Issei snapped to her voice, smiling at his girlfriend. They settled around at the fountain in the park. The cool concrete soothed his aching legs. The day's events were a frenzied blur to him — he needed some time to take it all in.
He watched over the sparse clouds in the sky. Their lazy swim through the orange tinged sea calmed him, yet her call was enough to flutter his heart once again.
As he turned back to his girlfriend, he watched her twirl around, his eyes following her billowing hair. As dark as the night and radiant as the stars that decorated it, he couldn't help but lose himself within it.
"Yes, Yuuma-chan?" He answered. A fervent flush heated his cheeks as it had many times today. The way that the warm, tangy sunlight framed her — was she an angel in the shape of a human? Vibrant violet eyes met his shy brown eyes just once before he had to turn away in embarrassment.
With her hands clasped behind her back, she advanced closer to Issei with slight delayed steps. Her honeyed words danced in his ears. "There's something I want to do to celebrate our first date. Would you please listen to my wish?"
A fragrant scent embraced his nose, pulling him into a living field of flowers.
"W-w-hat d-d-do you want, Yuuma-chan?" He stuttered, cringing to himself. Of all the times now, he had to stutter. Did that lose him cool points? Would she laugh at him? It's a good thing that Aika wasn't around to see it, otherwise she would've never let him live this down.
He straightened his back, trying to refrain from making any more embarrassing mistakes. Once again, he caught the scent of her perfume, and he couldn't stop fidgeting.
This is so unfair! Why do girls have to be so fluffy and cute and irresistable? But still, he would do his best to listen to whatever she wanted him to do! That's what a boyfriend is all about, right?
He was glad that she didn't seem to notice that he was a nervous wreck at that moment. She closed her eyes and smiled. For some reason, he felt the chilly evening breeze even more so at the sight of that innocent gesture.
"Would you please die for me?"
A nervous chuckle rolled out, and a grin tried to form on his face. It's been a long day, the fatigue was building up. That was why he misheard her, right?
"Sorry, Yuuma-chan, I didn't hear it. Would you say that again please?" This time! This time he'll try his hardest to listen!
Her gentle humming buzzed in his ear. Yuuma leaned in closer, repeating once again — this time with a soft, echoing laugh. "Will you die for me?"
She's laughing, right? It must be an amazing joke that he isn't getting, yet her vibrant laugh held none of the warmth or kindness of her previous ones. He felt goosebumps, and cold sweat started to prick at his skin.
Then Yuuma's dress ripped apart, showcasing her porcelain yet shapely body. The exposure was short-lived as tight, jet black straps began to form and cover her womanly parts. Even so, they revealed enough that she would fit right in one of those AVs that Matsuda and Motohama would have gushed over. Then, two wings just as dark as her hair, erupted from Yuuma's back. Harsh winds rolled over Issei before settling down.
Issei collapsed on his butt and gaped at the dangerous yet alluring sight before him. In great contrast to the previously modest Yuuma, this one was bold and seductive: as if she didn't care if her voluptuous body was laid bear for all to see. In another time, Issei would have rejoiced at viewing his girlfriend in an arousing cosplay.
This time, cold violets sought out quivering browns; this time there was no innocent love within them. There was only disdain.
"It was amusing, it definitely was." No longer was it the cheery and bubbly voice that Issei was accustomed to — now it was disconcerting, disapproving, and disenchanting. The sun setted and only the coldness of the night embraced him. "To go on a date with such an innocent little child like you."
She raised her arm that bore a pink bracelet, paying it a mocking glance. He remembered spending a long time looking at the various ones on display. He tried to judge from her reactions to see which one would she would like. Then he bought it without telling her, hoping that he'll impress her later on.
The smile on her face filled him with giddiness, and the warmth of her hug was enough to last throughout a winter.
Now, all he felt was naivety.
"I'll definitely treasure what you've bought for me. So that's why…"
The winged woman clapped her hands together before splitting them apart. In between, black energy coalesced to form a dark mass. She grasped what appeared to be the shaft of the dark weapon, and pointed the pulsating sharp edge towards his heaving chest.
Issei paled as he felt the vibrant and ominous humming — it sang of painful death.
"Sorry, Ise-kun, but you're going to be a major threat to us if I don't take care of it soon. If you want to blame someone, then blame God who put a Sacred Gear inside you."
What was Yuuma saying to him? Issei couldn't understand what was going on. It was all going great for him this week: he recently had his birthday, a cute girl asked to be his girlfriend, and he went on a date with said girlfriend. It was all like a pleasant dream, yet now it shattered into a nightmare.
Could he wake up from it? Would he be able to see the kind, bright eyed Yuuma again?
As Yuuma began to thrust her spear of dark energy into Issei's body, something rushed in front of his eyes. The blur — in a shape of a teenage girl — parried the black energy with a slash from her katana. Eyes wide, the black winged assailant leapt away from him.
"Eh…?" Issei gaped, startled by the appearance of his guardian angel. Beautiful. She was beautiful. While the current Yuuma oozed sensuality and lust, the newcomer held a refined grace. She stood tall over him, her red school uniform added to her prim countenance. Once again, he found himself captivated by another starry sky as her ponytail whirled through the air.
This time, protective violets sought bewildered browns.
"Do not worry, Young Master. I will always protect you, no matter what stands before you. This I will forever promise you."
There was no doubt, no hesitation within her words. However, only one thing stuck out to Issei in the midst of this insane situation — the familiarity of her voice brought back a recent memory.
"Wait a moment, you're that girl from a few days ago…"
Realization rushed into his mind. On his birthday, he had met her during his walk to Kuoh Academy. He recalled that charming smile that held a hint of curiosity and perhaps something mischievous. In his confusion and the consequent rush of events afterwards, Issei pushed aside the encounter towards the back of his mind.
"I am pleased that you remembered me, Young Master." A smile graced her lips. It faded just as she turned back her attention to Yuuma.
"Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of exchanging pleasantries right now. Right now, I will deal with this dirty crow wench who dared to fool around with the heart of the Young Master."
Anger rippled through Yuuma, a scowl bared her teeth. She flung her Black Light Spear at the swordswoman. "Who the hell are you! What faction are you from!"
The girl slashed apart the energy mass into two: each of the halves flew to both sides of her, and rough explosives scarred the ground. Despite the chunks of concrete and ust flying through the air, she was untarnished.
The newcomer sighed when she readjusted her stance on the now uneven ground. Her cheeky grin incensed Yuuma even more.
"I am the Young Master's protector — the Crimson Blade of Noihara! Whether Devils, Youkai, or Fallen Angels stand before him, I will cut down all of Young Master's enemies! That is my oath!"
"Noihara? Where Grandpa and Grandma lived?" Issei murmured.
While the name brought a faint nostalgia to Issei, he could see unease and panic rippling through Yuuma.
"The Crimson Blade of Noihara! Why would someone like you protect this guy! Unless he is...!"
"I see, you have figured it out. Yes, my Young Master is the one of the descendent of the Twelve Clans that protects this country from supernatural threats…" Yuuma couldn't help but quiver before the mere sight of the Crimson Blade's bloodthirsty grin. "...Such as yourself, Fallen Angel."
A Few Days Earlier, on Issei's 17th birthday
"Please wake up, Young Master. We have much to do after all."
Issei tried to turn off his alarm clock, groaning away the remnants of sleep. He checked the time on his special clock: it featured wake up quotes from various types of anime girls, ranging from maids to yanderes. It was a gift from Matsuda and Motoyama for his last birthday.
It was that time of year again.
After getting dressed for school and finishing his small breakfast, Issei went to the altar where there were four pictures enshrined. Issei had no living relatives left: his parents both were killed in a car accident, and his grandparents were long gone. He lit four incense sticks for them, closing his eyes for a silent prayer.
Though it's been several years, he was never accustomed to the spaces in this empty house. That didn't mean he was lonely; no, it was far from that. Aika and her family were there for him. Even Matsuda and Motoyama, as foolish and perverted they may be, were good friends.
Issei placed the incense into the holder, chuckling. The laughter rejuvenated him — wallowing away in sadness isn't what his parents would have wanted for him. Perhaps one day, he'll find a girlfriend.
It was about time to be heading to school. Resting his school bag over his shoulder, he dashed into his shoes, only sparing a few short steps as a sloppy method to readjust the fitting. As he left through the pathway, he wasn't surprised to see a girl with braided pigtails standing around.
It was Aika Kiryuu, his neighbor and childhood friend. She and her family supported Issei when he lost his parents. In sync — as they have done for several years — they both set off towards school in a relaxed pace.
"Morning, Ise. A bit slow today, aren't you?" A mischievous grin cut across Aika's face. "You weren't spending all of last night doing that, right?"
"Oh yeah, definitely. It took me all of last night to finish, you know?" Issei couldn't help the small smile that tugged at his lips. It's always been like this. She's so spontaneous, but it's Aika. It's always something new every day, yet it always feels as it's been the same with her.
That being said, Issei couldn't help but remember why even the two most shameless individuals in Kuoh feared her.
"Oh my!" Aika swooned. "But even if you got the stamina, Ise, it's still all about the technique. Would you like me to teach you all about it?"
"Yes, please tutor me, Aika-sensei! I definitely want to get a passing grade." Issei begged, grasping her hands.
Her hands twitched within his as she shied away. ""But Ise, my services aren't cheap, you know? How will you pay me?"
"That's true, I only have but a humble part-time worker's salary," Issei agreed, "That means I can only offer you my special services."
Her hands entwined and crisscrossed over his. "Oh, I'm sure something amazing can be arranged then, Ise."
The wind rustled through her front bangs, revealing her amber eyes. He knew those familiar eyes all too well. The way that they sparkled whenever she teased him never fails to cheer him.
Even with the warmer weather, her hands weren't uncomfortable to hold. He enjoyed their softness, despite her few calluses that she accumulated playing sports. After all the years that she dragged him into playing everything, he was surprised that she didn't join any athletic clubs at Kuoh.
She was energetic and cute, and she was not afraid of topics that would disgust other girls. He was surprised that no one asked her out — she was perfect girlfriend material. Then again, he admitted he would have a hard time accepting anyone to be her boyfriend. It wouldn't do if his best friend gets hurt by some random punk!
He drew back his attention to her when she snickered and found it contagious.
"Sheesh, Ise, how bad is it that you need my help with your homework?" Aika sighed.
"Well, it's not like I don't pay attention in class. I'm just a bit tired with work these days," Issei shrugged.
"I see, I see." A smirk jumped onto her face as she skipped ahead of Issei. "Well, since you're offering me your special services, I'm all for it!"
"Fine, fine! I'll make something for our study session." Issei rolled his eyes, but he wasn't averse to the idea anyway. It had been some time since he made anything for her, and she was willing to help him. Perhaps one of her favorites will do. Plus, he needed to brush up on his skills anyway. All of those years working part time at a pastry cafe shouldn't go to waste!
Aika's jubilation was short lived as something caught her eye. She sighed, this time more authentic, as she reached for the loose black tie around his neck. "Again, Ise? Seriously, you keep forgetting to tighten it."
"Well, you know I usually don't bother with it..." Kuoh wasn't too strict on their dress regulation so he often left it untied, especially since it was warmer this time of year.
" — Even so, you should at least look a little tidier for at least today," Aika trailed off. One of her hands edged away from the tie and tapped something. "This charm, you're never without it, huh?"
"Yeah, my grandparents gave it to me when I was young. It was one of their final gifts to me..."
They gave it to him just before he moved to Kuoh. It was about the only thing he could remember from his past. Though, Issei felt like there's something different about the charm. It felt cold and desolate — as if the sun disappeared from its core. A sense of loss pervaded his soul since the morning.
Perhaps the prayer left him more sentimental than he thought.
"I see." It was rare to see Aika in a sombre mood. Her fingers lingered upon his chest despite tightening his tie already. "Were you able to properly say your prayers this morning?"
So Aika did know. Of course she did, she always knew.
"Aha…" Issei rubbed his nose, failing to conceal his blush. "Yeah. I told them that I'm always in your care. Thanks for everything, Aika."
"Of course, who else would look after you?" Aika winked.
"Perhaps, I will be the one to take that mantle away from you in the near future."
From the back, a giggle startled the two. They turned around: it was a girl in an unfamiliar red uniform. With one arm, she held something — perhaps a shinai or sword — that was wrapped by a cloth depicting cherry blossoms.
Her poise was flawless. Coupled with what she wielded, he wouldn't be surprised if she knew martial arts. A ribbon held her voluminous hair back into a ponytail. The dark color and length reminded him of Akeno Himejima, an upperclassman considered one of Kuoh's Two Great Ladies. However, her teasing smile reminded him all too much of Aika's.
However, her beauty wasn't the full reason that grabbed onto his attention. No, it was the sense of familiarity as if they had met before.
"You have grown indeed, Issei Hyoudou." Her violet eyes invited him in as she drew closer to Issei. Her words tickled his ears. "Far more handsome than before. This servant would offer her congratulations for your rite of passage into adulthood. But still..."
Her hand caressed his cheek before tapping his charm.
"That charm no longer holds the power to protect anymore. Be on your guard, my Young Master."
"Wha— " The mysterious female vanished around the corner before any of them could respond.
Issei was left staring at the empty distance, his hand clutching at his charm.
"Someone you know, Ise?" Aika asked, one eyebrow raised. There was a hint of something in her tone that Issei couldn't quite place. "I don't recall seeing a red school uniform like hers around here."
"I don't know." Issei shrugged. He wasn't sure who she was. She spoke as she knew about his charm. Is she someone from his forgotten past?
A elbow to his side nudged him from his thoughts. He rolled his eyes at her snickering.
"Young Master, huh? I didn't know that was your preference, Young Master Issei."
"Whatever you say, Aika-sensei."
Aika stumbled through the doorway of her home. She changed into her house slippers and went into the kitchen. Her stomach grumbled in response to the enticing smell of tonight's dinner.
"I'm back." She mumbled to her mother who was at the stove. She sighed, opening the refrigerator door to pour herself iced tea.
"What's wrong? Did something happen between you and Ise-kun again?" Her mother asked.
Aika stiffened. "No, it's not that! Why does it have to be about Ise?"
Her mother scoffed. "Please, dear. The only few times that you're this depressed is when you didn't get your favorite doujinshi at Comiket or that you had a fight with Ise-kun."
Was it true? Did she only feel depressed because of Issei?
Aika slumped in a chair and her arms fanned out over the table. "We didn't have a fight."
"But isn't today his birthday? You were all excited about it all week long. Weren't you planning to drag him out for a date on the weekend?" Her mother asked.
"It's not a date! We were never like that!" Aika jumped out of her chair. "We were never like that."
She hugged herself, hoping to contain her trembling arms. Her emotions raged within her — a storm surged inside her and crushed her will.. Her heart wailed and its heavy beats deafened her.
"We were just friends. Always just best friends."
The turbulent swell of emotions engulfed her. She sank further into the dark sea, to her, she would never be free. It rushed in flooding her mouth with salt — choking her breath.
The dam broke. Something wet raced down her face and others soon trailed after.
She found herself wrapped within her mother's arms. Her mother's humming soothed her enough to free her last inhibitions. Many tears coated the apron, and she knew no more.
A melodious ding woke her, and she snapped her eyes open. It was pitch dark through her blurred vision yet she didn't bother to search for her glasses. She welcomed the lethargy that seeps in her bone.
The weight on her stomach lessened, allowing her to breathe again. How did it come this again?
She thought back to this morning. She knew that Issei's birthday was marred by the fact that he had no family to share it with. She knew why he was slow this morning. That was why she started their morning routine with a joke — to take his mind off of sadder subjects. It was the only thing that she could do for him.
Despite her innuendos and teasing, Aika cared for Issei. She was the one who brought him out of his shell when he first arrived in Kuoh. She was the one who cried with him when he found out that his parents passed away. She was the one who showed him that he is never truly alone.
They were nearly inseparable ever since.
Was there anything more than between them than the feelings of best friends?
She wasn't that special. Girls with a definite feminine appeal, now those were attractive. Kuoh Academy's Two Great Ladies attested to that fact. One was a royal fantasy: a statuesque beauty whose brilliance mirrored her luxurious crimson hair. The other one appealed to the very heart and soul of Japan as the literal definition of a "Yamato Nadeshiko".
Even this morning, she noticed that Issei was interested in that girl with the red uniform. That mysterious girl would rank at the top just like the Two Great Ladies. Compared to those three, anyone normal as her would appear average and dull.
If she couldn't even stand in the same league, then how could she hope that Issei would look at her the same way?
Sure, she and Issei bantered back and forth regularly. And he hung out with two of the most perverted students in Kuoh. But who he prefered — that was much more complicated.
If anything, he was incredibly dense to what girls perceived of him. He was kind and hardworking, a drastic contrast with the notorious Perverted Duo. Aika knew girls gossip about him as much as Yuuto Kiba. One part of her was glad that he was well liked. The other part — hidden and shameful — was jealous of all the attention he was receiving.
She knew it wasn't always like this. Issei was not normal when she met him all those years ago. He was so empty, so unnatural. It was as if he forgot how — that the concept never existed — to feel or express any emotions. His desolate eyes frightened her because she couldn't understand why someone existed in such a state. Can a person be truly alive if they just lack the will to even exist?
She will never forget what they called him. It hurt — cut her into her very soul. Simple childish words leave behind devastating scars. Who were the real monsters here?
She couldn't stand for it. He didn't know how to feel, he didn't know who to talk to, he didn't know what to do. Why should he be shunned away because of that? Why is he a monster when he did nothing wrong?
It wasn't enough to protect him from harsh words. She needed — no she wanted to change him. So that one day, he would be able to regain what he had lost.
That's why she made the first step: she involved him with her friends, and she walked with him every day back and from school. She pushed him to play various games and sports with her. She tried everything, ranging from mild teasing to discrete innuendos, to provoke a reaction out of him. She wanted to enrage, to embarrass, to shock — so she could see his smile.
Throughout the years, she saw him transform: he was no longer quiet, confused, unresponsive. He joined in conversations, joked around with everyone, and helped anyone who asked. In fact, she was afraid that people was taking advantage of him because he rarely declined requests.
She didn't understand. Why would he went so far? And so, she asked.
"I want to help people because someone did the same for me. They never gave up on me when it would have been easier for them to do so. I will never forget that. That's why, even if I can only do little things, I want to help those in need. So they could smile again like I did."
Her heart was aflutter like butterflies amongst a meadow.
Was it then that she began to see him more than a friend? Perhaps. But as much as her feelings grew for him, would he see her just as she saw him? Each time she mustered the courage to confess, it faded away with doubts and fears.
What if he doesn't like her? What if she wasn't cute or pretty enough? What if she wasn't his type of girl?
Can their relationship endure if it wasn't meant to be?
Even if she was further along the race track, she never made the first step towards the finish line. And now —
Another ring from her phone. She sighed, reaching for her glasses. The only one who would message her right now is Issei. Breathe in and breathe out. She can do it.
"Hey Aika! I don't know what to do on a first date. Help me please?
By the way, are you feeling alright? You didn't look too well after school."
She slapped her forehead. Whose fault is it that she didn't feel too well! How could he be so caring yet so infuriating at the same time! She dove into her pillows, drowning herself in the fluffiness. She didn't want to see this. Why can't it just be a dream?
A first date.
Issei has a first date.
Issei has a first date with another girl.
The results of hesitation. Someone else crossed the finish line while she was stuck wondering how to run. All she can do now is applaud the winner for taking first place.
Then she would wear that same old smile for him.
This is the reason why she tried so hard in the past, right? So he could smile again, right? She can't complain, right? Yes, it was selfish to think otherwise. It was presumptuous of her to believe that she was the only one who could bring him happiness.
She never told him about her feelings for several years now. What's the point of ruining his mood by saying anything now?
Now what can she tell him about what to do on a first date?
It shouldn't be too hard — she planned for one already.
Aika told him that the first date would be the most memorable. Here he was, lying on the ground, his mouth ajar as he witnessed a battle between a school girl and a fallen angel.
"Someone from one of the Twelve Clans? No, I wasn't told of this!" Yuuma exclaimed.
"Indeed, his heritage was hidden away as his parents changed their name to Hyoudou. However, that is not the question here."
She pointed her katana at Yuuma; the blade shimmered with the light from the night lamps. "Who gave you the order to seduce my Young Master and attempt to take his life?"
"You know how it is! We cannot let any Sacred Gear users rise against us when our faction is the least in numbers. And now, he's even more dangerous than expected: a clan heir with the power of a Sacred Gear?" Yuuma crossed her arms, glancing back to him. He flinched at the sharpness in her eyes.
"So is that the Fallen Angels' stance on Sacred Gear users? I have heard such rumors of the Fallen Angel Governor's curiosity for Sacred Gears. Yet to think that you were merely seeking them out to rid yourself of potential threats? "
She shook her head as her laughter echoed throughout the park.
"No, I cannot fault you for performing your duties to your masters. It is no less than what I will have done. However, I do not think it is wise for you to pursue this matter any further. Go now. Return to your masters. Issei Hyoudou is under my protection."
Yuuma spared one glance towards Issei before shifting it back towards the unknown girl. With a snarl and clenched teeth, she flew into the growing darkness of the sky.
The girl sheathed her katana, making her way towards him. She offered a hand towards him — he forgot that he was still on the ground. Now that the storm passed, questions flooded in. What was Yuuma? Who was this girl? What happened just now?
Though, he should say one thing above all.
"Thanks for saving my life, miss."
He felt her grip tightened for a bit as she pulled him upright, and her eyes widened before settling down with a shake of her head.
"No, it is my duty. I know you have many questions, but this is not the place for us to converse. It is best to return to your home, Young Master."
That would be wise. He wasn't sure why the battle didn't attract any attention, even if there was a dearth of people at the park. With a sharp exhale, his stomach uncoiled and freed the butterflies within. However, he needed to know one more thing.
"I'm sorry, but what is your name?"
Noihara was the province where his grandparents once lived. Himari, was it? Something — white and small — flashed before his eyes. These random flashes of fragmented scenes happened more and more.
They moved together, side by side, in silence. Part of him was glad for it: the evening breeze soothed his frayed nerves, and the silence helped him recollect his thoughts. He had to admit, walking next to Himari reassured him. Why was that? Each time he met her, he felt comforted, safe, and welcomed. It was like walking together with Aika.
Perhaps, did he meet her before?
Himari — White, small, and what?
He snapped back to reality as he fetched his key to enter his house. As they settled around the lone table in the kitchen with a few lights on, he poured them chilled barley tea.
She took a sip before nodding. "Now, Young Master. Am I correct that you do not recall your past?"
"Yeah," Issei admitted. "I...don't remember too much, aside from my grandparents. It was...a hard time, I mean...like after I came to Kuoh, I couldn't understand my classmates at all. I had...a hard time understanding emotions and what it meant to be happy. If my friend Aika didn't give up on me, I don't think I would have been...better."
"...I knew that Gen-ojiisama wanted to protect you with the charm, but I did not think it would be strong enough to affect your memories." Himari furrowed her brows, her fists were clenched.
"Genn-ojiisama? You mean my grandfather?" Issei asked.
"Yes, I was under your grandfather's care until he...passed away."
Issei noticed that her face crumbled with her mention of his grandfather's death; they must have been close. If she knew his grandfather that well, then what about him? Were they also close enough for her to call him Young Master?
"Then…did I forget who you were? I feel like we have met somewhere, but I can't remember." Issei wet his lips, unable to look at her in the eyes.
She reached out, grasping his hands. "Young Master, it is alright. It is not your fault that the charm sealed away your memories. However, its power has faded, and your memories will eventually return. Unfortunately, it means that you are now exposed to the supernatural world. This is why I have come — to protect you from them until you are ready."
Yuuma's dark wings flashed before Issei's eyes as he gulped. "You mean Yuuma, right? You call her, what was it...a Fallen Angel?"
Himari nodded. "Yes. She belongs to one of the powers of the Biblical factions — the ones where the major religions of Catholicism and Christianity speak of. The God of the Bible created a system where Sacred Gears, artifacts with powerful abilities, were bestowed upon humans."
Issei froze, recalling what Yuuma revealed to him. "Sacred Gear...is that what she was trying to kill me for?"
"Yes, it appears they monitor possible wielders of Sacred Gear users. To my knowledge, I do not believe that your grandfather knew that you possessed a Sacred Gear. The charm was meant to seal away your power yet it also had the unintended effect of suppressing it, " Himari revealed.
"Wait, my power? What do you mean?"
"Just as the Biblical factions exist, so does other religion and mythologies, Young Master. Japan is the home of various religions and mythologies."
Issei widened his eyes as cat ears popped on top of Himari's head.
"You are the last heir of the Amakawa Clan, one of the Twelve Clans that has watched over Japan against supernatural threats. Like me, a bakeneko."
In a span of three days since his birthday, he got a girlfriend, broke up with said girlfriend, and now he's a clan heir with a bakeneko calling him Young Master. What will Aika think of when she hears this?