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Misha hated crowds. No, scratch that. She despised them. She couldn't stand them, and she'd normally be edging towards the door as quickly as possible to get away from them, but there was no way that was going to happen any time soon. Her discomfort, as much as she just wanted to say 'forget it' and run, was not an emotion she could let rise to the forefront right now - not when people were in danger, not when the planet was in danger. No, she'd just have to grit her teeth, bear it and try to pretend that she didn't utterly hate being squished like a sardine.

A man with a large sword was surveying them, standing by the switch at the far end of the room, and his voice rang out flat and tinny in the dead air. "Teleporter activating in three..."

Maybe it was the fact that she was the most skilled hunter in the Keton Pass. Maybe it was the fact that no matter the situation, she had an uncanny knack for getting out of it alive. Or hell, maybe it was just the fact that she couldn't sit around and let people potentially die. But whatever it was, it didn't change the fact that she'd been rounded up with other talented hunters from every city with a Hunter's Guild, shoved onto a gigantic teleporter and told to get ready to fight for the sake of the entire world. Not that she even knew where they were going, or what she was going to be fighting against...she'd learned long ago that you just don't argue about some things.

"Two..."

...Still, she was curious enough to consider being civil. She nudged the hunter next to her, a frightened-looking girl clutching a rifle like a life preserver, and muttered to her while trying not to feel bad that she'd just flinched. "Hey, where are we going, anyway?"

"N-no one told you?" Dark eyes blinked incredulously, and the girl's grip on her rifle slackened in utter surprise. "Something big is happening on the moon, all the guilds are sending their best up there to take care of it..."

"One..."

"...You nitwits want to send me WHERE?!" Misha shrieked, forgetting herself, but then the teleporter activated and all she knew was blackness.

******

At least when she woke up, she didn't feel like she was in the middle of a sardine can, but she did have a splitting headache and was pretty sure she'd sprained something.

"Ow. The moon? Seriously, are you kidding me? I swear, if I thought my life was weird before..." Her muttering went unnoticed in the hubbub of everyone else waking as well, but that was the way she honestly preferred it, and by the time she felt steady enough to get slowly to her feet, no one else had even noticed she'd said anything underneath the din that was all of them babbling away. In fact, they weren't really even paying attention, too busy clustering by the windows of the large room they'd ended up in and gushing to one another about how beautiful the earth looked, or how glad they were that they'd made it, and she just couldn't help but sigh when she realized not a one of them seemed like they were taking this seriously. "The moon. And with this bunch of dingbats. Who did I piss off this time?"

"Everyone, please quiet down and listen!" The female voice that cut across the noise was sharp and far too accustomed to giving orders, and Misha automatically drew herself up to her full height and focused intently in its direction, though a snort escaped her unbidden when she realized it was coming from the most civilian-looking CAST she'd seen in a long time. Probably someone's secretary, or something. Oh well, if she can get everyone to shut up... she thought acerbically, folding her arms and relaxing her posture, mildly impressed when everyone did indeed quiet down and turn to look at the CAST almost as one. Okay, she's good. This might end up being tolerable after all.

"Thank you, Ms. Lindow," a voice came from nearby, and a portly man with one of those faces that gave off an air of being perpetually cheerful strode into view, turning to face the assembled hunters and clearing his throat. "Er-hem! My name is Dairon, and I'm sorry to have gathered you all here on such short notice, but this is a matter of life and death that only the best hunters from all over the world can possibly handle..."

He sure knows how to sweet-talk people. Misha discreetly rolled her eyes.

"I'm sure most, if not all, of you are aware of this by now," Dairon went on, "but it has recently been discovered that the newmans - long thought lost and doomed to be forgotten in the depths of history - are in fact alive and residing on this very moon." (Misha caught her breath and managed not to raise her eyebrows very, very high, now not quite convinced the man wasn't insane.) "For years, they have lived under the watchful eye of their computerized leader, Mother Trinity; however, after the discovery that their almighty and benevolent Mother has in fact been corrupted into a mere shell of her former, gentle self, a great number amidst them have decided to rise up and confront this threat. And that, my friends, is where you all become involved."

He clasped his hands behind his back, turned and began pacing, looking serious now. "The newmans of the resistance need our help. We must assist them with cutting off Mother Trinity's power supply so she may be destroyed, and we must assist them with taking back control of the home that is rightfully theirs. This will be no easy task - indeed, it will likely push your skills to the very limit - but we cannot give up until our lunar brethren have found their freedom! For the sake of our brothers and sisters that we have only just found again, for the sake of their safety and peace of mind...we must fight!"

The room erupted in cheers. Misha winced and poked a finger into her ear.

"Everyone shall be divided into groups and given further instructions from there," the CAST - Lindow - continued where Dairon had left off, her voice perfectly calm. "I will now begin calling out the names for group number one. Those called are requested to gather in the northwest corner of the room."

Corner? Seriously? The room's as round as that Dairon guy is balding. A sigh of exasperation escaped Misha, and she only just managed to direct it upward as if trying to blow her bangs out of her eyes. Is everyone here insane, or just completely disoriented?

It did seem to make some sense to the assembled hunters, however, and soon the first group was filing out after their leader (a large male CAST with a gun nearly as big as he was, no mean feat at all), the second was just finishing up gathering before theirs (a bored-looking newman woman wielding a sharp-edged rod - Misha could sympathize with that look), and the third group was being called to assemble. Heaving another sigh when she heard her name called, she unfolded her arms and reluctantly trudged over, once more ending up next to that girl with the rifle - she looked even more scared now, and Misha briefly pondered whispering "Boo" at her but decided she'd probably pass out from fear - and looking around with her best disinterested look. So, where's our leader, then?

"...Unfortunately," Ms. Lindow said apologetically, causing Misha to jump as she vaguely wondered if the CAST could read her thoughts, "the leader for group number three has not arrived yet. I ask that you please be patient, as he ought to be arriving shortly. As for group number two, you may now begin your assault on the northwestern end of the stronghold. Please be careful." She tucked her clipboard beneath her arm, watched as the second group straggled out in a muttering line, and finally glanced at Dairon, almost beginning to sound worried. "Mayor, are you certain..."

"Hey, is the big speech over? Am I fashionably late enough?" a cheerful voice abruptly interrupted from behind the group, and Misha automatically turned.

The instant she laid eyes on the owner of the voice, her vision swam, and she thought for a single panicked moment that she was going to faint.

...Someone has GOT to be playing a big cosmic joke on me, she thought miserably.

******

She wasn't sure how she did it, but somehow, she managed to struggle through the mission with her usual detached manner intact, and even found the strength within her to give a few weak cheers upon completion so she wouldn't look any more out of place than she was sure she did; all bets were off by the time everyone returned to the teleporter room, however, and in the fuss of everyone hurrying to get back down to the surface, Misha took the first opportunity to just collapse in a corner (great, now even I'm delusional, she found herself thinking bitterly) and put a shaking hand over her face. She just couldn't believe this - not only had she been sent off to the moon, shoved into a conflict practically beyond imagination, and nearly killed several times even with her high level of skill and lightning-quick reflexes, she'd had to do it all under his guidance and act like there was absolutely nothing wrong. "This isn't fair. This just isn't fair," she found herself muttering under her breath, biting the insides of her cheeks hard to try and hold back tears, free hand clenching into a tight fist. Totally not fair. Why today, of all days? Why now...?

"Hey, are you okay?" The concerned female voice - she vaguely connected it to the redheaded newman girl she'd heard babbling excitedly on as everyone returned - startled her into looking up, and for a second she was almost tempted to answer with a snappish "obviously not", but she was afraid she would start crying if she spoke and so she didn't say anything. Instead, she just shrugged laconically and let her head drop forward again, concentrating on trying to keep her breaths even and tune out the girl's words; the outpouring of sympathy and concern, while it wasn't exactly unpleasant, just wasn't what she wanted to hear. Not that she was sure what she did want to hear, but still...

Someone else approached, that voice making her have to bite her tongue so she wouldn't break down. "Sarisa, leave her alone. That was a rough fight."

Breathe. Breathe. In, out, slowly. No kidding it was a rough fight, but why do you even care--?

"...Yeah. I guess you're right. Sorry, Kai." There was a pause, then footsteps that she presumed were Sarisa's slowly receded to the other side of the room.

"And quit apologizing!" Kai called after her, then knelt abruptly, and Misha didn't even have to look to visualize his soft, but piercing stare. "...Call me a hypocrite, but - you okay? You're not hurt, are you?"

Hurt? Yeah, I'm hurt. On the inside, you jerk. She bit down harder, shook her head.

"You sure?" Kai tilted his head skeptically, folding his arms and just looking at her, but seemed to realize he wouldn't be getting an answer after a few moments and just kept talking instead. "You were pretty amazing out there. I don't know many other hunters that'd have been able to hold their own like you did, much less protect other people at the same time. And man, your gunblade skills - you might even be better than me!" He gave a short laugh and a crooked grin, the latter of which quickly faded when she just hunched up her shoulders and didn't respond. "...What city are you a hunter for, anyway? I don't recall any cities with a gunblade specialist, especially not--"

"...a female one," she interrupted him, as flatly as she could manage.

Kai blinked. "Hey, you do talk! Yeah, exactly. Y'know, you kinda remind me of someone I used to know when I was a kid - she always said she wanted to grow up to be a hunter and that she'd be better with gunblades than anyone else. Looked kind of like you, too. Some coincidence, huh? - anyway, I interrupted you there, didn't I? What city are you from?"

Misha's eyes teared up despite her best efforts, and she sniffled. Why in the world couldn't he have been a little less nice?

"Hey, hey, c'mon - did I say something wrong? I'm sorry, really. Don't cry--" Looking a little alarmed, Kai started to reach out, hesitated, then carefully rested his hand on her shoulder; she couldn't help but flinch at the touch and almost wanted to kick herself for it when he reluctantly pulled away, but then he was leaning close to peer at her in concern and that feeling was quickly overridden by her struggle not to just hit him very hard in the face and run away. "Really, whatever I said, I'm sorry. Uh...well, uh, good job out there, maybe we can work together again sometime and...huh?"

Misha suddenly froze when she felt his hand near her neck, cautiously touching the length of cord hanging around it. Oh no. My necklace...

"...Hey." Kai abruptly sounded deadly serious. "Where'd you get this?"

Great. Now or never. She really, really wanted to kick herself.

"...You should know," she answered instead in a bare whisper, suppressing the urge to be suddenly sick out of fear. "You should know where it came from. You're the one who gave it to me."

Now it was Kai's turn to go still, his eyes widening and his fingers giving the faintest hint of a tremble. "You're kidding me...Misha? You're alive?"

She took a deep breath, bit her tongue again (this time she tasted blood) and looked up, finally meeting his eyes. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm alive. Yeah, I kept those stupid ideals. Yeah, I kept this stupid thing the whole time." She grabbed at her necklace and stuffed it down the front of her shirt, welcoming the anger starting to well up in her, if only because it was a change from feeling so damn sorry for herself. "And you know what? You know exactly what city I'm from. You know exactly where I've been. And you should know you're also an utter jerk for just up and leaving me there!"

The sound of her palm impacting very, very hard with his cheek drew the attention - and horrified, startled looks - of everyone else in the room.

"Yeah, okay, maybe we were just kids," she went on, the words coming faster and faster now, eyes flaring up with rage. "And sure, maybe I was just being a burden on you. But you - I thought you were a decent guy - I thought you were my friend, Kai! Do you have any idea how I felt when I woke up and found out you left me there and kept on going without me?! You couldn't even have the decency to stay and make sure I was going to live! What went through your head, huh?! 'I'm gonna dump her in the first city I see and keep heading for the Pillar'?! Was that it?!" Shaking her head rapidly, she abruptly bolted to her feet, hands clenched so tightly into fists that she could feel her nails biting into her palms. "Why'd you even bother to take me to a city if you were just going to leave me there?! If I was really that much of a burden, why didn't you just leave me to die like you did the others?! It wasn't like anyone would have even known! You could have just--"

Kai was on his feet as well by now, looking somewhere between wounded and furious. "Misha--"

"--left me there, gone on without me like you ended up doing anyway, never mind that I promised you we'd make it together and--"

"Misha, listen to me--"

"--god only knows why I even liked you as much as I did if those are the kinds of true colors you were planning on showing me, you stupid jerk--"

"I said listen to me!!" Kai's hands shot out, grabbing her by the shoulders, though he stopped just short of shaking her or slamming her back against the wall. "Misha, I swear I wasn't--"

"Get your hands off of me! I hate you!" she screamed at the top of her lungs, slapping him again.

This time, he hit her back, and utter silence descended.

"Listen. To. Me," he growled, letting go of her and turning away so he wouldn't have to see the tears rapidly filling her eyes. "I don't know what you've been thinking for these past eight years, but you've got it all wrong. I didn't want to leave you there, but I didn't want to see you die either. It's like you said, Misha - we were kids. Stupid kids. And I got scared." He paused to take a breath; his own eyes were beginning to feel suspiciously hot. "I thought, if I had to see one more person kick it - I was gonna snap. I just couldn't take it. You were in such bad shape and everyone kept on telling me you weren't gonna make it, and I wanted to stay but I couldn't handle that - everyone else dying was bad enough, but you..." His pacing slowed, stopped, and he rubbed a sleeve across his eyes, then turned to look at her. "...Misha, no one ever wants to see someone they love die. You hear me? No one. Especially not just a sick, tired kid, when that person is all they have left."

Tears were running openly down Misha's cheeks, but she felt like she couldn't even move to wipe them away. It was hard enough just listening, just trying to breathe, not to break down, and seeing Kai cry was seriously threatening to make her do exactly that. "I - Kai..."

"I thought about you, today." Kai looked away, resumed pacing. "Trying to get Sarisa, Ogi and Karen here to the moon. I thought about you, and I thought about everyone."

"What...do you mean?" she managed unevenly, having the feeling she wouldn't like the answer.

"The teleporter," Kai said quietly, "in the Makara Ruins. You had someone there keeping the hostiles off your back, didn't you?"

"Yes, a CAST..." Misha's mind briefly flashed to the shadowy robotic figure; she took a shaky breath and reached up to wipe her face. "...And several more hunters. There were so many hostiles..."

"I know." Now he looked at her again, and she had the sudden thought that he looked very, very weary, and very, very scared. "...Someone had to make sure the others got up here safely."

She started to say she didn't understand, but she realized she did, and she suddenly felt cold all over. "But Kai! All those hostiles...you couldn't possibly have held them all off yourself!"

"No," he agreed, flashing her a humorless smile, "you're right."

Misha stared, then covered her face and sank down to her knees with an utterly ashamed sob.

"I thought I was done for when they all jumped me, and that's when I thought of you." Kai's expression softened. "You and the others. Maybe it was stupid, but I could see all of you, and hear your voices - telling me to get up, to keep going, that I couldn't let a little thing like that take me down. I think maybe I was a little jealous...you guys were just the same as I remembered, and I was the only one who'd grown up and changed. And I felt so horrible that I'd let you all down that I just wanted to give up. But you guys just kept urging me on, saying I couldn't let go...saying that I had to move on, that I had a second chance, that I still had people I needed to protect." Forced to wipe his eyes again, he gave a weak chuckle. "Then a bunch of other hunters showed up and pulled the hostiles off me. Man, did I ever have a time convincing them I was okay enough to get my butt up here..."

Misha almost laughed, but shame turned it into another sob, her voice breaking. "...You want to talk about stupid? Look at me. Here I was screaming in your face, hitting you, accusing you, and all the while I had no idea you'd almost died, because I was too focused on my own issues and just wanted to hurt your feelings. If that's not stupid, I-I don't know what is."

"Heh. Maybe we're still just a couple of stupid kids on the inside." Kai had to smile.

She did laugh this time, staggered to her feet and reached for him. "Oh, Kai--"

"It's okay, Misha," he murmured softly, taking her hands and pulling her close, wrapping her in a tight hug and letting her bury her face in his shoulder. "It's okay. Let it all out."

"I don't think I could stop if I tried, you jerk," she sniffled, shoulders shaking harshly as she fought not to cry out loud, a battle that was soon lost when she felt his hand come to rest on the back of her head. "D-don't you know you should never make a girl cry?"

"Yeah. I know." His voice cracked, and he closed his eyes, laying his cheek against her hair. "I know."

She swallowed back the lump in her throat, managed to go on. "...I'll forgive you if you just answer one thing for me. You said...no one wants to see someone they love die...that--

"I meant it," he said softly. "It took me too long to realize it, but I loved you more than anything."

At those words, Misha found herself smiling more than she could remember smiling in years, even as she finally let herself dissolve into a tearsoaked, sobbing heap in Kai's arms.

******

"Misha...you're sure about this? You're more than welcome in Dairon City, you know."

Misha brushed her hair back behind an ear and turned to give Kai a faint smile, shrugging a little. "Yeah, I know. Don't think I didn't seriously consider it, either. But...I'm needed here, y'know? I've made my place here, and I've got people here who are depending on me. Just like you've got people there who are depending on you." Her smile strengthened a little as she thought back on everything they'd talked about on the way out of the Makara Ruins, catching up on those eight years they'd lost to their own paths of life never intersecting. "...Besides, we gotta keep your ego intact, right? Can't have someone else better than you there, and a girl at that," she teased.

"I am wounded, you hear me? Utterly wounded." Kai pretended to punch her on the shoulder, but he was grinning. "Still...I'm gonna miss you. Sure, it's not too far to visit sometimes, but..."

"I know, I know. C'mere." She tugged him into a hug, kissed his cheek and turned him loose. "Just be sure you do come visit, or I'm gonna have to hunt you down and hurt you."

"Ha! You're terrifying, you know that?" Kai couldn't help but let out a bark of laughter, folding his arms. "You might even be worse than Sarisa, and let me tell you, that takes a lot of--"

"Kai!" Sarisa yelped indignantly from behind him, stomping her foot.

"--yeah, so anyway, if that's your choice, I'm not gonna stop you," Kai hurried on, quickly going serious again. "But I'm glad we met again today, and I'm glad you're alive. But I think I'm the most glad that this world has hunters like you, people who are determined to protect others even at the cost of their own lives. Even if you can be scary sometimes..." He rubbed the back of his head.

"Now who's wounded?" She smacked him gently.

Kai chuckled, feigning injury and clutching dramatically at his shoulder. "Okay, my bad. You're absolutely terrifying. Better?"

"Hmph. Get out of my city if you're gonna insult me." Misha pretended to stick her nose in the air indignantly, but she was grinning.

"I know you're kidding, but I better go anyway." Looking apologetic, Kai shrugged, slipping an arm around her shoulders for a quick squeeze. "Places to go, people to see, things to do. Man, there is just no time for being lazy in this line of work. How do you stand it?"

She giggled. "I'm not you."

"Wounded, woman. Absolutely wounded." Kai's head turned at a shout from behind them, and he smiled faintly. "You better get going too. They're calling you. What's the matter, did you do something efficiently and quickly again?"

"Kai, compared to you, anyone is efficient and quick." Misha tugged on his earlobe, earning a mock-injured yelp, then reluctantly turned away. "...I'll see you again soon, won't I?"

"Count on it," he agreed, nodding firmly.

She laughed quietly, then hesitated. "...Hey, Kai?"

"Yeah?" He blinked at her.

"...I know this isn't much, but..." She blushed faintly and started digging around in her pockets, finally coming up with something clutched tightly in a closed fist. "Here. This is for you," she finished, taking his hand and placing the object in it.

Kai's breath caught, and he held the rough blue crystal up to the light. "Misha, is this...?"

"Same stuff," she nodded with a smile, touching her necklace. "I found it on a mission a while back...I kept it because it reminded me of you. So I want you to have it."

His return smile was a little wobbly, and Kai had to blink a few times. Man, he was exhausted if he was being moved to tears that easily. "You're entrusting something like this to an idiot like me?"

"Idiot, maybe, but you're my friend." Misha's own eyes glittered unnaturally bright for a moment, but then she raised her head slightly and it was gone, replaced by another smile. "Call it repayment for this one. I still haven't forgotten the way you complained about scraping your knees up on that tree climbing up to get it for me."

"Hey! Who was the one who was too scared to even get up there?" Kai protested.

"Can you blame me? I was a stupid kid!"

"And I wasn't?"

"Oh - just shut up and go!" She gave him a firm shove, laughing, then turned and ran up the path to the Hunter's Guild, waving behind her as she went.

Lifting his hand in a return wave, Kai smiled after her, mouthing something inaudible before he moved to go. It didn't matter if she didn't see it; all that mattered was that it was out there.

And as she reached the doorway to the guild, Misha turned back and whispered her reply to the air with a soft, contented smile, knowing what he'd said even without seeing.

"I love you too, Kai."