Kyoko felt more claustrophobic in the conference room than the small office she had just spent half a day sitting in negotiating her fate. She was running on the last reserves of her facade of confidence. Her nervousness left her hours ago and all that remained was exhaustion. She wanted it to be over. She wanted Kuon to be safe, even if it meant they'd be drawn together once more only to never see each other again.

He had been right when he said they were in more danger when they were together, much as that admission twisted her heart into knots. This time, at least, she hoped it would ensure that their reunion would serve a greater purpose.

Reporters swarmed as close as they dared, each one jockeying for the spot nearest to the podium. Kyoko let her eyes drift over the sea of faces once before focusing on the Chief Inquisitor who stood at the microphone. Despite the amount of time Kyoko spent with her, the only things she knew about the Chief was her last name and that she was married with two children. And she had only learned the second fact after spotting a dusty picture frame on the woman's desk. Chief Reynolds was all business but Kyoko appreciated that, in the entirety of the time spent in her company, she was treated with nothing but respect.

Or, some semblance of it, she thought. She could not help the feeling of being the miracle bacteria culture inside the most suffocating petri dish.

Once the opening statements were out of the way, the reporters eagerly moved on to throwing rapid-fire questions. Kyoko was at once grateful that she would not have to respond to any of them. As Chief Reynolds had explained, it was not the job of the press to conduct the investigation. Thus, with each answer, the Chief unveiled pieces of the story Kyoko shared with her, the one she'd concocted with Kuu and Julie's help; a story of a frightened little girl who sought the help of a friend after her Awakening left her emotionally scarred. She was ashamed of her Ability and how unique it was so she locked the memory so deep within herself that she convinced herself it never existed.

It was a trauma response; the empaths agreed.

The fact that at least half of the story was based in truth made the telling that much easier. She admitted to the Chief that she was wrong to ever ask anyone to continue to keep her secret. much less the same person twice. The revelation of her role in everything manifested as panic and she did the only thing she could; she ran. Kyoko made sure the emotions she wore on her face as she sat back from the podium while Chief Reynolds spoke were real and raw for the benefit of those who could sense it.

Celebrities did this often enough and usually got off with little more than a handful of disgruntled talk and disapproving stares until the waters of time washed it from everyone's memories. Kyoko was banking on her celebrity of being the one and only cause of the Keypointe Incident. Even then, she was only minutely hopeful. She had a feeling this stain would not wash away quickly.

With the bulk of the questions answered—or, more precisely, when Chief Reynolds declared they were in an authoritative tone—it was Kyoko's turn to make a statement. That was part of their deal. Kyoko pulled in a deep breath before rising from her seat and walked as steadily as she dared towards the podium. She let her eyes drift over the gathered crowd only once, knowing that every moment she stalled would rob her of her courage.

"When it happened, I was young. Very young. I had no idea how to handle something like this and I let my fear control me," she explained, the words were heavily practiced but it still felt as if she had to force them out. "I never considered how keeping this a secret would be a life-long burden for the person I involved in this and, for that, I am deeply regretful."

Kyoko hoped she looked the picture of remorse. She hoped she appeared pitiful and petrified. She'd even returned her hair back to its original color. What she needed—and both Julie and Kuu agreed—was sympathy from the masses. The solemn nods she received in response to her words told her that

"I never intended for any of this to happen," she poured the words timidly into the microphone before her. "So I'm doing what I can to make it right. No one else should have to take responsibility for my choices."

Slowly, deliberately, she cupped her hands together as she spoke. Their position atop the podium was deliberately placed in full view of the cameras. While the words she spoke were for the public in general, her actions were not for them. That message was for one person and one person only.

She just hoped he received it.

A gentle hand shook Ren awake. He uncurled himself from the impossible ball he'd shaped himself into on the couch and winced. His neck hurt. His knees hurt. His back hurt. There were two perfectly serviceable beds in the room he and Lory shared but anxiety kept him restless and pacing the floor well into the night. He couldn't even remember passing out.

Bleary eyes looked around until they caught on Lory's face hovering over him. The best word Ren's overwrought mind could scrounge up to describe the other man's expression was tight. Everything on his face looked pulled together; his lips, his eyes, his brow. Ren struggled to place the emotion he sees there until the concept of 'worry' shouldered its way to the front of his thoughts. Lory was genuinely worried.

That was probably a bad thing.

"What." he rasped in a sleep-rough voice.

"There's been a development," Lory replied. "Yukihito was here earlier but we didn't want to wake you."


"You've barely slept in days, Ren." Lory stopped him with a frown. "You can't expect to keep it together when you're sleep-deprived."

He sat up with a groan and rolled his shoulders. There was a pinch in the left side of his neck when he tried to turn his head and his face contorted with a hiss. Instead, he looked straight ahead when he addressed his superior. "So what's going on?"

Lory took a long breath like he's weighing his next words. "There's a possibility you could be released to… go home."

The hand Ren tried to wrestle through the tangled mess of his hair while Lory spoke stopped dead in its tracks. "How?"

Again, he paused and Ren wondered exactly how devastating the news he was about to share was for him to be this halting about it. A dozen scenarios ran through his head, each more dire than the last. "It would seem that another Academy has come into possession of a very important piece of evidence," Lory said finally. "One that has given them the advantage over ours."

Ren's head nearly snapped to the side at this but the sharp pain brought him to heel. Clenching at his neck he tried to meet Lory's eyes with his own shock-widened ones. "Please, if you've ever cared about me even a little," he begged through the aches and twinges. "Please tell me it's not her."

In lieu of confirming his fear verbally, Lory handed him a folded newspaper. He considered not taking it for a scant heartbeat before his fingers closed around the pages. Slowly, he pulled it towards him. The giant, bold type of the headline blared a silent warning and the throbbing in his neck is long forgotten when he, at last, unfolds it enough to take in the entire front page.

"Astetra Pulls Leagues Ahead in Keypointe Race," the headline led with a smaller subheading to follow, "First Chronopath in Ages Revealed as Pivotal Testimony Falls Into the Lap of C.I. Reynolds."

And right below all of that, a giant color photo of Kyoko. Gods above and below, it was Kyoko. She's stood resolutely at a podium, the gold of her eyes piercing below inky bangs. Ren doesn't know whether to cry, scream, vomit or all three. His body voted for the latter but he firmly denied it. He'd barely eaten during his last meal as it was. Hands shaking as they death-gripped the newspaper, he tried to read the article. He skimmed enough to get the general idea but the sheer panic that engulfed his body made any further reading impossible.

"So," he tried, and it's almost a whimper if he'd only made it breathier. "They'd just let me go? Because of this?"

Lory shook his head. "No, they'd let you go home," he corrected.

Ren squinted. "I don't follow."

"You'd be released to return to your actual home. To Astetra," Lory sighed, kneading at his forehead with his thumbs. "Most likely to testify."

He hated the traitorous flutter in his heart when he considered the possibility of reuniting with Kyoko. At best, he should be heartened by the thought of reuniting with his parents. Both seemed forbidden delights accompanied by varying levels of danger but he couldn't deny how badly he wanted them. He could go home. He could go home and see Kyoko.

"Wait." Caution took the opportunity to flick him square in the forehead and his thoughts cleared for a moment. "They can do that?"

He mostly knew the answer already but needed confirmation from Lory. Mostly that this wasn't some farfetched ploy to smoke him out. This all seemed too convenient and they'd walked blindly into enough ambushes to be wary of the next. The stakes were too high for them to consider otherwise.

"They certainly have the option when, I assume, Astetra's Academy makes a formal request," Lory considered with a nod. He stroked thoughtfully at his beard, his face telegraphing the same trepidation Ren felt. "They could choose not to surrender you but I suspect they might go along with this."

"You really think they'd just let me go like that?" he challenged.

"Actually, yes," Lory mused, his brow furrowed in consternation. "This Chief Inspector Reynolds has the upper hand, so to speak, with Kyoko in her back pocket. Particularly since she's openly admitted to her involvement in the Keypoint Incident while absolving you. So, yes, I think they would," he concluded. "If only to see what you do. To see if their suspicions about you were correct."

Well, the ploy may not have been as farfetched as he imagined.

The rules of this treacherous game changed by the day and it was all they could do to keep up. At the very least, Ren hoped he now had another ally in his corner but he worried that was yet another ambush waiting to happen. What little he'd gleaned from the article was that she had willingly turned herself in once she heard about his detainment. Still, he wondered if that was actually the case.

"And what exactly would those suspicions be?" he tested.

"That you both knowingly worked together to hide this and it's not just one of you trying to cover for the other," Lory pointed out. "They'd allow the two puzzle pieces to come together to get a better picture of the whole."

Of course they would, Ren lamented. The sad part was this came as no surprise. The worse part was that this had to progress however Kyoko—he imagined, he hoped—had orchestrated it. This news had robbed his faction of their leverage and he had to perpetuate this idea if he ever wanted to be free of them.

Granted, this freedom was still at the cost of one of them ultimately taking the fall. And it wasn't the one he preferred.

Ren stared at the photo until until his eyes watered, blurring the letters together like watercolor left in the rain. Blinking them back into focus, he looked again. Something drew his gaze to the podium Kyoko stood at, somehow looking both poised and completely out of her depth. He stifled a gasp when he noticed her hands.

She'd gotten his message and this was her reply; Kyoko was safe and while her captors were kinder than his, she was still a captive. He closed his eyes and breathed.

It was time to go home.

It has been a long, long time since writing for this story sparked any sort of joy for me. I'd been pantsing this entire narrative just to get to one scene and that was like... one chapter ago. I thought with a sense of dread in my heart it was over and that I'd run out of words.

Well, last night the words tied me to a chair and read me their demands.

We still have no idea where this is going.

But I live. I write. For now.

(also this has been edited in the barest sense of the word. mistakes will be prevalent.)