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Life So Dear
By Richard Lawson

 









Life So Dear



By Richard Lawson



~*~



Amano was of average height and average build. He appeared to be

somewhere in his thirties. His hair was short and neat, his

off-the-rack suit of a conservative cut. The best word to

describe him was "nondescript". It was an image he had worked

hard to cultivate.



If there was anything remarkable about him, it was his eyes.

They never appeared to be in focus, and were slow to move from

point to point. But very little got by those eyes.



Right now the eyes were focused on the back of a chair. The

chair was behind a large, well-polished desk. Amano admired the

desk very much. He was certain that he had the talent to

eventually sit behind one. It would take years, perhaps decades,

before he would. But he could wait. Amano was a patient, loyal

man. He'd seen what had happened to those who weren't.



Finally a voice floated from the chair. "You are certain?"



An almost-insulting question; Amano had a well-deserved

reputation for accuracy, and for not making assumptions. Still,

given the circumstances, Amano could understand the disbelief.

"Yes. Absolutely certain."



"Most interesting. Your recommendation?"



There was no hesitation in Amano's voice. "Too dangerous."



Another long silence. Then a hand waved negligently.



Amano bowed deeply, then turned and left.



He was met outside by his associate. The man was tall, slim,

with long hair that flowed down his back. The trenchcoat he

always wore was almost stereotypical, but Amano respected what

was hidden beneath that coat. They had worked together for

years, and Amano still didn't know his name.



The tall man raised an eyebrow. Amano nodded. The tall man

smiled widely. "This I am looking forward to."



Amano walked down the corridor. The tall man stalked slightly

behind him. Amano allowed a tinge of doubt into his voice. "Are

you up to this? This one will be a challenge unlike any you've

ever met."



"Challenge?" The tall man's voice was a sneer. "He's just a

boy."



This didn't sound good. The last thing Amano needed was

succumbing to overconfidence. Too many others had already made

that same mistake. "He is more than just a boy," he said

blandly.



The tall man waited a moment to respond. "You are right. He

might have been a challenge when his talents were hidden. But he

was foolish, and overused them. Now we know his weapons. As

long as we are careful, he will be overcome."



"Good." Amano nodded, satisfied. "We must make an example of

this one."



"I will make the preparations."



"Very well." A car door was being held open for him. He climbed

in. The tall man walked once around the car before opening the

door opposite and entering.



Amano settled back as the car pulled away. "Unfortunate,

really," he mused. "If we could only have discovered this ESP of

his earlier. He might have been of help."



The tall man shrugged. "Perhaps. But he was disloyal."



Amano smiled. His feelings exactly. And they both knew there

was only one answer for disloyalty.



---



Kasuga Kyosuke woke to the sound of water running in the shower.

He immediately smiled, knowing what form the water was running

over. He could trace the image from memory.



He yawned and sat up on the edge of the bed. He blinked around

at his bedroom. His home for the past four years was slowly

being disassembled. Boxes were packed, stacked, and labeled.

The studio apartment was mostly bare, and the sounds of the

running water echoed strangely through it. He was now down to

the bare essentials, and those would be packed up in three days.



Three days. As was happening with increasing frequency, his mind

locked up at the thought. Three days.



Too full of adrenaline to sit still, he stood up and started

pacing. Not that there was a lot of room to pace; the apartment

was *very* small. Even when he'd been looking for a place of his

own, he'd done so with the full knowledge that all he really

needed was a kind of staging area between his life with his

father and sisters, and the life that was to come in three days.



Three days.



He stopped in front of a bare wall and leaned forward to rest his

forehead against it. It was all he could do to keep from banging

his head on it.



A mischievous voice spoke from across the room. "Beating your

head against the wall will not make the time pass any more

quickly, Kyosuke."



He turned, slightly startled. He'd been so caught up in his own

tension that he'd failed to notice that the shower had stopped.

Standing in the bathroom doorway was the half-clothed figure of

Ayukawa Madoka. Her smile was full of humor, her eyes full of

understanding.



Kyosuke couldn't help but smile back. "How is it I'm the one

with the Power, and you're the one who's always reading my mind?"



She laughed. "It doesn't take telepathy to read your thoughts,

Kasuga-kun." She walked over to the bed, bent to the floor,

grabbed the rest of her clothes, and began to put them on.



Kasuga, still full of energy, walked up behind her and slipped

his arms around her waist. "Can you tell what I'm thinking now?"



"Of course. Pervert. That part of Kyosuke I could read from

almost the very first day." She turned in his arms and kissed

him.



He kissed her back, breathing in her fragrance. Ten years he had

known her, and the smell of her still intoxicated him. He hugged

her more tightly, deepening the kiss.



She pushed him away after a moment. "You are brave today," she

said teasingly. "One would almost think you'd forgotten about

the fact that we're getting married in three days."



"Urk." His stomach flip-flopped. "You *had* to remind me." He

tried a smile. "Now you have to make me forget again." He began

to draw her in.



Madoka pushed him back again. "Kyosuke, I don't have much time

before I have to leave for the airport. There's something I need

to tell you. I was going to tell you last night, but I was too

busy distracting you then as well."



Kyosuke couldn't help chuckling. "And you did a magnificent job,

too."



"Yes, yes, you keep mentioning that." She flipped her hair over

her shoulder. "One might think that's the only reason you're

marrying me."



He was still a little heady. "Yep, it is. I mean, what other

reason could I have? Hmm... nope, can't think of anything.

Perhaps you helped me forget *too* well." He grinned.



"Kyosuke!" She dragged his name out in shock and dismay. She

stepped outside his arms and turned her back to him. "Is that

what you think of me?"



Pure panic gripped him. "Madoka, no!" He put a hand on her

shoulder. "I'm sorry. I- I was just teasing. There's... oh

Madoka, I can't begin to say how many different ways I love you,

I'm..."



Madoka sighed and squeezed his hand between her head and

shoulder. "I know, Kyosuke, really. You just hit a sore spot."



"I did? What?"



"Not now." She turned around, took his hands in hers, and sat

him on the bed next to her. "Later, I promise."



This touched on something that had disturbed Kyosuke for a long

time. He was closer to Madoka than anyone else was, yet there

were still things she kept secret from him. It shouldn't be that

way, he thought. He should be able to help her with things that

bothered her. But all too often when she had a problem, she

dealt with it by herself, without asking him - or anyone - for

help. Kyosuke was bothered by that - part of getting married

meant that they dealt with problems together. She shouldn't be

keeping things from him.



And yet, now as always, he failed to generate sufficient courage

to bring up the subject. Madoka was intensely private, and the

fact that she had allowed him into her life was enough of a

blessing. He kept hoping that time would allow her to open more

of herself up to him. It had worked, to an extent. Yet there

were still walls she hid behind. Hopefully the marriage would

break the last of them down.



He forced a smile. "All right. What *did* you want to talk

about?"



"It's Hikaru." Madoka sighed sadly. "She's not coming."



"Oh man." Kyosuke grimaced and closed his eyes.



"I know you were looking forward to seeing her," Madoka said

softly. "She knew that too. She kept begging for our

forgiveness in her letter. She's got to prepare for an audition,

she said, and she's too busy to come back to Japan."



"Hikaru-chan." She'd tried so hard to stay friends with them.

After that painful revelation during his last year in high

school, he and Hikaru and Madoka had maintained a facade of

friendship. But there had been too much pain behind Hikaru's

over-cheerfulness. Too often her eyes had flicked back and forth

between Madoka and Kyosuke. With Madoka and Kyosuke in college,

and Hikaru concentrating more and more on her dancing, it had

become easy for them not to spend a lot of time together. When

Hikaru had gotten the chance to study in New York, she'd taken it

with alacrity.



They'd spent one last dinner together at Madoka's house. The

evening had been pleasant, full of lively conversation and funny

reminiscences. But the atmosphere had been bittersweet, and

Kyosuke had sensed that Hikaru was relieved when the evening had

come to an end. She'd left Japan five years ago, and he hadn't

seen her since.



"Tell me." Madoka squeezed his hands. "Tell me what you're

feeling."



"I... I wanted..." He shook his head. "I wanted to see her, to

know... to know that she was doing okay."



"Kyosuke." Madoka sounded serious now. "She *is* doing okay.

She's got a good life in New York. She loves dancing, and she's

good enough and lucky enough to make a living out of it. I think

that... that she's put this part of her life behind her and wants

to focus exclusively on her new life."



"But it's just for one day." Kyosuke clamped his mouth shut

before he could whine some more. He knew that he was acting a

bit selfishly.



Of course, Madoka was there to point it out, too. "And what a

day it is, eh? To see the man she fell madly in love with marry

someone else. To see the union of two people who hid the secret

of their relationship from her for so long, until it was

guaranteed to devastate her when it was revealed. I don't know,

Kyosuke. Avoiding that pain just might be more important to her

than making sure you feel good about yourself."



Kyosuke swore. "That's easy enough for you to say. I could

have... could have let her know... before it got so bad."



"I *know*, Kyosuke." Madoka glared at him. "I *know*. We all

do. Don't you think I haven't lived with that guilt, too? But

this isn't about *us*. It's about Hikaru. She had to be the one

who decides when she's ready to let us be her friends again. And

that might never happen."



Kyosuke opened his eyes and raised his head. "But dammit, if I

hadn't used the Power, she would have known *years* before.

And... and maybe..."



Puzzlement settled onto Madoka's face. "What? What did you do?

Do you mean that teleportation trick you used to date both of us

at once?"



"No." He swallowed, the pain still almost overwhelming. "One

Christmas, back in high school. I... I took you to a Christmas

party. And... Hikaru saw us there. And she knew. She knew

about us."



Madoka's puzzled frown increased. "When was this?"



"And... and I couldn't stand to see her in such pain." Kyosuke's

voice cracked. He paused a second, then continued. "So I went

back. I started the day over, and I took both of you to the

party. And... and you were both happy. I thought I'd done the

right thing. But... but maybe... maybe the pain she felt then

would have been less than the pain she felt later when she *did*

find out."



Madoka's eyes were wide. "You did that? You used your Power

to... to..." Her face was darkening. "Three days before we get

married, and I'm just *now* finding out about this?"



"M-Madoka!" For some reason, it had never occurred to him that

Madoka would get angry. "I... I wish I hadn't-"



"I'll bet." She almost leapt to her feet. "I have to get to the

airport."



"Wait!" He rose to his feet, watching as she angrily put on her

coat. "I'll come with you."



"Not in your underwear you won't. Unless you want to go back in

time and get dressed." She shot a look at him, then opened the

door and stalked through it, closing it firmly behind her.



Kyosuke sat back down on the bed. Well, *this* day had gotten

off to a good start. That was the last he would see of her

before the wedding - she was flying to Seattle to meet her

parents. She'd spend a couple of days with them before they all

came back to Japan together. And rather than part on good terms,

full of expectations for the wedding to come, Madoka's final

words to him had been angry ones.



He was angry, too. Madoka was being a little unfair - it wasn't

like she didn't have her little secrets, too. Where'd she get

off judging him like that?



He was having enough problems harshly judging himself.



Kyosuke stood up, walked over to the wall, and pounded his head

softly against it. It didn't help.



---



He left school, wondering why he bothered. It was such a waste

of his time. He had other, more profitable pursuits. Stuff that

was a *lot* more fun.



"Kasuga-san!" He frowned at the voice behind him. He turned to

see one of his classmates - what was her name? Yuki? - running

up behind him. She stopped, flushing from either the exertion or

being in his presence.



She bowed. "Kasuga-san, I... I am having a party tomorrow night

and... and I wanted to know if... if you'd like to come?"



He looked into her mind. She was quite attracted to him. She'd

heard of his reputation, and it excited her. She had a fantasy

about being his girlfriend, where he showered her with attention

and expensive gifts.



He curled his lip slightly. Too easy. Far too easy. It

wouldn't be a challenge at all. "Sorry, can't. Too busy doing

interesting things. No time to play with children."



In her mind he could see it - sharp, deep embarrassment.

"S-sorry." She turned and fled.



Gee, that hadn't been any fun. She hadn't begged or anything.

He frowned as he turned, wondering if he maybe shouldn't have

strung her along a little.



"Gee, Kazuya." This was the cynical voice of his best friend,

Yokio. "If you're gonna turn down the cute ones, can't you at

least send a couple of them my way?"



Kazuya darted into Yokio's mind and found the appropriate envy in

the foreground. "I've had hotter than that. Much hotter. Even

you could do better than what's-her-name."



"Maybe." Yokio looked after the girl and sighed. "Anyway, wanna

go to the mall?"



Kazuya repressed a sneer. Children, he was surrounded by

children. "Not today. I'm going to the club."



"Lucky." Yokio slapped him on the shoulder. "Say, can you help

me with the test tomorrow? Maybe send a few answers my way?"



Kazuya shrugged. Tests were easy for him. He got the answers

from the teacher's mind. Sometimes he broadcast those answers to

his friends. "What's in it for me?"



"Um..." Yokio thought it over. "Can I make you an offer

tomorrow?"



"Sure." Kazuya turned away. "Make it good."



"Will do. See ya."



"Bye." Kazuya ran off, anxious to leave school behind him. He

had more important things to focus on.



---



Kyosuke wandered around the city, looking for something to shoot.

His sporadic work as a freelance photojournalist had slowed down

considerably of late. Preparing for the wedding (emotionally

more than anything else) had drained him of creative impulses.



He didn't need money; Madoka made plenty from her songwriting,

and she was well-endowed anyway by her world-famous parents.

Kyosuke would never want for money as long as he was with her.

During his childhood, his father's sometimes-sporadic income had

not always been enough to meet expenses. After years of living

on the edge financially as his family had moved from place to

place, Kyosuke was beginning to very much appreciate financial

stability.



But he needed to *do* something. He had more ambition than to

sit and watch Madoka compose all day. While that was fun in and

of itself, it was not a full life. He wanted to contribute to

the world somehow.



Following in his father's footsteps had been easy - he'd learned

a lot about photography while growing up, almost without

realizing it. Learning how to apply that knowledge, though, had

turned out to be a lot tougher. College had helped some.

Mostly, though, it was as his father had said: photography was a

personal experience. You only got better by doing.



He hadn't been taking a lot of pictures lately. He needed to.

Getting out of practice was not a good thing. Also, he had to

get the foul taste of this morning's argument with Madoka out of

his mouth. Somehow, he needed to make everything all better.



How about going back in time, just like she'd suggested? He

could keep the argument from happening. Then he wouldn't feel so

bad now. Things between them would be good.



He sighed and looked through his viewfinder, focusing on a tree a

hundred yards away. He'd tried that once before. It had worked

for the short term, but it had had devastating consequences in

the long run. He couldn't use the Power to try and correct all

his mistakes; he might end up making things worse. He had to

muddle on like any other human being.



Plus he wasn't exactly sure *how* to go back in time. Every time

he'd done it, it had been by accident. A repeatable accident in

one case, but an accident nonetheless.



A figure stepped in front of the camera. He lowered it to see

Madoka staring at him angrily. "Kyosuke, I think you should

know. I've decided. We aren't going to get married. Ever."



Kyosuke sighed again. "Cut it out," he said with a small, tired

smile.



"I mean it!" Her frown deepened. "I don't know what I was

thinking in the first place! I can do *much* better than you.

And you certainly don't deserve anyone wonderful like me."



Kyosuke shook his head. "She left for America hours ago."



"I... I changed my flight! Because I had to come and tell you-"



"Akane, enough."



"Damn." The figure in front of him shimmered, to be replaced by

the appearance of his cousin. "Although everything I said was

true. You should have stuck with Hikaru. She was much more your

type."



Kyosuke snorted. "While you helped Madoka accept herself for

what she is and took her to live happily ever after in your love

nest in America?"



An upset look was shot his way. "Kyosuke!"



He shrugged, slightly abashed.



Akane continued in a stern tone of voice. "I mean, indulging in

such elaborate fantasies about your own cousin? I mean I figured

you thought I was kind of cute, but isn't that a tiny bit

extreme?"



Kyosuke blinked at her in surprise.



She was now smirking visibly. "And the family calls *me*

perverted."



Kyosuke started slightly, knowing there was more truth to that

phrase than came across in her teasing tone of voice. Ever since

openly declaring her preferences to her parents, her father had

been on her mercilessly, insisting that she get married to a man

right away. Akane had steadfastly resisted all his efforts, and

her relationship with her family wasn't so good right now.

Kyosuke felt for her, but there was little he could do to help

her.



Akane continued teasing him mercilessly. "I think Madoka should

be told, don't you? I don't think she has the slightest idea

what she's getting into here. The fantasy life you lead must be

quite... stimulating."



Kyosuke shook his head, somewhere between amusement and

embarrassment. "You know, Akane, in a minute I really am going

to have to kick your butt as a matter of principle."



"You?" Akane looked him up and down. "The guy who had to have

Madoka come to *his* rescue in a fight? Surely you jest, cousin

dear."



Kyosuke smirked. "I've also repeatedly taken her best right

crosses, Akane. Trust me, I've learned from the experience."



Akane began laughing, and Kyosuke joined her. After a moment,

they lapsed into silence. Akane's expression became neutral as

she considered him.



Kyosuke lifted his camera. "You do look good like that. Hold

still."



She managed to stick out her tongue and cross her eyes just as he

snapped the picture. He laughed as he lowered the camera. "I'll

be sure to make a whole set of prints out of that. I'll pass

them out at the wedding."



Akane grinned, then sobered. "Say, Kyosuke, have you seen my

brother?"



Kyosuke's own smile vanished. Kazuya. He'd caused Kyosuke no

end of trouble growing up, abusing his Power endlessly,

delighting in causing as much mischief as possible. Kyosuke only

tolerated him at all because he had once helped him help Madoka

when she had fallen ill during finals. As far as Kyosuke knew,

that was one of the very few nice things Kazuya had ever done.

For the most part he was an evil little brat, and Kyosuke was

happiest when he wasn't around.



"No. Why, should I have? Don't you walk him home from school or

something?"



Akane looked at him quizzically. "Kyosuke, he's in high school."



"High school?" Kyosuke's reeled slightly. He mostly remembered

Kazuya as a precocious six-year-old. A lot of time had passed

since then. For the first time in his life, Kyosuke felt old.

"Oh. Uh, well, I don't know if I'd recognize him if I saw him."



"You would; he still looks a lot like you." Akane sighed. "He

keeps disappearing after school. Sometimes he doesn't come back

until very late at night, or the next day. Mom and Dad are

really worried about him." She looked down and spoke quite

softly. "I am, too."



Kyosuke sighed and tried to put his personal distaste behind.

Certainly he'd be worried sick if Kurumi acted this way. She

never did, of course; while a bit of a flake and somewhat

irresponsible, she didn't have a malicious bone in her body.

Kyosuke grunted; Kazuya had an entire skeletal structure composed

of them. But now was not the time or the place. Akane needed

help, and Kyosuke would do what he could for her.



"Uh, look, I'm sorry for what I said just now. Point didn't need

to be made. Let's go looking."



Akane looked up and smiled brilliantly. "Okay. Thanks,

Kyosuke."



He nodded. They turned together to walk down the road.



---



The Perverted Samurai was in one of the less-reputable sections

of town. There was bad topless dancing and drinks of

questionable vintage to be found within. There was also a

high-stakes poker game that took place in the back room. Along

with other, higher-risk bits of action.



Kazuya nodded affably at the doorman. The doorman had tried to

stop him, once, long ago. Now his left eye twitched every time

he saw Kazuya. Kazuya sauntered into the club, watching as the

center of attention slowly turned to him. They knew him, and

knew who he was connected with and what he could do.



The bartender met him at the bar. "Whaddya want, kid?"



"Whiskey, rocks." He looked around the bar. "Anything happening

tonight?"



"Nope, not that I heard of." A drink appeared on the bar.



Kazuya frowned and looked into the bartender's mind. He was

telling the truth; no game tonight. Kazuya picked up his drink,

mentally shrugging. Just as well, perhaps. He'd been winning a

bit too much in those games anyway. He took a sip and winced; he

really didn't hold alcohol well. He ordered a drink mostly for

appearance, and nursed it most of the night. The last thing he

needed to do was lose control of his faculties.



He saw none of the regulars he was looking for. He could use

some action. He'd helped collect on some debts - quite fun, that

was. Helping much larger, bulkier men find people who owed

money. Finding out from the minds of those debtors how much

money they had, and where it was hidden. He'd get a cut of what

was collected. Sometimes, he'd make the bulky men forget exactly

how much was collected, and increase his cut all that much more.



It was a heady experience, manipulating people twice his age or

more with such ease. And this was only the beginning. Soon he'd

move up in the organization. Soon *he* would be the one giving

orders. Soon he'd show them what the Power could *really*

accomplish.



Kazuya cleared his mind of these fantasies. Now the question was

how to spend the rest of the evening. No one was dancing right

at the moment, but one of the waitresses was moving listlessly

among the tables, selling drinks to the few people who were

there. Real action wouldn't begin for another few hours yet.



He examined the waitress. Tall, blonde (although that hair was

surely a wig) and nicely trim. Her eyes were tired behind the

makeup. Still, she was quite attractive. And more importantly,

he'd never had her before. What the hell, he decided. It would

be an amusing way to spend the night. He felt for the roll of

money he kept in his pockets. Plenty for a nice hotel room.



Good enough.



Setting his drink down at the bar, he sauntered up to her. He

reached into her mind, preparing to make her receptive. It was a

skill he'd mastered. "Hello there. You look like you could use

a rest."



She turned and saw him. He flinched; fear bolted through her

mind. Almost terror. Apprehension he was used to, but not

*this* extreme a reaction. She stammered a reply. "I-I-I'm

fine."



Kazuya frowned and looked deeper into her mind. She wanted

nothing to do with him. She was afraid for her life if she was

seen with him. Because she had overheard some men talking at a

table earlier tonight.



The word was on the street. Kasuga Kazuya was a marked man. He

was going to be killed in the most painful way possible, and

anyone trying to hide him would meet a similar fate.



That wasn't right. He looked into her mind again. The same

information was there. He swallowed once, hard, and looked

again. And the knowledge was still there. Something cold washed

through his chest. They were after him.



Kazuya began to tremble. Dead. They wanted him dead. He looked

around the bar again. Those that knew him were avoiding his

eyes. The bartender was removing what remained of Kazuya's drink

and emptying it, turning deliberately away from him.



With a flick of his mind, he froze the waitress's mind. He made

her forget that she'd ever seen him tonight. He looked around,

preparing to do the same to everyone. And stopped, wondering

who'd already left to tell others that he was here.



He ran from the bar, fear crushing his heart. Dead. They wanted

him dead. He'd done nothing wrong. Nothing. And they wanted

him dead.



He had to straighten things out. He'd make it better and then

they wouldn't want him dead. He'd make it so they wouldn't

*want* him dead. He'd change their minds and they'd never know.



Oh God, they wanted him dead.



Kazuya kept running.



---



Amano sat back from the monitor. "Very well done. He looks

frightened."



The tall man shut down the monitoring device. "As well he

should. He will likely try and see Kazuki next."



"Kazuki has his instructions?"



"Yes. All is in readiness."



"Excellent." Amano moved his gaze slowly over to the tall man.

"Be careful. You must not get close to him until he is subdued."



"I am aware of that." The tall man smiled slowly. "But I will

be there when he falls. That is matter of personal honor, after

all."



"As you will." Amano stood. "I will be happy when he is dead.

He is still too much of an unknown element for my comfort."



"Do not worry. He is ours." The tall man's smile grew. "He is

already dead."



---



Kazuya ran up to the building. He paused, taking deep breaths.

He was not used to all this exercise. A cramp in his side made

it hard for him to stay upright. He fell against the door,

accidentally crashing through it.



He looked around in a panic. A shape to one side; he darted out

into its mind and seized it. Pulling himself carefully up, he

tried to peer through the gloom. No one else was evident.



Kazuya looked into the mind of the guard. He was the only one on

duty. The rest had been called away by a man named Amano -

someone very high up in the organization. For what purpose, the

guard didn't know and didn't want to know unless told. But the

guard had speculations, and high among them had been the brash

teenager who had been making too much noise and must now be

silenced.



Kazuya withdrew his mind. The guard collapsed; very few could

withstand the intense probing he'd just been subjected to.

Kazuya looked down at the body, hoping there was no permanent

damage. If he was going to get back into everyone's good graces,

he had better not turn too many people into vegetables.



He made his way down the hallway and pushed open an unremarkable

door towards the center of the building.



A heavyset man sat behind a shabby desk. He looked at Kazuya

through heavily lidded eyes. "Ah, Kasuga. I've been expecting

you."



Kazuya restrained himself from seizing the man's mind. He bowed

deeply, something he rarely did. "Kazuki-san. Please forgive my

rude interruption."



He waited, but no reply was forthcoming. He lightly scanned

Kazuki's mind, and found contempt there. With a massive effort

at composure, Kazuya straightened and looked calmly at Kazuki.

"If I have given offense, please allow me to make up for it. I

will do anything I can to make amends. I can be very useful."



"Indeed. You can be useful. Very well." He tossed a knife

across the table. "Prove your loyalty."



Kazuya picked up the blade, his whole arm shaking badly. Did

they really expect him to... He looked down at his pinky finger,

and gulped.



"Be quick, Kasuga. Hesitation may yet kill you."



Kazuya looked up and into Kazuki. What he saw there made him

gasp. It made no difference whether or not he cut off his

finger. Kazuki's orders were to detain him until others could

come and capture him.



He reached deeper into Kazuki's mind and squeezed. Kazuki

screamed, clutched his head, then fell forward on the desk.



That brought no satisfaction at all to Kazuya. He turned back to

the door, then stopped. He tried to visualize the other side of

the door, but he didn't have clairvoyance. Dad could do that a

little, but although Kazuya was a much stronger ESPer, there were

some things he couldn't do. Yet.



And he'd never find out, now.



He tried to crush that thought, but it kept bubbling up in a

panic. There were people on the other side of that door who were

going to try and kill him.



With a shout, he crashed through the door. A man raising

something at him. Snap, and the man fell. Kazuya dropped to the

ground, more because he was terribly afraid of being shot than

any coherent plan. He heard something zing above his head. He

reached out with his mind, found another, squeezed it, and down

it went.



He scrambled forward on his hands and knees, reached a corner,

peeked around it. Empty, but three windows leading outside.

Move quickly up to one, peek quickly through, nothing, drop back

down. Safe? Surely not. Crawl quickly down the hallway, around

another corner, a man, pointing something at him.



Grabbing the man's mind. Freezing him this time, looking in.

They have orders to incapacitate him, but not kill him; Amano

wants the pleasure of killing him personally. They know -

*know* - that he has ESP, and thought they were ready for it.

This man certainly thought that his mind could never be taken

over.



An idea.



---



The tall man listened to something in his ear. "They have him."



Amano smiled. "Excellent. Show me."



The tall man spoke softly into a microphone. The monitor came to

life, showing the limp form of the boy being held by one of the

tall man's operatives. The others were rising, gathering around

the captive.



Amano nodded. "Bring him here."



On the monitor, someone was trying to talk to the operative

carrying the boy. The operative was not responding.



The tall man was speaking into the microphone again, giving

instructions for delivery. Amano grabbed his arm. "Tell them to

be careful, he may be-"



Suddenly the picture on the monitor tilted wildly. When it came

to rest, it showed a good picture of two of the tall man's

operatives curled on the ground, clutching at their heads.

Behind them, the boy stood, wincing as if in pain, looking very

pale. The boy moved to one of the men on the ground, stooped

over him, and took a transmitter from him.



The boy spoke into it. Amano looked over at the tall man. His

face was red and his jaw was clenched tightly; Amano had never

seen the tall man this angry before. Amano gestured imperiously,

and the tall man savagely flipped a switch.



"-don't want to do this." The boy's voice coming from the

monitor was clearly strained and frightened. "Please, I'll do

anything, pay you any money. I can do a lot for you. Let me

prove my loyalty."



"You have already proven your loyalty, you freak." Amano blinked

at the hate in the tall man's voice. "I will see your blood

running-"



Amano calmly reached over to take the microphone from the tall

man. The tall man at first tightened his grip on it, then

released it to him. Amano spoke in a pleasant monotone. "Young

Kasuga, if you want to prove your loyalty, allow my associates to

take you in. Your life is forfeit for your crimes, but you may

yet spare the lives of your lovely older sister and your parents.

And if they mean as little to you as everyone else apparently

does, we can keep removing those whom you associate with until we

find someone you *do* care for."



Amano smiled softly at the shock on the boy's face. "Do the

honorable thing, Kasuga-kun. Turn yourself in and meet a

warrior's death."



The boy dropped the transmitter, turned, and fled.



The tall man cursed profusely. "I swear to you, I will have the

lives of every incompetent who partook of tonight's operation."



"Be easy." Amano settled back in his chair. "I did not expect

them to succeed. The boy does have powers greater than he had

shown before. But we have learned valuable lessons here. Your

men - those that survived - now know what it is like to feel his

mind in theirs, and they will be better prepared. And we must

make sure they are prepared; if this boy has such gifts, others

in his family may as well. If they can be properly motivated,

they can be valuable additions."



The tall man growled. "You expected my agents to fail?" Yet,

even as he said that, his tone contained more of the respect that

was Amano's due.



"The young man had yet to show the full extent of his powers, of

that I was certain. Now he has. Now he know what he is capable

of. Next time, he won't escape."



"And we will know how to deal with others like him." The tall

man's voice contained grudging acknowledgment of the validity of

Amano's plans. "Very well. I will consult with my agents and

present to you another plan for capturing Kasuga."



"Do that." Amano rose slowly. "And make sure Kazuki is rewarded

appropriately. I will be at my home."



"Yes." The tall man stood as well. "You have no objection if I

do make an example or two of my men?"



"Do as you think necessary. Just make sure the rest are ready

for the next confrontation."



---



Kyosuke loaded the last of the boxes into the van. He closed the

doors, turned, and leaned back against them, wiping his brow. "I

hate moving."



"I hate moving *you*!" Kurumi was sprawled gracelessly on the

sidewalk. "If you had just let us use the Power this would have

been, like, *so* easy."



"You're beginning to sound like Grandfather." Manami stood up

from where she had been sitting on the steps and stood over

Kurumi, waving a finger down at her. "If someone had seen us,

what would that have done to our older brother's wedding?"



Kurumi growled. "Stop being so serious, Manami!" She waved with

her hand, and Manami's glasses went flying before settling gently

on the small lawn in front of the apartment building



"Hey!" Manami whirled and peered around.



Kyosuke sighed the sigh of long suffering. He pushed himself off

the van and walked over to where Manami's glasses lay in the

grass. He picked them up and held them out to Manami.



Manami put them on and glared down at Kurumi. "Really! That's

very rude! Aren't you a little old to be making such childish

pranks?"



Kurumi's eyes narrowed, and Kyosuke could see her considering a

repeat performance. He stepped over her, next to Manami. "That

wasn't nice, Kurumi. You have to take these things more

seriously. Or have you forgotten how awful it was when we had to

keep moving from town to town, year after year?"



"Yes!" Manami put her hands on her hips. "I was in the same

room with you when you cried over the friends you kept having to

leave behind. Now we've been in one place for ten years, and it

feels like *home*. For the first time! Do you really want to

spoil that?"



Kurumi looked back and forth between her siblings, then sighed

heavily. "No. Sorry, Kyosuke. Sorry, Manami."



"Good. Now, get up and let's get this stuff into Madoka's house.

Then maybe we can go eat, finally."



Kurumi's slightly abashed expression was quickly replaced with a

smiling one. "I hear ice-cream calling my name..." She

tittered.



Kyosuke couldn't help smiling himself. "Aren't you a bit old for

ice-cream?"



Kurumi shook her head as she lay on the ground. "Nobody's too

old for ice cream!"



Manami nodded. "Besides, why do you care? Don't you have

somewhere _else_ to go?"



"What?" Kyosuke tried to remember his list of things to be

accomplished before the wedding. "I do?"



Kurumi jumped to her feet. She grinned wickedly at him. "You're

getting married tomorrow, right?"



"Um..." Oh God, tomorrow. "Yes."



"Then don't you have something you should be doing tonight?"

Kurumi jumped up and down and waved her arms.



Kyosuke frowned at her. "What are you doing?"



"We'll move the boxes into Madoka-san's house." Manami was

grinning affectionately. "You go have fun."



This was so strange. "Doing what?"



Hands grabbed his arms roughly from behind. A sack was thrown

over his head and more arms wrapped themselves around his feet.

"Got him! Run for it, guys!"



Kyosuke was about to teleport away in a panic before he

recognized the voice. Komatsu. A friend since high school, and

a confirmed pervert. Which meant that one of the other pairs of

arms that was carrying him down the sidewalk had to belong to

Hatta.



"Bye, Kyosuke!" Kurumi's voice was full of glee. "Don't forget

about Madoka-san!"



"Don't listen to her." Komatsu sounded evilly mischievous. "For

this one last night, you are going to forget all about Madoka.

Because it's your..."



Several voices echoed in unison. "...Bachelor Party!"



Kyosuke was thrown headfirst onto something padded. Probably a

limousine, because all the voices clambered in behind them and

settled themselves around him before a door slammed and he felt

himself being driven away.



---



Kazuya woke slowly, hoping the nightmare was over. He looked

around and realized that we was in an alley somewhere, huddled

behind a trash bin. The nightmare continued.



He stood and wrapped his arms around himself. He wasn't cold,

but he felt something inside him that chilled his bones. He'd

been running for... hours? days? He'd lost track of time.



He couldn't go home. They'd find him there. He couldn't check

into a hotel. They'd find him there, too. He had to stay as

hidden as possible. And they'd find him eventually anyway.



Kazuya stumbled down the alley for lack of anything more

intelligent to do. And his mind began to go into the familiar

vicious cycle of wondering what he could do, how he could escape,

trying desperately to get back to a normal life where no one

wanted him dead.



---



The woman on the stage was unbelievably proportioned. Kyosuke

stared at her goggle-eyed. As he did, another drink was slapped

into his hand. He downed it in three gulps, not taking his eyes

off the woman.



Finally her dance ended. She smiled, waved at the crowd, then

came up to Kyosuke. She bent down and kissed him. Kyosuke

didn't kiss her back, instead trying to look down his nose at

what was just out of eyesight. The woman straightened, winked at

him, then walked off the stage to the sound of raucous cheers.



"Damn, Kasuga." Komatsu slapped his back hard. "You could have

at least enjoyed that."



"Yeah!" Hatta put his arm around Kyosuke's shoulders. "I'll bet

Ma-do-ka doesn't have a pair like those!"



"Hey!" Something about that should bother Kyosuke, but he

couldn't figure out what it should be. He thought about it for a

few seconds, then gave up. "You're right. Hers aren't like that

at all."



The table broke up in laughter. Kyosuke laughed with them,

wondering what the joke was.



Komatsu shook his head. "Kasuga, Kasuga, Kasuga. Why'd you have

to go and get married?"



"Not married yet." Kyosuke looked around for a full glass. "Not

yet. T'morrow."



"That's right!" Hatta crowed. "There's still time to repent!

Marriage is so dull! Bachelorhood is the only *pure* form of

existence!"



The people around the table cheered in agreement. Kyosuke shook

his head. "Why? Wha's wrong with marriage?"



"You don't get to have sex with lots of young women!" Komatsu's

eyes glistened in excitement.



"You don't get to have wild parties every night!" Hatta was

equally enthusiastic.



"No staying out as late as you want!"



"No fun!"



"No fun no fun no fun at all."



Kyosuke was still confused. "But, you don't have sex with lots

of young women. You don't have wild parties every night. You're

always complaining 'bout having nothing better to do than read

perverted comics every night. Wha's so great 'bout that?"



Komatsu frowned for a long moment. "You're right. Our lives

*suck*."



Hatta began crying. "Why can't we get all the women you do,

Kasuga?"



"Yeah!" Komatsu glared at him. "You had Madoka, and Hikaru,

and... and... wha's her name? Yuri-something."



"Sayuri." Hatta sighed sadly. "Sweet, sweet Sayuri."



"Right!" Komatsu beamed. "And Hiromi. And that cute cousin of

yours, too. Akane."



"Can' marry cousin." Hatta waved a finger at Kyosuke. "Have

kids with three heads, you do."



Kyosuke frowned. "Is Madoka my cousin?"



Hatta frowned. "Dunno. Don' think so."



Komatsu shook his head. "No, no, stupid. Yuri's the cousin."



"Oh, right." Hatta looked sheepish. "Sorry."



The music started, and another dancer stepped onto the stage.

Kyosuke for some reason found little interest in her this time.

"Madoka. I'm marrying Madoka."



"Ayukawa!" Komatsu almost shouted the name. He continued in a

just-slightly-less-loud tone of voice. "She's too good for you."



"S'not!" Kyosuke reached forward and grabbed Komatsu's shirt.

"Yuri.. no, 'kane... uh, my cousin said the same thing. S'not

too good for me. Gonna be my wife."



"Why she wanna marry you?" Hatta peered at Kyosuke closely.

"Not any smarter 'n us. Not any better looking 'n us. Don' got

more money 'n us. Ayukawa's smart. Ayukawa's beautiful.

Ayukawa's rich. Why she wanna marry you? We coulda shown babe

like her a good time."



Kyosuke tried to think about that. "Dunno. Maybe 'cuz I didn'

call her 'babe'. Maybe 'cuz didn' try to show her a 'good time'.

Maybe 'cuz... 'cuz... 'cuz I never wanted nothin' from her but

her love."



Silence lasted for almost a minute. Finally Hatta looked down

into the empty drink he was holding. "You're lucky, Kasuga.

Damn lucky. Ayukawa's lucky, too."



Komatsu slapped the table. "Shut up, alla you. Too much sappy

moralizing! No morals, not tonight!" He stood up and waved at

the bar. "Another round! Hurry!"



Another drink soon appeared in front of Kyosuke. He smiled at

it, at the new woman on the stage, and at the world in general.

He was marrying Madoka tomorrow, and everything was great and

wonderful.



He grabbed the drink and began sipping it as the music blared

around him.



---



Amano was a very patient man. Usually.



He steepled his fingers as he sat across from the tall man. "How

goes the search?"



The tall man seemed quite frustrated. "He has not been to his

home, or his school, or any of the regular places. We're fairly

certain he hasn't left the city, although we can't guarantee

that."



"Hmm." Amano mulled it over. "He's on the run, hiding

somewhere. He's young, and he's panicking. Something will give

soon."



The tall man raised an eyebrow. "Should I give him some extra

motivation? His sister perhaps?"



"No. We should not bring that kind of attention upon ourselves.

The murder of a delinquent no one will question, but the death of

a beautiful young woman will bring unnecessary scrutiny onto our

operation."



"So..." The tall man looked surprised. "Your threat was

groundless?"



"No." Amano frowned at the tall man. "I am merely stating that

circumstances have not yet reached that drastic a point. And the

boy will break soon."



The tall man grimaced. "Very well. As always, I trust your

judgment. But it had better be soon. My men are impatient."



Amano smiled. "You mean *you* are impatient."



"Yes." The tall man scowled. "He made me lose face. I will

recover it in his blood."



---



Kazuya leaned against the lamppost. His eyes ached fiercely.

His strength was running out and his rationality was leaving him.

There had to be a way out. Had to be.



But there wasn't. They wanted him dead. They wouldn't stop

until they saw him dead.



Kazuya blinked. There was his answer.



Using the last of his reserves, he ran off.



---



Kyosuke stumbled down the street. The apartment was around here

somewhere. He was going to spend one last night in his father's

apartment. From then on, he'd live in Madoka's house, the one

she'd lived in by herself for years, the one her parents had

given her as a wedding present.



But tonight it was the old apartment, and he couldn't find it.

Damn Komatsu and the others, dropping him off in the middle of

nowhere, a funny joke to play on him, ha ha ha.



He peered around. He appeared to be in a playground. His brow

cleared; it was *the* playground. The one he and Madoka had

talked together in, that one night before she was to go to

America. Four in the morning it had been then, just as now.

She'd sat on the swing and he'd stood behind her and told her how

much he liked the town he'd moved to. How much he'd liked it

because *she* was in it. And she'd laughed, and told him that

she wasn't going anywhere, that moving to America had been a

joke, but he'd known, he'd known it wasn't a joke, that she'd

needed to hear him say that. It had been one of the critical

junctures in the early part of their relationship, and he'd

managed to get it right.



He smiled at the memory and walked up to the swing. He sat in

it, remembering how Madoka had looked in it, the pretty teenager

before she'd grown into the stunning young woman. The sound of

her laughter, that joyful music she rarely let anyone hear,

including him. This was a special playground, a special swing,

and he hoped one day to bring his own children here. His

children, and Madoka's.



Tomorrow was going to be great. The beginning of the best that

life could possibly have to offer.



A shadow loomed over him. Kyosuke looked up, startled. A boy, a

teenager, stood in front of him. He looked to be in very bad

shape. His clothes - a school uniform - were dirty and smelled a

bit. His hair was unkempt and his face was gaunt. And the

eyes... the eyes were the worst of all. Sunken, bloodshot, wild.



The boy smiled. "I've been looking for you."



Kyosuke frowned. "Kazuya?"



Suddenly Kazuya moved towards him. And the world exploded.



---



Kazuya stood unsteadily. His winced and grabbed at his head. He

was dizzy, very dizzy. His stomach was queasy and he was having

trouble thinking clearly.



He was drunk.



He looked down at the body lying under the swing. *His* body.



Kazuya smiled. It had worked. Now, he had to finish it. If

only he could think.



He grabbed on to the chain of the swing and held himself up. He

concentrated fiercely on the body below him, sending his mind

inside it. With all of the alcohol inside of him his

concentration kept wavering. He had to get this right. Had to.

He felt the unconscious mind, felt for the part of the mind that

*kept* it unconscious, and tweaked it.



Kazuya withdrew his mind and clung to the swing for dear life as

dizziness consumed him. His stomach roiled violently, and he

leaned over and threw up. He stood there for a long time, trying

to recover himself.



Damn, Kyosuke, how could you do this to yourself? You know you

can't handle alcohol.



Kazuya turned in the direction of the apartment building he'd

been waiting at for hours. He'd been terrified, because someone

would surely see him, this *had* to be one of the places they

were looking for him.



Now they would find him. But he'd fooled them. He was safe,

he'd get away with it. Eventually, he would make them pay.



But right now he was just tired. He stumbled towards the

apartment, wanting nothing more than to get into bed and sleep.



---



Amano woke instantly at the sound of his phone ringing. He

glanced at the clock: almost five in the morning. This had to be

important. He smiled; he knew what it had to be.



He picked up the phone. "You have him."



"He is being prepared now." The tall man sounded extremely

satisfied.



"I will meet you there." Amano hung up the phone, then got out

of bed and headed towards the shower. He had an enjoyable day

ahead of him, and he wanted to make sure he looked his best.



---



"Kyosuke! Wake up, Kyosuke!"



Kazuya frowned with his eyes closed. His head hurt something

awful and he needed more sleep. "Go away."



"Kyosuke! Get up *now*! You'll be late for the wedding."



"I'm not-" Not Kyosuke. Suddenly he realized that maybe he

shouldn't say that.



He sat bolt upright. He was in a bed, one he vaguely remembered

being helped into last night. He leapt out from underneath the

covers and ran into the bathroom. He stared at the reflection.

The reflection of Kyosuke.



He sagged in relief. The nightmare was over. They weren't

looking for him any more. He was going to live.



"That's good, but keep hurrying. I'll get your tuxedo ready."



"Tuxedo?" He looked over at his uncle, standing in the bathroom

doorway.



"Yes. You can't get married without one."



"Married." Kyosuke was marrying Madoka today. Which meant *he*

was marrying Madoka today.



"Yes. Now, hurry!" Uncle left the doorway.



Married. To Madoka. Certainly a far cry from a death sentence.

He grinned at his reflection. Life was so... *good*. To *be*

alive was a wonderful, beautiful thing.



No matter what the cost.



He frowned for a second, then shook his head. Heeding his

uncle's - his *father's* - words, he stripped off his clothes and

jumped into the shower, eager to get to his wedding.



---



"He's still unconscious?"



"We cannot wake him."



"What did he do to himself?"



"We're not sure. But it won't last. He'll be awake soon."



"Good. It won't mean anything if he's not awake to enjoy it."



---



Kazuya stood in front of a large number of people. All of them

were studying him closely. The most powerful ESPers in the

world, all gathered together in one place. All it would take is

one stray thought and he'd be found out. What had he been

thinking?



And there were a *lot* of people here. The whole Kasuga clan, a

lot of people. And the Ayukawas, who were much more numerous

than Kazuya had realized. The church was quite large, but it was

packed. And they were *still* all looking at him.



Someone pulled on his arm. He turned and flinched. His sister

was looking at him. She was one of Madoka's bridesmaids, and she

might have actually looked kinda nice if her eyes weren't so

bloodshot.



"What's wrong- uh, Akane?" He'd almost called her 'Sis'; he had

to be careful.



She evidently missed it. She looked down, and her voice was

shaking. "We still haven't found Kazuya. It's been three days.

I'm... I'm so scared..." She choked herself off.



Kazuya felt something cold and hard settle into his stomach.

"It's, uh, okay. I'm sure he's okay. In fact, I know he is.

Don't worry."



She lifted her head and smiled at him. "Thanks, Kyosuke. You've

always been so nice."



He swallowed and found that he had nothing to say.



"Anyway, this isn't about me or my brother," Akane said in a

suddenly cheerful tone of voice. She turned around. "Follow

me."



Kazuya did, warily. Maybe Akane had found out about him after

all. Maybe she was taking him away to confront him. He'd better

be ready.



She led him to a door at the back of a church. Akane smiled at

him again. "Wait here." She shook her finger. "Don't move.

That's very important." She went opened the door and walked

outside into the sunshine, leaving the door propped open.



Kazuya stood still, his anxiety growing. What was going on?

What were they up to?



He heard a rustling from the other side of the door, from outside

his field of vision. Kazuya gathered himself, ready to bring his

Power to bear. They wouldn't catch him unaware.



A voice called softly from the doorway. "Kyosuke?"



Kazuya blinked. "M... Madoka?" He guessed it was all right to

call her that.



"Don't come any closer. It's bad luck for the groom to see the

bride before the wedding."



He boggled. What did she want? At least she wasn't an ESPer;

she couldn't threaten him.



When he didn't say anything, she went on. "Anyway, I wanted to

say... I'm sorry. I was mean to you when we left. I got angry

at you for... for hiding something from me. But we both know I

hide a lot from you, too. Still. It's not that I don't trust

you, it's just that... that I'd been alone for so long that...

that I'm still getting used to the idea of sharing my life with

someone. Of sharing *everything* with them."



He could hear her sigh. "That's so hard for me, that sharing.

Part of the reason I got so angry was that I was angry at myself

for acting in much the same way."



Cloth rustled. "I needed to tell you that, Kyosuke. I don't

want us to get married with that kind of... unresolved conflict

hanging over us. So I apologize. And I promise... no more

hiding. No more withholding. There are some things... that have

happened to me... things I need to tell you. Later, I promise.

After we're married."



She stopped talking. Kazuya had no idea what to make of that.

He racked his brains, trying to figure out what Kyosuke would

say. Something wimpy, Kazuya was sure.



The cloth rustled again. "Kyosuke?"



"Uh... I forgive you. No more holding back stuff, that sounds

great. Look forward to the stories."



After a while the cloth rustled again. "Okay. I'll see you

inside."



"Right." He listened as she moved off. He shrugged and went

back to his place next to that friend of Kyosuke's whose name he

forgot.



Almost as soon as he did, music began playing. Everyone in the

wedding hall stood and looked down the aisle. Kazuya looked,

too.



Some girl - Madoka's niece, he thought - was dropping rose petals

on the ground. Behind her was... Madoka.



Kazuya's jaw dropped open. Madoka was *gorgeous*. She had this

frilly wedding dress on, with lots of lace and stuff. Her figure

filled out the dress beautifully - there were some *very*

interesting curves showing in different places. Her long black

hair was arrayed perfectly around her head and shoulders. He

couldn't see her eyes too well behind the veil, but she was

smiling very widely.



Kazuya looked quickly around. This was *great*. He was about to

marry this chick. His lip wanted to sneer, and he held it in

place. Not now, not in front of these people.



Some older man Kazuya was totally ignoring released Madoka's arm.

She stood next to him, looking at him, her smile the huge smile o

f someone who is as frightened as she is happy.



He looked her up and down, getting a better look at the curves.

As he did, her smile faltered a bit. In a panic, he reached into

her mind, saw a bit of doubt beginning to form. Indeed,

something about the conversation at the door had bothered her

before, and her concern was growing.



It was easy to overcome. He'd been manipulating women's minds

since he was thirteen. Plus so much of her mind was filled with

love for Kyosuke; it took no effort to use those emotions to

erase her doubts. Her smile returned in full force.



Kazuya grinned back at her. Then she turned forward, and he

looked at the minister.



The ceremony didn't go so well. He had no idea what to do, and

had to be constantly prompted by the minister or the best man.

Fortunately, the audience seemed to put it down to wedding

jitters, and laughed gently at his constant bumbling.



He had one moment of panic, when the minister asked the question

about anyone having some objections. For some reason, Kazuya

expected Kyosuke to come bursting through the doors at just that

moment. But he didn't, and the minister quickly moved on.



Finally the exchange of vows and rings. The metal felt strange

on Kazuya's finger. Almost confining. He ignored it for now.

Madoka, with his subtle mental prompting, had not lost her huge

smile, and she spoke her vows with a passion he'd never seen in

her - she'd always struck him as being a cold fish. He had a

little trouble putting on the ring, but finally it stuck on her

finger.



Then the priest said something about "husband and wife". With

that, Madoka threw her arms around Kazuya and kissed him deeply.

Kazuya, startled, kissed her back as the church resounded with

applause. Madoka seemed to want the kissing to go on and on, and

Kazuya had to push her away. He looked at her in triumph. She

was *his*, and she'd do anything for him. *Anything*. The first

part of which would start tonight.



He swept his gaze around the crowd. Strong ESPers, all of them.

He spotted Grandma and Grandpa. The only two who were stronger

than Kazuya, but they were both more than a little senile. No

threat there.



He'd fooled them all. Contempt washed over him; they had no idea

what the Power could really achieve. He'd show them. With this

new body (and after having learned some important lessons) he'd

do it right.



But first... he looked at Madoka's wide, vacant smile. First

he'd enjoy himself with Madoka. Enjoy himself thoroughly.



He headed down the aisle with his wife, through the smiles and

applause of everyone present.



---



Kyosuke clawed his way back to consciousness. Something didn't

want him to wake up. Something wanted him to wake up. *He*

wanted to wake up. He needed to wake up.



A part of his mind seemed to snap, and he brought himself more

fully awake. But it was wrong. He was fuzzy, his head muddled

and not able to think. He tried to bring his hands to his

forehead and found that he couldn't. His hands wouldn't move.

They were tied. Tied to the table he was lying on.



A bright light was shining in his eyes. He tried to squint

through it. "Wha... what's happening?"



"Awake at last, Kasuga?" A cultured, quiet voice. A voice that

somehow conveyed enormous menace. "It took us a long time to

wake you up. Did you try to kill yourself?"



"What?" Something was wrong. It didn't make sense. None of it

did. He just couldn't *think*.



"No matter. You didn't succeed." A hand grabbed his chin.

"Now, it's important for you to understand what's about to happen

to you. You betrayed the trust that was extended to you. You

cheated at games of chance by using your ESP. You took money

that didn't belong to you, and tried to cover that fact by

altering the memories of those around you. You also bedded many

women, some of which were... changed when you were done with

them."



The grip on his jaw tightened. "That displeased many people.

Including me. An example must be made."



The hand was removed. "Now, you might be having a little

difficulty thinking clearly. We have given you several drugs.

Drugs that will keep you awake, but unable to concentrate. We

don't want you using your ESP to try and alter our minds, after

all. But you'll still be able to feel pain. As I was telling my

associate here, the example won't mean anything if you aren't

made to suffer."



Kyosuke shook his head. It was all so wrong. He was supposed to

be getting married. What had happened to that? Where was

Madoka?



Strong hands grabbed one of his hands. His pinky was separated

from the other fingers, then wrenched. He heard a snap, and pain

flared in his mind. He screamed.



Another, harsher voice spoke over him. "That was just the

beginning, boy. You turned some of my best men into blubbering

idiots. You have to pay for that. And you will."



Wrench. Snap.



Kyosuke screamed again. And kept on screaming.



---



A woman sat in the back of the now-empty hall. She had felt the

crowds leave around her, and one or two people had given her a

curious look, but no one had approached her. Which was just as

well. She had not come here to talk to anyone. She had come for

one purpose and one purpose only: to see the wedding of the bride

and groom. Then she was going to leave.



She'd had a very clear image of how the wedding was supposed to

go. And at first things had seemed to go exactly right. The

hall was very nice, the dresses were beautiful, the day was

perfect. And then the bride and groom had stood together, and it

had all gone horribly wrong.



The bride had acted like a total ditz. That was not how the

bride acted, not the way the bride *was*, even excusing the

tension of getting married. The bride had behaved like a

love-sick airhead.



Something the woman was all too familiar with.



The woman stood and looked at the altar where the groom had

stood. Where the groom had acted like a complete jerk, staring

at the bride like a *thing*, an object to be possessed. The

groom had actually leered at the bride - leered! - and had

smirked throughout most of the ceremony.



Everything was just so wrong. The bride was not acting at all

well.



"And that man," the woman said out loud, with utter conviction,

"was definitely not Sempai."



She thought things over for a while, then nodded to herself.

Whirling on her heel, she strode purposefully from the wedding

hall.



---



Kyosuke had cried in pain before in his life. Several times,

actually. Dressers had been known to fall on him for no readily

apparent reason. But never had he traveled beyond screaming, to

a place where each new flare of pain only caused him to whimper

and sob.



His entire left hand was agony, a constant sharp and throbbing

pain. His right hand was slowly coming to match it. A wrench, a

whimper, and another one of his fingers was broken.



"You break easily, Kasuga." The shape bent over him spoke in a

mocking, cruel tone. "I thought you were made of stronger stuff.

I am... disappointed." Another snap, and this time Kyosuke

managed a plaintive gasp.



He had to *think*. If he could think, he could do something.

But he couldn't, his mind was clouded and the pain was

overwhelming and he couldn't think. This was a nightmare, he

should be waking up, oh God please let me wake up.



"Ma... Madoka."



The torturer paused in his work. "Oh? Who is this?"



Kyosuke sobbed. "Why? Madoka, why?"



"Madoka? Who is this... a girlfriend?" The torturer leaned over

Kyosuke's face, his expression one of interest. "Could it

possibly be that, among the many women you've bedded, there's one

you actually cared for?"



It didn't make sense, none of it did. Madoka, he could see her,

smell her, she was turning in his arms and kissing him, where was

she? "Madoka..."



"Well, first things first." With a sharp tug, Kyosuke's

forefinger was broken.



Kyosuke cried out again, and he felt his sanity slipping.

Slipping somewhere underneath the drugs and the pain. It was a

relief, he was scared, he'd never come back and never see Madoka

but it was worth escaping the pain.



"You'll answer all my questions in time. You'll feel pain as

you've never felt it before. Days of it maybe, although I don't

think you're that strong. We'll see what we can do." The dark

shape grabbed Kyosuke's thumb firmly.



Madoka... he couldn't give up on Madoka. He'd do anything for

her, anything. Pain, pain, he hated the pain but he needed

Madoka, but his mind couldn't stand the pain, it was too much, he

needed her he needed her. The pain, the loss, his mind, it was

*his* mind, and he loved her. "MADOKA!"



And his mind... went elsewhere. And took his body with it.



---



Amano shot to his feet. "Where did he go?"



The tall man was staring blankly at the empty table, shock on his

face. His hands blurred, and a knife stabbed at the center of

the table, deeply imbedding itself in the wood.



Amano wanted to swear profusely, but he couldn't. He had an

image to maintain even now. "Find him. Find him and kill him

immediately. He's more dangerous than we thought."



The tall man produced a walkie-talkie. He spoke softly but

urgently into it while moving towards the door.



"Also," Amano called out as the tall man was leaving, "find out

who this 'Madoka' is."



---



Hiyama Hikaru approached the familiar house with dread. She'd

wanted to avoid this. She was supposed to be on a plane back to

New York by now. Not here, not in places that reminded her of

the pain of her dreams shattered, the pain of her

sixteen-year-old heart being broken, the pain of her two best

friends in the world betraying the absolute trust she had put in

them.



Even now, she felt her eyes beginning to water with the hurt

surfacing anew.



But her friends were in trouble. Something was wrong, and she

needed to figure out what it was. Watching the wedding was

supposed to have been a catharsis, and instead it had fed a fear.

A fear that something bad was happening to Madoka and Kyosuke. A

fear that all the pain and sacrifice she had endured seven years

ago had been for nothing.



Gathering herself as best she could, she strode towards the

Ayukawa residence.



The front door was open, and people were wandering in and out of

the house. There were so many of them; the interior was

literally packed. Conversation buzzed loudly in her ears, along

with the occasional bark of laughter. Somewhere a baby was

wailing while several adults tried to coo it into silence.



Hikaru stopped just inside the door, hoping no one would

recognize her. And she fervently hoped that nobody would try and

take her to see the bride and groom. She wasn't prepared for

that.



She sidled along the wall, looking for the pink dresses of the

bridesmaids. Madoka had a lot of them, unfortunately, and pink

satin abounded. This might be more difficult than Hikaru had

imagined.



And then she saw her, walking down the stairs, looking around

faintly bored. Hikaru raised her arm and gave half a wave.

After blinking several times, recognition washed over Kurumi's

face. She grinned and pushed her way through the crowd.

"Hikaru! I didn't think you were coming! Oh, Kyosuke will

definitely want to see you."



"Kurumi, please." Hikaru quickly looked both ways, afraid that

Kyosuke would suddenly pop up out of nowhere. "Don't. I... I

didn't come here to... to talk to him."



"You didn't?" Kurumi peered at her. "Hikaru, why *are* you

here?"



Hikaru stared back at her former classmate. She and Kurumi had

managed to be in the same homeroom all during junior high and

high school. They'd been friends, although not particularly

close friends. Kurumi's biggest charm had been her unwavering

support for Hikaru's relationship with Kyosuke. But she, too,

had been among those who had known about Madoka and hadn't told

Hikaru.



She shook her head to clear it of extraneous thought. Right now,

Kurumi was the person Hikaru trusted the most. "Um... do you

remember when... when I went around seducing men?"



The effect of this question on Kurumi has anything but

understated. Her jaw dropped open and her eyes grew wide.

"What?"



"Don't you remember?" Hikaru pointed to her mouth. "I went

around late at night and attacked them all with lipstick."



Kurumi blushed. "Um... why would you bring this up all of a

sudden?"



"Something happened to me," Hikaru persisted. "I... I didn't

remember acting that way. It was as if I was a different

person."



A nervous smile appeared on Kurumi's face. She looked from side

to side. "Well, that was an interesting thing, wasn't it? But

you got over it. Um, I have to go, uh, help with the food."



Hikaru frowned, leaned forward, and grabbed Kurumi's wrist.

"Kurumi, please listen to me. Something like that's happened to

Kasuga-sempai. And Madoka-san. They weren't themselves at the

wedding."



Kurumi giggled nervously. "I'm sure it was your imagination.

They were under stress because they were getting married. That's

all. Um..."



Hikaru shook her head violently. "No! Did you see how your

brother behaved? The way he acted? Did it seem normal to you?"



"He just forgot what he was supposed to be doing. He's like

that. He's a little high-strung sometimes."



"Not that!" Desperation was welling up in Hikaru. Couldn't

anyone else *see*? "The way he looked at her, the way he treated

her! It wasn't *him*!"



Another denial began to form on Kurumi's lips. It froze there,

then faded away as her expression turned thoughtful. "Hmm." She

touched her finger to her pursed lips, then turned to look into

the crowd.



Hikaru did her best to will belief into Kurumi. She'd had

experience doing this. Not *good* experience; all her efforts to

will reciprocal affection into Kyosuke had come to naught. But

this time she seemed to have a better chance of success.



Kurumi looked back at Hikaru, then apparently decided something.

"Come with me." She reversed Hikaru's grip on her wrist and

pulled her into the crowd.



"No!" Hikaru dug in her heels. "I don't want to see him!"



"Silly." Kurumi released Hikaru's wrist and jumped up into the

air. "Manami!"



Hikaru was normally not one to shy from attention. But this was

not the place she wanted to be nor the attention she wanted to

receive. She did her best to fade from sight right where she

stood. The best she could do was to duck her head and hunch her

shoulders.



"Kurumi!" This voice sounded cross as it approached. "Don't be

so rude."



"It's not *my* fault. She wouldn't let me go look for you."



Hikaru finally raised her head. A woman wearing another

bridesmaid's gown stood next to Kurumi. She had long hair

flowing down her shoulders. Intelligent brown eyes looked out

from a very attractive face.



They blinked at each other for a moment. Then the woman smiled.

"Hikaru!"



Hikaru was a little slower on the uptake. Then she realized...

tie the hair in a ponytail, put some glasses on the face...

"Manami!"



Manami's smile grew wider. "I'm so glad you came! Kyosuke will

be very happy to see you."



"Um..." Hikaru sighed.



"She's not here to see him. She thinks he and Madoka-san have

been hypnotized or something. Do you think he's been acting

strange today?"



Manami looked at Kurumi steadily for a second. Then her eyes

lost focus. "Hmm." She turned to look off somewhere to her

right.



Hikaru followed her gaze and blanched. Standing together in

front of the fireplace were Madoka and Kyosuke. Madoka was still

smiling blankly and nodding at something a woman was saying to

her. Kyosuke was slightly behind her shoulder, as if using her

as a shield. His expression seemed to be a mixture of anxiety

and contempt. He was holding a mostly-full glass of champagne in

front of his mouth but didn't appear to be attempting to drink

it. His eyes were scanning the crowd.



And then his eyes met hers.



Hikaru eeped and looked hastily down, her face burning, all

rationality leaving her in a rush of embarrassment. Oh God, he'd

seen her, he'd seen her *here*. He'd think she'd come here to

try and win him away one last time, and he'd be friendly and nice

like he always was but underneath she'd feel the pity, the

sincere regret that Hikaru had grown infatuated with him, and she

couldn't stand that, not then and not now. Oh God, he'd seen her

and she'd never live this down. She waited, waited for him to

come up to her and call her "Hikaru-chan", for her humiliation to

begin.



Nothing happened.



She slowly raised her head. Kyosuke was now looking off

somewhere else, the champagne glass still in front of his mouth.

He was ignoring her.



Hikaru's fear subsided, replaced by her original certainty -

something was very wrong with Kyosuke.



She looked at the twins. They were both staring at Kyosuke,

various degrees of incredulity on their faces. Then they looked

at each for a moment, and Hikaru could almost feel a silent

communication taking place.



Hikaru felt a preternatural need to say something verbal. "That

isn't Sempai. At least, not the Sempai I knew five years ago."



Manami broke her gaze away from Kurumi. "No. It's not. There

*is* something wrong."



"Madoka-san, too." Hikaru waved in her general direction without

looking. "She shouldn't be acting that way."



Manami seemed to consider that. "Hmm. What do you think,

Kurumi?"



Kurumi appeared to be getting angry. "I say that *isn't*

Kyosuke. And whoever it is..." She scowled. "He won't get away

with it." She began to stalk towards the couple.



"Kurumi!" Hikaru hissed. She began to move after Kurumi.



And couldn't.



She looked down at herself. Something was pushing against her

torso, keeping her from going forward. A pillow covering a steel

plate. But nothing was there.



Hikaru gaped after Kurumi. She was striding directly towards

Kyosuke. Kyosuke saw her coming, and his face grew wary.



"Kurumi, what are you doing?" Manami seemed utterly shocked.

She, too, appeared to be trying to move forward but not

succeeding.



Just as it seemed Kurumi would run into Kyosuke, she swerved and

greeted Madoka. Madoka responded gaily, and they were soon

chatting.



Kyosuke watched her for a minute, his face slowly relaxing. He

began to sweep the room again, and Hikaru quickly averted her

eyes. She looked over at Manami. She had a thousand questions

to ask but she was frightened out of her mind.



Suddenly the force holding her in place vanished. She took an

involuntary step forward and quickly regained her balance. She

looked back at Kurumi, who was rocking back and forth on her

heels while talking to Madoka. Her hands were clasped behind her

back; one was gesturing urgently.



Hikaru spoke in a small, quiet voice. "What's she trying to

say?"



"She needs a distraction." Manami grimaced, then stepped forward

herself.



"Wait!" But it was too late, and Hikaru was alone. She could

only watch with a kind of horrified fascination as Manami walked

up to Kyosuke and began a conversation.



The wary expression returned to Kyosuke's face. He appeared to

try and brush Manami off but she was cheerfully insistent. She

laughed once and kept touching him, punching him playfully on the

shoulder or grabbing his hand to examine his wedding ring.



It took a while for Hikaru to figure it out. Manami was slowly

turning Kyosuke away from Madoka. To what purpose, Hikaru

couldn't guess.



Kurumi had stopped rocking and was now leaning forward slightly,

still chatting brightly. Madoka was giggling at something. Then

Kurumi reached up one of her hands and poked Madoka in the middle

of her forehead.



Madoka's face went slack. Kurumi said something into her ear.

After a few seconds, Kurumi whirled and walked off, leaving

Madoka staring blankly into space.



Manami left Kyosuke a few seconds later. Kyosuke frowned after

her, then turned to Madoka. He squeezed her shoulder. She

looked up at him, and her smile returned in full force. He asked

her a question and she nodded energetically. They began to move

towards the stairs.



Manami came, trailing Kurumi behind her. She whisked Hikaru in

her wake, and they all made their way to the front door.



When they were outside and a reasonable distance from the door,

Manami whirled on Kurumi. "All right, what were you doing?"



Kurumi smiled mischievously. "Protecting Madoka-san."



"Please." Hikaru felt like something was choking her. "What did

you do to me? How did you paralyze me? What did you do to

Madoka? What's happened to Kyosuke?" Fear bubbled up inside

her. "Please tell me... what's going on?"



Kurumi and Manami looked at each other once again. Kurumi

nodded. Manami grimaced, turned, and took Hikaru's hands.

"Hikaru... I think it's time you knew about our family."



---



His whole world was pain. His hands were on fire. Every beat of

his heart caused the pain to flare up. Agony was his constant

companion.



Something, however, was better. This was good, and he couldn't

exactly say why. He tried to concentrate, to bring some

coherency to his thoughts. All he could come up with was that

the pain was no longer increasing. It was lessening, in fact.

His right hand felt better than his left hand. He tried to open

his eyes so he could look at his hands, but the pain was too

much.



"Are you awake?" A harsh voice, and the harshness made him

flinch. But it was also a familiar voice, one that immediately

calmed him down. He managed a nod.



"All right. Now, for this last finger I'm going to need to set

the bone. This is going to hurt. A lot. You're going to have

to lie at still as possible. Do you understand?"



"Y-yes." He tried to brace himself as well as he could.



Hands gripped his finger in a way that called to mind all sorts

of horrible memories he was trying desperately to suppress. He

cried out in fear, then clenched his jaw.



Something pulled his finger, and the pain climbed to new levels.

He screamed but did his best to freeze his arm in place. Tears

streamed from his eyes. He managed to choke off the scream and

bite his tongue instead.



"Okay, just a minute longer." Something was being applied to his

finger - a splint? - and then his hand was gently put by his

side. "That's the best I can do."



Kyosuke took ragged breaths, trying desperately to adjust to the

pain. After several long minutes, he felt sufficiently fortified

to open his eyes. His vision was a little blurred, possibly the

result of how tightly clenched he'd kept his eyes shut. He was

going to lift one of his hands so he could look at it, but his

muscles gave him a warning twitch of pain as he began to move his

hand. He wanted to sit up, but couldn't think of a way to

accomplish that without using his arms. He turned his head from

side to side, trying to figure out where he was.



The room was cramped and dingy. There were no windows, and the

only light source was a lantern hung on the ceiling. He was

lying on a futon in the middle of the room. Several crates

evidently substituted for furniture; they were being used not

only to store clothes and other items, but the tops were used to

put other objects like a mirror or a vase of artificial flowers.

One wall of the room was practically covered by stacks of tin

cans. Food, he realized.



Somebody was kneeling at his feet, where he had difficulty seeing

without raising his head. "Hello?" No response. "Um... where

am I?"



Whoever had tended to his broken fingers was not being

responsive. Kyosuke sighed. "Whoever you are... thank you. Can

you take me to a hospital now?"



After another moment of silence, he was favored with a response.

"They'd never let us inside. We'd be shot down before we could

even get close."



Now, at last, he figured out who the voice belonged to. In a

convulsive effort, he used his elbows to prop himself up

awkwardly. "Madoka!"



She was kneeling with her hands on her thighs, staring at him

impassively. She appeared to be wearing her old high school

uniform for some reason. And that wasn't the only thing odd

about her. A thousand little things were wrong. Her hair wasn't

the right length and was cut a little unevenly. Her nails were

cut to the quick, her face was a little rougher, she was wearing

no jewelry or makeup... it was all out of sorts. Most of all,

her eyes were... cold. Hard emerald rocks that contained none of

the life Kyosuke expected in them.



One of his elbows slipped and he fell back against the futon.

The impact traveled up his arm and triggered a new wave of pain

from his hands. Kyosuke closed his eyes and groaned, riding out

the pain again.



He heard her get up and shuffle through her things. She then

knelt by his head and put a pill on his lips. Surprised, he took

it into his mouth, recognizing the bitter taste of aspirin. She

reached her arm underneath his shoulders, lifted him up a little,

and put a cup to his lips. He took a sip of the water,

swallowing the pill. The water made him realize how dry his

throat was, and he eagerly drank down the rest of the water as

she slowly tilted the cup.



Kyosuke gasped as the cup was lifted away. He managed to smile

at the still-impassive face very close to his. "Thank you."



She inclined her head, then lay him back down. He turned his

head so he could see her face as it gazed down on him. They

stared at each other for a while.



Finally, he couldn't stand it any longer. "What's happened,

Madoka? Where are we?"



She held up two fingers of her hand. "That's twice you've called

me that."



"Called you what?" He frowned. "Madoka?"



A third finger joined the other two. "How is it that you can

address me in such a familiar fashion?"



"But... Madoka!"



Now all four fingers were raised. "You don't want to know what

happens on the fifth occurrence."



Oh God, something was horribly wrong. He swallowed. "I'm

sorry."



She lowered her hand again. "Who are you?"



Kyosuke closed his eyes in dismay. "You don't know me?"



No answer. Kyosuke felt the throbbing of pain in his hands

coursing through his body. His mind, still a little groggy, was

utterly confused by what was happening. A full-scale depression

was settling over him. This was supposed to have been the

happiest day of his life. Instead it was an utter nightmare.



"You saved my life once, I think."



Kyosuke's eyes flew open. "What?"



Still no expression on her face, but her voice was a little

softer. "Years ago. Of course, it was your fault I was in that

situation in the first place."



"I... I don't understand."



Ayukawa cocked her head. "Maybe it wasn't you. But you look

like him. And you can teleport like he did."



"Uh... who is 'he'?"



Her gaze turned inward. "Eight years ago. When Akane's gang

attacked. They saw me as a threat to their control of the

school, so they captured me and planned to make an example of me.

Then he came. He had ESP. He spoke to me telepathically. Along

with Hikaru and the Kasuga twins, he came and rescued me."



Her eyes focused on him again. "He never gave me his name.

When... when I tried to be friendly to him, he... left." Her

brow lowered slightly and her voice could freeze lava. "He

teleported away without saying a word and left me behind. I

looked for him for a long time. He obviously found the idea of

being with me repugnant, and fled."



Kyosuke shivered. Now he remembered. "Th-that *was* me."



"Really?"



"Y-yes. I met you at the Abcb. You hid me in your coat when

Komatsu- when the police were after me."



Ayukawa leaned forward so that her face was inches away from him.

"Where do you come from? Why did you leave? Why did you come

back?" She barked the questions at him. "Answer me!"



Kyosuke swallowed hard. "I... I come from... from an alternate

world. A parallel universe. I teleported here accidentally

eight years ago. I'm not sure how I got here this time."



She leaned back, her face still angry but a trace of puzzlement

in her voice. "Parallel universe?"



"Yes. It's like yours, but different. It's because I have the

Power that I'm able to move from one universe to another."



"Hmm." Now she sounded thoughtful. "The Kasuga twins said that

you claimed to be their older brother."



He nodded. "In my universe, they're my sisters. My name is

Kasuga Kyosuke."



"Kyosuke." She said his name slowly and thoughtfully. "I

wondered."



"Can you tell me how you found me?" Kyosuke looked down at his

hands. "I'm not sure if this happened to me before or after."



Ayukawa considered him for a moment, then shrugged. "I was here

reading. Suddenly there was a 'whoosh' and you appeared next to

me on the futon. I almost killed you."



Kyosuke looked into at her stony features and knew that this was

no idle comment. "But you didn't. You fixed me up. Thanks."



"You're welcome." She stood up abruptly. "I'm going to collect

some water so we can have dinner." Picking up a plastic pitcher,

she moved towards the door. She hesitated, and looked at him

over her shoulder. "I don't know what it's like in your

universe. Here, it is very dangerous outside. If you value your

life, don't leave. This room is fairly soundproof, but I

wouldn't make a lot of noise either. Just to be safe."



He remembered what a dark, grim place this world had been like

last time. "Uh... maybe you should contact my, er, sisters.

They could help me out."



Ayukawa shook her head. "They're dead." With that, she

manipulated some locks on the door, opened it, and walked

through. As the door closed behind her, the locks clicked back

into place.



Kyosuke was oblivious to it all. Dead. Kurumi and Manami. For

some reason, it didn't make a lot of difference that they weren't

the women from his universe. His sisters were dead.



Tears of a different nature streamed from his eyes. He was more

alone than he could possibly have imagined, and it hurt in a way

that made the pain from his hands seem pleasant by comparison.



---



Hikaru stared at nothing at all for a long time after Manami

finished speaking.



Kurumi eventually poked Hikaru in the shoulder. "Are you okay?"



Hikaru focused on her. Slowly, a smile appeared on her face.

"I'm fine."



"Really?" Kurumi tilted her head. "How... What do you think?"



"It makes sense." Hikaru waved her arms above her head. "That

explains *everything*!"



Kurumi blinked. "What?"



She laughed. "I understand now. All the strange things that

kept happening. Kyosuke disappearing and reappearing. My watch

suddenly ninety minutes fast. All the little mysteries about

Kyosuke." She brought her hands down and clasped them in front

of her. "You don't know what a relief it is to... to *know*."



"Please, Hikaru." Manami's voice was very serious. "You mustn't

tell anyone. *Anyone*. Do you know what would happen if someone

found out?"



The smile left Hikaru's face. "Does Madoka-san know?"



Manami nodded.



"How long? When did she know?"



"Um... Not until after she came back from America. Kyosuke told

her then."



Hikaru digested that. Madoka hadn't known during high school

either. For some reason, that made Hikaru feel a little better.



She suddenly remembered what had prompted the revelation. "So,

can you explain what's happened to Sempai? And Madoka-san?"



"Madoka-san's been hypnotized." Kurumi nodded firmly. "I'm sure

of it."



"But why?" Manami put a finger alongside her nose in a portrait

of deep thought. "Why make Madoka act like that? For what

purpose?"



"So she wouldn't call attention to Kasuga-sempai," Hikaru shot

right back. "Because he's acting weird, and someone doesn't want

anyone to notice. And Madoka-san, more than anyone else, *would*

notice."



The twins looked at her in surprise. She looked back at them.

"Don't you think?"



"Okay," Kurumi said hesitantly. "Then who's hypnotized Kyosuke,

and why?"



Manami's eyes widened. "Kazuya!"



Kurumi frowned. "Why would Kazuya hypnotize him?"



"Not *hypnotize* him, Kurumi."



For a moment Kurumi looked at her sister blankly. Then her eyes,

too, widened.



Hikaru was mostly drawing a blank, although the name sounded

familiar. "Who's Kazuya?"



"Our cousin." Manami's eyes were still wide. "He's been missing

for three days. We've heard rumors that... that's he been mixed

up with some bad people."



Something still didn't add up. "And how does this all relate to

Sempai?"



Kurumi grimaced. "Kazuya's got the Power, too."



A sudden cheering came from the front door. People were pouring

out of it at a rate and volume that astounded Hikaru. They

turned back to face the door, still shouting loudly.



Hikaru leaned in closely towards the twins, trying to get herself

heard. "And what does that mean? What did he do to Sempai?"



Manami shouted, her eyes watching the door. "He has the ability

to swap minds with other ESPers. And... and he's not the nicest

person I know."



Madoka and Kyosuke appeared at the front door. They had changed

clothes. Kyosuke was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt;

Madoka a simple skirt and blouse. She grinned widely at the mass

of people, who immediately began showering the two with rice.

Kyosuke looked mildly annoyed at first, but quickly forced a

smile on his face.



Hikaru began to panic. "If that's Kazuya, we have to stop him!"



Kurumi nodded. "Yes! We should talk to Grandma and Grandpa when

things calm down."



"No, no, no!" Hikaru shook her head violently. "We have to stop

him now!"



"We have time. They don't leave for Hawaii until tomorrow."



"Tomorrow!" The panic grew. "We can't wait that long! He have

to keep him from... from..."



A strange smile covered Kurumi's face. "Don't worry. We're safe

for tonight."



Manami frowned. "What did you do, Kurumi?"



"I was just protecting Madoka-san."



As Hikaru watched, Madoka and Kyosuke pushed their way through

the smiling, noisy crowd. A white limousine waited for them on

the other side of the gate. They ran towards the open car door

the chauffeur had opened. Madoka stopped, turned, and waved

excitedly. Kyosuke almost yanked her into the limo with him.

Chorused goodbyes filled the yard as the limousine pulled away.



Manami shook her head. "I hope you know what you're doing,

Kurumi."



"Trust me." Kurumi's eyes twinkled mischievously.



Hikaru drew in a deep breath. This had been an emotionally

exhausting day so far. She'd received more shocks, dramatic

revelations, and blows to her psyche in the past few hours than

she'd received in... in the past seven years. And the day wasn't

over yet. "What do we do now?"



Manami did the finger on the nose thing again. "I'd say we need

to bring Akane in on this. We don't *know* that Kazuya's taken

over Kyosuke's body. We need to find Kazuya *now*."



Kurumi wiggled her nose. "Grandma and Grandpa."



"Grandma and Grandpa," Manami said almost grudgingly. "They

might be our best bet."



"Might be?" Something in Manami's voice confused Hikaru.



"Grandma and Grandpa have the strongest Power in the family."

Kurumi turned her mouth down. "Or do have when they're... here."



"Here?"



"First things first," Manami said decisively. "Let's find

Akane."



---



Kyosuke's nostrils brought him slowly awake. Something smelled

good. At least, it smelled hot and edible, which to his rumbling

stomach *had* to be good.



Realization washed over him, of where he remembered being and

what had apparently happened to him. His eyes shot open and he

raised his left hand. Pain shot down his arm, although not as

intense as before. Crude but effective splints had been applied

to all four fingers and his thumb, and his whole hand wrapped

heavily in bandages. His hand still hurt a lot, but it was

bearable.



He raised his right hand, which was in similar condition,

although his thumb was unbroken. He flexed it experimentally,

and found that moving it sent sharp slivers of pain through his

broken fingers. Best to keep it still for a while, he decided.



Something else was different, he realized as he carefully lowered

his arms back onto the futon. His head was clearer. He could

think a lot better. Enough to seriously wonder what the heck had

happened to him. While his present thoughts were coherent, his

memories of the past twenty-four hours were a blur. His last

clear memory was moving out of his old apartment. Then there

were flashes: getting drunk with the guys, being strapped to a

table while men spoke to him, his fingers being broken - his mind

skittered around those memories - and waking up here with...



He turned his head. Ayukawa was heating a pot over what looked

like a Bunsen burner. The smell was emanating from the pot -

some kind of stew, Kyosuke guessed. His mouth drooled

involuntarily. He was famished.



"Awake at last?" Ayukawa spoke without turning.



"Yes." He frowned. His voice sounded strange. He decided to

experiment a bit. "I'm quite hungry, too." Something definitely

weird. Perhaps it had something to do with how much he'd been

screaming before. He vividly remembered screaming.



Shuddering, he experimented with sitting up to distract himself.

By using his elbows and wiggling in place, he managed to sit up

against the wall. The concrete was cool and rough even through

his shirt.



Ayukawa tossed her head and looked over her shoulder at him.

"Feeling better, I see."



"Yes, thanks." He looked down at his hands. "I really should

see a doctor, I think."



"Hmm." She turned back to the pot, stirring its contents. "What

is your world like, Kasuga-kun?"



Kasuga-kun. The words shook him. Madoka - *his* Madoka - had

called him that at the very beginning of their relationship. It

had taken him a while to figure out, but the slightly

condescending form of address was actually her way of showing a

degree of affection. Those that she truly despised she ignored

completely.



Kyosuke took a breath. "Uh, I dunno. It's... well, there's a

lot more order. Not a lot of crime. I mean, there's crime, but

not so much that... that..."



"That businesses are destroyed, schools shut down, and the elite

barricade themselves in the heart of the cities and the unwashed

masses are left to fend for themselves?"



Kyosuke blinked at the cool, detached tone of her voice. Despite

all the pain he'd felt in the past few hours, this managed to

make him feel a bit of horror. "Is that what your world is like,

Ma- Ayukawa?"



She didn't answer, except to ladle some of the stew into a bowl.

She turned to face him, the bowl held in her hands. Kyosuke

raised his hands, stared at the bandages, and back to Ayukawa.

She calmly took a spoon, scooped up some of the stew, and brought

it to his mouth. He carefully ate from the spoon, all the time

meeting Ayukawa's dispassionate gaze.



The stew felt good going down. He was quite hungry, and couldn't

help looking back at the bowl. Ayukawa continued to feed him,

and he did nothing but concentrate on the stew until the bowl was

empty.



He sighed when it was gone. "Thank you."



She nodded and ladled the rest of the stew into the same bowl.

She ate mechanically, all the time staring at him with a kind of

detached intensity.



Kyosuke waited until she was done. "Ayukawa... can you tell me

what happened to my... my sisters?"



She nodded towards the cases of food. "They died in a raid we

made on a warehouse, just before the last of the barricades went

up. Twenty-five of us went in. Twelve came out, but with a

whole trailer full of food." She set her bowl on the ground.

"Enough to last each surviving member for two or three years,

depending on how many mouths they had to feed."



Kyosuke had to blink back tears. All too vividly his imagination

called up images of Kurumi and Manami fighting and dying just so

they could have food. And yesterday - had it been only

yesterday? - the talk had been of ice cream.



He tried to wipe his tears away, but the mere movement of his

hands reminded him why that would be impossible. Instead he

blinked his eyes rapidly and shook his head a little.



Ayukawa peered closely at him. "You really did care for them."



"They were my *sisters*!" He was a bit taken aback by the

vehemence in his own voice.



She cocked her head. "Not really. If what you say is true, they

weren't your sisters."



"Close enough." His brow furrowed slightly. "You have a sister,

don't you?"



"Yes." The ice in her voice and on her face made it clear that

this was a subject not to be pursued.



Kyosuke let out a sigh of frustration. Damn it all anyway. What

had *happened*? He pushed himself with his elbows so he was

sitting upright, then tried to stand.



Ayukawa raised an eyebrow. "What do you think you're doing?"



He was getting more than a little fed up with this Madoka's

attitude. He growled, preparing to give her back some of the

same. Then he remembered - the bandages she had used, the

aspirin she had given him. Surely very rare commodities. And

the food. "What will you do when you run out of cans?"



Something like surprise flitted across her face. "I don't know.

Maybe try to move out to the country; surely they're still

growing rice there. Maybe try to organize another raid, with

more people. If I can find any that I trust." She shrugged.

"Maybe I'll just starve," she said noncommittally.



"So...," he said softly, "every can of food you give me could be

a day of your life?"



She shrugged again. "I struggle enough these days to find a

reason to live. What's a few days more or less?"



Her calm, even tone sent prickles along Kyosuke's skin. This

*was* an evil world she lived in. He tried to regain a measure

of calm. "I need to go to the bathroom."



Ayukawa nodded, stood, and helped him to his feet. "Through

here." She pushed on one wall, which opened up to reveal a crude

toilet, much like an outhouse. Where the hole lead, Kyosuke had

no idea. He nodded his thanks and made his way there.



"Need any help?"



"No!" Kyosuke growled. "This I can do by myself."



"Are you sure?" Somewhere, far beneath the cool delivery of her

words, some humor was beginning to show. "You don't have any

fingers."



He held up his right hand and carefully flexed his thumb. "I'll

manage."



"You're sure? It won't bother me, I assure you."



"It would bother *me*." He looked over his shoulder at her.

"What would *you* do if the situation was reversed?"



"Kill myself for being stupid enough to get my fingers broken,"

she shot back promptly. A corner of her mouth lifted slightly.

"Very well. Let me know when you're done." She turned back and

began to clean up after dinner.



Kyosuke studied her for a few seconds, lost in thought. There

was something... familiar in her bearing. Beneath the ice and

granite loomed the woman *he* knew as Madoka. She was just

beginning to come out of her shell - a process he had witnessed

once before. There was something... tantalizing in seeing it

happen again. Because of him.



Cutting off that train of thought, he turned back towards what

passed for the bathroom.



---



Akane looked around the table. "No."



"Yes," Kurumi answered right back.



"No!" To Hikaru's eyes, Akane was looking more and more frantic.

"It's not possible!"



Hikaru leaned forward. "You saw Sempai at the wedding. Was that

him?"



"It wasn't my brother!" Akane slapped the table. "He wouldn't

do anything like that! Why would he?"



"We don't know, Akane." Manami's voice was soft and calm. "We

need to find out."



"SHUT UP!" Akane shot to her feet. "YOU'RE WRONG, YOU'RE ALL

WRONG!" She stalked towards the door.



Hikaru jumped up and stepped in front of Akane. "Please... we

want you to be right, for your brother to be whole and safe. But

no matter what, the answer to what happened to him lies in

Kyosuke. Help us help your brother."



Akane's eyes were a little glazed over, her voice strident.

"You're saying... my brother is a horrible person. That he took

over Kyosuke just so he could marry Madoka instead. That's

horrible! He'd never do that!"



"We're not saying he did. We don't *know*, Akane. There may be

a lot of things that can explain what's happened. We just have

to find them. That's all."



Akane shook her head. "No. No." She closed her eyes as tears

began to come flow from them. "No no no no..."



Hikaru reached out and hugged her gently. Akane began sobbing on

her shoulder as Hikaru stroked her hair and spoke soothingly to

her.



Manami stepped up to speak into Akane's ear. "We'll get your

brother back, Akane. Trust us."



Akane lifted her head to look with mascara-streaked cheeks at

Manami. "Oh God, I hope so. He really... wouldn't..."



Kurumi bounded over to them. "Okay! Let's go see Grandma and

Grandpa!"



Everyone blinked at Kurumi. She smiled cheerfully back at them.

Manami spoke with a hint of irritation. "Subtlety has never been

one of your strong points, sister."



"And knowing when to shut up has never been one of yours."

Kurumi pulled on Akane's arm and dragged her over to the sink.

"Let's get you cleaned up first."



Hikaru sighed as Kurumi wiped Akane's face with a washcloth.

Manami heard, and their eyes met. Hikaru gestured expressively.

"Do you have the feeling that we've just begun to scratch the

surface here? That there's going to be a lot more pain before

it's all over?"



Manami seemed to think it over for a while. "I can't say for

sure. But I do know that there would be more pain if we did

nothing."



Hikaru couldn't help laughing once. "Yes. I'm well aware of

that."



"Okay!" Kurumi, almost dragging Akane behind her, appeared in

their midst. "Let's go!"



They all moved en masse down the hall. The house had mostly

emptied of people, leaving family members behind. Manami went up

to an older couple. Hikaru recognized them as Kyosuke's

grandparents. They looked a little more frail than the last time

she'd seen them. She frowned slightly, hoping the twins knew

what they were doing.



Manami lifted Grandpa to his feet as the rest of the family began

to exclaim. Manami seemed to be trying to reassure them at the

same time she was talking softly to Grandpa. Finally, Grandma

rose shakily to her feet, said something that apparently ended

all debate, and walked with Grandpa and Manami back towards

Hikaru and company.



Grandpa's eyes were shining. "My, you all look so pretty!

Akane-chan, heavens, you've grown so beautiful since the last

time I saw you!"



Akane smiled wanly. "That was an hour ago, Grandpa."



"Was it?" Grandpa frowned for a moment in puzzlement, then

turned towards Hikaru. "And don't you look lovely, um, dear!

You should show more of that attractive bosom of yours, get all

the men's attention!"



Hikaru blushed scarlet. Grandma reached over to pat Grandpa's

shoulder. "Dear, you're embarrassing her."



"Nonsense!" Grandpa seemed offended. "She's an attractive lady

who should-"



"Grandpa!" Kurumi growled and pushed him down the hallway back

towards the kitchen. "Quiet!"



"Have you found a boyfriend yet, Kurumi-chan?" Grandpa seemed

undeterred. "I know this young man in our village who-"



"GrandPA!" Kurumi almost shoved him into a chair. "For the last

time, I am *not* moving back to the village! No one is!"



"But dear," Grandma smoothly picked up the attack as she sat at

the table, "you know that the outside world isn't ready for us.

Better that we stay close to home before-"



"Grandma. Grandpa." Manami's soft voice was nevertheless

effective at cutting off debate. "We have a greater problem

right now. We need to find Kazuya."



"Kazuya?" Grandpa frowned. "Kazuya?"



"You know, dear." Grandma smiled. "Our grandson."



"Oh!" Grandpa rubbed his mostly-bald head in apparent

embarrassment. "Yes, Kazuya, of course! How could I forget?"



Akane leaned in. "Remember that we asked for your help finding

him before? Could you try again? We..." She paused and

swallowed. "We need to find him."



"Kazuya?" Grandpa blinked at her. "But he was just here, wasn't

he?"



"Really?" Akane's eyes lit up. "Where?"



Grandpa rolled his eyes thoughtfully. "He... he was... I...

Mother, where is he?"



"I don't know, dear." Grandma smiled apologetically.



Hikaru bit down hard on her frustration. This wasn't getting

them anywhere. She turned towards Kurumi. "Maybe we should-"



Grandma continued unheeding. "But he left with Madoka-chan.

She's going to be a wonderful granddaughter, don't you think,

dear?"



The young women in the kitchen all stared at the smiling visage

of the Kasuga family matriarch. Hikaru felt a cold, hard lump

form in the pit of her stomach. "Sempai..." She sat down

heavily on a chair, the last of her strength leaving her in a

surge of fear.



---



Kyosuke sat against the wall, trying to be as still as possible.

His hands had begun to throb again, and he didn't want to ask for

another aspirin.



Ayukawa was sitting opposite, reading a book. She didn't seem to

be doing a good job of it; she hadn't turned the page in ten

minutes.



He ventured a question. "What do you do during the day?"



She looked up at him, her gaze hard. "Live."



Kyosuke suppressed a grimace. "Anything else?"



"No." She looked down at the book again.



"Ayukawa." He waited until she looked up again. "I... is there

anything I can do? To... repay you for what you've done to help

me?"



She stared at him expressionlessly and said nothing.



He shifted slightly. "I've got the Power, after all. I can use

it to help you... I dunno... get more food or something."



Her gaze remained steady for another minute. Then she looked

down at her book.



Kyosuke swore silently. She was so cold and closed. He was

certain there was something he could do for her. If only he

could tell what she was thinking. He focused on what he could

see of her face, half-hidden by the hair falling around it.



i'vereadthisparagraphthreetimesstartover

wheninthecourseofhumaneventsitbecomesnecessary

itdoesn'tmakesensenoneofitmakessense

he'ssoyoungjustlikethefirsttimedoesheageatall?



Kyosuke jerked his head back so sharply it hit the wall. He

cried out and squeezed his eyes shut. After the initial

dizziness passed, he opened them again to see Ayukawa looking at

him in concern.



He grinned weakly at her. "Sorry."



She half-closed the book in her lap while staring at him

curiously. "Why did you do that?"



He blinked once. He'd been surprised because...



_he had read her mind_.



Kyosuke trembled once in reaction. He'd completely forgotten

that in this universe he could read minds and project thoughts.

He'd only had a couple of opportunities to try it out the last

time. One time he had been able to communicate with Ayukawa from

outside the school building when she'd been held captive inside.



He could do it again. He could read her thoughts. He'd done it

just now.



He gathered himself and tried to answer her. "Uh, I was, uh,

just surprised by, er, the book you're reading."



She raised an eyebrow and looked at the cover. "You can read

English?"



Oops. "Er, no. That's why I was surprised, because I didn't

know you could."



"Hmm." She looked at him evenly for a few seconds - flat stares

seemed to be her favorite means of communication - then shrugged

and opened the book again.



Kyosuke sat still for a few minutes. During that time Ayukawa

managed to flip a page. Then he focused himself again and tried

to enter her mind. Her thoughts were less than words and more

than images. They flitted by so fast, and the best his mind

could do was to record them and play them back with whatever

meaning he could deduce.



Soweirdsostupidsovulnerable

hedesertedmeleftmebehindlikemomlikedadlikeeveryone

thatamongthesearelifelibertyandthepursuitof

thelookonhisfaceashewenttothebathroomsofunnysocute



This last thought was accompanied by a memory of just an hour

ago, of a young man with a slightly affronted look on his face.

A teenager, definitely the worse for the wear, with bandages on

his hands...



Kyosuke's whole being froze. For over a minute his mind refused

to operate.



Finally he looked down at himself. For some reason the fact that

he was wearing a school uniform hadn't fully registered on him.

It had been the least of weirdnesses around him, and he hadn't

considered the implications. He hadn't worn a school uniform in

years.



"Ayukawa." His voice was soft, very soft, and tense. She looked

up at him in surprise. "Do you have a mirror?"



She lifted her eyebrows slightly. She seemed to be on the verge

of a question, then reconsidered. She stood up, placing the book

carefully on the floor, and walked to one side of the room. She

took a small mirror off of a crate, turned, and knelt beside him,

holding it out in front of him. Although the mirror was rather

small, he could see a fairly good image of himself.



Except it *wasn't* himself.



Anger began to build in him. In leaps and bounds it grew,

causing his heart to pound and his vision to turn red. He jumped

to his feet, banging one of his hands against the wall and

sending spasms of pain through his arm. He shouted in pain,

turning it into a name. "KAZUYA!"



---



Amano stopped pacing as the tall man entered. "Well?"



The tall man looked very grim. "We have been unable to locate

him."



"Damn!" Amano pounded his desk in frustration. He stopped

himself and soothed his mind. The situation was getting to him.

The longer the boy was free, the more Amano began peering into

shadows and suddenly whirling around at the smallest sound. The

thought of what an angry ESPer that could appear and disappear at

will could do to him made Amano very nervous.



The tall man raised an eyebrow. "However, the name he gave

us..."



Amano looked up at him. "Madoka?"



The tall man nodded. "I believe it may refer to Ayukawa Madoka.

She married a cousin of the boy's just today."



"Hmm." Amano considered that. "Is it possible that she and

Kasuga have had a... relationship?"



"She is very beautiful," the tall man said dryly.



Amano nodded. "Very well. Take her. I very much have the

feeling that if we threaten her, the boy will quickly show

himself."



The tall man nodded. "Yes. And this time..." The tall man gave

Amano a hard look. "He will die. I will shoot him in the head

and it will be over."



Amano grimaced, considered, and nodded. "Very well. Just don't

miss."



"I never do." The tall man turned and left.



Amano sighed. He had to admit to the wisdom of the tall man's

decision. The sooner the ESPer was dead, the better they all

could sleep.



---



Kazuya lay in bed, eagerly anticipating the moments to come.

Madoka was in the bathroom, "preparing herself" as she put it.



Kazuya couldn't wait.



The hotel room was quite luxurious. Kazuya let his gaze wander

around the room, taking in the soft elegance. After tonight, it

would be off to Hawaii for the extended honeymoon. But here in

Tokyo... tonight would be the beginning.



A leer spread his lips, and he didn't feel like stopping it.

After all the pain and terror he'd gone through in the past few

days, he *deserved* a night like tonight.



He suddenly sat bolt upright, startled. "What?"



"What?" The voice of Madoka called out to him from behind the

bathroom door.



"Did you call me?"



"No! Did you need something?"



"No." He lay back, puzzled. He was sure he'd heard something.



The light from underneath the bathroom door went out. The door

opened, and the shape of Madoka moved towards the bed. In the

darkness Kazuya couldn't make out what she was wearing, but he

felt certain it was going to be very... interesting. The leer

began again.



Madoka lifted the covers and crawled into bed. She lay on her

side with her back away from him, covering herself up to her

shoulders with the sheets. "Good night, Kyosuke."



Kazuya blinked. Well, this was different. He smiled again and

reached his hand underneath the covers to touch her back, trying

to guess her outfit by the feel of it. His hand touched part of

the sheets, and he tried to move them aside so that he could get

to Madoka's body. After a few seconds, he realized it wasn't the

sheets. It was Madoka. She was wearing pajamas. Flannel

pajamas.



"What the...?" He moved over so that he was right next to her.

"Madoka, aren't we... going to...?"



"Love you, Kyo-chan." She sounded half-asleep. "Nighty-night."

Her breathing immediately became deep and regular.



Kazuya frowned. He reached out with his mind to discover that

she *was* asleep. The more he probed, the deeper her sleep

became. He shook her slightly once, then harder, but she didn't

stir, instead settling into even a deeper slumber. He tried to

dart in with his mind, but he knew from experience that the

subconscious mind was almost impossible to manipulate. She

needed to *see* him, *think* of him, to be easily manipulated.

Asleep, there was little he could influence. He could still

force her, but he might damage her brain too much while doing it.



Kazuya moved violently away from her in disgust. What kind of

perverted arrangement did these two have? He'd known Kyosuke was

a wimp, but he'd never imagined that his relationship with Madoka

was quite so... tame. Hell, Kyosuke was probably *still* a

virgin. What a jerk.



Kazuya stared at the ceiling, quite frustrated. He'd try again

tomorrow. If she resisted, he'd tweak her mind and make her...

receptive.



He smiled in anticipation, and began to drift off to sleep

himself, comforting himself with wonderful fantasies of what he

and Madoka would do tomorrow.



---



Hikaru pressed her hand to her forehead, still trying to adjust

to all the new concepts. "So tell me again about how this body

switch works?"



"The bodies stay put, sweetie. It's the minds that go wandering

off." Kyosuke's grandfather sat next to her in the backseat of

Kurumi's car. He chattered brightly. "And not really the minds,

really. It's the essence of a person's psychic energy, 'soul' is

the term that usually conveys the concept best, although that is

really inadequate-"



"Grandpa." Akane spoke in a distracted, irritated tone of voice.

"This isn't the time for lectures on the Power."



Manami turned from where she sat in the front seat. "Akane."



Akane shot her a glare, then looked down at her lap.



Hikaru reached across Grandpa and took Akane's hand. "Hey, your

brother will be okay. Sempai, too. You'll see!"



Akane looked at her out of the corner of her eye and offered a

quick smile of appreciation. Then her face dissolved back into a

haunted, frightened expression.



It echoed emotions Hikaru herself was feeling. This was quite a

scary situation. Two of the people she cared about most in the

world had somehow become involved in a macabre nightmare of

bizarre powers. And somehow she had to help get them out of it.



*Had* to. She loved them both a lot, and if it all ended in

tears, then all the sacrifices she'd made for them would be for

nothing.



Damn, she thought to herself. You're so selfish. Is that all

you care about, how this all affects *you*?



It was a question that had haunted her for years. Kyosuke had

done very little over the years to give her reason to think he

was in love with her. But she'd persisted and persisted,

*certain* that he would be hers. And she'd wanted him, ever

since seeing him throw a basketball into a basket a hundred feet

away. Someone who could do *that* - and so effortlessly, too -

had to be a prize catch. So she'd set her sights on him, little

caring what he wanted.



She'd had so many hints that Kyosuke only wanted her friendship.

So many clues that he had really liked Madoka. But it wasn't the

reality she'd wanted, so she'd ignored those things, ignored

everything but the goal she wanted: Kyosuke.



And she'd paid the price for her selfishness. Paid heavily. Not

only had she lost Kyosuke; she'd been unable to hold on to her

friendship with Madoka. She'd practically run to New York to

take advantage of the dancing class. Anything so that she

wouldn't have to face the consequences of her selfishness.



She suppressed a heavy sigh. Now was not the time for self-pity.

Plenty of time for that later.



Almost on cue, Kurumi brought the car to a halt in front of the

hotel. They all looked through the windows into the lavish

lobby.



There was a silence for a minute until Kurumi spoke up. "Now

what?"



"I don't think we should do anything right away." Manami bit her

lip, then looked around the car. "I think we need to talk about

a strategy for dealing with Kazuya. If we can-"



"What?" Akane said sharply. "Knock him out? Subdue him?"



Hikaru squeezed her hand. "He's the only one who knows where

Kyosuke is. And if Kyosuke hasn't gotten in touch with anyone by

this point, he must be in serious trouble."



Akane sighed, somewhere between fear and anguish. "Okay.

Just... please, let's not hurt him."



Manami rubbed her forehead. "Oh, this is so complicated. We've

got a lot to work out."



"Then do it." Hikaru released Akane's hand and opened the door.

"I'll keep watch here. Come get me when you're ready."



"Here." Kurumi rummaged through her purse and produced a

business card and a cell phone. "Page me when you see him, and

I'll call you back. Don't try to talk to him or anything."



"I know." Hikaru took the offerings.



"It may be a while," Manami warned. She looked at Grandma and

Grandpa, who both appeared to be nodding off.



Hikaru shrugged. "I can stay up all night. I'm still on New

York time." She got out of the car. "Think up something good."



"Right." Kurumi waited for the door to close, then took off.



Hikaru wandered into the hotel lobby and went into the all-night

cafe. She took a seat where she could see the elevator, then

ordered coffee. Making herself comfortable, she focused all of

her attention on the elevator doors and waited for something to

happen. Redemption or damnation, whichever came first.



***



Ayukawa looked at him with more than a bit of skepticism. "Your

cousin?"



"Yes." The venom in his voice still surprised him. He was angry

almost beyond his ability to contain. It took considerable

effort on his part not to clench his fists.



"But... you look just... just like you did when I first met you."



"We've always looked a lot alike."



"Identical cousins?" Ayukawa shook her head. "That's almost as

unbelievable as ESP."



"I don't care how unbelievable it is." Kyosuke grit his teeth,

both in anger and to keep himself from saying anything that would

expose him to an Ayukawa slap. After a second, he continued.

"My fingers... someone was after *him*. He stole my body so that

he could escape them."



He looked into the mirror, at the features that weren't his. "He

stole my *life*. And I won't forgive him for that. Ever."



Ayukawa was oddly silent. When he finally looked up at her, she

was looking at him with a curious expression. Her voice was

slightly hesitant as she asked, "Did he send you here?"



"Ummm... no." The images of torture were still blurred in his

mind, but his anger was sharpening them. "I'm pretty sure I did

that myself. I was being tortured, and I had to escape."



More silence as Ayukawa continued to say nothing, which appeared

to be her specialty. Then she looked down and said in a

surprisingly docile voice, "It's getting late. You need rest."



"Rest?" Incredulity flooded Kyosuke's awareness. "How can I

sleep! He- he's out there with *my* body. God knows what he's

doing with it!"



"You need rest," she said with slightly more force. "If he's an

ESPer like you, then he's certainly in better shape than you are.

The only way you're going to be able to fight him is if you've

given yourself a chance to heal a bit first."



Kyosuke's mind spun in circles for a full minute under Ayukawa's

persistent gaze. Finally, he had to admit the validity of her

observation. Kazuya was going to pay, of that there was no

doubt - but Kyosuke was in no condition to fight him. Maybe

never was, a fearful part of his mind said to him. Kazuya had

always been the stronger ESPer, perhaps the strongest in the

family.



With a sigh, Kyosuke lowered himself to the ground against the

wall. Ayukawa reached over and turned off the lamp, plunging the

room into not-quite-total darkness.



Kyosuke heard rustling sounds, which he knew to be Ayukawa

undressing. And it occurred to him that the room was rather

small, and that there was only one place to sleep, and he was

currently occupying it, and when had it become so hot in here?



There was more shuffling, and Kyosuke felt Ayukawa standing over

him. She was engaged in some activity he couldn't fathom. With

a snapping sound a cloth sheet was draped over him, then lifted

up.



It wasn't until he heard her lay down that he got it. She had

somehow arranged for a sheet to be hung as a curtain between

them. Kyosuke was both relieved and disappointed at the same

time.



Silence for a time as he totally failed to fall asleep.



Finally a soft voice from the other side of the curtain, without

a harsh edge. "Tell me more about your world."



Kyosuke swallowed. "What can I tell you?"



"Tell me... about your family."



There was definitely a hint of yearning there. Kyosuke shifted,

very careful of his hands. "Well... I mean, you know about my

twin sisters. I've got a good father, he raised us all by

himself."



"He did?"



"Yes. My mother died giving birth." He swallowed, for some

reason the memory bringing him more pain than usual. He didn't

remember much of her, just vague images. "I was the oldest, so I

had to help raise the twins. Not much, since I was only a couple

of years older than them. Actually, Manami did quite a bit when

she was old enough."



"Manami?" Ayukawa sounded thoughtful. "She was always the more

sober one."



Another icy stab in his gut. "Yeah, she is." He paused a moment

before going on. "I kinda acted like a judge between them

sometimes. They were always fighting when they were kids. So

they'd come to me, only I wasn't very good. I hated having to

take sides. They'd both been through so much, I hated to hurt

either one of 'em."



"What exactly had they been through?"



Kyosuke bit his lip, organizing his thoughts. "Well... us three

kids all had ESP."



"Not your father?"



"Naw. Mom was the one we got it from. Anyway, we couldn't let

anyone know that we were ESPers."



"Why not?"



"Because." He frowned. Actually, come to think of it, he didn't

have a well-defined reason. "All my life, Dad was telling us not

to let anyone know we had the Power. I guess because if someone

found out, they'd take us away to do experiments or something."



"I see." Ayukawa sounded slightly troubled. "So hiding your

powers was difficult?"



"Yeah. Every once in a while, one of us would slip - usually one

of the twins. Then we'd have to move far away. I don't think we

stayed in any place longer for a year up until I was fifteen."

He frowned slightly; had he been fourteen or fifteen? He

couldn't remember.



"So you didn't have many friends." There was a peculiar distant

quality to Ayukawa's voice. "No one to grow close to."



"Well, we had each other." He stopped and considered it. The

family *had* been close. They fought from time to time, but they

always stuck together. "That helped a lot."



"Yes. Family *would* help."



Now she sounded bitter. Kyosuke paused, then spoke gently. "And

your family-"



"Mind your own business, Kasuga," Ayukawa snapped.



Kyosuke made no effort to stifle a sigh of frustration. He

desperately wanted to roll onto his side away from her, but

didn't want to move his hands.



He was on the verge of falling asleep when a voice, so soft he

barely heard it, drifted into his ears. "I was a mistake."



The words jolted him back to awareness. "A what?"



"Mistake." Real pain there. "My parents are world-famous

musicians. They'd had their one child and that was all they

needed for social acceptance. I did not fit into their plans.

My mother gave birth to me, although she seriously considered an

abortion. I was given to my sister to raise while my parents

went on to further their own careers. Unfortunately, my sister

was not necessarily skilled enough to raise a child on her own.

She often let me know her displeasure at being burdened with my

upbringing."



The words twisted his gut. He wondered how much they applied to

his Madoka. They very easily could. "Surely they loved you?"



"Love?" Ayukawa sounded indifferent. "I have difficulty finding

a frame of reference. I sometimes would lie awake at night,

crying and crying because I wanted my mother or father to be

there with me, to hug me or smile at me or give me *some*

indication that they liked me. Tell me, Kasuga-kun, is that

love?"



Kyosuke couldn't help a bit of irritation from leaking through.

"No, and you know that it's not."



She returned the irritation in full measure. "So sure are you?

Tell me, telepath from another world, what *is* love?"



"It's..." He sighed. "If I have to try and explain it, you'll

never understand. Haven't you ever felt passionate about

something, where just thinking about it would give you peace?"



A moment of silence before she spoke again. "Music. I like

music. I could always make good music, certainly better than my

sister and maybe even better than my parents."



That was good to hear. He smiled in the darkness. "See? You

*do* know what love is. And I bet it drew you closer to your

parents, right?"



She barked a single, bitter laugh. "How little you know. True,

my parents found a degree of interest in my music. They even

wanted me to perform with them. I refused."



Kyosuke blinked. Come to think of it, in all the time he'd been

with Madoka, he'd never seen her play with her parents. "Why?"



"Because I didn't want to become like them." Now Ayukawa's voice

was hard and angry. "Because I saw what their obsession with

music, and the fame and money that came with it, did to them.

The world was going to hell, and they didn't care as long as they

could play their music to the elite and get rewarded for it. If

all they want from me is my ability to play music so I can

enhance their standing in the eyes of their peers, then I want

nothing to do with them. Or their music."



And suddenly it all came clear to him. Why Madoka resisted all

efforts to be pushed into the spotlight. She'd joined her

cousin's band only when he needed help, and had quit as soon as

that help was no longer needed. In fact, now that he thought

about it, perhaps a large part of her desire to leave Japan

during their last year in high school had been to escape from all

the record companies hounding her, trying to launch her career.

All she'd ever wanted was to write songs in the background and

let others find fame from them.



It all sounded horrible. He'd always thought of his life as

tough and Madoka's as easy. Wealthy and secure, two parents, and

she had intelligence, beauty, and talent besides. Who wouldn't

want those things?



But now, at last, he could begin to understand why Madoka had

chosen to live life the way she had. In a way, it was remarkable

that she had become as well-adjusted as she was.



He floundered for something to say. "Is... is that why you

aren't with your parents now?"



"When the barricades went up, my parents begged me to come with

them. For the first time they desperately wanted something from

me. It felt good to refuse them." She paused a second. "I

don't want to be a part of their world. The elite of the elite,

caring nothing for the rest of the world, caring nothing about

their future, only wanting to live the day in comfort. Quite

frankly, they disgust me, all of them. I felt closer to your

'sisters' than I did my own family. Hell, I felt closer to

*Akane* than I did to my parents, and she nearly killed me."



Kyosuke tried to think of what he could do to make her feel

better. Nothing was coming to mind.



After a moment she continued. "I'm sorry I was so... brusque

about the death of your sisters in this world. I... would

like... I wish..." She sighed. "I wish I loved my family as

much as you love yours. And vice versa."



This was horrible. He heard such pain from her, such *needing*.

Carefully he moved his hand towards the curtain. With a bit of

effort, he lifted it. He reached underneath it and fumbled about

slightly until he had his bandaged fingers resting on her

forearm.



A soft sigh escaped her lips. He'd heard this sound from time to

time before, always at the beginning of intimacies between him

and Madoka, at the first touch of his hand on her skin or his

lips first brushing hers.



It had never occurred to him to wonder exactly why she'd made

that sound. Now, at last, he could understand a little.



Almost subconsciously, with surprisingly little effort, his mind

reached into hers. He wanted to give her comfort, reassurances

that words could not adequately convey. He felt her mind recoil

at his touch, fear and pain effectively blocking him out. He

just kept up a steady stream of warm, happy thoughts, amazingly

easy to do given that he didn't have telepathic abilities back in

his home universe.



And then, as if she had hesitantly swung wide the front door, her

mind opened to him. She grabbed on to his comfort like a life

preserver. And he felt it inside her, her desperate loneliness.

She'd rejected her family, and all of her close friends had died

in the battles that had followed, and for long months stretching

into years she'd had no one to talk to, to share any kind of

intimacy with.



Now she had *him*, someone she'd actually felt a bit of affection

for years ago, suddenly reappearing, vulnerable and needing her

help, and when he'd awaken he'd wanted nothing from her, had

thanked her profusely and talked to her, tried to break through

her walls, offered friendship and expected nothing in return, and

she'd resisted but it had only been token, she wanted him, wanted

him to love her as no one ever had...



And then desire blooming through her, through her and into him.

And it felt wonderful. They were two minds intertwined, filling

each other with love and lust. He'd never felt either so

strongly before, and he drew her in more deeply, they became

inseparable, and the passionate kiss they were sharing seemed

wholly inadequate by comparison but it nevertheless helped

intensify the desire they felt. It had never felt like this

before, he and Madoka had never been able to share with each

other these feelings, not like *this*, and he wanted-



Madoka.



With a wrench he pushed Ayukawa away. The pain that flared in

his arms was strong enough to sever the link to her mind. He

suddenly became aware of his surroundings, Ayukawa lying on top

of him, the ersatz curtain tangled around them. With frantic

efforts that made the pain worse, he was able to rise to his

feet, his back to her.



"Kyouske!" She sounded surprised. Surprised, and hurt. "What

is it? What's wrong?"



"I... can't." He closed his eyes tightly. "I'm sorry."



"Why not?"



He swallowed heavily. "I can't... I can't betray..."



"But you love me!" Her voice was almost a plea. "I saw it in

your mind. You love me, I know you do!"



"No, you don't understand." His heart was hammering in his

chest. "I don't love... you, exactly."



One heartbeat of dead silence. Two.



"Oh God. Oh God oh God oh God oh God." He heard her standing

up. "I'm an idiot, I'm such an idiot. That's how you knew I had

a sister. That's why you called me Madoka. It was so *obvious*.

But like an idiot, I left myself open *again*, and you walked all

over me. Oh God."



He turned around, peering at her dark shape. "Please, Ayukawa.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean for... for *that* to happen. I only...

wanted to... help you. Because... because I know you... you

deserve better than what's happened to you."



"Spare me, Kasuga. Spare me the condescending speeches. I got

enough of them from my parents." She reached down for something

at her feet. He watched as her outline began to put on some

clothes.



Kyosuke shook his head in denial. "I wasn't trying to be

condescending. I... if things were just a little different-"



"It things were just a little different, I'd've been born in your

world and your Madoka would be the one stuck in this hell of a

universe." She evidently finished dressing. She moved away, and

he heard the sound of the door being unlocked. She opened it,

took one step through it, then turned to face him. "Don't try to

leave. Even if the gangs don't find you stumbling about, if I

see you I'll kill you myself."



The door was slammed shut, and the locks were reapplied from the

outside. Kyosuke stared at it numbly, his whole being agony,

from the throbbing of his hands to the cold lump in the pit of

his stomach.



"I'm sorry," he whispered into the darkness.



The darkness didn't answer. Eventually, he lay on the mat and

went to sleep, the sound of her words echoing through his skull.



---



The tall man stood in the cool night air and considered the

problem of taking the girl.



The hotel was popular and crowded, that couldn't be helped. This

young bride of Kazuya's cousin would be taking an early flight to

Hawaii in the morning, and it would not do to have to try and

kidnap her in America. It had to be here.



Still, it would be easy enough, with the right operatives in

place. The only problem might be if her new husband also

happened to be an ESPer. Still, he had some ideas.



An idea forming in his mind, he strode down the street. He

couldn't help the smile that spread across his face. Kazuya

would soon be his, and he'd have his vengeance.



---



Kyosuke, as before, woke to the smell of food cooking.



He opened his eyes to see Ayukawa sitting with her back to him.

She was evidently fixing more stew. He realized that her food

options were probably severely limited.



"Good morning," he ventured.



No response. Not that he really expected any. He lifted his

hands and looked at them. What skin he could see under the

bandages was interesting colors. They ached horribly, but the

pain wasn't as sharp as it had been yesterday. He moved his one

good thumb experimentally and decided it was still somewhat

functional. Still, his hands were useless and would remain so

for some time.



But it wasn't his hands he would need in the near future.



He moved his thoughts around and decided he was thinking as

clearly as he ever did. As an experiment, he used the Power to

lift himself into a sitting position. It was surprisingly easy.

He grunted in satisfaction.



Ayukawa turned, a bowl of stew in her hand. Kyosuke recoiled

slightly; her face was frightening. Her eyes were red and her

cheeks were a little hollow. She seemed exhausted and angry at

the same time. A horrible feeling of guilt stabbed through him.

What he'd put her through - not just last night but eight years

ago - had to devastating.



They stared at each other for a few moments. Without a word, she

began to feed him the stew. He took it in gratefully, feeling

the warmth spread through his stomach, feeling the nourishment

bolster his reserves.



When he was finished, she set the bowl down without serving any

for herself. "You're going to leave now."



He nodded. "Yes. You- Madoka might be in trouble."



"Naturally." Her voice was neutral with just a hint of

hostility.



"Umm..." He thought for a minute. "Can you take me to the

roof?"



She lifted her eyebrows slightly. "Why?"



"I think I'm going to jump off of it. I... seem to only be able

to teleport between worlds or through time when I'm in a panic."



"Ridiculous." Now her voice was contemptuous. "And if you're

wrong? What good will you do your Madoka if you're lying in

pieces on the ground?"



"Yeah, I know. What choice do I have? I've never been able to

do this voluntarily. Only Grandpa could."



"If your grandfather can, then you can too." She folded her

arms. "What is it that allows you to do this teleportation?"



"I don't know!" She was beginning to irritate him. Still, she

was trying to help, which was much more than he expected after

last night. He considered for a moment. "Panic. Sheer panic."



"Self-preservation. Need." She nodded. "The trick, then, is to

try and recreate those emotions without putting yourself in

mortal danger."



Kyosuke poked his tongue in his cheek thoughtfully. "Yes.

Plus... I think I need to be thinking of Madoka. I always seem

to be driven by a need to be... near her. I think it's how I

found you this last time, even if you weren't exactly the Ma...

Ayukawa I was looking for."



She snorted. "Well, I suppose I should be flattered. But I'm

not." She stood up and helped him to his feet.



They stood facing each other, very close. Kyosuke swallowed

against the ache in his throat. This was going to be difficult.

He liked Ayukawa a lot, and would miss her. He opened his mouth

to thank her.



"Take me with you."



Kyosuke's mouth froze in the open position.



His surprise seemed to irritate her. "You owe it to me,

Kasuga-kun. I've got nothing here, nothing at all. My one

attempt at rebellion left most everyone dead. There's no future

for a woman on her own on this side of the barricade. I've been

studying ways to fight back, but nothing will work, not for years

anyway. I want out, and you can provide a way."



Kyosuke finally found his voice. "I... I can't."



Her face mottled in rage. "Why the hell not?"



"I... I've never teleported more than one person across time or

dimensions or whatever it is that separates my world from yours."



"Have you ever teleported more than one person from place to

place?"



"Well..." The bolt of lightning striking the boat, Kyosuke

grabbing Madoka and hurriedly teleporting with her to the island.

"Yes."



"Then this should be no different." She grabbed his shirt.

"Like I said, you *owe* me."



"B-but..." He swallowed. "This is different. It's going to

take a lot of concentration to accomplish this. I don't... know

if it'll be safe to do it with someone else, too. And I'm not in

the best condition right now anyway."



Ayukawa growled and pulled him down until their faces were very

close. "The truth, Kasuga-kun. Tell me the truth."



Half-formed protestations died on his lips. She was right, he

did owe her - and himself - the truth. "I... I don't think it

would be a good idea for you to... exist in the same universe

with... Madoka."



"I see." She shoved him violently away. He nearly fell over

backwards and used the Power to right himself. Ayukawa spoke

through clenched teeth. "Can't have the ugly stepsister ruining

the fairy tale, can we?"



Would someone please stop twisting his stomach so tightly? "I...

my grandfather is very good at this kind of thing. He's taken me

through time before. When... when I get everything worked out

back home I... we'll come find you."



She grunted. "*If* you beat this cousin of yours. *If* your

grandfather can find my world again. *If* I'm not killed before

you get around to rescuing me."



He swallowed. "Yes. But I think-"



"Spare me, Kasuga." She whirled and savagely opened the locks on

the door. She flung the door open. "Get out and never, ever

come back. If I see you again I will kill you, that's a promise.

I hope you and your Madoka rot in hell."



Ayukawa ran out the door, leaving it open behind her. Kyosuke

stared after her, feeling as wretched as he had that one day in

the airport. How did he keep managing to put himself in these

kind of situations? If he could find the answer to that, one of

the great mysteries of his life would be solved.



He shook his eyes to clear them of the tears. He needed to

concentrate, on his world, on Madoka. He needed to return to

her. He needed-



He needed to straighten out all that had gone so wrong in his

life.



With a terrible resolve, he strode out of the room.



---



Kazuya woke up with a start.



He was lying in a very large bed. Alone. A glance around the

hotel room told him that Madoka was nowhere to be found. Damn.

He'd been hoping to have some fun with her.



On the bedside table was a note. He picked it up and read a

syrupy plea for him to meet Madoka down at the hotel restaurant

for breakfast.



Kazuya growled. He'd have to try and adjust her attitude a bit

more; this childlike affection was annoying him greatly. Still,

he did have to be careful and not burn her out too quickly. He

needed time to adjust to this new body, this new life, before he

made any radical changes.



He showered and dressed, luxuriating in the freedom of it all.

Not having anyone trying to kill him was a wonderful feeling.

Kazuya surprised himself by whistling as he rode down the

elevator. This was an okay life. Once he made Madoka more

agreeable, it would be even better.



The doors opened and he strode out into the lobby. He heard

Madoka before he saw her; the delighted squeal she made grated

his nerves. She would definitely need adjusting. Madoka flung

herself into his arms. "Good morning, Kyo-chan!" She kissed him

quickly. "I've got a wonderful table and a great breakfast ready

for you, only you have to hurry because our plane leaves in three

hours and we still have to check out and get over to the

airport."



Kazuya sighed. Maybe not this morning, then. Definitely when

they got to Hawaii, though. He smiled and walked with his arm

around her waist towards the restaurant.



Someone came between him and Madoka. With surprising ease, that

person separated them and put his arms around each of them. The

man began to move them towards the hotel's front door. He tilted

his head down - the man was very tall - and spoke

conversationally to Kazuya. "I have two guns, one pointed at

your head, the other pointed at your pretty wife's heart. I've

had them specially modified. I've got the triggers fully

engaged; all I have to do is relax my grip the slightest bit and

the guns will fire. So if, for example, someone tries to knock

me unconscious or take over my mind, I fear what will happen to

you two."



His heart pounding, Kazuya turned his head slightly. The man did

have a gun in his hand, and it was pointing right at Kazuya's

forehead. He broke out in a sweat. His mind raced with

possibilities? Fling the gun away with telekinesis? Could he do

it fast enough to keep the gun from firing? Take over the man's

mind? Could he gain fine enough control to keep the gun from

firing? Probably not in time. Teleport away? It was the one

think Kyosuke could do that Kazuya couldn't.



And all the time his mind was racing, the tall man was quickly

guiding them out of the hotel. At the curb, a car stood waiting.

Another man took the confused and frightened Madoka and put her

in the front seat. The tall man indicated that he should sit in

the back. Kazuya, dazed, complied.



The tall man got in and arranged himself so that he sitting

against the car door, both eyes and both guns trained on Kazuya.

The car was driven away.



The tall man spoke in an even tone of voice. "Don't panic,

Kasuga, and don't try anything stupid. We don't want to hurt you

or your wife. In fact, you may be useful to us. Do so much as

breathe the wrong way, however, and my underlings have a long,

arduous task in front of them cleaning out the insides of this

car."



Kazuya forced himself to remain still. Amano's men had found

him, but they thought he was Kyosuke. They needed him for some

reason. *What* they wanted he wasn't sure. At a guess, Kyosuke

had told them that the whole Kasuga clan had ESP. Amano was just

making sure that people with the Power were either serving him or

dead.



Kazuya's heart finally began to slow down. If he played his

cards right, he could actually parlay this into a useful position

within Amano's organization. And he wouldn't make the same

mistakes as last time.



Still, he definitely did not like the feeling of those two guns

pointed at him. He was still at quite a bit of risk right at the

moment. But at some point in the future the tall man's guard

would be down, and Kazuya would make him pay.



---



"Um... this is going to sound strange, but... could you follow

that car?"



The car driver turned around and gave her a look. "We don't do

that."



Hikaru sighed and dug through her purse. She pulled out a

crumpled wad of twenties. "Would you take a hundred dollars

American?"



The cab driver considered this for a moment. "Two hundred."



Hikaru quickly sifted through the money. It would about bankrupt

her, but she could do it. "Okay."



With a satisfied grunt, the cab driver pulled the cab away from

the hotel and fell behind a dark sedan a hundred feet ahead.



Hikaru sat back and tried to think. She was *so* tired, but the

sight of Madoka ordering breakfast for two had managed to infuse

her with a bit of energy. As had the sight of Kyosuke - or

Kazuya in Kyosuke's body, anyway. That had all paled, though,

before the panic that had coursed through her veins as some

sinister-looking man had taken Kazuya and Madoka out of the

hotel. She'd been so afraid that she was going to lose them.

Fortunately, she hadn't.



Now that the first rush of panic was over, she felt like falling

asleep. But she couldn't afford to, not yet.



Hikaru forced herself to keep her eyes open. She dug Kurumi's

cell phone out of her purse and made a page.



---



Kazuya examined the men surrounding him in the small, dusty

office. They all had their attention fully focused on him.

Including the tall man, who always kept at least one of his

modified guns trained on him.



Kazuya had come up with a couple different ways he could attempt

to escape. He would probably succeed if he didn't care what

happened to Madoka. But he didn't want to abandon her, not

unless he had no other choice. Best to see what they wanted, and

how he could turn it to his advantage.



The door opened, and an average-looking man walked in. Kazuya's

eyes widened in surprise; he knew this face from the minds he'd

probed during his nightmarish flight. Amano. Amano himself was

braving the possible wrath of an ESPer. Which meant they wanted

something from him. Something badly.



"Kasuga Kyosuke." Amano spoke in a cultured, pleasant tone of

voice. "You come from a remarkably talented family. Or so we

suppose. Your cousin, at least, can do some amazing things. I

was wondering if you know some of those same tricks."



Kazuya studied Amano carefully. He wanted to try and slip inside

his mind, but was afraid that they'd somehow find out he was

doing it and shoot him. Best to play it safe. Also best to play

it cagey and not give in too easily. "I... I don't know what you

mean."



Amano smiled. "Perhaps not. But you *do* know where your cousin

is, don't you?"



Kazuya blinked rapidly. They didn't know where Kyosuke was? If

they didn't have him, where was he? The knowledge that Kyosuke

was unaccounted for was... disturbing.



His reaction was not lost on Amano. "You do know something,

don't you? Tell me. Tell me now."



Kazuya's mind was spinning in circles again. He had to come up

with something. He couldn't tell them the truth, obviously. But

he had to find a plausible lie, and quickly.



Amano gestured, and one of the men walked over to where a very

frightened Madoka was sitting in a chair. "Your new wife is very

beautiful," Amano said casually. "It would be a terrible shame

if something were to mar that beauty." The man standing over

Madoka produced a long, thin knife and began to caress her cheek

with it while Madoka whimpered.



Thoughts flew through Kazuya's mind. If it came down to him or

Madoka, then he didn't much care what happened to her. But if he

seemed too unconcerned with her welfare, they'd begin to suspect

something. So he had to do something to keep her from being

hurt.



No choice, as he saw it. There really was no way they should be

able to fight him off. He began to spread his mind, bringing it

in contact with everyone around him. Madoka's was locked in a

loop of fright over what might happen to her 'Kyo-chan'. Most of

the men were split between enjoying their feeling of power over

helpless prisoners and careful observation of an ESPer's

movements. Amano's thoughts were filled with plans, strategies

for dealing with the dangerous ESPer in front of him and the even

more dangerous ESPer that was unaccounted for. Kazuya began to

probe gently, more deeply into Amano's thoughts, trying to find

something that would satisfy him.



_Kazuya_



His attention was ripped from Amano. Someone, another mind

nearby, had spoken to him. Spoken to *him*, not to Kyosuke.

They knew.



He focused his attention a little more carefully, and found the

familiar shape of his sister's mind. _Kazuya, be ready._

Through her, he felt the thoughts of others of the Kasuga clan,

perhaps half a dozen people very nearby. _We'll get you out of

there._



He felt someone's mind link with his, look through his eyes.

And, without further ado, all of the guns in the room vanished.



Most of the men in the room cried out in surprise, but the tall

man didn't waste any effort. As quick as a cat, he had a knife

out and was swinging it at Kazuya.



As quick as a cat, but not as quick as thought.



Kazuya reached out and seized the tall man's mind. With a gasp

the tall man collapsed, his blow going wide.



Kazuya stood up to see two other men also collapsing. Three

appeared to be held in place by invisible bonds. Amano himself

was being attacked by a particularly tenacious broom. Kazuya

brought that battle to an end by rendering Amano unconscious.



That quickly it was over.



Kazuya's relief was short-lived. Various Kasugas entered the

office. His twin cousins. His father. Two great-uncles. And

his sister. All looking at him warily. And angrily. They knew.



He tried to speak with a mouth gone dry. "I... it's not what you

think. I..."



"Where is he, Kazuya?" Kurumi sounded absolutely furious.

"Where's Kyosuke?"



A twinge in his gut. "I don't know, I swear." He looked at his

sister, who thinned her lips and looked away from him. He

swallowed. "I'll help you find him, I swear."



They all felt it at the same time. A strong psychic backlash.

Reality being ripped asunder by the Power. Somewhere very close.



The others turned in surprise, and Kazuya took his chance. He'd

had long experience rendering people unconscious, sometimes

quickly. The people around him, while on guard and wary, weren't

prepared for the strength and quickness of his attack. One by

one they fell. The great-uncles, the most dangerous. His

father, strong if limited in what he could do. They fell to the

floor where they stood.



His mistake was in trying for Akane next. But she, more than

anyone, knew his mind and what it was capable of. She withstood

the initial assault, then he felt Kurumi joining the remaining

minds together.



They were strong, these girls. Much more so than he had

realized. The twins especially seemed to be bright poles of

energy that enhanced each other's Power. And Akane had special

knowledge of Kazuya's mind, and guided the counter-attack. For

the very first time in his life, Kazuya felt daunted by someone

else's Power.



But he was Kasuga Kazuya, and was the strongest ESPer of this or

any other generation. And he had used and trained his mind while

the others had tried to hide their skills, letting their Power

lie dormant. He focused his will and beat them back and pressed

the attack.



Kazuya opened his eyes - he'd shut them tight somewhere along the

way - and looked at the women standing motionless before him. He

supposed that someone watching them would assume they were

playing a game of Statues or something. But he smiled in the

knowledge that the war was going his way. He heard Manami groan

softly and Kurumi whisper, "Don't give up. It's for Kyosuke."

There was desperation there and it made him feel better, more

assured.



"Kazuya!"



The shout was more than sound; he could hear it in his mind.

Kazuya looked behind the twins to see himself standing in the

doorway. His confidence faltered, and he nearly let his defenses

drop. He beat back a momentary, faltering surge and braced

himself, looking at the person standing in the doorway.



His body looked to be in horrible shape. His hands were horribly

mangled, swollen and swathed in bandages. He was dirty and

unshaven. But his eyes... his eyes burned with fury.



Not his eyes any more. Kyosuke's.



Kyosuke looked around the room, his fury growing at the sight of

his sisters standing rigid, obviously in pain and fighting for

their lives. "One warning only. Let them go. Now."



Pure fear shot through his nerves. The fear fueled irrational

anger. "SHUT UP! This is all *your* fault, Kyosuke! If you

weren't such a wimp, I'd never have had to... to..." He couldn't

find a way to end the accusation, so he launched a preemptive

strike against Kyosuke instead.



Kyosuke's mind nearly succumbed to his initial rush. And he

*should* have succumbed, but Kyosuke was much more powerful than

Kazuya had thought. Anger, unchecked anger, powered Kyosuke's

thoughts, gave his counterattack a devastating force.



Kazuya beat it off and felt Kyosuke's mind joining in the link.

And through the link he felt a brief surge of pure joy, some from

Akane but most of it coming from the twins as they accepted

Kyosuke into their minds. And if they were bright lights,

Kyosuke was a blazing star of Power. Kazuya could see the twins'

minds assuming a kind of orbit around Kyosuke, letting him be

their center while they continued to reinforce each other and

Kyosuke. Akane was a part of it, too, but there was no doubt

that the center of the structure was Kyosuke and Manami and

Kurumi. The Power they shaped was beautiful and frighteningly

strong.



They gathered themselves, holding off Kazuya's attacks which

seemed feeble by comparison, and struck.



The force was so overwhelming that Kazuya felt like a leaf in a

hurricane. He drew himself in as deeply as he could, protecting

the core of his Power from the onslaught. They beat at him and

beat at him, and Kazuya called up the last reserves of his

strength to shield his mind from them. But it wasn't enough, he

knew that. Way too soon they would have him.



But then Kyosuke stumbled and faltered, and the attack faltered

with him. Kazuya rose from his psychic bunker and saw that

Kyosuke was weakening rapidly. He had just performed some act

with the Power that had left him drained. The others cried out

in concern and rushed to support him.



And left themselves open.



Kazuya rushed in with his Power, only to be turned aside at the

last minute by Akane, who'd remained alert. She shielded the

others while they tried to regroup. Kazuya growled deep in his

throat and savagely beat down Akane's shield. It splintered

under his attack and she slumped to the ground.



All that was left were his cousins. And they were all tired,

Kyosuke especially. He felt in them a grim determination,

centering mostly on Kyosuke. They presented themselves to him,

showing their total unity and total resolve. They would not

submit, and would fight him with the last of their strength.



Kazuya grinned and presented his own psychic face. Strong and

overwhelmingly powerful. They'd given him their best shot and

he'd withstood it. Quite simply nothing could ever overcome him.

The sooner they recognized that, the easier their lives would be.

If had to give them a demonstration, he would. Right now.



The remaining Kasugas readied themselves for one final battle.

Kazuya's lips parted as his grin grew into a wide smile. This

would all end now, and in his favor.



A movement behind Kyosuke drew Kazuya's attention. Madoka walked

into the room.



Kazuya's jaw dropped open. He looked to the side, to see Madoka

still sitting on the chair, looking at him with adoration mixed

with fear. He looked back towards Kyosuke, and Madoka was

striding towards him, her face angry and determined.



In a panic he reached out to seize her mind - and it was *wrong*.

He couldn't explain it. There was something odd about the way

her mind worked. It terrified him for a reason he couldn't

understand. But a mind was still a mind, and he could see how it

worked and began frantically to find a way to shut it down before

its wrongness overwhelmed him.



As he did this, Kyosuke and his sisters struck.



They lashed at his mind with the last of their strength. Kazuya

reeled; he'd left himself too open in his rush to shut down this

Madoka-clone's mind. He tried to intercept their attack, keep

them from shutting down his mind, but they were everywhere,

seeping into everything. Kazuya kept himself conscious and his

Power operating, but somewhere along the way he'd lost the

ability to physically control his body. He could only stare in

fright as Madoka stood before him.



"Kasuga-kun." The new Madoka's voice could freeze lava. "I've

been wanting to do this for eight years." She reached her hand

back, formed a fist, and punched him in the jaw.



And Kazuya's world came crashing down around him.



---



Ayukawa looked at the crumpled form on the ground. She felt as

if all the anger and regret she'd felt all her life had been

concentrated in her fist, and it had felt very, very good to

release that energy. Her hand was hurting quite badly, which she

supposed was just as well. Such actions should not be without

consequences.



"Kyo-chan!" A woman knelt over the unconscious body at her feet

and cradled it. "Kyo-chan, speak to me!"



Ayukawa dropped her gaze and examined the panicky, distraught

figure beneath her. She sniffed, spun on one foot, and strode

away.



---



Amano and the tall man sat in the car, heading back towards Tokyo

proper. Amano looked out the window, frankly bored.



The tall man shifted in the seat next to him. "A shame, all that

effort."



Amano nodded. "Yes. A shame to discover that the boy was dead

already. Still, the object lesson is valid. No one may cross us

and live."



"And what of the other?" The tall man appeared to be struggling

to form a thought. "This... Kyosuke and his wife?"



"Harmless." Amano spoke with utter conviction. "We don't need

to worry about them at all. It's best to quickly forget them and

move on to other business."



The tall man nodded. "Yes, that does sound right."



Amano shook his head. "Still, it is a pity we could not have

caught the boy sooner and turned him to our purposes. Imagine

all the time and effort he put into making us think he had ESP."



The tall man snorted. "I don't know why he expected us to

believe such a ludicrous thing."



"I know. But he was able to fool a lot of less observant people

than you and I. Imagine if we could have harnessed such creative

energy."



"Perhaps." The tall man shrugged. "But he was disloyal."



"Yes," Amano said as he settled back, already thinking of the

other things he had to do when he got back. "And he paid the

price."



---



Kasuga Akane felt safe. For the first time in what seemed like

ages.



She looked around the house. More a cabin than a house, really;

the dwellings of the village were quite often over a century old.

Earthquakes and typhoons were less a hardship here than anywhere

else in Japan. A few minds working in concert could repair a lot

of damage.



What, then, to do when the mind itself was damaged?



She sat on the floor, drawing her knees up to her chest and

wrapping her arms around them. She rested her chin on her knees

and considered the form of her brother.



He had been considerably cleaned up. The bandages on his hands

had been more professionally applied. The look on his face was

peaceful. She remembered all those years ago when her mother

presenting to Akane a new addition to the household: a tiny form,

cradled in her arms, sleeping. She remembered the incredible

feeling of affection that had come over her. And love. And

responsibility. *This* was her baby brother, and she'd have to

help raise him. And she'd sworn then to do as good a job as

possible.



Somewhere along the way, she'd lost sight of that. Somewhere

along the way, she'd become so focused on her own problems that

she'd overlooked the signs that her brother was succumbing to

temptations that were warping him. Kyosuke had actively disliked

her brother, and she'd decided that Kyosuke was being unfair

rather than admit that he might have good reason for his dislike.



She'd failed. So badly it hurt. What had nearly happened to

Kyosuke - what *had* happened to Madoka - those things were as

much her fault as Kazuya's. And she was going to do all she

could to make up for it.



Kazuya stirred. Akane brought her mind back from the years and

the shame and the guilt and focused on her brother.



He opened his eyes. He stared at the ceiling and tried to sit

up. Unfortunately, he tried to use his hands. He shouted in

pain and fell back to the mat, holding his hands and staring at

them.



Akane cleared her throat slightly. "They'll heal. In time.

Then, of course, you'll have some physical therapy. Great Aunt

Mariko thinks it will be three months before you can properly use

them again. But don't worry, you will regain full use."



Kazuya looked at her, his eyes wide with confusion and panic.

After a few seconds, they widened even further.



Akane smiled in apology. "They took away your access to the

Power. Right now you won't be able to do the slightest thing

with it. I'm told that you can get it back. Eventually. If

they let you."



His eyes narrowed, and she could see a calculating look in them.

"Sis, there are people after me, trying to kill me. If I don't

have the Power-"



She shook her head. "They're not after you any more. We made

them think you were dead, and that you never really had the Power

to begin with. No one will come after you. Not that they could

do anything here in the village."



The conniving look left his face, to be replaced with

uncertainty. And a fair amount of fear. Akane sighed slightly;

he shouldn't be afraid. Of the Kasuga clan. Of her. "Kazuya,

we- *I* am going to guide you through this. You... made some

mistakes. You-"



"What the hell are you talking about!" The anger in his voice

had a tinge of panic. "I... was just... making a living.

Protecting the Kasuga family interests. It's not like you

haven't done lots of stuff like that before. I've seen you use

your Power to fool people all the time. Why don't they take away

*your* Power!"



"Perhaps they should." She looked down at her feet. "Kazuya,

I'm not about to cast stones here. Believe it or not, taking the

Power away from you isn't about punishment. It's about healing.

Healing for you. Healing for me." She gazed into his eyes once

more. "What I hope is that we can talk about what happened

together and help each other figure out the mistakes we both made

along the way."



Kazuya growled. Once again he tried to sit up and failed.

"Games. I won't let any of you play any mind games with me. I

did what I had to do. You'd do the same."



She sighed. "Would I?" The question was not exactly rhetorical.



He stared at her in surprise. For a long time they held that

tableau. Akane felt her eyes burning with the effort to keep

them locked on his eyes, but on this she was not going to back

down. She needed an answer from him.



With a sound of disgust he turned his head away. "Hell, of

course you wouldn't. You don't have the guts."



Beneath the contempt, Akane heard a sliver of... envy?

Reconciliation? She wasn't sure. What she was sure of was that

she was going to stay here in the village as long as it took to

find that part of her brother and bring it to life again. For

his sake and her own.



For now she sat next to him, and they said nothing, and that was

a beginning.



---



Kyosuke stared at his hands, flexing them over and over again.

Strange how he had never appreciated their mobility until it had

been taken from him. Unfortunately there was a trade-off; his

jaw ached. Still, it was a small price to pay.



"I don't understand." Kurumi was sitting across the bonfire from

him. A large number of people, including residents of the ESPer

village they'd teleported to after the battle, were sitting

around it, waiting. "Why did you let them go? Why didn't you...

I dunno... turn them into good guys or something?"



Great-Uncle Kaneto spoke from where he stood near the fire. "And

what would that have accomplished? If others had seen them so

radically changed, after having been told about a boy with ESP,

what conclusion would they have come to? Or if they had shown up

dead or with no memory whatsoever?" He sighed. "What choice did

we have? All we can do is hope that they believe this all to be

an elaborate hoax and to allow them to return to the lives

they've chosen to lead. Anything more threatens to destroy the

life we've made for ourselves here."



Great-Aunt Mariko stirred from where she sat near to Kurumi.

"Why is it that you think we want you all to return here to the

village? The longer you spend in the outside world, the more

certain it becomes that someone will discover the Power and

destroy our clan trying to acquire it for themselves."



"And what are we supposed to do?" Manami had her head cupped in

her hands. "Hide forever from the world? Allow fear and

uncertainty to confine us to this village? If the world is not

yet ready to accept our ability, we must *make* it ready?"



Akane lifted her head from where she'd had it hung between her

knees as she sat on the ground. She'd spent much of the

afternoon with her brother, and Kyosuke could see the strain in

her face. "How? By forcibly altering the mind of everyone who

disagrees with us? Do we all become like my brother?"



"No." Manami frowned at Akane. "I wasn't saying that at all.

There are people who find out about us but treat us with kindness

and friendship."



Kurumi nodded. "Dad was one. He fell in love with Mom even

knowing she had the Power."



"Madoka is one of those people, too," Kyosuke murmured. "And

Hikaru-chan."



"Um." Hikaru was sitting next to him. They hadn't spoken more

than a dozen words to each other since coming back to the

village. Kurumi had been the one to tell him the whole story of

what occurred while Kazuya had taken over his body, and Hikaru's

role in events and what she'd been told. "Is... is anyone going

to change my mind? Make me forget?"



Kyosuke looked up at Great-Uncle Kaneto. "Well? If it hadn't

been for Hikaru, my body might be dead now, and Madoka... and

other bad things might have happened. Do we reward her by

altering her mind?"



Great-Uncle Kaneto sighed. "You all misunderstand me. And, at

the same time, reinforce my argument. I agree that altering

someone's mind is evil, and should be done only out of the

greatest need. But when one is young, and growing into the

Power... temptations happen." He looked around the bonfire.

"Tell me that at one time or another, you have all not used your

Power to play with an innocent's mind."



No one met his gaze. Kyosuke drew a line in the dirt with his

shoe. "When... when I had the ability to read minds, I... found

great delight in... in delving inside and feeling what they felt,

especially when it was good. I... I think I could see myself...

abusing that power. Becoming like Kazuya."



"Sempai!" Hikaru clutched his arm. "You'd never become like

that jerk! I *know* you, Sempai! You're too nice to do bad

things like that."



Kyosuke looked at her and cocked a self-deprecating grin. "Can

you say that truthfully, Hikaru? After all I did to you? You

don't know half of what I did with the Power that ended up

hurting you so badly."



Hikaru flushed but pressed on. "Sempai, you only did those

things because you didn't want to hurt my feelings. You spend a

lot of time feeling what other people, and you do whatever you

can to make them feel as good as possible! I... know that you

never meant to hurt me. I mean... yes, what you did hurt, but it

wasn't your intention, you didn't know that it would all end so

badly. Kazuya... from what little I saw of him, he never had a

thought for anyone but himself."



Kyosuke's smile was a little wider, a little more genuine. "You

really believe that, Hikaru-chan?"



"I believe it because it's true." She looked around, her manner

at once pleading and peremptory. "Everyone, tell him it's true!"



Akane chuckled ruefully. "It *is* true, Kyosuke." Her smile

faded. "I... know the difference between you and my brother.

Kazuya... for various reasons, he couldn't figure out what he was

doing was wrong. At least you knew when you made mistakes, and

tried to correct them. What Hikaru says is absolutely right."



"See!" Hikaru's voice rang with triumph. "I wouldn't have

fallen for anything less than the best possible guy around!"



Gentle laughter greeted her statement. Great-Uncle Kaneto,

however, didn't join in. "This is why the village is the best

place for those with the Power. We could have taught you the

right and wrong ways to use Power. We could have detected and

disciplined those who tried to use the Power to alter other

people's mind. If Kazuya had been raised in this village, none

of this would ever have happened."



Kurumi sounded a little unsure. "What's going to happen to him?"



"He'll stay here while his hands heal." Great-Aunt Mariko

sounded grim. "We'll also work on mending his mind, on undoing

what years of undisciplined upbringing have done to his psyche.

I won't lie to you, dear; he may be here for years. Maybe for

the rest of his life. He may never be allowed the use of his

Power again, and that is a very difficult thing for one with the

Power to accept."



"It's no less than he deserves," Kyosuke couldn't help growling.



Great-Aunt Mariko sighed. "Perhaps. But he's still young.

There's still hope that he can be taught responsibility and

discipline. In time."



Akane wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm going to

stay and help. For as long as it takes."



Kyosuke immediately softened his voice. "Sorry, Akane. I didn't

mean-"



"You've got good reason to feel the way you do, Kyosuke," Akane

said seriously. "Don't apologize. You have cause. I'm not

going to try and excuse Kazuya for what he did. But I am going

to be here for him."



Great-Aunt Mariko smiled. "Of course, dear. I think Kazuya will

come to appreciate that."



The front door of a nearby cabin opened. Kyosuke looked up to

see Grandma walk out. He surged to his feet. "Grandma?"



Grandma smiled. "Hello, Grandson. It's good to see you back in

the village."



"Grandma," he said patiently. "How is Madoka?"



"She's fine." Grandma sounded happy. "We've undone all the

alterations - well-intentioned or otherwise - that were done to

her mind."



Kyosuke closed his eyes and muttered a prayer. A sound like a

breath being released passed through the people sitting around

the bonfire.



Then Kyosuke felt something grip his mind just strongly enough to

get his attention, like a hand grabbing his chin. "But no one is

to ever tamper with Madoka-chan's mind again. Do you

understand?"



From the hurried agreements behind him, Kyosuke guessed that

everyone with the Power had felt the same pressure.



He shook it off and opened his eyes. "Can I see her now?"



"Of course, Kyosuke." She smiled and patted his arm as he walked

by.



Kyosuke stepped into the small cabin. He paid little attention

to the simple furnishings, concentrating solely on the figure

lying atop the covers on the bed across the room. He moved

quickly to her side, sitting on the chair next to the bed.



He watched her face for some timeless period. Then she stirred,

woke. Looked around in confusion, focused on his face. And

screamed.



Kyosuke immediately reached out for her, only to see her shrink

away. He pulled his hands back and swallowed down his anguish.

"It's me, Madoka. It's Kyosuke."



Madoka sat up in the bed and looked away. He could see her

gather herself. "Yes. Kyosuke."



"It wasn't me who did those things to you. It was Kazuya."



He watched her face set into an all-too-familiar mask. "Yes. It

was Kazuya. I know that."



Kyosuke sighed. "I'm so sorry, Madoka."



She looked over at him. "Sorry for what?"



"I dunno. For not protecting you."



She quirked a smile. "How positively medieval of you. Is that

what you consider to be your husbandly duty?"



He held up his hand and looked at the ring on his finger. "Our

wedding... I have no memory of it. It's the one thing I didn't

want to miss, more than anything. For that, I'm sorry."



She sobered. "I'm the one who should apologize, Kyosuke. I

shouldn't have made light of that farce of a marriage I went

through."



"They... the clan wants us to marry here. A traditional Kasuga

wedding."



Madoka nodded slowly. "Yes. That would be good. Anything-,"

she flinched, "-to put that last wedding behind us."



"Madoka..." The words were incredibly difficult to say. "Are

you sure? You saw what being this close to the Power can do.

And someone may find out one day, perhaps take me away. Or

worse, take our children away. Do you want to risk that?"



She looked at him steadily, her face blank. Kyosuke felt the

blood leaving his face but tried to keep his eyes on hers.



Her gaze faltered, and she shook her head violently. "No."



The word had the force of a bullet. He squeezed his eyes shut

against the sudden burning.



A hand grabbed his forearm. "Kyosuke."



He opened them again, to see that Madoka had swung her legs

around and was now sitting on the edge of the bed.



She spoke with intensity. "I wasn't answering your question. I

was talking to myself. I-" Suddenly she squeezed his arm

tightly. "I'm not going to shut myself away again. I could feel

the walls going back up, and I am not going to allow that."



Her voice caught. "I am not going to shut the world out ever

again. Because... if I do I'll lose you and... and everything

good that's happened to me these past few years has begun with

you, because I... opened myself the tiniest bit to you." She

looked steadily at him, and she began to tremble. Kyosuke

reached out for her again, and this time she fell into his arms,

hugging him tightly.



She spoke in a soft but still intense voice. "I was so scared.

You have no idea. I couldn't think my own thoughts, my mind was

so twisted around, because of that damn Power."



"Oh, Madoka..." he breathed. "I... if only..."



"And the thought of one of my children perhaps going through

something like that... yes, it worries me, Kyosuke. But..." She

looked up at him. "Will you believe me when I say that you're

worth the risk?"



He couldn't help smiling. He'd learned something through all

this. The conversations he'd had with the other Ayukawa had

answered a lingering doubt raised by his friends at the bachelor

party. Actually not so much raised as reawakened. Truth be

told, he'd always felt a little inadequate in comparison to

Madoka, ESP notwithstanding. She outclassed him in so many ways,

he had difficulty sometimes accepting that she could really love

*him*. Then, through Ayukawa's tales of what her family life had

been like, he'd found a glimpse about what in him Madoka could

find attractive.



"Yes, Madoka. I believe you. I love you. Let's get married and

make it real."



She smiled. "I want nothing more in the world right now." She

reached up and kissed him.



He kissed her back, and let the nightmare of the past few days

slip away, and gave thanks that Madoka still loved him.



---



Ayukawa leaned against a tree at the edge of the village, looking

through a window a fair distance away and watched herself kiss

Kyosuke. It filled her with equal parts anger and longing, and

she turned her head away.



"Madoka-chan, you look sexy even when you're angry. No wonder my

grandson fell in love with you."



She glared at Kyosuke's grandfather, wondering which part of his

statement she should yell at him about first. She gave it up

with a tsk. "He was right, it was a mistake to come here. I

don't belong in this world any more than he belonged in mine."



The older man sobered. "Yes, you're right. Your mind... it

doesn't belong here. I can take you home."



"Home?" She shook her head. "I left my door open. My home's

surely been ransacked. My only choice would be to go back to my

parents, and what kind of choice is that?" She sighed. "What is

it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear,

or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and

slavery?" She shook her head. "May almighty God forbid."



Kyosuke's grandfather looked confused. "Eh?"



"Something someone said long ago. In my world, anyway. But it

has applications even here. This cousin of Kyosuke's, for

example. He decided that his life was so important that he'd

sacrifice Kyosuke's life and my... Madoka's sanity to keep it."

She turned to face him. "Me, I know that I'd rather die than

force myself to accept certain things."



"Dear, dear, you needn't say such things." He smiled widely.

"Come with me. We can find a place for you."



She looked back over at Kyosuke, who was still liplocked with his

soon-to-be wife. She shrugged. "Oh, what the hell. What have I

got to lose at this point?"



Kyosuke's grandfather grinned. "There you go, have a positive

outlook on life!" With a merry laugh, he led her from the

village.



---



Hikaru helped Madoka with the wedding dress. It wasn't much

compared to the one she'd worn back in Tokyo. Simpler, more

traditional. But because Hikaru was one of those helping Madoka

into it, it seemed infinitely more precious.



Hikaru blinked through sudden tears and looked up into Madoka's

eyes. "I'm sorry," she blurted out.



Madoka smiled gently. "Everyone seems to be apologizing for

reasons I cannot fathom. What grievous sin do you think you've

committed, Hikaru?"



"I was afraid." Hikaru looked down. "Afraid of meeting you and

Sempai. I know Sempai wanted me to be at his wedding but... but

I couldn't be there for him. I could only be there for myself.

And I'm sorry."



"Hikaru..." Madoka sighed softly. "There are so many mistakes

we all made growing up. So often in the past few days I've

wished I had Kyosuke's ability to travel back in time and correct

mistakes. There's so much I'd want to change in how things went

between you and I."



"But..." Hikaru frowned. "If you changed things, you might not

be marrying Sempai."



"And if you hadn't come to the wedding without announcing

yourself, you might not have been able to catch Kazuya... doing

what he did." Madoka tilted her head, evidently thinking hard.

"Trying to constantly second-guess ourselves is ultimately

fruitless. We can only try to make up for past mistakes and not

try to repeat them."



Madoka tapped her chin. "It... how to say this? It didn't

matter why you came to our wedding, Hikaru. Only that you were

there. If our wedding could have helped you find some peace,

then that's all I could ever wish for you."



Madoka reached out and clasped Hikaru's hands. "Hikaru, you were

my friend when no one else would be, and you kept me sane at a

time when I was sure I would go mad. You were closer to me than

anyone else was. That also means that we did things that hurt

each other. But... you and I were... *are* so close that we can

understand and forgive the occasional transgression of the

other."



It was Hikaru's turn to smile softly. "Love means never having

to say you're sorry?"



"I suppose." Madoka's brow furrowed. "Is that a quote of some

sort from one of your plays?"



"Yeah. One of the sillier ones. I preferred the movie I did

with Akane."



Madoka laughed. "Oh, that was so funny. At the time I wondered

how you could be so romantic with her."



Hikaru grinned. "And I wondered when it was that Kyosuke's

acting had become so good."



They laughed together for a bit. Hikaru felt incredibly good to

be standing here with Madoka, laughing with her like this.



Madoka sobered first. She looked steadily at Hikaru. "I missed

you."



Hikaru nodded slowly. "Me too. Do you think... would it be too

awkward if... if I moved back to Japan?"



Madoka's eyes widened. "But your play-"



"I was supposed to be on stage for rehersals this morning.

They've surely fired me by now. Anyway, I was getting tired of

New York." Hikaru struck a pose. "Besides, think of what a hit

I'll be on the Tokyo stage!"



Madoka grinned widely. "I'll write a song for you to dance to.

Maybe I'll write a whole musical. 'Hikaru's Story'."



Hikaru giggled. "The tragic story of a beautiful maiden-" she

did a pirouette, getting more and more in the mood, "-who falls

in love with a magic prince, but is betrayed by him and her best

friend-" She ground abruptly to a halt. That didn't come across

in the best possible way.



Madoka, however, seemed to understand. She smiled in good humor.

"But the heroine, through her own great love, saves them both

from tragedy, and they all lived happily ever after."



Hikaru smiled in relief. "I like that ending."



Madoka reached out to put her palm on Hikaru's cheek. "Me too."



They smiled at each other for a while. Then Hikaru took a step

back. "Okay, you look good enough, although I suspect Sempai

wouldn't care if you came to the altar in a burlap sack. Let's

go. And when you throw the bouquet, remember that I'll be

standing front row, center."



Madoka laughed. Together, they left to go take part in the

wedding.



---



Kasuga Kyosuke wiped the cup clean. He put it down, then picked

up another immaculate cup and began to wipe it clean.



It didn't help.



With a frustrated sigh, he looked around the empty room. The

AbCb was normally quite busy, but today was very slow. Which was

terribly ironic. The one day he wanted to be distracted, he was

left alone with his thoughts.



*She* had gone. They'd been dating for five years now, and then

all of a sudden she'd grown tired of him and decided she wanted

to pursue a dancing career overseas. So she'd dumped him, just

like that. He hadn't wanted to believe that it was over, but her

plane had left last night, and he had watched as it had taken

off. That was when it finally sunk in that she was really

leaving him.



It hurt.



He picked up another cup and had to resist every impulse to keep

from smashing it to the floor.



The bell over the door jingled. He looked up to see one of the

most beautiful women he had ever seen walk into the AbCb. She

had long black hair, gorgeous green eyes, a figure that sent his

heart racing...



..and she was a customer. He barely remembered that in time.

"Good afternoon! Please have a seat!"



She'd been looking around the cafe, an odd expression on her

face. Now she looked into his eyes. Kyosuke felt definitely

uncomfortable under her gaze. There was a strange intensity to

it, as if she knew his every secret just by looking at him.



It was times like these that he wished there was such a thing as

ESP. Wouldn't it be neat if he could read her mind and tell

exactly what she was thinking? He mentally chided himself for

thinking such silly thoughts. ESP was a child's fancy.



After a moment she took a seat at the counter. Kyosuke walked up

to her and smiled. "What can I get you?"



"Double espresso." She was *still* looking at him.



Trying not to look self-conscious, he went about making the

espresso. He put it in front of her. She picked it up and took

a sip, still not taking her eyes off of him.



He felt his face burning slightly. He tried to distract himself.

"So how does it taste?"



She looked down at it, frowning. "I... I used to drink another

espresso at... at a different cafe. And... and I like that

espresso very much. Now I wonder if I can have the exact same

espresso and not be able to enjoy it without thinking about what

I used to have."



Kyosuke frowned. Rather an odd statement. He thought about it

for a while, then brightened. "I have an idea."



He rummaged around behind the counter and came up with a jar of

cinnamon. He took a teaspoon and sprinkled it over the espresso.

"There. Now it's a little different. Still the same espresso,

but with just a touch of a different kind of flavoring to make it

unique to this cafe. Now you can enjoy it and not be reminded of

your old cafe."



She looked up at him again, her eyes widening. He kept the smile

on his face even as he was a bit overwhelmed by her reaction.

There was something going on here he didn't quite understand.



After a long moment, a small smile appeared on her face. "As you

say. A very good idea." She sipped the espresso. "I may have

to come back for more."



"Good." He began to turn away to give her a bit of privacy.



"My name is Ayukawa Madoka."



He turned back towards her. She was still smiling, and she

looked a bit more relaxed. He inclined his head. "I am Kasuga

Kyosuke."



She bowed her head in return. "A pleasure to meet you,

Kasuga-kun. I have just moved into this area. Do you suppose I

could find someone who could help guide me around?"



He grinned, feeling almost uncharacteristically self-confident.

There was something about this woman... "Yes, I think I could

find someone who could be persuaded to show you this

neighborhood."



She laughed, and they continued to chat brightly over a cup of

espresso.



~*~

 

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