiyo presses a lazy grin against Mei Fan's side. "I sense a 'but' in there."

Mei Fan tilts her head, rubbing her cheek against the top of Yachiyo's head. "Regardless if I stay and fight or run away with you, I'll stay by your side forever. Even if no one else will, and even if you tell me not to."

Yachiyo's cheeks flush with renewed warmth. Mei Fan's candidness is no surprise, but hearing it anyway still makes her heart skip a beat. "O-Oh."

"So if you have an idea, I'll do what I can to help." Mei Fan huffs, puffing her chest up as much as she can with Yachiyo on her. "Use me however you like."

Oh, now Mei Fan is making it too easy for her. "So that means–"

Mei Fan groans without missing a beat, "Yes! I'll even continue lying to Shiori about what we do at night!"

Yachiyo laughs, honest and true. She continues even as Mei Fan scolds her to watch her injury.

Mm, I think I'll be fine. Yachiyo snuggles into Mei Fan, wrapping her arms around her. With Mei Fan and the others, I'll play the part want, and not what anyone else thinks I should be.


Shiori thanks the cafeteria worker as she passes her a tray of food–a bowl of lightly salted porridge, mashed fruits, and a glass of water mixed with laxatives. It's by no means a five star meal, but it'll have to do for someone who's intestines are barely intact.

As she turns to leave, a familiar shocked face stares back at her. Her long black hair was disheveled and her eyes bloodshot and too dim for Shiori's liking–almost as if she had lost some kind of purpose in life. Shiori hardly recognized the older woman before her.

"Tomoe-san?" Shiori asks with gaping eyes.

"Shiori...san." Tamao slowly says her name, as if testing her own memory. Her dead eyes finally spark to life. "You're… Shiori-san!"

Shiori frowns. "Um, yes? Is there something you need?" Why are you in the infirmary? Why do you look like… this?

Suddenly, Tamao bows so low that the crown of her head would have touched the ground if she was shorter. "Please, I have a favor to ask of you."

Shiori took an instinctive step back, unused to someone older than her showing her such deference. What–?

"I understand asking for your help is unfavorable, due to the conflict between myself and Yukishiro-san. However…"

Tamao's voice trembles. Shiori's body runs cold at the unfamiliar weakness shown before her. For someone who is supposed to be a rival of her leader, her Frau Platin, to look so broken…

"What…" Shiori says slowly. "What do you need?"

Tamao slowly raises herself, biting her lip as her shaking lessens. "Rui-chan and Ichie. The medics are doing everything they can, but they're in critical condition right now. With your powers…"

Shiori nods. "I'll save them. I'll make sure their injuries don't worsen while the doctors operate on them."

Tamao releases a heavy exhale, her shoulders slumping tremendously. "Thank you. Yuyuko-chan may need your assistance too, but her powers allow her to heal on her own as long as she remains asleep. I think she'll be alright for now."

Shiori nods again. "I understand. Can you please lead the way?"

Tamao takes Shiori through the infirmary, far away from Yachiyo and Mei Fan's room, toward another end of the building. After some time, Tamao finally stops at one of the doors and knocks a few times before opening the door.

Shiori squints her eyes at the dim room. The only lighting comes from the operating lights, which blinds Shiori for a moment. As her vision remains hazy, she hears one of the doctors yell, "Hey, you can't be in–! Oh, Tomoe-san. Who do you have with you?"

"Yumeoji Shiori-san," she hears Tamao answer with a strong voice. Or rather, as much as she can as she's recovering from… something. "She'll be assisting with the operation."

"From Yukishiro Akira's division? Ah, right. A few of her members had been injured a week ago and they've been here since. What perfect timing. Yes, her abilities will greatly increase their chances of survival."

"You really are rather lucky, Tomoe-san," another doctor says. "Not only to be the only one to return unscathed, but for all four of you to return alive. Not after–"

"Please," Tamao cuts in, a tremble back in her voice, "we can discuss that… after."

Four? That would be Otonashi-san, Akikaze-san, and Tanaka-san, as Tomoe-san has previously mentioned, and Tomoe-san herself. Then, where's…?

Shiori turns to Tamao. "What about Onee-chan?"

With her vision finally recovered, Shiori can clearly see how ashen Tamao's face has become. Her eyes glance down, unable to meet Shiori's gaze. But Shiori can still see Tamao's own eyes, flickering with hesitation and…

"Fumi is…" Tamao's trembling increases, her fists shaking with barely contained… something. "Fumi…"

Shiori's stomach drops. The same sense of dread that plagues Tamao's expression now infects her own.

Shiori barely manages to swallow the lump in her throat to ask, "Tomoe-san, where is Onee-chan?"