Gundam Wing Fan Fiction / Outlaw Star Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction / Fan Fiction / Zoids Fan Fiction ❯ All Death's Children ❯ Chapter 5

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Note: I know this story is a bit confusing. I kinda sorta meant it to be that way, but not really. This part may make no sense at all, but it's got the action a few people requested. If you're unfamiliar with the anime series Pilot Candidate (a.k.a. Candidate for Goddess, b.k.a. Megami Kous-something or other…) currently being shown on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim (yes, I AM old enough), well…good luck. I've found a few sites dedicated to it, but you almost have to search for Candidate for Goddess or the Japanese name to get anything worthwhile. It's kinda like Gundam, except the main pilot is an immature boy (okay, maybe EXACTLY like Gundam), and his "Gundam" is either called a Goddess or an Ingrid. Coincidentally, there are five Ingrids, which puts me in mind of Gundam Wing…

Chapter 5

Traveling with Ryoko was unlike anything Vega had ever experienced. He was struck by a sense of weightlessness, followed by actual solid objects passing through his body. For the first time since he had died, Vega truly felt like a ghost. That realization was only one of the reasons why he kept his eyes shut.

The other was, quite simply, fear.

Perhaps the only comforting thing was that, for some unexplainable reason, Oscuro remained on his shoulder. The black cabbit's presence was somehow reassuring to Vega, even though he knew it was still scowling at him.

Quite suddenly, Vega felt tiny pinpricks of pain in his neck, and his eyes flew open.

The knowledge that Oscuro had bitten him was unimportant compared to the sight that met his eyes.

Vega had seen and been in countless battles. Seeing one in outer space was still quite an experience. Especially one so hopelessly one-sided.

There were three large, muscular yet graceful purple-black creatures with giant foreheads. They used these to mercilessly headbutt their wounded opponent.

The opponent itself was a white, fragile-looking humanoid mobile suit of some kind. Vega knew at once that it looked that way because it had been outnumbered for some time. Under normal circumstances, he thought it might be much more powerful.

He also knew that Ryoko would stop a safe distance away. At least, that's what he was hoping.

But Ryoko headed straight into the battle, gaining more and more speed. She rocketed straight through one of the purple-black creatures. As she did so, Vega shuddered and felt nauseous. A single word flashed through his mind, over and over again:


When he regained his senses, Vega was staring one of the VICTIM right in the face. Its eyes were tiny slits of pure hatred, its skin radiating maliciousness. It screeched at him through the glass…


Vega started. He was INSIDE the mobile suit, and now the VICTIM were attacking HIM.

Ryoko was nowhere to be found.

Vega was quite certain he couldn't die again. However, he had no desire to find out the hard way. He had a sinking feeling that whatever happened to people that were already dead was extremely painful. Wracking his brain for ideas, he reached out, looking for any sort of controls in the strange, blobby substance that currently surrounded him.

His gloves came in contact with another hand. Vega gave a hesitant tug, and then another boy came floating out of the gooey mess. His skin was very pale and his hair was a ghostly blue-white color. There was a faint pulse in his arm, but it was slowing down. Blood seeped out of small cuts all over his arms and legs, and much of it stained his once white uniform (which looked quite odd to Vega, to say the least).

Vega didn't bother with the boy after that. If he didn't do something, they'd both be dead in a matter of minutes. Maybe seconds, considering how hard the VICTIM were now ramming the mobile suit. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and forced himself into the blob, trying to head in the same direction the boy had come from.

Instantly, something attached itself to his brain, and alarms went off around him.

"Unidentified Candidate. Scanning…"

An electric shock shot down Vega's spine, and there was a dull throbbing in his head, seeming to echo off his skull.

"Scan Complete. Systems now at 44% capability. Suggest immediate evasive maneuvers."

Vega carefully opened his eyes. He had a better view of the VICTIM now, something he quickly regretted. One of them was chewing a rather large piece from the mobile suit's left arm. "A missile or two would be great right now," he muttered.

"Missile supply exhausted," said the robotic but decidedly feminine voice in his head.

"Well…other weapons?" he asked hopefully.

"Sonic Disrupter, Fla-"

"Use that!" Vega cried at once.

There was a terrible sound outside the mobile suit, and the VICTIM wheeled away, screeching in pain.

Vega almost smiled. But before he got the chance…

"Sonic Disrupter failing. Danger. Three VICTIM are approaching. Type C, Unarmed.

The VICTIM were indeed returning, but even faster than before.

Vega swallowed. "Weapons?"

"Flamethrower, Rear Blades, and Sniper Shot."

He started to ask for the Sniper Shot, then cursed. The VICTIM were most likely moving too fast for that, and suit was too damaged to move fast enough for Vega. He suddenly missed Berserk Fury a great deal. "Flamethrower!"

Sparkling blue flames flew from the right arm , driving back the nearest VICTIM. At once, the other two came in low, knocking the aim off. The first charged again, connecting with a very solid headbutt that sent the mobile suit spinning.

Vega smiled mysteriously. "Flamethrower."

The flames shot out again, but as the mobile suit was spinning, a spiral of blue flames was formed, effectively keeping the VICTIM away…for the moment.

Just then, a voice broke through Vega's concentration. "Hey, kid! You in there?! Say something!"

Vega frowned. "Duo?" he asked slowly.

Sure enough, the blazing green eyes of the Deathscythe Hell Gundam came into view a few yards away. "Obscura?! What are you doing in there?!"

"Oh, just getting pummeled. No need to be alarmed or anything…"

"Are you nuts?! Get out of there!"

Vega smirked. "Love to, but I couldn't just leave my guests unattended. What kind of host would I be?"

"Just shut up and don't move!" Duo snapped.

Soon there was another blazing green…that of the Gundam's beam scythe as it neatly sliced a VICTIM in two.

The remaining VICTIM took one look at their fallen comrade and fled into the darkness, screeching all the while.

Vega sighed and leaned back in what passed for a seat. "Thanks, Duo. I owe you…well, more than one. A thousand, I guess."

"A million," Duo said evenly. "You alone in there?"

"No. There's a kid my age. He looked pretty bad, but I didn't have time to focus on him."

"How'd you even get in there, Obscura?"

"It wasn't my choice. Ryoko said she was taking me to training, and next thing I know, those VICTIM were trying to eat me."

"Well, lesson one, kid. Never trust Ryoko."

Vega smirked. "Funny, I thought you'd say I shouldn't trust you."

Duo chuckled. "That's lesson two…"

* * * * *

Though he was a little worried about the white mobile suit's (he remembered Duo calling it an Ingrid) pilot, Vega was far too tired to do much but fall asleep. But when he reached his room, he found he couldn't even do that. At least, not by himself.

Hotaru was sitting on his bed, looking worried and absolutely sickly. The moment she spotted him, Vega couldn't seem to pry her arms from around his neck. Not that he tried all that hard.

"I was so worried about you!" Hotaru sobbed, clutching him tightly.

"I'm okay, Hotaru," Vega replied, patting her back awkwardly. "Really. I didn't even get hurt."

"But you could've been killed!" she wailed.

Vega decided not to point out that he (and probably her, too) was dead. She'd been here longer; maybe she knew something he didn't. "But I wasn't. Duo showed up at the last minute and saved me."

Hotaru paused and released him. "He did?" she asked, clearly shocked.

"Yeah, I couldn't believe it either. But I think he was more concerned about the pilot, not me."

"Did he say anything afterwards?"

"Yeah, we insulted each other for a bit, and then he cut the Ingrid in two."


"Apparently, that was my training: getting it back here in one-well, two, I mean-pieces. It wasn't official, but Duo swore to me that he'd tell Death about it. I actually believed him, for some reason." Then he noticed the look on Hotaru's face. "Oh, don't yell at him. It was actually kind of challenging. I haven't had a real challenge for a few days now. I was losing my touch."

Some of Hotaru's color returned, but not much of it. "Duo wouldn't lie about the queen, but Vega…aren't you MAD?"

He shrugged. "Nope. I'm too lucky to be somewhat alive to be mad. Funny how that works out."

Hotaru shook her head, then looked at his shoulder. "Oh. Did Oscuro help?"

"Help?" Vega glanced at Oscuro, who was sitting very still with its eyes closed. He got the impression that the cabbit was sleeping. "Well, it bit me to make me open my eyes at first, but that's about it."

Hotaru really looked surprised now. "It didn't DO anything?" she pressed.

"Unless you count the scowling, but it's always like that, I think. Why, what was it supposed to do?"

"Well…help," Hotaru said hesitantly. "Maybe it doesn't like you…"

"Well, no one forced it to stay on my shoulder. It's had plenty of chances to jump off." He poked the cabbit's back experimentally.

Oscuro opened one yellow eye, yowled in annoyance, and went back to sleep.

"Maybe it's sick," Hotaru murmured. "I can check it for you, if you like."

"You mean if it likes," Vega corrected.

Hotaru smiled slightly. "Right."

* * * * *

After word of his training incident got out, life changed dramatically for Vega at the base. People he didn't know (and there were quite a few) kept coming over to shake his hand or congratulate him. Others wanted to pet Oscuro and nearly walked away minus a few fingers.

Ryoko hadn't really apologized for the incident, either. In fact, she'd said that Vega should thank her making him so popular. Vega decided that she'd assumed he could handle himself. It wasn't necessarily true, but it got him through the day.

Duo's change in attitude was probably the most welcome, though. While he never actually admitted to liking Vega, it was generally assumed that Vega had proven himself to be a fantastic pilot-Gundam level, even. But instead of seeing Vega as a friend, Duo now saw him as something of a friendly rival. Vega was just glad to be seen as anything other than a villain out to steal Hotaru's heart.

In truth, Vega had never felt anything even remotely close to being romantic when he was with Hotaru. He had never been fond of girls when he was alive, as nearly all of his time was spent in battles. Most of his opponents had been male, anyway, and they never lasted long enough to have much of an effect on him. Sarah was the only female he'd had significant contact with, but she was his permanent mother figure. The only woman Vega really felt attracted to was Death, but he liked to think of it as adamant devotion. Besides, nearly everyone he met was fiercely protective of the queen's name.

Romance itself was a strange concept to Vega. As with most things he didn't understand, he tried to look at it from a battle standpoint. Love was the battle, girls were the enemy, and the object was not to fall prisoner to their sweet smiles and escape with as much as your wits intact as was possible.

But it wasn't like that at all with Hotaru. Although she was delicate, soft-spoken, and kind, Vega had no desire to run from her. It wasn't because he was in love with her, but because he found her terribly interesting. She always radiated that strange power that he never got a chance to see, and he kept searching for clues to her mystery. Aside from that, Hotaru seemed to know everything about death, the afterlife, and rebirth. Vega always had questions for her, which she answered almost automatically. It was helpful, but a bit strange, to say the least.

The only worrisome part of Vega's life now was the injured Ingrid pilot. Though his wounds had healed almost overnight, the boy had yet to regain consciousness, even nearly two months after the encounter. His hair had turned a healthy, spiky brown, putting many people in mind of Heero (though he was definitely not fond of the comparison). Vega visited the Ingrid pilot often, and Hotaru sometimes went with him. Many times they found Yugi sitting with him, and on a few rare occasions, even Ryoko would stand guard by his bed. But knowledgeable as she was on procedures, even Hotaru couldn't explain why.

Vega wasn't sure whether it was sheer boredom or adaptation, but after a few weeks of riding around on his shoulder, Oscuro was much more pleasant to have around. Of course, that only meant it didn't scowl as much. Vega found that if scratched in the right place by the right people, Oscuro would actually purr contentedly. Although the `right people' was limited to Vega, Hotaru, and Death herself. Aside from that, Death was the only person other than Vega that could pet Oscuro whenever she wanted.

He'd also decided that Oscuro was definitely male. There was no real evidence to support this decision, but it was hard to imagine a girl riding into battle with him. Oscuro never offered an opinion on this, but always responded when Vega said something like, "Let's go, boy."

* * * * *

Much to Vega's surprise, there wasn't a big demand for him on missions. Usually it was Heero or Duo or both that got sent out, and Ryoko was hardly ever around; she seemed to live in battle. Even Hotaru seemed to leave the base more than Vega, which only added to her mystery.

But Vega was not bitter about it in the least. He spent his free time talking to Death, playing with Oscuro, and working on Berserk Fury. The base was loaded with raw materials especially for upgrading mobile suits, and his Ultimate X Zoid was no exception. Within a few short months, the Berserk Fury was hardly recognizable as the runner-up for the Royal Cup.

Vega found that by melting down Gundanium and mixing it with a crimson, glowing liquid only known as Dragonite, he could create the perfect body paint for Berserk Fury. The result was a dark, dark black with even more armor capabilities. He'd also installed a cloaking device that made his Zoid all but invisible in space.

For all its improvements, though, Vega rarely got to test them in true battles. Occasionally, he was assigned one-man missions that proved all too easy, but might've been challenging for a lesser pilot. He'd practically begged Heero to let him install the ZERO system so he could at least practice, but the Gundam pilot had refused. "You've got a ZERO system in your head," he'd replied. "Just because it doesn't make you lose yourself in battle doesn't mean it isn't as effective."

Duo seemed to understand Vega's plight, and sparred with him whenever possible, in and out of their robotic partners. Vega had never been forced to fight with his hands, and it was quite a challenge, especially with Duo's training. He often walked away with rather large bruises, but Duo never apologized for them. "Think of it this way," he'd always say with a cocky grin. "With me, you get bruises. With Heero, it'd be broken limbs, and I don't think you could pop them back into place."

* * * * *

After a particularly painful sparring session with Duo (he hadn't been on a mission lately, and it was definitely getting to him), Vega decided to visit the Ingrid pilot. Hotaru had gone on a mission with Heero, so he knew better than to look for her. As usual, Oscuro was his only companion.

The pilot's color had improved greatly, and it was predicted (by Yugi) that he could wake up at any time. However, when the boy sat up as soon as Vega walked in, he thought it was a little too convenient, not to mention downright startling.

"Hey," Vega said cautiously, staying where he was.

"What…where…where are the VICTIM?" the pilot asked anxiously.

"Gone. You were rescued. Barely."

The pilot peered closely at him. "You…you were there…in the Ingrid. How did you…?"

"A lot of luck." Vega paused. "How do you feel?"

"Confused…frightened…alone. I guess that's normal…"

Vega held out his hand and introduced himself.

"I'm…Zero," the pilot said slowly, shaking his hand. "My name is Zero Enna."

"Interesting tattoo you've got there," Vega noted, nodding at the stylized 88 on Zero's arm.

"It's more of an ID number they scan on G.O.A.," Zero replied.

"GOA? What's that?"

"Goddess Operators Academy. Like flight school for Ingrid pilots, only harder than it sounds."

Duo suddenly burst into the room. "Zero! Yugi told me you woke up, but I had to see it for myself."

A light of recognition seemed to come into Zero's eyes. "Duo? What is this place? Where you the one who saved me?"

"This place is everywhere and nowhere," Duo replied with a grin. "As for saving you, I only helped. Vega kept the VICTIM off you until I got there."

"But how?" Zero asked, turning to look at Vega. "You're not a Candidate, are you?"

"Not that I know of," Vega replied. "The computer did most of the work, really."

"Figures," Duo said. "It probably just tapped into your spirit energy."

"Um…okay," Vega muttered.

Duo rolled his eyes. "Well, you get tons more of the stuff, once you become one of us. Didn't anyone tell you that?"

Vega glared at him. "Sorry, I must've missed it. What page was that on in the `So You're Undead' handbook?"

"What, you think we just use our Gundams on every mission?"

"In a word? YES!"

Duo smacked his forehead. "Man, no wonder I always beat you so bad. If I'd known you weren't even using spirit energy…"

"You would've just beat me up worse."

Duo grinned. "Yeah, actually…"

* * * * *

"So this class will teach me everything I need to know about spirit energy?" Vega asked as he and Duo walked down the corridor.

Duo nodded. "It may be more difficult for you, since you weren't a physical fighter when you were alive. But once you get the hang of it, it's easy."

"I bet everything's easy for Gundam pilots."

"No way. Everything's easy for me," Duo replied. "The rest can't get by on looks alone."

Vega rolled her eyes. "Just tell me you're not teaching the class."

"No, we've got real experts for that. And before I forget, no hitting on the teacher."

"I'll be a little too busy learning for that. Besides, I don't hit anything that isn't trying to defeat me."

"Well, keep it that way." Duo stopped by a large, steel door. "Here's the class. And don't be a show-off."

"I can't. I don't even think I have any spirit energy."

Duo just smiled and pushed the door open.

Vega walked into a dark room with various computers, gadgets, and bright lights scattered all over the place. From what he could tell, it was more of a lab than anything else. A very large, cluttered lab, but impressive all the same.

Then he spotted a group of people his age sitting on large shipping crates. One of them was wearing a black jumpsuit with 88 sketched in white on the breast.


The Ingrid pilot looked up and smiled nervously. "Oh, hey, Vega. You're in here, too?"

"Looks like it," Vega answered, sitting next to him. "Anything wrong?"

"I guess the whole being dead thing is getting to me," Zero muttered. "I mean, all my friends are back at G.O.A. The only person I know here is Duo."

"It gets better, once you have a cabbit. Then you'll have someone to talk to. Right, Oscuro?"

Oscuro gave Zero an uninterested glare.

"Well, they're not all as stuck-up as mine," Vega added. "Don't worry, you'll be fine."

"If you say so," Zero sighed, but he didn't sound very confident.

Just then, Vega spotted a very familiar girl near the front of the lab. Her back was turned, but he would've known her anywhere. As she came closer, he called hesitantly, "Hotaru?"

She turned to face him so quickly, a few strands of black hair whipped against her cheek, but it was definitely her. "Vega! What are you doing down here?"

"Apparently, I don't know a thing about spirit energy. Is it hard for you?"

"Well…not exactly," Hotaru said, blushing a bit.

"Then why are you here?"

Hotaru giggled shyly. "Well, I'll show you." With that, she walked to the front of the classroom and said, "Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Hotaru Tomoe, and I'll be your teacher for the day."

Vega nearly fell off his crate in shock.

"Accessing your individual spirit energies may prove difficult for some at first, but you will all eventually learn to do so. Of course, I'll help anyone who requires assistance the best I can." She paused as someone's hand went up. "Yes?"

A boy stood up. "Um…no offense, but…aren't you a little young to be teaching us?"

Hotaru smiled. "I'm much older than I look. Now, if you're so certain that I don't know what I'm doing, I'll put it like this. Anyone who can do this right now has permission to skip the class today." Hotaru held out her hand, and a long, staff-like weapon with a double-pronged blade on one end appeared in it.

This display was met with complete silence.

"Well, I'm assuming everyone needs help in that area. May I move on, please?"

The boy who had spoken slowly nodded, his face pale.

"Thank you. In order to access your spirit energy, the first step is to think of one thing that makes you feel loved, one that makes you feel safe, and one that makes you feel courageous. Once you have all three in mind, raise your hand and I'll come around to help you."

Vega had his three rather quickly, but Hotaru started on the other side of the lab, so he passed the time by stroking Oscuro.

Suddenly, a pair of green eyes appeared in front of him. "That's a very interesting cabbit you have there."

Vega blinked, only to find a young woman with an alarming amount of red hair peering at Oscuro. "Oh. Thanks."

"May I?" she asked politely.

"Well…be careful. He can be picky about who handles him."

"I think he'll like me just fine." She reached over and scratched Oscuro's chin, cooing softly. "Oh, he's such a cutie!"

Oscuro purred loudly and sprang into the woman's bushy red hair.

Vega gaped. "That's amazing. I've never seen him react to anyone like that except the queen."

"I have a way with them," she replied, pulling a carrot out of her pocket and offering it to Oscuro. "Well, you must be Vega. Hotaru's told me SO much about you."

"Only good things, I hope?"

The woman smiled. "Oh, goodness, yes. I feel like I know you already. It's always `Vega said this today' or `Vega did that at lunch' with that girl. Never really stops talking about you…which is weird, considering she never said much at all before you got here." She paused and smirked. "Imagine me, calling someone weird…"

Vega was obviously shocked by that revelation, but tried not to show it, in case Hotaru overhead. "Um…I don't think I know your name, Miss…?"

She waved a hand dismissively. "None of that, now. Just Washu will do. Or Professor, if you must."

"What do you teach?"

"What DON'T I teach?" Washu countered with a smile.

"Er…right. I don't suppose you know anything about spirit energy?"

"Oh, plenty. But I wouldn't want to steal Hotaru's students from her. Especially not YOU. I doubt she'd ever forgive me for that."

Vega was certain that he was blushing now, and risked a glance at Hotaru. She was helping a girl next to Zero now, but Hotaru glanced up and flashed him a bright smile. Vega turned away quickly.

"Well, I'd better get going," Washu said after a moment. She plucked Oscuro off her head and set him on Vega's shoulder. "You're taking good care of him, but make sure you polish his jewel. Makes them feel handsome, you know."

"No, I didn't," Vega replied, shaking her hand. "Thanks, Washu."

"Anytime, dear. Come and visit me in my lab sometime. I'm sure we'd have much to talk about."

Washu didn't walk away so much as she faded from sight. Vega was starting to wonder if she was a ghost of some sort…and then remembered Ryoko had done much the same thing. Now that he thought about it, their hair was quite similar…

Suddenly, a hand touched his shoulder. "Vega?" Hotaru asked, blinking as she looked at him.

He stared at her, a strange, warm feeling spreading through his body. "Yes?"

"Are you ready?" She sounded puzzled and concerned all at once.

Vega continued to stare, wondering how she'd finished with Zero so quickly. "Huh? Oh, right. Ready." He waited for her to remove her hand…but she didn't.

"I want you to picture the thing that makes you feel loved," she said quietly.

"Okay. It's-"

Hotaru's finger flew to his lips. "No! You can't tell me what it is!"

Vega blinked. "I can't?"

"Shouldn't," she corrected, removing her finger. "Just picture it, but don't tell me."

Vega closed his eyes and allowed Sarah's face to form in his mind.

"Do you have it?" asked a soft voice in his ear.

Vega resisted the urge to tremble. Hotaru had been very close to his ear, and he could feel her warm breath lingering there. He nodded stiffly.

"Good. Now, focus on it. Think of how much it means to you, how it makes you feel inside."

Vega thought of his visit to Sarah, and wondered what she might be doing now. He suddenly had a vision of her shaking hands with Doc Tauros.

"Open your eyes, Vega."

Vega did so and gasped. There was a thin, glowing aura of crimson surrounding his body. It seemed to be originating from his heart. Something occurred to him, and he looked at Hotaru's hand on his shoulder. It was giving off sparkling, violet waves, which turned to a solid black when they met his energy.

Oscuro suddenly yowled sharply, and Vega's aura vanished.

For some reason, Vega felt exhausted, and nearly fell off the crate.

"Vega?" Hotaru placed her hands on his shoulders. "Are you okay?"

"Sleepy," he murmured before pitching forward.

* * * * *

Vega woke up when something warm and soft brushed his forehead gently. He suspected strongly that it was a hand, and he had a pretty good idea of whom it belonged to. It was another few minutes before he dared to open his eyes.

Hotaru's violet eyes locked onto his brown ones. "How do you feel?"

"Better," he said after a moment, confused as to why she was towering over him in that odd manner. The realization that his head was in her lap came seconds later, and it was all he could do to keep from blushing.

"Zero helped me carry you back to your room," Hotaru said, glancing at some point beyond his vision.

There was a quiet snore from close by, and Vega knew that Zero had fallen asleep. "What time is it?"

"Just after midnight," Hotaru replied.

"You stayed with me the whole time?"

Hotaru's cheeks flushed a bit. "I wanted to be sure you were okay. Sometimes the first session can be quite draining."

"So did I fail?"

Hotaru smiled. "No, silly. You just got tired. I can cover the other two steps with you later."

"How'd Zero do?"

"Very well. He's got a gift for this, I think."

"So, if you were going to grade us…"

"You'd get an A for effort," Hotaru said firmly.

Vega stared at her for a long moment, taking in the shape of her face.

"What?" Hotaru asked softly, looking confused.

"Hotaru…I was wondering…"

Hotaru suddenly looked very nervous…or perhaps she was excited. "Yes?"

"How'd you learn so much about spirit energy?"

Whatever Hotaru was feeling, it faded instantly, and Vega could see disappointment in her eyes.

"I've…had a lot of practice," she murmured. Then she smiled weakly. "I should go. You need your rest."

Vega pouted. "And here I thought you enjoyed my company."

Hotaru's eyes widened in alarm. "No, I do! But I-" She caught herself, blushing furiously.

Vega smiled and brought her hand to his lips in a gentle kiss. "I like having you around, too."

Hotaru looked genuinely touched. "But…I really do have to go, Vega," she said, sounding extremely sorry.

Vega sat up enough so she could stand, then caught her hand again as she started to move away. "Hotaru, wait. I need to thank you."

"For what?" she asked, turning back to look at him.

"For everything, really…but mainly, for being my friend." He took a deep breath. "I never had any friends when I was alive. Just rivals, really. You were my first real friend. Ever."

"You say it like I'm not anymore," Hotaru murmured, smiling at him.

"Well, now I'm promoting you to best friend. Unless you decline the position, of course."

"What if I did?"

Vega grinned. "You can't. The pay's better."

Hotaru giggled. "Fine, but I still have to go."

"Yes, you keep telling me that. But we haven't made your promotion official yet."

"You've already got my hand, Vega, and I would like it back eventually."

"I'll return it once I do this." With that, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her.

Hotaru froze, then slipped her arms around his neck. "You planned this, didn't you?"

"Just came up with it a minute ago."

"Vega, you're going to make me late. Honestly, couldn't you have done this when we had more time?"

"I was too busy fainting."

"Very funny. The queen's going to come looking for me soon."

"All right." Vega let her go and smiled. "Oh, almost forgot."

"What?" Hotaru asked warily.

Vega cupped her face in his hands and kissed her forehead. "Good night."

"Um…was I not supposed to see that?" Zero suddenly asked from the corner.

Vega glanced at him, then turned to see Hotaru hurrying out of the room. He couldn't tell, but he had the distinct impression that she was blushing.

"So," Zero said slowly as he strolled over, sounding like someone who'd just witnessed some excellent blackmail material. "Are you this friendly with all the teachers? I could use a good spot on the grading curve…"