A/N: Here's Part 2 of chapter 17. I repeat; I have split up chapter 17 into two parts. Many people have overlooked the first part and went to this chapter directly (sigh), so don't make the same mistake. If you love it, please drop me a love note.


by Anne Lindain writing as Foxdance

First published on 26 May 2003 at FictionPress

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Uploaded 25 April 2005; Rated PG-13

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If only night could hold you where I can see you

Then let me never ever wake again

And maybe tonight, we'll fly so far away

We'll be lost before the dawn...

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17: Before the Dawn

(Part B)

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The heavy footfalls of his pursuer thudded like war drums on Mary's ears. The egotistical Iwashi did not even bother to exert some skill on stealth, so confident that he would catch his prey. The boy couldn't blame him; Iwashi was, after all, the top gun of covert operations and the right hand of Drew Jackson.

Bullets continued to rain haphazardly, and Mary wondered just how long his luck would stretch before one of the metal demons finally blew through his brain.

He hated running, or any activity that involved heavy physical exertion. He'd always been more comfortable working in the lab with chemicals, enjoying the preparation more than actual usage for assassination. But while physical assault was not his expertise, the ATP 2006 boot camp had built some strength into his gaunt body, at least enough to allow a quick escape once his tasks have been accomplished – normally the injection of toxin into an unsuspecting target's bloodstream, or the release of fatal chemical fumes into a building's ventilation system. It did not, however, include dodging bullets from his superior officer, who was a combat expert and could run as fast as an antelope. Damn it, that man had taught him how to hold a gun.

He recalled that for brief time after release from the ATP, his main task was to religiously guard Suzanne Midou's safety. Even though it included the embarrassing task of dressing up as a girl and attending her elitist boarding school in Switzerland as her classmate and cousin, he remembered those times as the untroubled days when he felt he had purpose - it was to watch over the sweet little girl who called him her "fairy prince" with love in her eyes. He'd never had to shed blood then, for the need scarcely arose, and she made sure to keep his hands clean. She'd make sure that the toxins he used were only near-fatal, and that he never carry a loaded gun. She hated everything violent or cruel. She still did.

Now, his mission was to bring death upon the people who threaten his Suzy…and consequently, others more. Phaedrus had been right; once the toxin seeps into the underground reserves, the rest of Tainan will find strains of deadly Sarin in their tap water and the very air they breath. Suzy will disapprove, he was sure, but long ago he'd pledged his life to protecting hers, even at the expense of his death, and even worst, her disappointment in him.

He felt sharp pain slash through his arm, and realized with a wince that the bullets were finally hitting their mark. Iwashi's sharp laugh echoed told him that the bastard had been missing most of his shots on purpose to prolong a hunt he obviously enjoyed. Knowing him, he'd inflict that fatal wound at the last possible minute.

Or not, he thought with some alarm as another whizzed past his ear, brushing past the soft strawberry curls that Suzy loved so much to touch… and knew then that he would die tonight.

But not before he took the whole damn squadron with him.

Suzy, he called in his head, knowing she could hear him. I'm sorry, but I can't let them hurt you.

The sprinkler tank was finally at arm's reach, tonight's encore. Scorching agony spread through his torso and he arched his body back; two more bullets had found him, one probably having ruptured his lungs. But these he ignored as his hand reached for the lever…

Just a little more!

The sound of exploding glass reached his ear. Startled, he looked up, his hand momentarily slipping off the lever. And there she was, an angel swathed in a white glow descending upon him, bits of stars sparkling surrounding her. Before he knew it, he was wrenched off the tank, thrown back by some unseen force until his back smashed against a wall.

Mary's violet eyes clouded with pain as he watched, in slow motion, Suzy's dainty foot gracefully touch the lawn, her sleeping robe fluttering about her like wings. Shards of glass fell upon her, about her, and around her, winking mirrors reflecting the moonlight. He realized that she had flown through the third floor window to catch him before he brought doom upon her house and the county.

"I'm sorry, but I can't let you do that."

Blood pooled in his mouth and spilled over his half-open lips. He felt the sudden urge to laugh, but it would hurt too much to do so. Absently he saw Iwashi come to a stop several meters away, his mouth agape at what had just transpired.

"Little Suzanne!" Iwashi began in amazement and glee. "Whoa, I'm just blown away. Thanks for finishing the job and --"

He never managed to finish. Suzanne turned furious white eyes at her uncle's minion and paralyzed him on the spot. And then, she began to suffocate him. She held him in place, frozen and gasping for air, until he wet himself and passed out. He fell with his eyes bulging and his tongue lolling out disgustingly.

As if she couldn't stand the sight of what she had done, Suu closed her eyes and let her head droop while her hands fisted at her sides. "I am really… disappointed…"

"I know." Mary gave a soft smile that was marred by the red liquid trickling from his mouth. "I won't ask you to… forgive me… but… I…"

She approached him then, ever so slowly, while he held his gaze transfixed at the glorious way her blank white eyes darkened back to that soft doe color. She cupped his cheeks with her small hands and brushed away the blood on his lips with her thumb. "My fairy prince… You love me so much."

His eyes widened, brilliant amethysts slightly teary. He nodded.

"I am disappointed in myself," she finally clarified in that mysteriously husky voice, drawing away. "I should have taken better care of my household. Of my family, my strays… You. I've always made sure to keep your hands clean despite what you did for a living. I still believe bloodshed is avoidable. You, however, believe it to be inevitable, but then again, your soul is too young to understand me, my fairy prince." She then gave him a heart wrenchingly sweet, childish grin. "I'll fix things, so don't die, okay, Carrick?"

Mary blinked. "C-c-carrick?"

"It's the name of the fairy prince in the Celtic folklores. It's also the name I call you in my head. You don't have a real name, right? I didn't tell you before because I wasn't sure you'd like it if I named you like…like a pet or something, but I really just like the name." A wistful expression on her youthful face, she turned, and began to stroll away. "I thought of that name the day I begged my uncle for your freedom, and brought you into my house. Don't forget it, okay? Ja ne, Carrick."

Carrick. The fifteen-year-old boy could not believe his ears. Indeed, it was the name of the fairy prince from his hometown's old tales. He wanted to ponder the wonder of finally having a name, and from Suzy no less, but his vision had begun to waver. He felt the blood seeping into his lungs, and knew that soon he would cease to breathe, drowned from the inside.

Precariously close to death, he felt peace descend upon him like a warm blanket, and decided that he didn't mind dying like this at all.

Another explosion echoed in the distance, but this time it was far from the gates. Phaedrus managed to reach the porch and climb up the drainpipes before the east wing's roof collapsed beneath a detonated plastique set by the infiltration team. The intruders in black threw a rope into the fissure and slid down, and Phaedrus could do naught else but follow and disable them before the household could evacuate. By his estimates, the operatives had dropped into the library, which thankfully was relatively far away from the sleeping quarters.

Phaedrus waited until the operatives had moved out before descending after them. He figured that he had a greater chance of overcoming their superior number if he attacked discretely from the back, taking them out one by one as they moved forward. Smoothly he landed on the library. He thanked the thick Aubusson carpeting for muffling his descent and tiptoed out after the trespassers.

He thought no one had detected him; next to Kira, he used to be the best stealth agent in the organization. Yet almost as soon as he stepped into the hallway, he felt his muscles contract violently before being paralyzed completely.

The bronze wall sconces flickered faintly, casting soft shadows on Phaedrus's angular face as it contorted with pain. With a grunt, he fell limply against wall and slid to the floor. As his cheek thumped against the polished parquet floor, Phaedrus silently watched a shiny pair of expensive Italian loafers approach him in relaxed, confident strides. He forced his eye muscles to stare upwards.

It was Ryouko Midou, gazing down on him with a berating frown.

"Phaedrus Aletheia. Look at your pathetic self, writhing on the floor. Didn't I warn you that you will regret your abandonment of the Dragon?" The gray-haired leader of the world's largest underground organization knowingly flexed his fingers in a grasping movement, and observed as Phaedrus shuddered and coughed as his windpipe contracted in response. Like all of the second children of the Midou main family, he possessed the paranormal gifts his nephew Suzanne was born with. "I never wanted to see you die like this, but you leave me no choice. It is my duty to save humanity, and you a hindrance to my noble goal."

Tai was awakened by the loud, grating wail of the metal garage door rising.

Several feet away, Kira was on a small mobile phone murmuring in that distinctly low, controlled voice as he scanned rows and rows of vehicles underneath glaring fluorescent lights. He strode past Lamborghinis, BMWs, Jaguars, and Range Rovers in dark colors and customized bullet-proof armor, his gaze dismissive. Too large, too bulky, not fast enough. He finally stopped before a row of motorcycles. They had always been his preference because of their agility and inconspicuousness. Moreover, it was the only vehicle that could take the shortcut. He ended the call with a snap of his folding phone, and wrenched the cover off a shiny black Ducati.

As if he'd known the exact moment she awoke, he turned his metal gaze on her, beckoning her. She nodded, lifted herself off the dusty crate he lad lain her upon to hurry after him… only to trip and fall on her face. Wincing, she turned puzzled eyes at the strange shoes she wore.

"How come my slippers have twigs sticking out of them?" she asked in a dazed voice.

"You're in shock," Kira observed wryly. "Snap out of it." Hastily, he lifted her off the floor, plunked her astraddle the leather seat, and showed her where to tuck her high heels to maintain balance before settling in front of her.

"Where are we?"

"Sshh. Listen carefully. They've infiltrated the house. We'll take the underground escape route to bypass the surrounding regiments, and exit on a dirt road. It'll be a rough ride." He twisted around and plunked his helmet over her disheveled mop of hair. "From there we'll slip past old abandoned back-door roads trucks used to haul out incoming cargo. Hopefully we'll reach the Western District and lose ourselves in the night crowd."

She nodded, trying to understand what he said, but her mind was still too muddled, too stunned.

When the powerful engine rumbled and roared, her hands automatically snaked around his muscled torso and fearlessly held on. Beneath the pale cast of fluorescent lights, they flew past the vehicles at top speed, and then through a tunnel built specifically for escape. The path was narrow and unlighted, the walls lined only with an iridescent green stripe to mark bends and turns. Eventually the channel disembarked into a steep and rocky downhill path. The drive was so jarring that Tai had to clamp her teeth together to avoid accidentally biting off her tongue.

Kira expertly maneuvered the bike around trees with gnarled branches, over upturned roots, and through a shallow mud-filled rut without as much as slowing down. It seemed forever before the motorcycle vaulted off a low plateau and landed on a slightly elevated asphalt road. The wheels screeched in protest as Kira pulled the motorcycle to a sharp turn just in time to avoid soaring past the edge of a fenced road that sawed off into a sheer cliff. Tai couldn't help uttering a sharp scream, but Kira remained stoic, efficiently steering them back into the middle of the road without halting. He wrung the handles and accelerated down the freeway.

The route was the conventional path leading up to the Midou Manor. Downwards, it connected to Xi Men Road, the expressway straddling just between the Western and Central District. But before reaching that road, they would pass through downtown Western District. According to Kira, the Western District was famous for its nighttime shopping areas, restaurants, and discotheques. The evening crowd would be thick enough to swallow them into obscurity, and the Dragon would hesitate to assault them in such a high risk exposure area.

She had no doubt that Kira could get them to safety; after all, he had never failed her in that matter. But would it always be like this, perpetually running away? What of the people they had left behind each time they ran?

Her fingers, frozen from holding too tight, too long, dug at Kira's abdomen with vehemence. "Kira, stop!"

The mighty grumbling of the engine and the harsh air that rushed against them seemed to have swallowed her plea whole. She was surprised when Kira squeezed the breaks and pulled the high-speed vehicle to a sharp stop that almost sent her heart bursting through her chest.

"Kira," she appealed, suppressing the nasty bile creeping up her throat. "We can't just run! Your sister… Juno… We can't leave them there!"

She saw the veins in his jaw tense, felt his muscles stiffen. He had been thinking about it the entire time, no doubt. His sister meant the world to him, and leaving her like that was probably killing him.

"My uncle will not harm her; his one saving grace is that he adores her. Moreover, he…"


"He fears her," he murmured, his fingers running over a flat pane of black glass just below the speedometer. The touch screen LCD flickered to life, plotting landmarks and enemies in a virtual map covering a twenty kilometer radius. His brow furrowed when several red dots jumped closer and closer to their location. At the same time, he saw that the mansion was swamped with Dragon operatives. He noticed that Phaedrus's tag has disappeared off the radar, and so has Mary's. He suppressed a cuss to avoid alarming Tai.

"…fears her?" Tai echoed, confused.

In response, the engine growled as Kira revved it up, his agitation seeming to have flowed from his body to the machine underneath him. "Hold on. They've tracked us."

Off they flew again as Kira expended his anger through speed. Twice, the motorcycle wavered, and even Tai in her disoriented state sensed his doubt.

She bit her lip, torn once again. She was in danger, encroached all side by a battalion of zealous foot soldiers seeking an adversary they'll never kill. They turned to her, a defenseless woman who can bleed and reassure them that their war for not for naught.

Her life was a small price to pay for the greater good. It was certainly worth less than an innocent child's life.

"Kira, if you don't stop this instant, I'll throw myself off your metal horse!"

It sounded ludicrous even to her own ears.

Kira did not share her humor. The wheels screeched to a stop once again, spattering a frenzy of dirt and gravel as the vehicle struggled to suppress 200 kilometer per hour's worth of momentum. His head swung back, his steel gaze seemingly spearing her to immobility.

"Don't make this any harder than it already is!"

In reply, she hopped off the seat and proceeded to stomp away.

For a second he just sat there, stunned in disbelief at the fact that she would throw a tantrum in the middle of a crisis. He thrust a shower of windswept bangs away from his face and promptly dismounted after her. "Don't turn away from me, Tai. Damn you, don't--"

"Go back, Kira, or I swear on Zhang's grave, I'll never forgive you!" She yelled back, not even bothering to turn back as she quickened her steps.

He was fast, no doubt; before she could take another step, his strong hand had already managed to capture her wrist in a barnacle-like grip. It was painful, too painful. Surely this burst of fury would leave a mark in morning… if she managed to survive that long.

She paused in mid-stride, hung up that last thought. It seemed so unreal, so distant… yet her lip wavered from the anxiety of being near Death too often. She could only be so lucky to escape his scythe so many times.

She leaned back, suddenly exhausted. And just as she had known at the back of her mind, he was there to catch her, be her wall.

He sighed as he let her lean her back against his chest, his anger once again defeated by her sudden show of affection. His grip loosened, and slid down to envelope her hand instead, fingers intertwining with hers.

"Silly little fox. They could reach us in minutes."

"I know. I don't care. I can take care of myself, as opposed to your child of a sister. Go back now; you're wasting time holding me like this."

He had almost forgotten how obstinate she could be when she had her mind set. But Suu was not to be worried about. What was worrisome was the fact that a dozen armed men were closing in, and even he could not fend off a hundred bullets fired from all direction on an open space such as this.

The words that came out of his mouth next felt like they were torn out of him. "I'll come back for you."

She nodded as Kira tucked away her hair behind her ear and caressed the locks as if they were silk instead of the straggly, unflattering strips they had dried into during the ride.

"In the meantime, I run like madness itself and try to stay alive. Correct?"

He almost smiled at that. "Exactly," he murmured.

How the hell could she be so matter-of-fact about this when her life was in danger? How could she be so courageous as to ask him to leave her in the middle of nowhere for the sake of other people? But he was turning back not because she asked him to, but because he had to intercept their pursuers before they caught up with her. Still, it was almost physically painful to leave her like this. He turned back to his bike, trying to get away before he changed his mind.

He hesitated anyway, and on a sudden stroke of impulse that could only be attributed to temporary insanity, he yanked her by the arm towards him. It might have been the strain of that nightmare of an evening, or the heartbreaking way she could sacrifice her own safety for his sister, but when she'd clutched to his shoulders to regain her balance and looked up at him with those velvety ocher eyes, he knew that this kiss would taste sweeter than redemption itself.

Even in astonishment, she melted against him, the feel of her against him almost consuming what little gumption he had left. Her lips were softer than he remembered, and sent flashes of glittering sunshine, verdant canopies, and children's laughter languidly cruising through his head.

He pulled away too suddenly, too gruffly, for fear of losing himself to Zhang and his damnable memories of Tai.

"I'll find you," he promised as he mounted his Ducati. Tai's hand lingered inside his, and before he let it slip away, he tucked his cellular phone on her palm. He stomped once, and the engine was brought back to life.

"How?!" she yelled after him, but he was already racing away in a cloud of mist and saltwater air. Crestfallen, she let her head droop, and consequently found herself staring at the rectangular silver object he left her. She swiftly slipped it into her pocket. She'd inspect it later; for now, she had to concentrate on running as far away as possible.

"You'll find me," she murmured, pulling herself together. "I know you will."

The massive oak doors connecting the eastern wing to the lobby burst open, and the infamous Ryouko Midou marched in. The head of the White Dragon waved his imperial hand, and sent a dozen operatives rushing out all over the ballroom to secure the area.

Jackson Drew followed closely behind, alternately talking on the radio and barking orders at the squadron. "Spread out to all three wings and comb the perimeter. Find the control center of the failsafe and disable it. Scour the every nook cranny for the source of that strong spiritual energy, neutralize it, and send it back to the lab for investigation. And Jesus, be discreet – no more explosives. Jenkins, did you hear me? Put that plasticizer away! I'm going to wring Iwashi's neck for that stunt he pulled. Where the hell is that bastard anyway?"

Halfway across the massive expanse of the marble hall, Ryouko Midou raised a trembling hand to his head and began to massage his temple, bidding the throbbing headache at bay. His eyes half-closed, he bid a wing chair to slide towards him. He promptly sank on the velvet-upholstery, ignoring the flabbergasted expressions of some of his operatives. Normally he refrained from such petty showcase of his abilities, but today was anything by normal.

What was supposed to be a simple operation had become exasperatingly convoluted.

He had always had the target monitored, even back in Kyoto. She was live bait, and the Kitsune-onna couldn't possibly resist the scent of all that dormant spiritual energy, the remnant of her first possession. She would try to take the girl back, and it was crucial that the girl was killed before it could be reclaimed.

His instructions were simple: the moment the labs detect the concentrated energy that was the kistune within five kilometers from the girl, they must assassinate the target, preferably from afar via one of the four snipers positioned around the mansion. But somehow, the labs had not detected the fox demon, for its pulsating energy had been too faint to sense – disguised in a non-human body, perhaps, something the foe had not been too desperate to try before. The point was it had been too late when they spotted her; she had already entered her prey. Squad deployment had been equally delayed, and because of the resulting haste and panic, indiscreet.

But the biggest obstacle yet again was his one and only nephew and heir, Kira. The foolish boy had eloped with the target after she almost massacred him. He took a deep, steadying breath, and closed his eyes. The headache refused to leave, and throbbed with renewed vigor.

"Iwashi? Iwashi!" Drew yelled into his radio, his bald head slick with sweat. "Answer your radio, goddamn you!"

"I suspect he's somewhere outside, pitifully swimming in his own excrement," Ryouko placidly informed his operations director.

"W-What?" Drew sputtered, marching towards his boss.

"Ah, she was magnificent, my dear nice. She nearly strangled the bastard to death," Ryouko murmured, his eyes rising to stare at the massive double doors that served as the main entrance of his nephew's estate. "Speaking of which…"

The doors almost flew off its hinges. They slammed open with a thunderous bark, and with it came a wave of jarring energy that visibly swept throughout the ballroom. The intruders wobbled, almost fell over, except for Ryouko who calmly stood up, face alight with expectation.


The fourteen-year-old girl padded in barefoot, the hem of her cartoon-print pajamas brushing against the Aubusson carpet. Her sleeping robe fluttered riotously about her, reacting to her energy.

"Suzanne," Ryouko acknowledged with a warm smile. "How is my favorite niece?"

Suu shrugged, her eyes slightly discomfited by the cajoling endearment. Her chi calmed down, and her robe fell limply about her. She hugged herself, suddenly cold. "Uncle, I truly wish you hadn't done this."

"I feel the same way."

"No, you don't," the girl accused, walking closer. "You came into my parent's house with the intent to hurt my friends and family!"

Ryouko's gaze never faltered. "Though your tone is that of a child, you are mature enough to understand the situation. You know my reasons, and they are nothing short of noble--"

"You are cruel and inconsiderate," Suu interfered in a wobbly voice. "You claim that you are doing the right thing, when really, you have no idea what it is. Everything's wrong, it's all wrong. It has always been wrong…"

"Don't test my patience, child. You don't understand what you are saying."

The girl swallowed, trying to hold back her tears. She'd always been the one closest to her uncle. She had hoped that she could reach him one day, and make him understand, make him stop this senseless cycle, but his relentless crusade had made him self-righteous to the point of being blind to the truth.

She could not save her uncle after all.

Her lips trembled, and tears began to fall unbidden. She never wanted it to come to this, but…

"I am stronger than you, Uncle," she stated in a severe voice.

It was not a threat, but a statement of a fact. Ryouko understood that as well as its implications. It was one more twist, one more complication to his burgeoning problem.

"I know. You can certainly break every bone in my body if you will it so. But you are afraid for your captured friends, and your brother and his slut are under pursuit. You know that I can dispose of them just as easily as you can strike me down. Ah, you understand now, don't you? You have your powers, but I have an army who can track down your brother and that demon girl anywhere in the world. Don't look at me like that, sweet child; you pushed me to this. In any case, I know that you are too sweet and kind to attack your own Uncle anyway."

The last statement was declared softly, fondly. He loved this niece like the child he never had, not only because they shared the same gift, but because she was the only person who had ever shown him genuine affection. Unlike his departed brother and the impudent son he had sired, he was not going to allow his personal feelings to interfere with duty.

He was playing her. She knew it, and it only frustrated her more. "I will protect my family at all costs, Uncle."

"That girl is not family. She is a stranger who has brought danger to you…"

"She is my friend and I love her like a sister!"

Ryouko shook his head mournfully at the naiveté of the child. "So gullible, so soft-hearted…"

"Stop it, stop it, stop it!" She exploded. A wave of force accompanied the emotional cataclysm, and sent the room quivering. It created thin cracks on the walls, sent the operatives toppling to the floor, and made the lights flicker. Ryouko raised an arm and brushed it off, but not without a receiving a scratch at the back of hand.

"Hey. Don't let him make you cry, sweetheart."

The soft, husky voice startled Suu, made her swing around. Her lips lifted to a smile for a second before it pouted in anger. "Jun-chan! Why are you still here?!" she berated heatedly.

Leaning against the doorframe, Juno fixed a jaunty smile on his bruised mouth. Fresh in his pine green sweater and jeans, he looked like he'd just come from a shower instead of struggling back up the mansion after being sent down an escape chute against his will. The entire look, however, was ruined by his bruises, which looked harsh in the stark light of the crystal chandelier.

"I'm not leaving my partner in crime behind. Don't look so glum, Suu-ko. Go give that bastard a piece of your mind," he cheered on.

Drew raised an arm and cocked his magnum. The rest of the dozen or so operatives followed suit, aiming various assortments of arsenal towards Juno. "You shouldn't have come back. You wear our patience thin."

Suu's eyes paled, turned white. In an otherworldly voice, she announced, "You can try to shoot him, Drew-jii-san, but they will not reach him even half-way." She glared at Drew, and with a blink, wrenched away his gun to enunciate her point. One of the operatives, startled, became careless and unconsciously released a bullet, but the girl stopped this in midair, and waved it away with a turn of her head. Offended, she turned her stare at them, and pushed them back a good three feet as a warning.

"Enough!" Ryouko roared. "Drop your weapons; they are no match for her. Suzanne… You know how pointless this is. What do hope to achieve with this imprudence?"

"A deal!" she announced with a stubborn gleam in her eye. "Negotiate with me, Uncle."

"Negotiate what?" he barked irritably.

"Pull back. Leave my family alone. Cease the manhunt for Onii-chan and Tai-jie. It is only a temporary solution to an endless, repetitive dance. In exchange, I will put an end to this forever."

"Their life for… what, you will single-handedly dispose of Kitsune-onna? You have no idea what you are saying."

But she did. She had thought about this, and had long prepared a solution for this dilemma. To stop the needless deaths, to finally give this family peace. "I will capture the spirit as our ancestor Choi, the monk, had done!" she announced with confidence.

Her uncle guffawed. "Do not jest with me, Suzanne! It's not that simple. Other shamans of our generation had tried to redo the soul-sealing ceremony and failed. What makes you so sure that you, a mere child, could succeed?"

"I know that there has never been a shaman in the family stronger than I was since the time of Choi the monk. You also know that as well," she declared matter-of-factly. She searched his face for disagreement with that fact and found none, so she continued. "My mother had been studying a manner to repeat what he had done before the spirit escaped, and I would continue her work, follow the steps. It is almost complete. And… Tai-jie will help me. The spirit would seek her wherever she went, and I shall set a trap."

Ryouko's eyed narrowed suspiciously. "Are you telling me that you intend to use the girl that you are allegedly trying to protect as bait?"

"Yes, if it will keep her alive," Suu countered. "You will make sure of that, because protecting her could be our only salvation."

He shook his head, hardly believing what he was hearing. "You drive an audacious barter, and a dangerously risky one. Do you have any idea how many shamans have died trying to reconstruct this ceremony?"

"I do. Eleven so far, the last of which was your mother, Yan Mei-baa-chan."

His brows met in frustration. "And if you fail?"

"I won't. I swear it over my mother's grave." She gave him the same determined, glacial look that was reminiscent of Kira.

The two shamans stared at each other for a long stretch of time. They both knew it was a far shot, but still…

"If you fail, we will be placed in even greater danger," Ryouko pushed. "We want that girl on a short leash, on steady scrutiny. I want her on my radar at all times. The moment her soul is confirmed deposed, we will exterminate her, and no amount of begging or rebellion from you and your brother can stop it."

Suu glanced at Juno's stricken face, and then back at her uncle's challenging facade. Who was she to gamble with people's lives? Yet she knew that if she does not make this deal, there is no place on earth that the White Dragon would not pursue Tai-jie.

"Release Phaedrus. Call off the men who are after Tai-jie and my brother. Swear to never lay a hand on my family again, and you have a deal."

Her uncle shook his head in disbelief. "You have such faith that this girl would never lose herself to that demon again? You know that your proposed approach will rely on her ability to resist the fox as she had done tonight, something I personally attribute to luck. Remember this well: The moment she crumbles, so shall you."

"She is strong," Suu assured with absolute certainty. "Much more so than you or me. Tonight was proof of that. Now leave my house, uncle, before I throw all your men out into the sea. I will come to the lab tomorrow, so that we may begin preparations for the ceremony."

It could not be this easy, Juno thought as he watched his Father and the other operatives walk out the front door several minutes later. Something about it felt dreadfully wrong. When he chanced a glance at Suu and the stubborn jut of her chin, he could have sworn he saw a portent of death in her eyes.

A hundred pleas ran through his mind at that instant, but the most resonant were the simplest yet most desperate.

I love you. Don't do this. I love you so much...

Without a word, Juno fell to his knees before Suu and pulled her into heart-wrenching embrace.

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to be continued…

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Lyrics © Evanescence, "Before the Dawn"

download at http :rapidshare.de/ files/ 18886782/ evanescence-notforyourears-beforethedawn.mp3.html (remove spaces)

Obaa-chan – 'obaa' means grandmother, usually appended with the honorific '-san' or the less formal '-chan'. The entire term is sometimes appended to the grandmother's name, such "Yan Mei-baa-chan" where Yan Mei is the grandmother's name.
More Author's Notes

…And that wraps up chapter 17. Let me know what you think. Personally, I think my writing style changed yet again (hopefully not worse). I'll leave the judgment to you, so please let me hear your thoughts.

REVIEW! Please help motivate me to finish this! -sigh-