Today was going to be a better day.

She'd reiterated it to herself over and over. Her schedule would be nearly identical to Asuka's, so at the very least, she wouldn't be alone. That was an improvement from yesterday. She'd also made it a point to leave Banette at home, in the unlikely event using her Pokemon became necessary. A repeat of yesterday would not happen.

Asuka had spent most of the drive to school weaving tales of how she'd unrepentantly ruin the lives of anyone who dared to torment her. Rei appreciated the thought, she really did.

As it turned out, it wouldn't be necessary. Not a single one of their classmates even attempted to speak to Rei; whether Asuka had been present in the classroom or not played no role. Even her teachers failed to notice her extended hand when calling on students. She'd still failed to conclude if this was preferable to the alternative or not.

A hand tapping her shoulder during computer science class ultimately jostled Rei free from her own thoughts. "Yes?" she stammered, doing everything in her power to play down how much it had startled her.

The sight of orange hair framing a face fraught with worry did little to quell her concern. Asuka, the girl who seemingly had the entire student body quivering under her heel, looked utterly powerless.

"...Your counselor wants to speak with you. Nobody told me what about, but... well."

Rei's chest tightened. Her second day, and she was being summoned to meet with her counselor. Some smaller, far more gullible part of her brain tried to convince her that this was nothing out of the ordinary, that he'd merely be introducing himself in person and that would be that. Were that the case, it would've happened yesterday. Were that the case, Asuka wouldn't have looked like this was the last time they'd ever see each other.

She knew what this was about. Both of them knew what this was about.

Hesitantly, Rei reached for the strap of her messenger bag and rose from her chair. She glanced towards the door, then back at Asuka. Two separate attempts at saying she'd see her later died in infancy, as she didn't feel confident in hitching her wagon to either.

"I'll... see you at lunch, if possible," she whispered on the third attempt, and then she headed for the door.

Today was supposed to be a better day.

"Hello. You wished to see me...?"

"Ah, Ms. Ayanami, how are you? Please, sit down."

Rei grasped at the hem of her hoodie, kneading the soft fabric in her hand. There was an air of mockery that permeated his question, like he'd dared her to say she was just fine. "Why did you wish to speak with me?" she dodged, reluctantly lowering herself into an uncomfortable chair.

The man seated at the desk before her, ostensibly her counselor, flashed her a grin that strained his leathery skin to its limit. "Well, there's a couple things I'd like to discuss in particular, but it wouldn't hurt if we took some time to get to know each other, would it?"

His proposition did nothing to unfurl the knots in Rei's stomach, as this was not a man she felt comfortable with the idea of getting to know. It would've been no more than a formality, anyway - he already knew everything he needed to. More than that, she'd argue. Rei continued to avoid eye contact, instead focusing on the small family of die-cast motorcycles cluttering his desk. "I'd rather not. I dislike discussing myself."

"Look, Rei - can I call you Rei?"

"That is my name, yes."

"Rei, okay... now look, I understand these are uncharted waters for you, but I want you to know that you can trust me, alright? I just wanna help you have the best experience possible."

Rei's "best experience possible" at that point would've been to leave the room immediately, but that had apparently been ruled off-limits for her. It felt like a lot of decisions had been made for her since yesterday.

He'd requested to get to know her, and as much as the thought made her shudder, she likely wasn't getting back to class without doing so. She gave him the short version. "Okay. Yes, my name is Rei Ayanami. I came here from Sinnoh, and I have been staying with Asuka. Langley Soryu, to be specific. I'm not sure if there are any other students named Asuka here."

The act of laughing appeared almost physically uncomfortable to her counselor, but he did so anyway. "In Nimbasa? I'd be shocked if we did. Hey, don't worry, I woulda known which Asuka you were talking about."

"R-right." She began drumming her fingers against her thigh. The other shoe was going to drop, sooner rather than later, and this affable facade would slip away. If only she knew how soon.

It didn't register to her that she'd sat stewing in silence for several seconds until her counselor spoke up. "Rei? You doin' alright there?"

You know I'm not. Stop asking that question. "Yes, I'm fine. I was just... you said we were getting to know each other, so I figured it was your turn to... introduce yourself..." What little remained of her resolve was shriveling up at an alarming rate.

"Well, you already know who I am, don't you?" he answered, still wearing the same disingenuous smile, as he tapped the small bronze plaque on his desk. "I'm Dr. Graziano, the guidance counselor." At this point, she'd completely lost track of whether he was being malicious or if they simply handed out doctorates like White Day chocolate in Unova. Maybe he was entirely oblivious to her fidgeting, her wavering voice, and-

And then the other shoe dropped. "Look, Rei. Eventually we've gotta talk about what happened yesterday."

Rei's breath caught in her throat. She briefly entertained the idea of leaving right then and there, of returning to class like nothing had ever happened, knowing full well she'd be making things worse for herself in the long run. Anything seemed better than the prospect of retreading every excruciating detail.

"Can you at least give me a basic rundown?" Graziano pressed. He reached under his desk to procure a can of cola, sliding it into her reach. "Take as much time as you need... and here, have this." He was still smiling, like they were merely discussing a schoolyard fight. If this was a genuine attempt to placate her, it was an impressively poor one.

Rei glanced down at the sugary drink, then back at Dr. Graziano. Stifling a grimace, she took the can and slipped it into her bag with zero intention of drinking it. "Thank you." This changed nothing, of course; eventually, she was going to have to say something about the incident.

"I... I was chosen to participate in a battle during gym class," she started, silently contemplating what she'd done in a past life that justified this. "I faced Dezmond, and after his Camerupt defeated my Rotom, I... sent my Banette out. It turned out his second Pokemon was Krookodile, and the type disadvantage must have infuriated her - Banette, I mean - because... because she..."

"Go ahead, I'm listening."

"...I told her to use Trailblaze, because Krookodile is weak to it. She did, but... she didn't allow them to get back up. I told her to stop, but she continued to attack. Eventually, I began to develop a migraine, a-and my head started spinning... I cannot remember anything after that. I... woke up a short while later, and..." Her voice trailed off, the sight of blood-stained sand intruding into her thoughts.

Dr. Graziano, now reclining in his chair, tapped his pen against his chin. "From the way you're describing it, it doesn't sound like this was intentional."

"That's correct." Rei was impressed he'd even managed to deduce that.

"Well, that's good to hear... heard a couple of kids suggest otherwise. Guess that's just proof you can't trust the rumor mill, though."

Silence filled the room for a moment, though Rei struggled to find much solace in it. The more time she had to ruminate on the battle, the more she wondered what she'd even stood to gain through victory. Would whatever modicum of respect she stood to gain really have been worthwhile? Would people have even started to like her? That ship had long since sailed by now.

If she'd just sent out Magnezone, she never would have ended up here.

"Do you... have anything else to add, then?" inquired Graziano, more preoccupied with the notes he'd been jotting down than with Rei herself. "Any more details...?"

"Nothing comes to mind, but I... would like to apologize. I didn't wish to harm anyone, and I should've thought better of using Banette in such an environment... I made sure to leave her at home today, if it means anything, and have no intentions of bringing her here any-"

"Rei, if I'm being honest, I don't think you should be bringing any of your Pokemon to school anymore."

Rei's heart skipped a beat as she attempted to process the sudden shift in Dr. Graziano's demeanor. "What do you... we've established that it was an accident relating to just Banette, y-yes? What would that accomplish...?"

Placing his clipboard and pen to the side, her counselor folded his hands atop the desk. "I understand it wasn't your intention, Rei, and I'm on your side there," he clarified, a statement Rei believed even less than she had upon setting foot in his office. "But you still nearly killed another student's Pokemon. You do comprehend that, don't you?"

Of course she comprehended it - was he implying that she didn't? That she couldn't? The mere notion of being deemed incapable of making her own decisions aggravated Rei to no end. The messenger relaying said information to her being this man only served to make her stomach churn that much more.

What infuriated her most of all, however, was that no part of his statement was a lie.

"I... I understand." It was the only thing she could say, and she hated herself for saying it.

Dr. Graziano rose from his seat, an act Rei silently prayed would be followed by him holding the door open for her to leave. Instead, his hand grazed her shoulder, and-

Someone screamed.

Rei found herself on the floor, pain reverberating through her head. The chair she'd been sitting in had toppled over. She attempted to climb back to her feet, but her shaking limbs refused to cooperate.

She looked up to find her counselor standing over her, his hand outstretched. His lips moved, but all she heard was the same undignified cry of fear echoing once more. Further attempts to get up, and to do so on her own, continuously fell to her nonstop trembling.

It took an embarrassingly long time for her to realize that the scream had come out of her mouth.

"My apologies," Rei forced out, ultimately choosing to claw her own way off the ground and square her shoulders as if nothing had happened. "I... shouldn't have reacted with such-"

"Hey, it's cool, I get it... I should really be the one apologizing, y'know? You don't, uh... like being touched, right?"

By you, absolutely not. "Correct."

"Right, because of your... yeah. My bad." Graziano looked past her, towards his desk, and concern flashed over his face. "Hey, you don't need to take a trip to the nurse's office, do you? Looked like you hit your head pretty good there."

I'd like to go home. "I'll be fine."

Her counselor hesitated for a moment. "If that's what you think, then I won't-"

Rei had never been so grateful to hear a school bell in her life. The instant its incessant ringing cut Graziano off, she grabbed her bag and slung it over her shoulder. "May I go to lunch now?" she requested, eager to put this patronizing charade behind her.

"I don't see why not. Just... yeah, I'd leave your Pokemon at home going forward, just so we're not runnin' the risk of another incident like this. For your sake."

It sickened her. The thought of spending her days separated from her Pokemon, and particularly Zee, positively sickened her. It baffled Rei how Dr. Graziano couldn't see it for the overkill that it was. Banette wasn't coming out of her ball until she was back in Sinnoh regardless. This was a solution to an issue that did not exist.

Maybe I'm the issue. Rei exhaled a ragged sigh, shoved her hands into her hoodie's pockets, and did what she could to ignore the lingering pain as she headed for the door. "In that case, goodbye."

"Enjoy your lunch, Rei," Dr. Graziano called out; she refused to turn her head, not wishing to see his skin-crawling grin. "We'll speak again soon, alright?"

"Alright." Rei could not think of a more terrifying proposal.

Rei had elected to bring her own lunch, at Asuka's behest. She hadn't spoken highly of the school's food itself, but what really ate at Rei was the revelation that she herself would be the one paying for said food. The strangest part of all was that nobody else seemed to recognize such an egregious display of greed for what it was. This was just what things were like in Unova.

In lieu of going into debt over pizza with the consistency of cardboard, Rei dug into her bag and retrieved a salad from home, as well as a can of seltzer. She set both down on the library table in front of her, opened them up, and began eating in utter silence.

She'd spent the past seventeen years willingly isolating herself, and today had finally devolved into another chapter of that same wretched tale.

I should've eaten this yesterday.

Rei's appetite dried up after two bites, when it dawned on her that she'd never put the salad back into the fridge after she'd gotten home. Realizing a third would likely end in disaster, she shoved her lunch away and took a desperate swig of seltzer to purge her tongue. Perhaps this was on her for not investing in a proper lunchbox. Or, perhaps, if she'd simply swallowed her pride yesterday, she wouldn't have been in this situation to begin with.

Every thought that entered her head traced back to it. If Rei hadn't sent out Banette, she would have a lunch she could actually stomach in front of her. She would be sitting in the cafeteria, not banishing herself to the library to spare her classmates from her presence. The name Dr. Graziano would be one met with indifference instead of dread.

Twirling her decommissioned plastic red fork between her fingers, Rei glanced down at her watch, failing to ignore the conspicuous absence of its prismatic glow. Asuka had agreed to meet her here for lunch earlier, and at her core, Rei knew she wouldn't lie to her. Each passing minute she had to spend wallowing in her own thoughts like this, though, only deepened the pit in her stomach. She didn't even have a meal to distract herself with anymore.

"Hey, this seat taken?"

Rei's head perked up at the unexpected inquiry, and when she did, she caught pinstripes in her peripheral vision. It may not have been Asuka, but it was someone else she wished to speak with. "Dezmond? Why are you... it's fine, go ahead."

"Sweet, thanks." Dezmond slid out the chair directly across from Rei, setting both himself and the paper bag carrying his lunch down. "Guessin' you're waiting on Asuka too, huh?"

"Wait... Asuka told you to meet her here?" If nothing else, Rei's delusions of being blown off were confirmed to be just that. "Did she happen to say why, exactly?"

"Said she found somethin' really bizarre in the gym's locker room earlier. Whatever it is, it's got her pretty on-edge... then again, guess that isn't really too... difficult to pull off..." The longer Dezmond fished through his lunch bag, the more his voice trailed off. "...Ah, shit."

Rei cocked an eyebrow. "Is something wrong?"

"Yeah, I forgot to put a drink in here. Hold up a sec, gonna run to the vending-"

"There's no need to." Sensing the opportunity to rid herself of it, Rei retrieved the can of cola she'd reluctantly taken from Dr. Graziano and pushed it over to Dezmond. "I... have no intention of drinking this. You can have it."

Dezmond stopped the can just before it could careen over the edge of the table, and appeared pleasantly surprised to find it was still cold. "Huh, no shit? Hey, thanks... but, uh, why'd you bring this in the first place if you weren't gonna-"

"Dr. Graziano gave it to me." Even uttering his name was enough to make her wince. "I... had to meet with him before I came here."

"About what happened in our battle yesterday, right?"

Rei froze at the mention of it. She squeezed her eyes shut, as if doing so would force her memories, too, under a cover of darkness. "That is correct," she confirmed with a far quieter tone. "Again, I... deeply apologize. It wasn't my intention to... inflict such pain on your Krookodile."

When she pried her eyes back open, Dezmond did not appear angry, as he had every right to be. In fact, he didn't even seem particularly upset. "I know you didn't, Rei. You don't gotta keep sayin' sorry to me... it's fine, I get it."

"How can you say that?" returned Rei, genuinely bewildered - Dezmond was the one person who'd suffered most from her carelessness, yet remained the one person who harbored no resentment towards her over it. "I... Banette... we could've..."

"I mean, it's just like you said, isn't it? You weren't why shit went down the way it did." Dezmond reached down beneath the collar of his baseball jersey, and only when he revealed the Key Stone hanging from his necklace did Rei realize where he was coming from. "Trust me, Rei. I've seen what Mega Energy does to people."

The sight of the rainbow-hued stone glittering in front of her, proof positive she was talking to someone who actually comprehended the situation, brought a semblance of ease to Rei's scrambled mind. "You understand my issue, then. Why I am... hesitant to use Banette in battle."

"Oh, yeah, no doubt. If it's gonna go off the rails like that before you even go for the actual evolution, then... shit, I don't even wanna think about what she'll do to you when you do."

"I have only properly done so... three times in my life. I remember very little of what actually transpired in the process, but I do recall there being... thoughts in my head that were not my own. The voice I heard... wasn't my own."

Dezmond finished off the last of his drink, crunching the aluminum can in his hand. The puzzled expression he wore made it abundantly clear that Rei had just taken the discussion well out of familiar territory. "Okay, that's somethin' I've never heard before. You think that voice might've been-"

"It had to have been Banette." It was the only possibility, no matter how much Rei wanted to convince herself otherwise. She gripped at her hair with frustration, stray steel blue strands falling onto the table below. "That doesn't explain why I can hear her. Asuka cannot hear Blaziken. I assume you cannot hear..."


"Camerupt, right. It... has to be something about Banette specifically, then, doesn't it?" What that could've been still escaped her. Maybe she was better off not knowing. Maybe she'd be better off chucking her Key Stone into the Pinwheel Barrens, never to be seen again.

Dezmond tapped a finger against his cheek as he stared off into space, either genuinely contemplating Banette's intentions or wondering why he'd even bothered to engage with Rei in the first place. Neither would have surprised her.

"Does it hurt at all?"

"Does... what hurt? Mega Evolution?" Rei could feel the bookshelves closing in around her, and a faint throbbing in her forehead had begun to make itself known. "Of course it does... do you not feel every attack your Pokemon-"

Dezmond waved a hand dismissively. "Nah, you know that's not what I'm talkin' about, everyone's gotta deal with that. Aside from that, does it hurt you specifically?"

Rei tugged at the drawstrings of her hoodie, now making a concerted effort to avert her gaze from him. "I... I get... horrible headaches," she forced out, hazy memories slowly becoming clearer. "Whenever I lose control of her, and she starts to battle aggressively... and inevitably, she does... then... that's when they, um... Mega Evolution only exacerbates them. And... each time I've done it, they've only gotten worse, and the voices keep getting louder..."

Rei had last performed Mega Evolution four months ago, not long before being sent to Unova. She could not recall who she was battling, or the circumstances of said battle. Exact details of what had happened were either long forgotten or never remembered in the first place. All Rei could conjure up in her head were still images. Images of claw marks, of bandages, of a hospital bed, of unforgiving fluorescent light.

Images of blood. Far too many images of blood.

A shaky sigh left Rei's lips. "I'm sorry... I don't want to discuss this any further." She could only imagine the pathetic sight she must've been, trembling fearfully with her face buried in her hands. Maybe it would be best for everyone if she left Bludworth and never returned. At best, her disappearance would go unnoticed; at worst, it would be celebrated.

"Look, if it's makin' you uncomfortable, don't feel like you have to," Dezmond answered, far less apprehension in his tone than Rei had anticipated. "I mean... hey, if it means anything, I appreciate you tellin' me everything you actually did. Didn't expect you to trust me that much."

I could say the same for you. "...Thanks."

Rei soon felt something bump against her arm; peering through her fingers revealed a small bag of popcorn sitting in front of her. A welcome gesture, though her appetite had yet to return. As such, she reached down to stow it away in her bag, directing a nod towards Dezmond that hopefully came across as appreciatively as she'd intended.

Maybe she was too preoccupied with wondering if she'd revealed too much to him, or perhaps just her burgeoning status as a social pariah in general, but the question of Asuka's whereabouts had entirely slipped Rei's mind - until the redhead's voice cut into the conversation like a knife. "Alright, good, you're both still here. We gotta talk."

Asuka wasted no time in taking her own seat at the table, and immediately began rummaging frantically through her backpack. If that weren't enough to convince Rei something was wrong, her face having turned to a shade akin to Coronet snow smashed whatever ambiguity was left to bits. "Asuka, please tell us what happened," Rei pleaded, watching as her friend made her look like a perfectly well-adjusted individual in comparison. "Did the teachers say anything about-"

She was interrupted by Asuka emphatically slamming her hand down onto the table, either not remembering they were in a library or openly challenging anyone who dared to remind her. Beneath a striped armwarmer and magma red nail polish lay a torn-off sheet of loose-leaf, its contents unintelligible. "I fucking knew that they... Scheiße, sorry, I know. Quiet. Just... l-look at this thing."

"Jesus, Asuka, calm down," Dezmond interjected, a sentiment Rei silently seconded. "You're really gonna let a piece of paper get you to lose your shit? C'mon, you're better than, uh..."

The moment Asuka retracted her arm, the discussion ground to a halt. Rei and Dezmond stared down at the page, beholding the unmistakable Plasma symbol sitting clear as day before them. Nothing else could have so effectively poisoned the conversation.

Before any of them could say a word, Dezmond snatched the paper off of the table, silently going over it once, twice, more times than Rei could keep up with. He then turned his glare towards Asuka, and if looks could kill, they would've begun preparing her funeral that instant. "I swear to god, if this is your idea of a joke-"

"You think this is something I'd joke about?!" retaliated a clearly offended Asuka, lunging herself forward until she was mere inches from Dezmond's face; he didn't so much as flinch in response. "In what universe does that look even close to my handwriting?! Why can't you trust me on this?"

"Maybe I'd be more willing to if you actually told me you found this fuckin' thing earlier instead of keepin' secrets, y'ever think about that?"

"Of course I was going to! You think I can just-"

"Stop." Rei had heard enough. "Please stop. We aren't going to accomplish anything by fighting. Please, take a moment to... c-can I see the paper?"

She extended an arm towards Dezmond and Asuka, grateful that her interjection had at least temporarily put a stop to their bickering. "Guess it beats us tryin' to explain it to you," Dezmond quipped, placing the crumpled sheet in Rei's waiting hand. "'Cause I've got no clue what this thing's getting at."

Rei wasn't entirely sure what she expected from a note purportedly written by a Plasma member. That they'd even bothered to leave said note somewhere careless enough for Asuka to find in the first place gave her the feeling that they weren't very high in the organization's power structure, and it was difficult for Rei to envision what someone like that might even want from a high school. Maybe students' Pokemon, but that didn't seem to be what this message was getting at. Cryptic as it was, she failed to detect any hostility in it at all. Perhaps it was meant for someone on good terms with them. An associate, or-

Or a recruit.

The realization hit her like the snapping of an elevator cable, and her stomach plummeted just the same. "It's... a recruitment message. They're trying to indoctrinate students." The paper crinkled further in her shaking pale grip. "Asuka, where did you say you found this, again...?"

Asuka pinched the bridge of her nose with one hand, clenching the other tight enough to convince Rei her nails were about to draw blood. "Fell out of some dipshit burnout's gym locker. Don't remember his name, don't really care to. What I wanna know is who slipped the thing in there in the first place, because I don't think it's anyone who goes here."

Even if Rei had come up with a possible culprit before Dezmond slammed his fist down, it would've spilled right out of her head from the shock. "It's a teacher. It's gotta be. Teacher, coach, nurse, some kinda faculty." His eyes narrowed into an intense glare, darting between the girls. "You really think they wouldn't pull that shit? Bludworth's won the last four state battling championships - of course they'd be lookin' for grunts here. And I assure you they've got a guy on the inside doing the scouting."

Rei anxiously drummed her fingers against the table, her lips parting only to let out a feeble sound and nothing else. The thought petrified her, even beyond wondering what Plasma's intentions truly were - what if it was Asuka that ended up in their crosshairs? What would become of Asuka were she to get one of those letters and rip it to shreds?

Letting such a scenario play out absolutely could not happen. Rei would make absolutely sure of it.

She opened her mouth again, and this time, she'd found her words. "In that case, putting an end to this ourselves is the only option."

"Are you stupid?!" Asuka fired back incredulously, the glint of fear in her eyes impossible to ignore. "You'll get yourself killed!"

"I said ourselves, not myself. All three of us."

Asuka bit the inside of her cheek, again with enough stress to elicit Rei's concern. "I still don't think-" she started, before abruptly cutting herself off with a loud groan - one that earned a harsh shushing from someone nearby. Rei was frankly impressed it took that long. "Alright. Just... don't do anything reckless, verstanden?"

"Bold words comin' from you," added Dezmond, prompting an eye-roll from the simmering redhead. "But hey, I'm in on it. Someone's gotta put the fear of god in 'em sooner or later... don't know how we're supposed to figure out where they're holed up, though."

That was the one part that had truly stumped Rei. "All I see that could possibly shed any light on the location is... this phrase. 'Concrete waves, devoid of moonlight.' I... haven't the faintest idea what that could-"

"Hold on, lemme see that again?" Dezmond vigorously beckoned for the letter, which Rei briskly handed over. "Didn't hit me 'til you read it out, but 'concrete waves?' It's talkin' about Franklin Skatepark, out by the stadium complex... it's under an overpass, so that's gotta be where the second part of that's from."

At least Rei could take solace in knowing she wasn't the only one awestruck by his deduction, as an equally stunned expression adorned Asuka's face. "Heilige Scheiße, really? Hold on, what's that bit after it?" A freckle-strewn hand plucked the sheet from Dezmond's, which proceeded to curl into fists; undeterred, Asuka recited the next phrase. "'When progress is needed, one meets two.' One... meets two..."

"...Twelve," Rei finished. "Midnight. Progress to the next day. They're... the skatepark at midnight. That's what they're saying. And... I presume that means midnight tonight..."

Asuka folded the letter as many times as she could and stuffed it in her backpack. "Yeah, yeah, I know, tomorrow's a Thursday... look, dealing with this leech is way more important than perfect attendance. I'll make some kinda excuse up for you, Rei, don't worry. Besides, if what Dez said's right, the school's gonna have their attention somewhere else."

Dezmond directed a cagey glance towards Asuka at the mention of his name. "Hey, when you say 'dealin' with...' what's that supposed to mean, exactly?"

"You know what I mean."

"No, actually, don't think I do. Think you could explain it to-"

Rei exhaled a sigh of relief as the school bell cut in, nipping what seemed well on its way to blossoming into another argument in the bud - not that she would have been an impartial party in it. "Alright... tonight at midnight," she reiterated, rising from her seat. "We'll see you then, Dezmond."

Dezmond nodded towards her, maintaining a stern visage. "Meet me in the arena parking lot, yeah? We'll take it from there... and hey, remember, it's like she said." He gestured towards Asuka, who failed to notice as she gathered her things, and Rei's eyes followed. "Don't do anything reckless."


Dezmond set off towards his next class, leaving Rei with the knowledge that his statement was not in any way directed towards her. No, that would be Asuka, either indifferent or oblivious to her friends' shared concern. "Well, good news is we've got music theory next period," she mused, tossing her backpack over one shoulder and joining Rei's side. "Should give us all the time we need to figure out what to do with-"

"Asuka." Once it was clear Rei's frigid tone had silenced her, she continued, "I understand how you feel about this; believe me when I say I am just as incensed. That said... I think Dezmond's right, regarding who's behind this. And we do not need any more attention upon ourselves."

"So... what, then? Are you saying he doesn't deserve to-"

"All we need to do is compromise their identity," Rei stressed. "Maybe intimidate them into providing information, if necessary, but acting rashly will only make things worse. Again, your anger is entirely justified, but... there would be legitimate consequences if we went too far."

It was a difficult conclusion for Rei to come to, as well - she'd seen firsthand the lows Plasma would stoop to. She, too, wanted more than anything to see them eradicated. But nothing could change the fact that her and Asuka were two high school seniors, or that Plasma were a ruthless paramilitary numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands. Asuka knew this just as well - which, Rei suspected, only served to feed into her fury.

As the redhead's fiery features softened, a weight lifted from Rei's chest, grateful she'd once again brought her down to earth. "Y-yeah, you're... verdammt, I'm sorry," Asuka apologized, wearing her flustered regret on her cheeks with no intention of hiding it. "I... don't want you to get hurt, is all. I don't want anyone at this school gettin' hurt."

Rei had wanted to ask her something else before, but with how heated the conversation had turned, she'd worried how Asuka would interpret it. Now, with tensions cooled, she felt more comfortable. "Are you scared?"

"Am I-" Asuka paused, taking a moment to truly ponder it. Her sapphire eyes scanned left, then right. "I... I think so."

Rei responded with a satisfactory nod. "I appreciate you telling me. I am, too, but... we will be fine." She extended her hand, taking Asuka's, and considered it a minor miracle that she wasn't batted away. "I will ensure it."

One final deep breath melted the remainder of Asuka's anger away; she allowed Rei's fingers to tangle between her own, squeezing tight once their hands were fully entwined. "Wouldn't expect anything less."

Nothing else to add crossed Rei's mind - nothing the incessant bell reminding them where they were supposed to be didn't convey, anyway. She led the way out of the library, and Asuka followed suit, gripping her hand as if it were the only thing tethering her to reality.

In truth, Rei simply couldn't completely convince herself everything would turn out alright. It was plain to see that her words hadn't entirely swayed Asuka, either. She was still confident they were leaving the library in a better place than they'd entered. And regardless of what became of them, they were going to do the right thing.

Neither spoke a word during their trek towards the music room, but their hands remained joined together. Rei did her best to ignore the pain.