By Richard Lawson
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.
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, Hikaru 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.
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.
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 Kyosuke's entire existence.
Something, however, was better. This was good, and he couldn't exactly say why. Kyosuke 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." Kyosuke 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. Kyosuke 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 Kyosuke 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 eased 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?"
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 grew colder. "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."
"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?"
"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."
"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."
"Can you? 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. Suddenly Ayukawa seemed a lot more familiar to him. 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.
Kyosuke 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. Ayukawa stood up, placed 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 Kyosuke. 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 drily.
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 considered for a bit, then 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.
Kazuya suddenly sat 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.
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 an even 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 back seat 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 since that time in high school. 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 Hikaru had 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 Hikaru 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.
Hikaru 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."
"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."
"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.
Kyosuke 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." Ayukawa 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 Ayukawa 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 Kyosuke. 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-
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 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."
He swallowed heavily. "I can't... I can't betray..."
"But you love me!" Ayukaway's 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." Ayukawa 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. Kyosuke heard the sound of the door being unlocked. Ayukawa 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, Kyosuke 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 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.
The tall man 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 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." Ayukawa 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." Ayukawa 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." Ayukawa 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.
Kyosuke 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 he'd instilled in her 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 thing 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 very 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 thoughts were locked in a loop of fright over what might happen to her 'Kyo-chan', an unfortunate side effect of the over-loving personality he'd instilled in her. 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.
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.
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 at the moment. 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 he 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 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 and Madoka were as much her fault as Kazuya's. And Akane 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." Akane 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."
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, Kazuya 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 feel, 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." Hikaru 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 Madoka 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." Madoka 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..." Madoka looked up at him. "Will you believe me when I say that you're worth the risk?"
Kyosuke 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, massaging her aching hand while looking through a window a fair distance away and watching 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."
Ayukawa 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. "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."
Hikaru's mind flashed back to her teenage years, of the mistake she'd made over and ove with Kyosuke. She sighed and nodded.
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 hadn't come out the way she'd intended.
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.
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. She lifted one hand, which was wrapped in a bandage, and rubbed it with the other. She looked into Kyosuke's eyes. He 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 appear self-conscious, Kyosuke 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 liked that espresso very much. Now I wonder if I can have the exact same espresso and still 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?"
Kyosuke 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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