Despite the stoic expression expression wore as she stared down the Abyssal in front of her, Nagato was equal parts livid and exhilarated. Freed from the doubts that had been plaguing her for the better part of the year, the battleship could feel the full euphoria of the Super Nagamon form that she'd forgotten. And, of course, seeing her comrades scattered around, battered and injured, tempered that euphoria with a cold fury.

And on that note, Nagato glanced behind herself, finding Inazuma still sprawled on the water. "Are you alright, Inazuma?" she queried.

"Lemme get back to you on that…" the destroyer groaned.

Satisfied that Inazuma wasn't going to die anytime soon, Nagato turned back to the Abyssal visibly wearing Aso's form. Despite her presence, said Abyssal was wearing a positively gleeful expression. It would've been unnerving if Nagato was anyone else.

[Oh, you're strong!] the Abyssal squealed. [Strong enough not to resort to tricks like all the others, probably!] The gleeful expression morphed into one of stern judgement. [Don't do that. Seriously. I've already had to deal with that for, like, fifteen minutes, and I'm sick and tired of it.]

"You won't need to worry about that," Nagato stated. "But we're not fighting here."

And just like that, the happy mood was back, this time shown by the Abyssal bursting into laughter. [PFFHAHAHAHAHAHA! You think you have a choice? Make me, you-]

That laughter was cut off by a hand clamping down on her face. Nagato's hand. The Abyssal immediately grabbed the arm it was attached to, but before she could even try to remove it, Nagato took flight, at the apex hurling the Abyssal onto her ass in the water, Vancouver Island nowhere in sight. The Abyssal had just hauled herself to her feet when Nagato touched down around thirty feet away.

"I wasn't asking," Nagato stated, shifting into a combat stance. "Now. Are we going to fight?"

Glaring, the Abyssal pushed off her feet and swung a haymaker at Nagato. The battleship merely slid back from the punch, grabbed the Abyssal's arm, and then pulled her close and rammed a fist right into her diaphragm.

Spit and more than a little blood splashed onto the water, the Abyssal folded like an accordion over Nagato's fist. And then physics reasserted itself and sent the Abyssal hurling into the air. Nagato took off after her, a golden meteor that arced above, spun, and then slammed heel-first into the back of the Abyssal's neck.

With her opponent headed back down for the water, Nagato tore down after her, several punches to vulnerable spots propelling the Abyssal ever-faster and then into the sea. Nagato herself came to a halt about a hundred feet above the water, and idly tossed an energy ball after it.

The resulting explosion threw up or vaporized enough water to briefly expose the seabed, before gravity reasserted itself and the water came crashing back in. It had just settled back into the usual patterns when the Abyssal grabbed the surface and yanked herself up.

Her neck was askew, as was her back, and livid burns decorated her body. And then, skin knitted, bones popped disgustingly, and the wounds were gone.

"So, you regenerate," Nagato remarked. "I wonder if there's a limit."

[Yeah, I'm not giving you a chance to find out,] the Abyssal spat. [I'm not wading into your counters again.]

Nagato shrugged. "Suit yourself." And then she charged, too.

Unlike the Abyssal's charge, this wasn't slow with a telegraphed blow. Nagato outright vanished from sight and when she reappeared in front of her opponent the Abyssal had no chance to react. A knee slammed into her gut; a right cross spun her head to the side; an uppercut sent shattered her jaw and sent teeth flying.

At that point the Abyssal slumped to the water and Nagato really went to town, raining blow after blow on her opponent. The one that had hurt Hoppo-chan. The one that had hurt her comrades. The one that had taken the body of another, no matter how estranged she may be.

'I'm sorry, Aso… and you too, Kasagi…'

Something gave under Nagato's fists, and she pulled one back, energy gathering and glowing within.

The blast never came. A streak of raw, undiluted terror ran through her mind, and her instincts screamed at her to get back. Abandoning the attack, Nagato jumped back, warily eyeing where her opponent laid in the water.

The Abyssal, when she stood, was a hideous mess, her face and upper torso battered into so much tenderized meat. And it wasn't regenerating. Somehow that unnerved Nagato the most.

Well, it could also be the sudden and rising spike in power coming from her opponent.

[I'd wanted to do this with my own power,] the Abyssal growled in a voice like grinding sand, despite the utter mangling of anything that produced sound on a human body. [So as I beat you to death, remember: everything that's about to happen to you is your own damn fault.]


"Holy shit," Yuubari breathed, staring at the big board.

The two mad science shipgirls had been monitoring the entire battle via long-range sensors in the safety of their Yokosuka lab. They'd been tensely silent when the Director's pair had fought that odd Abyssal, cheered the arrival of Inazuma and Kongo, wailed at the defeat of the rest of the team, and outright whooped when Nagato began kicking that thing's ass.

And now… now, the silence was grim. There was no tension, for they knew exactly what was going on and what it meant for them. The big board and its charts were rather clear on that.

"You said it," the other Yuubari muttered from her position over her twin's shoulder. "She's already past Nagato's maximum. At least, what we think is Nagato's maximum."

As the Abyssal's power continued to climb, electricity suddenly began arcing over the consoles, the sounds of fuzes blowing and an acrid stench of burned plastic filling the air. Both cruisers immediately dropped their analysis and scrambled to attack the problem, one going for the fire extinguishers and the other ducking into the guts of the computer systems with a box of spare parts.

"What's the problem?" the Yuubari with the fire extinguisher asked as she emptied the contents on one of the fires.

"Don't ask me why, but we're getting power surges all over the place!" the other Yuubari answered, muffled slightly. "Which we shouldn't be, but I guess that's the fucking world we live in!"

One last puff of the extinguisher, and Yuubari was able to look up at the flickering board again, which soon stopped flickering right after a muffled curse and the sound of soldering.

"Okay, please tell me that fixed things."

"Yeah…" Yuubari gulped audibly. "Yeah, it fixed things."

"What are you-"

Yuubari clambered out from under the consoles, and immediately froze upon seeing the big board.

"That's… impossible, right?" she breathed. No way those numbers were accurate. No way!

"Apparently not…" Yuubari glanced over to the numbers next to Nagato. "Oh, this is not good. This is totally not good."

And then both cruisers were distracted by a zapping sound. They whirled around to find a person-sized blue-white elliptical ball of energy that somewhat resembled electricity sitting in mid-air, a ball that flashed and then resolved into a young woman with dishwater blonde hair and an obviously military uniform kneeling on the concrete.

The newcomer stood, and both Yuubaris hissed in a breath at her features: a mix of Japanese and white American. Not to mention her sheer height. As for the woman herself, she seemed focused on the big board. It took her only a second to take it all in, and then she breathed a sigh of relief.

"Good," she said. "I'm not too late." Her gaze fell on the Yuubaris, and they instinctively tensed, as if in front of a flag officer. "My name is Akemi, and I'm from the future. Here's what I need from you…"


The fight, some detached part of Nagato's brain noted, was going poorly. And then she impacted Victoria Island, digging a trench in the dirt and stone with her body, and all thoughts fled from a Mongoloid horde of horse-mounted pain signals.

Then the battleship slammed into a cliff face and finally came to a stop.

And what was the cause of such pain? Why, it was landing nearby just right now!

Nagato's Abyssal opponent still looked… mostly the same. But her skin was now the gaudy gold of her own Super Nagamon form instead of Abyssal pasty white, as was her hair, and she also had a similar golden aura, just streaked with random arcs of electricity. As Nagato pushed herself out of the rubble, the Abyssal smirked.

[I'm impressed that I haven't killed you yet,] she said.

"Gee, thanks," Nagato deadpanned. Clearing her throat, she spat out a gob of saliva, mucus, and blood at her opponent's feet.

The Abyssal lost her smirk, instead gaining a steely glare. Nagato just smirked back, crossed one arm behind her back, and used the other to beckon her opponent forward, ignoring the pleas of her abused body to not do that. Her opponent obliged by attacking, and for a moment Nagato thought she could intercept this one.

Instead, the Abyssal vanished, and a knee slammed into one of her kidneys, sending shockwaves of pain up and down her body. She involuntarily hunched over, only to get smacked back the other way by a knee to her nose, which after all the abuse it had already taken crumpled it entirely. And then the Abyssal's fist slammed into her gut, sending her soaring into and through more of the island's mountains, then across the water and into the mainland.

It was, Nagato reflected as she pulled herself to her feet again, getting very tiring to keep having to unbury herself out of the rubble. Once again, she saw the Abyssal charging at her; this time, though, she didn't stick around, flying over the Abyssal and landing on Victoria Island again, wincing as the landing jarred her many bruises.

Oddly, instead of charging after her, the Abyssal stopped in the middle of the strait, smirked, and raised her hand, energy glowing in two fingertips. When she saw that, Nagato was already moving, and a good thing, too, for the Abyssal brought down her arm, resulting in a flash of light. When her vision cleared there was a smooth-edged trench in the earth stretching to the horizon, the sea flowing into it. The battleship felt a pit form in her stomach.

[Oh, that's more than I was expecting,] she heard the Abyssal mutter. [Gotta be careful. I still want to live on this planet.]

It was like a lightbulb came to life. Nagato could have smacked herself; the Abyssal was now standing still instead of zipping around like a chipmunk on crack, which gave her an opportunity. One that she could compound by inducing the Abyssal to take things slow, and there was one very good way to do that. Carefully, Nagato fired a well-formed bit of energy into the ground in front of her, the still-muttering Abyssal not even looking up, and then took a breath.

If this didn't work, it was going to be exceptionally painful.

"Oi!" she called out, causing the Abyssal to jerk her head up. "Your mother wears Army boots!"

Why that caused the Abyssal to literally explode with rage, a red tint entering her golden aura, Nagato did not understand. Honestly, she'd expected to have to come up with more insults, something that was definitely not her forte. Maybe a side effect of the usual Army/Navy rivalries every military went through?

Regardless, her aim was achieved. The Abyssal slowly stalked towards Nagato, murder in her eyes.

[Just for that, I'm going to make this slow,] the Abyssal growled as Nagato just as slowly stepped back. [I'm going to break your fingers and then slowly pull out the bones. I shall pluck out your teeth one by one and pour salt in the cavities. I shall rip out your jaw and your throat, so that you can no longer scream. And then-]

The Abyssal stepped onto the spot Nagato had fired her energy, and two things happened at once. First, she came to a halt. And second, that was because several glowing blue ribbons made of energy had burst out of the ground and wrapped around her.


The Abyssal glanced down, and gave an experimental tug, at which point a wide grin spread over her face. [You think this'll hold me?] she cackled. [I can break this in a second!] She blinked. [Oh. Shit.]

"Yeah, that," Nagato growled over the sound of the energy blast in her hands charging up. "Just die already." And with that, she launched the ball at the Abyssal.

The effects were impressive: the horizon lit up, engulfing a massive chunk of the island. Wind, sound, and bits of debris tore at Nagato, and briefly she hoped the Canadians had had time to evacuate that part of British Columbia. Because when the light cleared, that chunk was vaporized, creating a new shoreline

Despite the size of the blast, Nagato didn't relax. She could feel the power rolling off her opponent, and it wasn't diminished in the slightest. And sure enough, when the Abyssal rose up out of the water, it was with one last small wound closing up.

"Damn," Nagato muttered under her breath.

[That… stung a bit,] the Abyssal mused, before zipping forward and belting Nagato right in the face. Of all the blows she had taken, that was the one that sent her sprawling into the dirt. Though given that it felt like her jaw was broken…

[You know,] Nagato heard the Abyssal muse over the sound of the monster's footsteps and her own pain. [I should probably stop screwing around with the whole 'endless suffering' thing. It'd be cathartic, sure, but it's a bad habit to get into, even if you can't hurt-]

Sitting up, Nagato fired off a quick blast that the Abyssal neatly sidestepped.

[See? That's exactly what I'm talking about,] the monster said. It continued to speak as it stalked towards Nagato. [You shipgirls are just so sneaky. Which is annoying, but I'm beginning to see the merits of it.]

The Abyssal came to a halt about thirty feet from Nagato, and raised its palm.

[So, yeah. Definitely gonna just kill you right now.]

The glow intensified, and Nagato closed her eyes. 'I'm sorry, Hoppo-chan… everyone…' She heard the ball fire-

And then, with a loud, electrical crackling, she opened her eye in time to see the ball soar up into the air, an unfamiliar back in front of her. Said back was clad in a leather jacket, dirty blonde hair cascading down the woman's - and it was a woman - back.

And then the woman pulled out the four Soul Gems they'd collected.

"Take them," she said, dropping them next to Nagato. "And figure it out fast, I'm not going to last long."

['I'm not going to last long',] the Abyssal scoffed. [Like you're going to last at a-]

The stranger vanished, reappearing with her boot in the Abyssal's throat. Nagato blinked, and then, ignoring more protests from her aching muscles, hastily swept up the gems, holding them in her hands and probing them with her senses. Yes, there was power here. Lots of it. But how to tap into it?

Well, the Super Nagamon worked, first and foremost, by opening herself up to a source of power within her. No reason it wouldn't work for an external source that apparently was made to be used that way. Closing her eyes, Nagato took a deep breath and dove in.


The Abyssal growled as she parried another blow from the latest damn newcomer. This woman was fast, and skilled, and hit like an Iowa, but compared to Nagato she was definitely second-rate. Ducking under the next punch, she rammed an uppercut into the woman's solar plexus, nearly bending her double over her fist. And that wasn't even close to her max strength. At least Nagato could take those blows and keep fighting.

[Seriously, why'd you get involved here?] she wondered aloud. [All it means is that you die sooner. Though, given I'm gonna kill everyone, or most everyone, you would've died at some point, so-] She paused as she realized that the woman was still wheezing and unable to draw breath. [Oh, I'm so sorry! I'll be quick. The point is, nothing you did had any impact.]

"Oh yeah?" the woman wheezed, and then suddenly there was a massive burst of power that blew away the trees.

The Abyssal's eyes narrowed. [Nagato.]

Indeed, out from the dust kicked up stepped Nagato, visibly in her Super Nagamon form but with some changes. Lightning coursed through the aura, much like the Abyssal's own; her muscles had visibly gotten bigger; and her eyes were now a blank white.

Worse than the physical changes, though, were the metaphysical ones. It occurred to the Abyssal that she hadn't been paying attention to where the other four power gems had gotten off to, and now she was staring them right in the face. Four power gems to her three, and Nagato had been stronger than her to begin with. The conclusion was obvious.


And then her world was pain. Blows struck every square inch, from every angle. Her regeneration immediately kicked in, but it couldn't keep up, and it did nothing for the pain that wracked every fiber of her being.

And then… she felt something untether.


It was an odd feeling, these power gems. Not a whole lot of thinking involved. Even as she rained blows down on the Abyssal, she wasn't really thinking. It was all instinct. All the intimate knowledge jammed into her brain and muscles as to how best to damage a human body. Still, that left her free to worry about other things, like the fact that Aso was still the host body for this thing. And to her surprise, Nagato found she didn't really want to kill the troublesome carrier. She'd done terrible things, sure, but did they really merit death? No, not really. Then there was the fact that that wouldn't bring her to justice, and, of course, that killing her and resummoning her like they'd had to do sometimes in the early days would just reset her to her old YAMATO DAMASHII personality. And nobody wanted that.

So she just needed some way to separate the two. Yeah. Easy.

At that sarcastic thought, suddenly a possible method flooded her brain. A method she was kinda already doing by whaling on the Abyssal like this. Still, now she had a course of action, and Nagato immediately put it into action.

While she'd already been using her battle energy to enhance her blows, the next twenty punches were imbued with a specific energy that was inserted into the Abyssal's body with each punch. The result was quite spectacular: what had been a steady jellyfication turned into a shredding, the Abyssal's body flying to pieces. Small sounds of pain escaped its throat, and then it quite literally pulled itself back together. And as it did so, Nagato saw it.

During the debriefings, and the eventual interviews for the history books, Nagato would not be able to say how she did what she did next. All she could say was this:

"I just… grabbed and pulled."

And indeed, that's what she did: she grabbed the big bad Abyssal and pulled it right out of Aso. Somehow. Said Abyssal, still holding all three Soul Gems, immediately jumped back and pulled itself back into a humanoid form - though it was hard to take it seriously when it looked like it was made of milk chocolate. Aso, meanwhile, collapsed to the ground, completely nude and also completely unconscious.

[you…] the Abyssal growled. [you will… PAY for this… I WILL feast… UPON your entrails… and-]

"No," Nagato declared, holding up her hand to charge up a blast. "You're finished."

Screeching in a decidedly non-human voice, the Abyssal suddenly swelled grotesquely. Nagato's eyes widened a fraction, and then she vanished, reappearing behind the Abyssal with the gems in her hand.

For a moment, the beast was still. And then it popped like a balloon. Seeing the mysterious woman that had helped her earlier beating feet away with Aso slung over her shoulder, Nagato rose in the air, looked down, and fired off a blast that scoured away a new crater - as well as any traces of the creature.

Satisfied that the job was done, Nagato floated down - and as soon as her feet touched dirt, she suddenly shuddered and hunched over, eyes wide. It felt like something was trying to escape, trying to claw or burn or-

"Nagato, let go!"

Let go of what? This power? The power that allowed her to protect her loved ones, to crush her enemies and-

Gritting her teeth, Nagato reached in deep and grabbed.

'You will not warp me!'

And yanked.

Something flooded out of her, and Nagato slumped to her knees, the darkness quickly claiming her.


When Nagato opened her eyes an indeterminate time later, it wasn't after some dream journey or roaring nightmare or anything like that. In fact, it was much like waking up after pulling an all-nighter. Stimulants: not even once! So, the battleship simply blinked up at an unfamiliar ceiling, taking in the sensations of a hospital bed instead of the usual dock baths.

Grunting, she hauled herself to an upright position, complicated by the heavy lump on her legs that turned out to be a sleeping Hoppo-chan. At her bedside was the same woman who had delivered the Soul Gems to her earlier, to whom Nagato sent a questioning glance.

As if sensing the eyes on her, the woman looked up, smiled, and put away the smartphone-like device she had been looking. "Don't worry, you've only been asleep for two days," she answered the unasked question. "Poor Hoppo-chan here just couldn't stay awake." Holding out her hand, she said, "Hello again, Nagato. My name's Akemi."

Nagato took it and shook, accompanied by a raised brow. "What do you mean 'again'?" she asked, before frowning as a thought came to her. "And if I've been out for two days, what about everyone else?"

"Eh, they were given buckets and shoved back into active duty," Akemi replied, rolling her eyes. "I told them it was safe to do it to you, too, but the Soul Gems scared them off or something. Still, I get it. It's one thing hearing what the early days were like, all the madness and the crazy operational tempo, but seeing it is a whole other story."

Suddenly, an idea for what was going on hit Nagato. It was ludicrous… on second thought, considering some of the rules on The List, it wasn't that ludicrous. "You're a time traveller," Nagato said.

"Bingo! And not just me, either. That blob monster, and the Soul Gems, they're all from the future, too. And I'm here to get them back, though I'm not sorry to see that monster destroyed, either."

Nagato mulled that over. "So, are we winning?" she asked.

"Yes," Akemi answered, before grimacing. "Been dicey a few times, though, especially recently. That blob monster was the Director's last-ditch gambit, and it was one hell of a last-ditch gambit. You think it was bad latched onto Aso, imagine it attached to Arizona or the Director herself."

Having fought the Director personally, and knowing of the Empress-class Abyssal kept suppressed within Arizona, Nagato grimaced. Yes, she knew exactly how bad that would be.

"Then the Soul Gems were a tool to combat it, then," she speculated.

Akemi nodded. "Yeah. Don't… ask me how they're made."

Nagato didn't say anything; there was such a profound sadness in Akemi's eyes that it squashed her curiosity.

"Anyway," Akemi continued with somewhat forced cheer. "As I understand it, all that's left to do before I leave is figure out what the hell we're going to do with Truxtun and Aso."

Ah, the frown was back. "Who's Truxtun?"

That comment got Nagato an odd look from Akemi. "Y'know, those two male… actually, I'm still not sure what he is, exactly, but does that jog your memory?"

"Ah, those two… creations of the Director," Nagato said, nodding. "I didn't realize either of them had survived."

"Truxtun was pretty banged up," Akemi admitted. "That's why it's taken two days for Admiral Goto to get around to doing this. Akashi refused to let him leave the docks until just fifteen minutes ago."


Admiral Goto stared over steepled fingers at the two in front of him. Aso was nervous, fidgeting, and unable to look him in the eye; Truxtun looked happy, eager, and almost excited. The disciplinarian in the Admiral itched to brutally murder that excitement, but it was something he shoved away, given Truxtun wasn't technically under his command.

"Alright, Truxtun, your situation is fairly straightforward," Goto said. "Technically, you're a prisoner of war, which means I just get to hand you off to the Allied Abyssals running our small prisoner pool. The accommodations are fairly palatial, and if my hunches are correct you'll be out within the month."

That "hunch" was due to simple observation of how Truxtun and Akashi acted near each other. It was adorable, and also a golden opportunity to turn the man - if the amenities of the prisoner camp didn't do it first, as it often did with Abyssal prisoners.

To Admiral Goto's delight, Truxtun's face fell a bit at the news. [Well, alright then,] he said, shrugging. [Guess I couldn't expect anything else.]

The easy part done, Goto turned to Aso, who flinched. "Now, your situation is significantly more complicated. On the one hand, I've got these very confirmed charges of kidnapping, AWOL, and dereliction of duty, and that's just off the top of my head." Aso flinched again. "On the other hand, I have Kasagi fairly screaming at me to be lenient, and the strategic reality that we both need every shipgirl we can get, and that there are a number of operations available where an… expendable carrier would be of good use." His gaze hardened. "Understand that, if you were to take those kinds of missions, we would not resummon you. No one has any real desire to deal with your old personality again."

Despite that splash of cold water, Aso was looking at him in hope and wonder, mouth slightly agape. And so, Goto brought out his ace.

"Regardless, those two sides are balancing each other out right now," he stated. "So. Convince me."

Frankly, Goto didn't expect much. Some pathetic denials of any wrongdoing, at which point he could simply have her scrapped and taken off his hands.

"I'm sorry."

A simple apology, laced with considerable regret and heartbreak, was not supposed to be in the cards.

"I just…" Aso shook her head. "No, there's no excuse for anything I did, I see that now. I… this is hard to put in words…"

The carrier fell silent, at least until Truxtun reached over and patted her head. Her retribution was a swift and vicious right straight that thundered into his jaw and knocked him out of the chair and flat on his ass.

[Oh, she's good…] Truxtun groaned from his position on the floor.

"Step on a lego and die, jackass!" Aso screeched.

All that finally jolted Admiral Goto out of his shock, and he immediately pinned Aso with a steely glare.

"Do you mean that?" he said sternly. "Are you willing to commit to atone for what you've done?"

The nervousness that had made a reappearance with Aso vanished at those words, the carrier turning to meet her Admiral. "Yes. Just say the word."

The two stared into each other's eyes for a long, interminable moment. A moment Truxtun promptly ruined with a cry of [Oh, just kiss already, you two!] Grunting in annoyance, Goto looked away and grabbed a file.

"The details are in here, but Vietnam has been screaming for us to forward-deploy some of our naval strength pretty much since this war began," Goto explained. "And don't worry, we're not going to short-change you on escorts. We need this task force to be able to fight."

Aso frowned. "What's the catch, then?"

"The catch," Admiral Goto replied, grinning like a shark that's spotted a bare behind. "Is that you'll be deployed at the new PLAN naval base in Ho Chi Minh city." The grin widened as Aso paled. "And since you're the flagship…"

Goto didn't need to finish the thought. Aso had already connected the dots. "That is evil, sir," she gulped. "And appropriate."

"Do you accept?"

"Yes, sir."


"I wish him luck, then," Nagato said. "What happens now?"

"You get debriefed, we make sure the Yuubaris don't blow up the planet with those Gems-"

"Surely you're exaggerating."

"I wish," Akemi snorted. "And don't call me Shirley. Anyway, then I'm gonna take those Gems back to the future and you won't see me again for… well, years."

Nagato frowned. "Should you really be sharing this information?"

"This kind of time travel is the 'branching timelines' kind, it's fine," Akemi said dismissively.

"I see," Nagato lied. "Well, all I'll say is that you're missing one last, very important step, Akemi."

Akemi blinked, then frowned in thought. "I think I got everything…"

A chuckle, and then Nagato slapped Akemi's hand.

"Go see Enterprise and Yamato and baby Yoshino," she said, prompting the time-traveller's mouth to unhinge. "Yes, I could tell. The hair color, the sturdiness, that inability to stay out of a world-ending situation…"

"Please stop talking, Nagato," Akemi said, blushing lightly. "You've made your point." Sighing, she stood, and silently left, leaving Nagato to her thoughts.


Scratch that, her thoughts and a sleepy and utterly adorable Hoppo.


On a house a ways from the naval base, a blonde-haired woman sat in a rocking chair set on the front porch, humming and stroking the head of a small baby curled up in her lap as she rocked back and forth.

Footsteps on the concrete sidewalk drifted to her ears, and she looked up to see a young woman poking her head around the outside wall, exposing auburn hair and half a face that was achingly familiar.

"Hello?" she called out, getting a flinch from the stranger. "Can I help you?"

The woman withdrew, and then stepped out fully, shifting from foot to foot. A long silence descended upon them. And then…

"H-Hello, mom…"