When I woke up, the face I saw before me was the last face I'd expected to see.
It was Solomon Goldsmith.
"You're finally awake, Kuga-san. I'm so glad."
I sat up groggily.
"Where am I?"
"You don't need to worry about that. All you need to know is that you're safe here."
"What happened?" Memories of being strapped to a chair surfaced and I shivered.
"You were kidnapped by the Searrs. I'm sure you remember at least that much. We rescued you and brought you here."
I gazed at him for a long time. "Every time I see you, Solomon Goldsmith, it's never in the best of circumstances. Who are you, really, and to whose side do you belong?"
"You have nothing to fear from me, Kuga-san. There's time enough for explanations later, but for now, you urgently need to rest."
I was tempted to argue, but already exhaustion was claiming me. I nodded reluctantly - and slept.
This time, when I woke up, there was a woman in the room with Solomon. He introduced her as Dr. Julia Silverstein.
"Your condition's largely stable now, though we'll still be keeping you under observation for a few days. As much as possible, try to stay in bed. It's difficult to anticipate what physiological changes could still occur and how they could affect you, so it's best not to move too much."
"Physiological changes?" I looked at them with a sudden wariness. "What physiological changes?"
Julia glanced at Solomon before replying. "Do you remember anything that happened to you between the time you were kidnapped and the moment you woke up here?"
I shook my head. "The only thing I remember was being strapped to a chair and then passing out. I don't recall anything else after that."
Julia hesitated. "The Searrs injected something into your bloodstream, and we're still not very sure what it is. It's caused some...changes, but nothing that's impaired your physical condition overall. Again, we need to monitor you for a few more days before we can say anything for sure."
I narrowed my eyes. "Why are you helping me? What's your interest in all of this?"
Julia smiled. "All Solomon and I are interested in is that the Searrs fail in what they're trying to do. Solomon will give you the explanations you need over the next few days. For now, I need to get back to another patient."
After she excused herself, Solomon seated himself next to my bed and asked:
"What do you know about vampires, Kuga-san?"
It took several sessions over the next few days - mostly because Julia's drugs limited my attention span - but Solomon did give me the explanations he promised. He told me about the history of the Chiroptera, their divisive war, their near extinction, and their resurrection following the interference of the Searrs. He told me of the Searrs' plans to vampirize the former HiMEs, the opposition he had mounted, and Shizuru's involvement in the war he had waged. He told me of her long months of painful training, of the ball she had engineered to trigger an attack, and of the measures they had taken to attempt to avert the disaster that had nevertheless befallen that night. At the mention of Fumi-san's name, I grew pale.
"So all this time...she knew what was going on??"
Solomon shook his head. "Not everything; certainly not much. After Shizuru's...death, I asked Fumi-san to keep her silence. We had all agreed that there was nothing to be gained by having the HiMEs find out what the Searrs were attempting - at least for the time being."
I shook with anger. "None of you had the right to decide that for us! We could have done something - helped you in this war! This war isn't even about you, goddammit, it's about me and my friends, and you left us all in the dark!"
Solomon looked at me steadily. "What could you have done, Kuga-san? What could any of you have done? None of you have any powers left, and none of your information sources have given you anything. The only thing any of you could have done was to go on living - as normally as you could. Would you really have denied your friends the ignorance that's allowed them to have the life they've had these past several months?"
Then in a quieter voice, he added. "And do you really think I could have borne the death of yet another innocent? I watched Shizuru die too, Kuga-san. One death was enough. Her death was far more than enough."
I turned away from him then, torn between rage and shame. Part of me wanted to give in to the anger - anger over why he and Shizuru had kept their crusade from me, anger over the incalculable risks she had taken on by joining him in his fight. But another part of me realized the hypocrisy of my own rage. In Shizuru's place, I would have done exactly the same thing. In my not too distant past, I had done exactly the same thing.
In a softer voice, I asked him. "So after her...death, what happened?"
Solomon looked away from me then and he seemed to wrestle with himself for some time.
"After Shizuru...died, the Searrs were quiet for a long time. Then new monsters appeared, preying on victims from the city's margins. It took us a while to realize that the attacks were merely experiments - that the Searrs were simply testing new breeds. In any case, we were determined to prevent more deaths, so we sent fighters of our own to patrol the city."
"So the vampire-hunter is one of you?"
Solomon hesitated. "Yes. What you call the vampire-hunter is one of us. On a very few occasions, the vampire-hunter was me. In any case, we were very successful in repelling the Searrs for quite a long while. The Searrs tried modifying their vampires to defeat us - the one they sent to abduct Yukino Kikukawa was a much better version of the monsters they'd used at the ball, for instance. But at the end of the day, an artificially developed Chiropteran will almost always be inferior to one of Chevalier blood. I think our very superiority was what forced them to change their strategy."
"'We can't fight this vampire with our vampires'," I quoted John Smith.
Solomon nodded. "Even after they had made their decision, they continued battling with us to give us an impression that their tactics hadn't changed. Of course, we'd increased our surveillance on the former HiMEs after the attempt on Kikukawa-san, but it was ultimately our failure to perceive the change in the Searrs' plans that led to your abduction. The night you were kidnapped, they sent several monsters to attack Mai Tokiha. While our forces were engaged, they cleverly abducted you using human agents. We found out what they'd intended too late. The moment they had you in, in fact, they withdrew from their attack on Tokiha-san."
"What did they want from me?" My voice was calm, but it barely masked my dread.
Solomon hesitated. "We have our...suspicions, but speculation will only make things worse. The reason Dr. Silverstein is here is because no other scientist in the world has studied Chiropterans as much as she has, and she knows more about suprahuman biochemistry than any other human being on the planet. If anyone can find out what was done to you, she will. And if anyone can possibly reverse what was done to you, it's her."
I leaned back and closed my eyes. I suddenly felt very, very tired. Just as Solomon was about to leave, I called out.
He looked at me questioningly. "Yes, Kuga-san?"
I looked away. "I didn't get to say this, that last time we met, but...thank you. Thank you for being Shizuru's friend during her...final months. It's a funny thing for me to say, but I'm glad that she had you right until the end."
He was silent for so long, that I looked up. After a moment, he opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind and shook his head. All he said was, "You have nothing to thank me for, Kuga-san. At least, not yet."
With that cryptic line, he left the room. Left it and left me to relive the anguish of Shizuru's death all over again.