Life So Dear

Part I

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. "What other reason could there be?" 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, Kyosuke 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.

Kyosuke 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. Kyosuke 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. Kyosuke 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 discover her secret love for you?"

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.

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, faux-blonde, 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.

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.

Kazuya 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. Kayuza would change their minds and they'd never know.

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 shout 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 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.

Kyosuke 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 leaped 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 Kazuya 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. Akane looked down, her voice 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 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 of 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. Madoka's 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 Kazuya; they had no idea what the Power could really achieve. He'd show them. With this new body, and with some new lessons learned, 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.

Kazuya 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.


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