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oh, honey, here comes a lullaby

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The sun is high in the sky and the air is heavy with stagnant heat when Leila is on her way home from school. She's tired from kendo practice, her pace sluggish as she meanders down the sidewalk, and she's distracted by thoughts of vanilla ice cream and cold water bottles when she comes up to the crosswalk.

She's already stepped out onto the street when someone grabs her arm from behind.

"Hey!"

Leila blinks, stumbles back, and tries to regain her balance. She hears the horn blaring, loud in a way she didn't notice before, and a truck drives by, passing smoothly through the intersection with the lights glowing green and unfazed by the space she was about to step into.

Leila stares; her hand twitches, the beginnings of a shudder that spreads up her arm and crawls down her spine, and she is suddenly in very dire need of a place to sit down.

"Come over here."

The hand that is still at her elbow tugs against her arm, leading her a few steps to the left, and her sigh is shaky with relief when a wooden bench appears before her. Leila collapses onto the seat in a rather undignified heap, arms falling to sprawl limply across her knees; she's still shaking faintly, so she hangs her head, closes her eyes, and concentrates on finding her center again.

"Are you alright?"

Leila inhales deeply, relaxing her shoulders, and gets as far as lifting her head - eyes opening and mouth curling into a smile of gratitude – before she is met with eyes of the most wondrous blue. Her mouth falls open on a breathy "Oh," and she finds she can't say anything more.

The stranger's eyebrows are furrowed, tugging at the four-pointed scar cut into his forehead, and he raises a hand to wave it in front of her. "Hello? Do you need me to call someone?" His voice is concerned; Leila is distracted by the pleasantness of it until he reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder, and she comes back to her senses with a startled flutter of her eyelashes. She pulls away until her back is pressed solidly against the wooden bench, and frantically waves her hands in the new space between them, "I-I'm fine! Just fine, don't worry about me. Um," she swallows and looks away; it's difficult to hold eye contact with him, "Thank you – for helping me. I guess I wasn't paying attention…" Leila shrugs, tries to smile, but her nerves are still working against her, and her smile comes out a little sheepish.

The stranger returns her smile, if a little hesitantly, but – to her relief – he straightens, pulling his hand back to his side. "Just as long as you're alright." He looks her up and down, once, something searching in his eyes – the thought occurs to her that she should maybe be wary of this man – but when he catches her eye he smiles, sliding his hands smoothly into his pockets. "I have to be on my way now, but you should call someone if you're still not feeling well."

Leila blinks, caught off guard, but the man is already turning on his heel and walking away, waving a hand over his shoulder as he goes; she can only stare after him, following the bright blue of his hair until he turns around a corner and is lost from her sight.

She didn't even get to ask his name.

-X-

When she finally gets home the sky is already bleeding into warm shades of yellows and reds, and the shadow she casts is long as she pushes through the doors into the lobby of her building. She waves distractedly to the man sitting behind the front desk – a kind old man that has worked there for as long as she can remember – and makes straight for the stairs; there's no one standing at the elevator, but her nerves are still buzzing with a restless energy and she needs a way to burn it off.

Her apartment is on the second floor, so it is only minutes before she is at her door and pushing in her key to turn open the lock. She absentmindedly flicks on the lights as she passes through the door, pausing only to toe off her shoes before heading towards the kitchen. The box of green tea sits next to her teapot in one of the top cupboards built over the stove; she pulls both of them out, filling the teapot with water from the sink before placing it on the stove, flicking on the burner and adjusting it to the right temperature. As the water boils, Leila leans back against her counter, closes her eyes, and allows a deep breath to pass in and out of her lungs.

She's being ridiculous; nothing happened to her, not really, and there's no reason to dwell upon the what-ifs when the situation is far behind her. She should not be allowing such things to plague her; she's reasonable, composed, and stands as a straight A student and the vice-captain of the kendo club – she knows how to take care of herself.

Leila continues to tell herself these things, allowing the thoughts to calm her nerves until the tension that has been lingering in her shoulders dissipates; the shrill whistle of the teapot pulls her back to the kitchen, and she busies herself with pouring a cup of tea. The steam is soothing with the smell of fresh herbs and the cup is warm against her fingers as she walks across the room and settles into the couch, cradling her cup close and drinking deeply.

Her cup is almost halfway empty when her thoughts finally wander back to the mysterious blue-eyed stranger. Her cheeks burn with belated embarrassment at the memory of him, but the blush does not spread past her face, and for that she is grateful. She idly wonders whether she will ever see him again, but dismisses the thought almost as soon as it crosses her mind. He just happened to be there; there's no reason for her to expect she will ever see him again.

He was just a stranger. No reason to fret over someone she doesn't even know the name of.

She goes back to the same intersection the next day, and the day after that, and for the rest of the days of the week after that. It's not her usual way home, but Master Shimon has always told her to face her problems before any anxiety can settle in, and she's not about to let him down now.

(She tells herself she's not looking for mysterious strangers with hair and eyes of matching blue, and continues to tell herself that until she's convinced that it's true.)

-X-

The light bulb in her bedroom burns out the same day she runs out of shampoo and conditioner, so when the weekend rolls around Leila finds herself at the convenience store closest to her apartment. There's a sale going on for toothpaste and floss and she's running low on cereal, so she takes her time wandering through the store, picking items off the shelves and depositing them into the wired basket on her arm before heading for aisle ten.

She's comparing brands and prices for the type of light bulb she needs when someone taps her on the shoulder. "Excuse me."

Leila turns around, the basket on her arm rattling loudly as the items inside shift, and she feels her eyebrows shoot up when she see who it is. "It's you!"

It is the mysterious blue-eyed man, standing before her with a plastic bag tucked into the crook of his arm, and his grin is pleased as it stretches across his face. "So you do remember me."

"Yes." She drops one of the light bulbs into her basket and places the other one back into the shelf, watching him out of the corner of her eye. He's watching her, hands tucked in the pockets of his jacket, and Leila starts to feel her ears burn in embarrassment. She bites down on her lip and wracks her brain, compelled to try and start a conversation, but, really, she's met this man only once, and even if he's saved her life there are only so many ways to say "thank you" in one conversation without needing a new topic.

The man watches her flounder for a bit – she knows he can tell, the jerk, and feels all the more embarrassed for it – his grin stretching into an amused smirk before he glances down at the watch on his wrist; she watches him apprehensively, wondering if he's waiting for something, but then he looks up at her again, the grin back in place, and offers her his hand. "Would you like to go get something to eat? It's almost noon, and I haven't had something to eat for lunch yet."

Leila, whose breakfast consisted of a single banana as she ran out the door that morning, doesn't have any reason to refuse him. She's still reluctant to take his hand, though, because, again, she's met this man only once, and going somewhere with a perfect stranger strikes her as reckless.

Her anxiety must be obvious – how could it not? She's never been good at hiding her thoughts – because the smile he offers is reassuring. "We'll just be going out to lunch. There's a little noodle shop about a block from here, and we'll just sit down and have a meal, no strings attached." His tone is calming; his posture loose and open, making the offer as inviting as possible; then, as a finishing touch, he adds, "Please?"

He wants to get to know her, Leila realizes, and even if she's caught off guard by this sudden sentiment, some of her initial wariness fades away. She still has her doubts about the situation, but like he said, it's just lunch; she knows the restaurant he's talking about, has eaten there a few times herself, and it is a neutral, public place. She looks at the his hand, the one that has been hanging there for the past few minutes now, and comes to a decision; if she's going to be reckless, she might as well do it properly.

She takes his hand in hers and shakes it, once, as she smiles at him. "I'm Leila."

His grin stretches to show his teeth, and he grips her hand back. "Issa."

-X-

Issa Kazuma – just Issa, he insists, through a mouthful of noodles and dumplings – is twenty-two years old, and has lived in Mikuni for the past few years. He has an apartment on the other side of town that he shares with his older sister whenever she's in town for more than a few weeks at a time. He's a freelancer, and has worked at various jobs over the years – one of which he was on his way to the day he met her at the intersection – and is currently waiting on the final paperwork to pass through before he can get to work.

"He sounds nice." Futaba offers, sliding the last of her notes into a folder to place in her bag before turning in her chair again. She folds her hands in her lap and looks directly at Leila, devoting her attention to the conversation; Leila's always liked how direct she is when dealing with people.

"He sounds interesting." Maya says, hunching over the chair she's straddling so she can lay her arms on Leila's desk. "And clearly interested in you." She levels Leila with a lazy smirk, direct in an entirely different way, and rests her chin down on her arms. "Why else would he be so eager to invite you out to lunch?"

Leila blushes fiercely, remembering the way Issa had admitted, sheepishly, that he'd been hoping for a chance to see her again, if only for the chance to have a proper conversation this time, and is suddenly very happy that she waited until the classroom had emptied at the end of the day to tell her friends about him.

Maya shifts, propping her head up on one hand, and looks expectantly at Leila. "So," she starts, and the innocence in her voice puts Leila on edge, "did you happen to get his number?"

She didn't, actually, but the insinuation makes her bristle indignantly, especially with the way heat begins crawling into her cheeks, and Leila frowns when Maya's eyes light up. She's spared having to answer, though, when Futaba suddenly looks over at the door, and straightens in her seat. "Sosei!"

Leila swivels around in her seat, shocked – they'd closed the door when the three of them sat down to talk, and she hadn't heard it slide open – but there is Sosei, standing patiently in the arch of the doorway with his hand still on the door. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, an awkward movement that contrasts sharply with his usual collected self, and can't quite manage to look any of them in the eye; Leila's eyebrows pull together as she wonders, all thoughts of Issa drifting from her mind, if something is wrong. After a moment his gaze slides over to her, almost unwillingly, she realizes confusedly, before darting quickly away again. He repeats the actions for the next several seconds, his jaw stiffening with each interval, before allowing his gaze to land somewhere on her forehead. "Kendo's going to start in a little bit. We should get down there so we can get changed."

"All right." Leila smiles at him, a confused, hesitant little thing, but when he doesn't smile back it slides away, a worried frown sliding into its place.

Then Maya interrupts with a neat little "Well, then," and Sosei's gaze slides, quickly, over to her, and Leila, after a confused moment of blinking, turns around as well. Maya slides out of her seat and stands up, graceful as usual despite the lazy way she stretches her arms over her head as she walks around Leila's desk. "I guess I'll be heading off to archery." Maya lets her arms fall, heavy, and one hand lands to rest on Leila's shoulder. "Did Tetsu head down to chess club?"

Sosei nods, eyes carefully remaining on Maya and away from the hand that's been placed on Leila's shoulder. "He said he would be waiting for you at the front gate at the usual time."

Maya's smile is bright as she looks at him, but Leila can feel the way her grip tightens infinitesimally on her shoulder – the action catches off guard, as does the reassurance she knows lies behind it; why would she need to be reassured? - before she lets go completely. "Let's be on our way, then."

Leila turns back around to Sosei, watching the way his eyes move to look at anything but her, and feels the words roll off her tongue before she can think about them. "You can go on ahead." She offers, steeling herself against the way relief spreads clear across Sosei's expression as he finally looks directly at her. "I have to finish putting some things into my bag."

Sosei seems to realize just how relieved he actually looks as guilt and – frustration? Why? - creeps into the corner of his eyes - her bag is hanging on the side of her desk, zipped closed and already packed, as it has been for the last half hour – but he only gets as far as opening his mouth before Futaba decides to step in. Futaba slides up out of her chair, and Sosei's attention goes straight to her as she strides purposefully over to his side. She neatly slides her hand into his and pulls him out of the classroom, and doesn't give him a chance to offer resistance by immediately asking him how his day went.

Leila holds her breath until she can no longer hear the two of them before releasing it in a puff of air as she leans back against her chair, confusion pulling her eyebrows together. She feels Maya looking at her, but when she looks up at her Maya only shrugs, disarmingly, and walks past her to snag her bag from her own desk. She waves a hand over her shoulder as she departs through the second door on the other side of the classroom, red hair shimmering down her back, and heads for the archery field that lies on the side of the school opposite the gym. Suddenly, disorientingly, Leila is left sitting alone.

She waits, watching the clock at the front of the room tick away the seconds until five minutes have passed, before leaving the classroom herself. There is no one waiting for her outside the lockers; when she peeks inside the gym, Sosei is already dressed and is running through simple exercises to warm up, and Futaba is sitting against the wall, a book open but lying untouched across her lap. She waves when she sees Leila by the doorway, and Leila waves back, but Sosei doesn't turn around, either not noticing or choosing not to notice; Leila hopes it's the former, but she can't bring herself to call out to him and test it; instead, she turns away from the door, and tries to pretend it doesn't feel like running away.

-X-

Their coach blows his whistle for a ten minute break, and Leila gratefully pulls off her helmet, sitting down right in the middle of the gym and setting her helmet off to the side. She's tired and her throat is dry, but she can't muster up the energy she needs to walk over to her bag and pull out her water bottle.

"Here."

She feels something cool press against the side of her neck, and looks up and behind her to see Sosei standing there, holding her water bottle out for her while he takes a drink from his own. Her lips press together apprehensively, unconsciously, but she still takes the water bottle, and even manages to keep the rest of her expression smooth when he glances down at her. He holds her gaze, searching for something in hers while she can see nothing in his, but Leila can't bring herself to look away. She does blink, though, when what Sosei seems to find is an invitation, of all things, or maybe something that allows him to come to a decision, but in either case he bends to sit down beside her, stretching his legs out and taking another drink, longer than the first.

The silence between them is awkward and grinds on her nerves, but Leila doesn't know what to say. Sosei has been her best friend for years now, even longer than Futaba or Maya or Tetsu; she spends the most time with him out of their circle of friends, between club and getting together after school and on the weekends, but she can't ever remember a time when such an awkward silence stretched so long between them. She doesn't even know what's wrong, though it seems like Sosei has some kind of issue with her; but if that's the case, why won't he just come out and talk to her about?

"So," Sosei begins, non sequitur, and Leila has to pull away from her thoughts to focus on him, "you've met someone recently."

"Issa Kazuma." Leila supplies warily, not sure what that has to do with anything. "I met him on my way home from school two weeks ago." She keeps that fact that he stopped her from walking out in front of a truck to herself; Sosei's always harbored a protective streak when it came to her.

Sosei mulls over this information for a moment as Leila watches him, brows furrowing in his habitual expression of deep thought, and when he speaks next the words come out slow, as if he's choosing them carefully. "He seems a bit…old for you."

Leila blinks, and looks clearly at the way Sosei is sitting she thinks she can feel something snapping into place as she takes in the way Sosei is sitting: hunched over, hands clasped in his lap, resolutely turned away from her, and even if his head is tilted down she can still see the way his ears are burning, poking through the strands of his blue hair. She compares that with uneasy behavior from earlier, the way he wouldn't look her in the eye – an effort meant to keep him from blurting out his thoughts right then and there, she realizes, in order to allow himself the time to sort out his thoughts – and feels something click into place in the back of her mind. "Sosei," she starts, and has to bite the inside of cheek to keep from laughing, "are you trying to ask me if I'm dating him?"

Sosei bristles, as she knew he would, whirling around on her with an indignant frown, but even the annoyance in his eyes doesn't cancel out the color blooming in his cheeks, and Leila can't help grinning at him. "Futaba told me not to wait for you and her after class - that I should go on ahead to kendo, but then the three of you were talking in the classroom…" Sosei turns away from her, brows furrowed. "I wasn't sure what to think."

Oh, Sosei. Leila smiles fondly and leans back on her hands; he always has tried to take care of her. "I'm not going out with Issa." Sosei turns towards her, but Leila doesn't look at him. Her hair's falling into her eyes and there's sweat sliding down her back, but all she can think about is a young girl crying in a hospital bed with no one left to hear. "I don't plan on being with anyone for a long time." When Leila tilts her head toward Sosei, there's pressure at the back of her eyes but she still smiles, even if it feels stiff around the edges. "But I'll tell you when I am."

There's concern in Sosei's eyes, but there is also a deep-rooted understanding born from years of friendship, and it is for that reason that he leans over and wraps an arm around her shoulders, resting his cheek on the top of her head. When their coach blows his whistle again and they have to pull apart, the smile Leila manages to give Sosei is calm.

-X-

Leila meets up with Issa three more times over the next two weeks – Maya calls them "dates," but Leila doesn't want to pursue that line of thought – and each times Issa takes her to go get something to eat: the first time at a diner for burgers and vanilla milkshakes, the second at a pizza shop, and the third at a food stand in the park for pretzels and ice cream before sitting down to watch a makeshift baseball game. Leila's beginning to sense a theme, amused over the fact, as Issa almost always eats twice the amount that she orders. Leila's still wary of his intentions – she pays for her food both times, and keeps her phone fully charged and tucked within easy reach into her pocket – but he's not giving her a lot of reasons to doubt him, and she's beginning to find she really enjoys his company.

She learns that Issa didn't go to high school and missed most of middle school, spending his time traveling around the world with his sister – Ciara, he tells her, and the way Issa grins over her name makes her think they must be close – for the sake of her work. Ciara works independently writing research papers, checking in with her editor every few weeks, and is still off doing that now. Issa, on the other hand, has gone on to earn his GED, bought an apartment, and now drifts between jobs that become available to him, many of which are facilitated through a few friends of his: Shun'ichi Sakuraba, an older man he's known years before ever coming to Mikuni, and Shizue Aoi, a beautiful young woman he'd met when he first moved to Mikuni, and who'd taken a foster child into her care two years before that.

"They all sound wonderful." Leila says, tucking each piece of information carefully away into the back of her mind, and takes a bite out of her strawberry ice cream. "So what made you decide to move to Mikuni?"

Issa's smile is wry and his eyes are focused inward, and when he answers – first swallowing the last of his cone - his mind seems far away. "Wanted to try committing to something, for a change. I like Mikuni." He tilts his head back, eyes roaming from the sky peeking between the branches of the tree they're under to the skyscrapers rising up all around them. "Thought it'd be a good place to settle." He turns to her then, and his grin is wide as it stretches across his face. "Turns out that it was."

A light breeze blows past them, rattling the branches of the tree, and Leila feels her breath catch. Issa's still grinning, the edges of his mouth softening into something sweeter, but she's frozen where she sits, and has no idea what to say. A loud crack makes them both jump, and they turn to watch as a baseball sails through the air, up and away to the elated cheers of the group of kids playing their game. Leila feels overwhelmed, like she can't catch her breath, and has to swallow around the lump in her throat. She determinedly keeps her eyes on the game, too nervous - though not anxious, and the fact makes something tingle in the pit of her stomach – to turn back to Issa; when Issa suddenly stands up, then, she's startled, and nearly drops her ice cream in her surprise as she turns to him. Issa stretches his arms over his head – Leila is embarrassed by how captivated she is by the small sliver of skin exposed by the lift of his shirt – and lets them fall with lazy slaps against his sides. When he turns towards her, Leila can see nothing but contentment in his eyes.

"Should we get going, then?" He asks, and offers her his hand. Leila stares at it, her stomach still tingling with residual nervousness, and tentatively takes his hand. He pulls her easily to her feet, the smoothness of the action bellying the strength behind it, and for a moment she's close to him, barely an arm's length between them, and for a moment she can see there the flecks of green lining the irises of his eyes. Then he lets go and steps away, turning on his heel and beginning to walk towards the park entrance. Leila stares after him, the palm of her hand still warm, before following after him.

They walk to the park entrance, Leila trailing a few feet behind him, stopping for a moment to deposit the remains of her ice cream in a trash can. When they walk off the gravel path and onto the sidewalk Issa turns back around to face her. Leila shifts her weight from one foot to another, fingers twitching with the folds of her skirt. "So," she starts, because even if she's nervous around him in a not-bad way, she can admit that she does want to see him again, "are you free to get together again soon?"

The corner of Issa's mouth curls smugly, sneakily pleased, but his expression evens out into something close to regret. "I wanted to talk you about that, actually," he tells her, and there is faint regret weighing down his words, "I'll be going out of town for a little while – a business trip for the job I'm currently working - and I'm not really sure when I'll be getting back."

Leila blinks, surprised; they've been setting up the next time they'll meet at the end of each time they get together, and the break in this routine confuses her. Has she done something wrong? Has Issa been planning on telling her this, or is it an excuse to put some distance between them? She'd felt him lean closer to her, back under the tree, the grip of his hand warm and sure around her wrist and his face so close she could count his eyelashes; should she have leaned in as well?

"So, if you wouldn't mind," Issa continues, and Leila's pulled out of her thoughts to find him watching her, lips twitching nervously, "I'd like to ask you for your number."

Oh, Leila thinks, eyes widening and mouth falling open; Oh.

Her hand moves towards her pocket, instinctually, but when her fingers brush against the plastic edge of her phone's case, she hesitates. Is this okay? Is she just caught up in the moment or does she actually want to do this? Her hand drifts away a little, and she resolutely lifts her head to look at Issa, her mouth falling open to apologize, to say she can't –

Issa is smiling at her, very softly, very charmingly, and the hope brimming in the depths of his eyes wipes her thoughts from her mind. "Alright," she says, the words falling out of her mouth with an objective of their own. "I'd very much like that."

Issa's grinning fit to burst now, and Leila smiles in return, pulling her phone out of her skirt while he tugs his out of a pocket in his jacket. They exchange numbers – with a little fiddling on her end, because it's been a long time she added a new entry to her embarrassingly short list of contacts – and Issa looks so happy when he flips his phone closed and puts it away that she can't bring herself to say anything. They exchange goodbyes; Issa twitches towards her again, like he means to do something else but stops himself, and Leila is left wondering as she walks away from him, her nerves tingling anew down her spine.

She finds, when she's safely back home and is sitting down for dinner, that she doesn't regret giving him her number. The feeling persists when, forty-five minutes later, her phone buzzes, bearing a short text wishing her a good night and ending with a silly, winking smiley face. Leila smiles, almost without thinking about it, and goes to bed feeling happier than has in a long while.

-X-

Three days after Issa leaves on his business trip, Leila comes home after school and types Ciara Kazuma into a search engine on her laptop. Her curiosity has been nagging at her ever since the meeting in the park, and she finally has a day with a light enough workload – no kendo practice, and her homework stands as a single worksheet due during her sixth period math class – to sit down and see if she can find some of the articles Ciara has written.

She doesn't have to wait long – her internet is cooperating today; Leila chalks it up as another stroke of good fortune in her favor – but the results that pop up makes her raise one of her eyebrows. There's a fair amount of links that come up under the search, but not nearly the amount that she expected, considering the way Issa spoke of Ciara's rather lengthy travels; Leila wonders if this is a case of an younger brother harboring affectionate bias for his older sister, but then Leila opens one of the first few links and is taken to a biographical on Ciara and her work. It's a flattering length, the page written and formatted with care, but the longer Leila reads the more she feels she's not truly learning anything; the descriptions hold the barest of information tied over with just enough fluff to not be immediately noticeable, there's no picture available with the article, and a few of the essays and literary studies listed under Ciara's accomplished works produce few results and no electronic copy when searched on their own.

Leila frowns, her eyebrows drawing closer together as she continues to read, but she does open up a few more links from the search engine in hopes of finding something better. It is only after she opens up the tenth webpage that she stumbles upon something that catches her attention. The website is a message forum created for avid world travelers, and submitted towards the bottom of the page is a particularly long message – a rather embarrassing and lengthy retelling of the author's supposed encounter with Ciara over six months ago, and infused with enough grammatical errors that Leila almost doesn't finish the stupid thing – signed off with a fluffy dedication to VIUS' most lovely travel agent, the beautiful and radiant talented Ciara Kazuma! May destiny one day allow us to reunite under the stars once more!

Leila blinks, tilting her head to the side; what on earth is VIUS?

She types the strange word into another search engine, and reels back in surprise when the page is flooded with results, more than three times what was available in the first search. She clicks on the first few and is taken to informational articles and conspiracy forums in equal measure. She finds several similar descriptions between the webpages: "government work," "private company," and "secret agents," and there's a particularly shocking moment when she comes across a link between organization funding into prosthetic technology and the implementation of such in the surgery one Shun'ichi Sakuraba. Leila falls back against the back of her couch, hands slipping to rest limply at her side, and tries to make sense of what she's looking at. What does Ciara have to do with this mysterious organization? Was she really involved, or did the sappy forum writer get the wrong person? Does Issa know about it?

Issa, who grew up traveling around the world with his suddenly suspicious sister; Issa, who admitted to working "various jobs" over the years and specifically referred to himself as a freelancer; Issa, who was just sent on a week-long business trip with an indeterminate time frame for a job he only got a few weeks ago; and Issa, whose cheerful text is currently lighting up the screen of her cell phone, asking her how her she's been.

Leila stares at her cell phone, unable to look away as the searing brightness of its screen dims and then fades; she continues to stare long after the phone has gone back to sleep, sitting against her coach as the sun sets outside and she's left alone in the darkness of her apartment.

-X-

"I think Issa is hiding things from me." Leila admits, slumping back against the wall and gripping her practice sword tightly between her hands.

Futaba, leaning against the wall next to her, shifts over until her shoulder is brushing against Leila's. She's been patiently listening to Leila pour out her worries over Issa for the past few minutes, tucked into a corner of the gym while the other members gather around an ongoing match – Sosei's, in fact, which is the only reason he's not listening himself; Leila closes her eyes and draws on the comfort the gesture is meant to convey, shaky with the outpouring of anxious thoughts. When Futaba opens her mouth to speak, Leila can feel her intake of breath through the shift of her shoulder; she opens her eyes halfway, suddenly exhausted, and turns her head just enough to look Futaba out of the corner of her eye.

"I think," Futaba tells her, gentle but firm, "that you should talk to Issa." Leila stiffens, but Futaba turns her head until she's looking Leila straight in the eye - with the same intense focus Leila recognizes in her twin brother - and Leila feels her protests die on her tongue. "You won't be able to move forward this way, Leila, not if you continue to shut yourself away and refuse to let others in." She reaches a hand up and places it over both of Leila's, which are gripping her sword so tightly her knuckles are turning white. Her eyes are determinedly set, and Leila thinks Futaba has been waiting to say these things for a long time. "You need other people besides us, Leila, and I think Issa can be one of those people." The corners of her mouth dip down, and her eyes fill with a deep-rooted worry Leila has long since become familiar with as she when she adds, "Especially not with that day so close."

Leila swallows thickly, her mouth scrunching up against the burn behind her eyes and the pain constricting in her chest, and presses her face into the juncture between Futaba's shoulder and neck. Her head is spinning and she feels like she's going to be sick, so she forces herself to stop thinking, stop thinking, STOP THINKING.

She never manages to say yes.

-X-

Nine days later, Leila wakes up with a headache pounding at her temple and exhaustion pulling at her eyes. She's not sure what time it is, but she can see daylight streaming through the thin cracks in her shuttered blinds. She frowns, and pulls the covers back up over her head. It doesn't really matter what time it is; it's still April 21st, and it will continue to be April 21 for hours to come, until the sun goes down and sky gets dark and she can wake up tomorrow morning with this awful day behind her.

She's almost drifted back to sleep, the exhaustion from her despair adding to her fatigue, when her cell phone starts ringing. She jumps, startled, her heavy eyes flying open against her will, and peeks out from under the covers in a daze. She glares at the phone as it continues to ring, wondering who on earth would be calling her - she's stayed home on the same day every year since she was seven, and her friends have gotten really good at covering for her at school – but she's too tired for the anger to remain, leaving room for misery to creep back in. She tries to ignore it, but she hasn't set up a voicemail on her cell phone – never needed to, before now – so it simply continues to ring, straining her already frayed nerves. She finally grabs it off her dresser after it rings for two minutes and the person on the other doesn't just give up and stop calling, and presses the phone to her ear without looking at the caller id. Her voice is hoarse and her tone is flat, but she can't bring herself to care. "Hello?"

"Leila?" Issa asks, surprised, because of course it's Issa, of course he's calling, because he's off running around with secret agents somewhere in the world and doesn't know anything about her. "You sound kind of awful. Are you alright?"

Leila stares at the fraying edges of her comforter and doesn't let the concern in his voice faze her. "What do you want?"

There are a few moments of heavy silence, and then there's a new tone in Issa's voice when he starts talking again. "I wanted to call to see how you are. What's going on? You can tell me."

And suddenly Leila is very angry. "Like how you tell me things?" The words rip out of her mouth, sharp and broken and tearing at her throat, and she gripping her phone so tightly she can hear it creak. "Like how you've told me your sister travels to conduct international espionage? Like how there is more information regarding her in governmental conspiracy forums than her actual biographical essay? Like how a mysterious government organization funded the prosthetic surgery for one of your best friends? Like how you freelance for odd jobs that happen to send you off on indeterminate business trips?" Her throat is raw and she's close to tears, but she manages to keep her voice steady when she says, "Tell me, Issa; do you work for VIUS?"

She's sobbing now, large, heavy bursts of tears that make her chest heave with the effort to keep breathing. For a few minutes, there's nothing but her crying, loud in her empty apartment and down the line of the call, and she can't make herself stop and finds that she doesn't want to. She can't remember the last time she cried, really, truly cried, and even though she sounds and probably looks like a mess, she doesn't care enough to stop. When she finally quiets down, with only the occasional hiccup remaining after her outburst, Issa says, "Yes," and begins to tell her.

Issa and Ciara were recruited by VIUS when he was fourteen, two years after they'd been legitimately traveling the world and one year after VIUS had been actively scouting them. Ciara found her strengths in espionage and worked mostly undercover as a spy or conduction interrogations, while Issa engaged in more active, special ops training work. He's trained in various forms of weaponry and different styles of hand-to-hand combat, and prefers the latter to the former if he has the choice. He's worked a plethora of jobs over the years – truly a freelancer, and he tends to be assigned missions of various kinds and doesn't have enough consistency with any to serve under a classification – but has come to work most actively with a select few individuals: Shun'ichi, whose great physical strength couldn't be snuffed out even after losing his arm, and possessed a kindness and protectiveness that kept Issa out of a lot of trouble over the years; Aoi, who worked mostly with Ciara in undercover missions but could overpower a man two times her height and three times her weight; Rokuro Hyuuga, whose easy chatter and fast feet belies an intellect and analytical skills that sets him as Issa's preferred tech op when being directed over the coms; Riku Kajiyama, whose affinity for technology and his own wild inventions is matched only by awareness and natural tactical analysis; Masamune Hibiki, taken in under Aoi's custody when he was twelve, joined VIUS when he was thirteen, and operates with a brutal efficiency and love for battle similar to Issa's own battle method; and Fusoya, the man who spent fourteen months recruiting and later training Issa and Ciara, and the most extraordinary agent Issa's ever seen.

"He lost one of his eyes covering me on a mission," Issa admits, and the sheepishness in his tone doesn't hide the undercurrent of regret, "but he's still the most amazing man I've ever met. Now he acts as one of VIUS' top commanders, and serves as my direct line of authority." Then he stops talking, and waits.

"Oh," is all Leila can manage to say, because – he just told her everything, just like she wanted, just like she asked, but – she never imagined he'd actually tell her. He was supposed to keep his secrets to himself, and she could get angry and refuse to talk to him and never have to see him again, never have to deal with disturbances he's creating in the well-worn groove of her life. Instead he's handing over personal information – information that is no doubt classified, that should never, under normal conditions, reach her ears – like he's explaining how to make scrambled eggs. Her breath catches, the overwhelming extent of his trust making it hard for her to process anything.

"So," he begins, and Leila doesn't know if she has the energy to learn anything more, "now it's your turn. Are you going to tell me what's wrong, Leila?"

And she does.

The words flow out of her without her control, free and unedited and so very personal: she tells him that April 21st is the day her parents died in a car crash, leaving her to wake up alone in a hospital bed with nothing but a bump on her forehead, a few cuts on her arms and legs, and no one left to hold her while she cried and cried; she tells him about Master Shimon, a family friend turned legal guardian who raised her and taught her kendo and pays for her apartment and her school tuition and various other necessities, but is away so often for work it's like she's living on her own; she tells him about transferring school districts in the fifth grade, and how miserable she would have continued to be if Sosei and Futaba hadn't found her; she tells him about Maya and Tetsu, who she met at the beginning of high school but are just as true of friends as Sosei and Futaba; she tells him about the constant need to take care of herself and the fear that she will once again lose those closest to her; she tells him how paralyzed she is by the future, how turning eighteen in a week and graduating in a month will change everything for her; and she tells him about dangerously close he is to becoming one of those people, and how she doesn't know how to deal with someone like him: kind and exuberant and sturdy and protective and sweet and so very, very interested in her.

Issa listens to her tell him these things, and she finds that she's glad he doesn't try to interrupt, because she doesn't think she could have stopped even if he had tried. When she's finally done talking, when all her worries are emptied out of her and she's left shaking with the absence of them, Issa says, "I'd like to see you tomorrow. Would you like to go out to dinner?"

"Yes," and the word comes out soft and breathy, but she's happy because she's not embarrassed, "I'd like that very much."

Issa names a restaurant and she agrees, and then tells her to get some rest and wishes her a good bye before hanging up the phone. Leila lays her phone next to her pillow and closes her eyes, warm and happy and content, and falls blissfully back to sleep.

-X-

Leila has always enjoyed being friends with Tetsu: he's a quiet soul, keeping to himself and relaxing only in the presence of those he feels comfortable around; he's passively stubborn and subtly possessive of those he cares for; when he speaks it's with short phrases that cut straight through to the core of the issue at hand. Tetsu has a calm, soothing presence that doesn't demand anything in the lull of a conversation; Leila takes solace in that now, sitting across from him in a booth at the local burger joint – a favorite of theirs, for the close proximity to school and its famous vanilla milkshakes. Leila takes a sip from hers, relishing in the sweetness of the drink as it slid smoothly down her throat.

"Alright," Maya decrees, balancing their food on the two trays cradled in the crook of her arms, "here's a turkey burger with fries, extra ketchup, hold the tomatoes, and two double cheeseburgers with fries and onion rings for Tetsu and I, hold the mustard but double the pickles." She rattles off their orders with well-worn familiarity, sliding the two trays neatly on the table, and slides into the seat next to Tetsu. She picks up her burger, peeling back the wrapper with one hand, and uses the other to dump her box of fries onto her tray. She takes a bite out of her burger, chewing heartily, while she grabs Tetsu's onion rings and dumps them onto the tray as well. She plucks one of each from the disarrayed mix and pops them into her mouth, chewing and swallowing before focusing her attention on Leila. "So, he's a secret agent for a secret military organization." She's smirking, clearly amused, but Leila knows she's not mocking or questioning the information. "Suppose that explains a few things." She takes another bite out of her burger; to her left, Tetsu steals some of her fries, looking between the two of them with attentive brown eyes. "Wonder if I should be looking into this VIUS myself…"

Leila chokes, her fries catching in her throat, and is reduced to hacking coughs for a few minutes. Tetsu slides his glass of water across the table to her, and she takes it with an attempt at a grateful smile. She takes a hearty drink, relieved at the easy slide of the water down her throat, and glares at the Cheshire grin stretching across Maya's face. When she puts the drink down, wiping some tears from her eyes, Maya's expression has shifted into something serious. "How are you, Leila?"

She knows the weight behind that question, and so Leila thinks it over with the consideration it deserves. She's been feeling giddy, actually, a lingering feeling that's been spilling over from her date with Issa two days ago. They'd met up at the restaurant, spent close to two hours with each other, and she had let him pay for both of their meals when the check came around. He'd even taken her hand, between the entrée and the dessert, and hadn't let go until they parted ways at the intersection between their homes. It makes her uneasy, to be so casually open with someone else, to see Issa and remember what has transpired between them. She is standing on uncertain ground, and doesn't know where she is going or what to expect; maybe that's a good thing, though, something she's needed for a long time now. "I'm doing well." She finally answers, smiling. "I'm happy."

Maya smiles back, no trace of amusement in the lines of her mouth, just a reflection of her own happiness. She leans over; stealing another combo of French fries and onion rings, and presses her shoulder against Tetsu's.

"When are we going to meet him?"

Leila looks over at Tetsu, surprised, but his expression remains mostly impassive; only his eyes give him away, expressively earnest in only the way he could be. Maya snorts with laughter, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and hugging him closely, but his eyes never waver. Leila smiles helplessly, seized with the intense urge to ruffle his bright green hair. "I'll let you know."

-X-

Leila skips her way down the hallway, hefting the schoolbag to lie easier across her front and back, and shoves open the doors with an overabundance of energy. The sky outside is darkening, the sun burning into deeper shades of yellow and orange and setting the sky ablaze with orange-tinted clouds. It's bright, enough that she has to raise a hand to her forehead to shield her eyes as she runs across the courtyard to the front gates; there are some classmates she knows still loitering around the school grounds, and she waves to them as she runs by, but she doesn't have the time to stop today.

A wide grin spreads across her face as she passes through the gates and makes her way down the sidewalk. She'd gotten a text from Issa last night, a puzzling query of do you have kendo practice tomorrow? She did, and responded as such, confused as to why he would be asking; he has another job, one that would take a week, at the very least, but that he promised to text when he got back, like always. That had been only five days ago, and even if he'd been texting her since then, knowing whether or not she had practice wouldn't matter if he was away. Right?

When he texted again, her chest had almost overflowed with glee: Caught a lucky break – came across our contact sooner than expected. I'll be back in town tomorrow.

Leila smiles at the memory; she finds it amazing how much happiness she can derive from these unexpected snatches of time together, and that it's perfectly alright for her to feel this way. She bounces in front of the entrance to an alley, checking up and down the street before continuing on her way. She has to keep telling herself it's alright; if she doesn't, her wariness and her mistrust overwhelm her, preventing the chance for her to move forward with something real. Being around Issa – being with Issa, she privately thinks, and frets over her own forwardness – makes her happy and no longer suffering under the weight of her own life; she's willing to trust Issa, willing to put all her concerns to the side and bet on her relationship with him, if this happiness is what she get in return.

When she stops at the intersection – the intersection – she inhales deeply and exhales slowly, allowing the last vestiges of her hesitance to flow out of her system. She is on her way to Issa's apartment – the address is scrawled on a note in her pocket, worn with crease lines – and she needs to be prepared. Today is Friday, April 29, and she is eighteen years old; today will be a turning point in her life, and she has plans to make it happen.

The crosswalk changes to allow her through and she looks both ways before running down the street, making her way to the train station.

-X-

The train ride is longer than she expected – she has a private moment of guilt over how far Issa has to travel to see her, but reasons that the commute is probably only this long at this time of day – so the sun is already descending towards the horizon when she reaches her stop. Her destination is a dizzying section of the city filled with high-rise skyscrapers and apartment buildings, and for a moment she feels lost in the face of so many buildings, tinted with the rays of sun peeking through the gaps; her wits return to her quickly, though, when a warm, familiar hand slips into her own.

"I see you made it here alright." Issa comments, tilting his head a bit to the side and giving her hand a squeeze, thumb brushing over the knuckles. It's a pleasant feeling, one Leila finds she enjoys, and it carries over into her return smile.

"It wasn't difficult to follow your directions." Leila tells him; her eyes stray back to the far away rooftops of the surrounding buildings. "Though I think I would have had some trouble here."

Issa seems to find this terribly funny, chuckling affectionately as he gives her hand a tug. "Guess it's a good thing I came to pick you up then." He pulls her along, their connected hands dangling between them, and Leila quickens her pace to lessen the gap between them. "My apartment's just around the corner. Pretty convenient, being this close to the trains, huh?"

Issa supplies a steady stream of small talk the rest of the walk to his apartment, and Leila is thankful for the chance; he's not really looking at her as he switches from stories of Ciara's newest recipes to Rokuro's unfortunate run-in with one of Kajiyama's newest inventions, so she's allowed to observe him closely without having to be observed in return. Issa looks fine to her, the edges of his hair still damp from a recent shower and the steadiness of his pace eliminating the chance for sprains and pulled muscles; there's no evident bandages and his posture remains loose as always, and Leila sighs silently in relief. Issa doesn't tell her the details of his missions, save the occasional funny story or anecdote, and she hasn't worked up the nerve to ask, so she doesn't have a way of knowing if something went wrong or if he was injured without seeing him for herself. On this occasion, though, he looks quite alright, and she prays quietly for his continued safety.

The two of them turn the corner and cross the street, walking up concrete steps to the double doors of one of the apartment buildings. Issa pulls a key out of his pocket with his free hand, and fits it into the lock of one of the doors. Leila is surprised – there's no lock on the doors to her building – but before she can ask Issa's already pulling her inside. The lobby is small, housing two doors leading to flights of stairs on each side of the room, and an elevator stationed between them. There isn't a desk set up in the corner or a security guard to stand behind it; Leila suddenly understands the need for the built-in security.

Issa guides her to the elevator and presses the button for floor fifteen; the doors slide closed, and suddenly it is very quiet. Leila peeks at Issa out of the corner of her eye, but he looks content, watching the numbers at the top of the elevator click slowly by as he leans against the wall. He's still holding her hand, which is a good sign, at least, but Leila feels her nerves begin to creep on her as the sudden need to say something wells up in her chest; she's been imagining things for them to do tonight, alone in his apartment on her eighteenth birthday – though nothing too extreme; the more vivid aspects of her imagination embarrass her enough already – but she's been wanting to know what kissing him would be like.

Before she can launch her grand master plan of seduction – preemptively, as she knows absolutely nothing about seducing someone, and hasn't figured out how to get around that lack of knowledge – the elevator dings, the doors slide open, and Issa starts pulling her along again. Leila's stuck between protesting and being thankful for the opportunity to stall, but doesn't settle on either before Issa suddenly stops in front of a door and she nearly walks into him. The door is large and made of thick, heavy wood; the number 1532 is engraved in gold towards the top, and a peephole is installed underneath it. While Issa fishes his keys back out of his pocket, Leila is distracted by an oddity to their left, and it is only after staring at a blank expanse of wall for a few seconds does she realize she's looking for a door. Her eyes follow the wall until she does find one, but to her surprise the number engraved into it is 1534.

"What…?" The word slips out in a moment of confusion just as Issa opens his door, and then all of her attention is captured by the inside of his apartment. It's huge, much more than she was expecting, and when she peeks around the doorframe she sees there's even more space, hidden away from her initial viewpoint: the large expanse of space, as far as she can tell, is all one room, consisting of a living room area - with two couches, a long center table, and a flat screen television fitted into the wall - leading into a kitchen area separated by counter tops. The floors are all hardwood, sanding smooth to provide a seamless transition between the two areas and the break of empty space in the wall that curves around the corner and out of sight; Leila assumes it leads to the bedrooms, and wonders just how big this apartment is.

"Ciara and I bought the apartment next door when we first moved in," Issa offer in explanation, and Leila tears her eyes away from the room to turn back to him. "We both like the extra space and it's nice to offer friends a place to stay when they're in town, so we ended up remodeling." Issa's expression is fond as he looks around the apartment, and then he steps through the doorway, flicking on the lights and kicking his shoes off to the side; Leila follows suit, still caught up in her amazement, and stays close behind him as he guides her over to the living room.

He gestures for her to sit down, and she does so, dropping to sit on the floor and lean back against the couch, legs folded up to press against her chest, but she's confused when he doesn't move to join her. He grins, as if that's supposed to serve as an explanation, and maneuvers around the couch to walk over to the kitchen. "I lied," he starts, and Leila jumps, rising to her knees to watch him over the back of the couch, "when I said the trip ended early." He opens the refrigerator and pulls something out, but his back is blocking her view of what it is. "I may have rushed a little bit, towards the end." A drawer rattles loudly when he pulls it open, takes out a knife, and slides it closed again. "Shun'ichi was kind of mad, and I had to promise to spar with Hibiki to get him to help," Issa pulls open a cabinet and lifts down two plastic plates, both red in color, and places them on the counter next to him, "But I really wanted to get back today."

Issa moves the item from the refrigerator onto the two plates, one slice each, and carries them back over to the living room. He sets one plate down in front of her, and then sits down across from her, legs folding under him with practiced ease, and places his own plate down on the table. But Leila isn't paying any attention to that, because sitting in front of her is a slice of birthday cake, vanilla batter with chocolate frosting and a messy flower scribbled with pink frosting. It is a birthday cake, on her birthday, and Issa is sitting across her with a slice of his own and had them already prepared in her fridge and rushed through work to come home early and give her this cake on the day of her birthday rather than two days later –

"Happy Birthday, Leila." Issa says, affectionate clear in his voice and his eyes, and Leila suddenly feels like she's going to cry.

And she does cry, big, fat tears running down her cheeks and dribbling into her mouth, and she covers her face with her hands because why is she crying now when she's happier than she can ever remember being? And now the tears won't stop so she pushes the heels of her palms into her eyes, hiccuping around the watery smile stretching across her face; her hands fall away, though, when something warm and soft presses against her forehead. Her eyes are glued to the collar of Issa's shirt and Issa's hand is at the back of her neck and she can smell the minty scent of Issa's cologne because Issa's moved around the table and is kneeling in front of her and is kissing her on the forehead.

And, quite suddenly, it isn't enough.

Leila reaches up with shaking hands still wet with tears, and she doesn't care that she probably looks like a mess, because all that matters is that Issa is here, with her, right now, and there's nothing else she wants more; she takes his face between both her hands, thumbs resting on the curve of his cheekbones, and kisses him hard on the mouth. It's a sloppy kiss, and she pulls away after only a second, but then he's following her lips with his own and it's him kissing her, and his kisses are much better. It's a longer, deeper kiss, one that resonates in her bones and tingles down her spine as he grips the back of her neck, and when she pulls away to breath his mouth moves to her cheek, then her eyes, then the tip of her nose before returning for one last quick kiss on her mouth. Then he pulls away just enough to look at her, and rests his forehead against her own. "I've been wanting to do that" he whispers to her, as if the moment will break if he speaks too loudly, "for a very long time."

There are several things running through her head: she'll have to tell her friends, they'll want to meet him, she'll have to meet his sister, she wants to meet his friends, she'll have to tell Master Shimon – they are going to hate each other, she already knows – that she doesn't want to go home tonight, that she couldn't have asked for a better present, and that this is the turning point she has been waiting for. What she says, though, is "Thank you."

So when Issa smiles at her, so heartfelt and happy that it takes her breath away, and wraps his arms around her and presses his face into her neck, Leila puts away all her ideas for what will come next and leans against him too.