Conflicts of Interest
A CLAMP Campus Detectives Fanfic
by Jaelle

The CLAMP Campus Detectives, 20 Masks, and the CLAMP Campus Cops Duklyon are all the property of CLAMP (oddly enough. I'd never have guessed from the names :-). No infringement on the rights of CLAMP is intended, indeed I wish to throw myself at their feet and beg them to write more of these stories. No profit is being made from this story, please don't sue me or I won't be able to afford to buy the CCD anime series. :-)


The sound of cicadas in the trees always relaxes me. Summertime is here. I can smell the tang of pollen in the air, and a cool breeze blows by me. I can almost taste the popsicles that I just _know_ Ijyuin-kun will bring into the School Council offices later this afternoon. It's that kind of day.

It reminds me of another day, now five years past when I first met the new centre of my universe. Nokoru Imonoyama-sempai, or Kaichou. He won't allow me to call him Imonoyama-sama, which is probably just as well. A) He doesn't need the added ego boost, B) It sounds rather ridiculous, and C) It's better that for now we keep our other relationship secret. It's easier to just be friends. And when you're 14 it's embarrassing to have to explain to your female admirers that your 13-year-old secretary also doubles as your bodyguard for life.

Where the hell _is_ Kaichou anyway? I thought I spotted him earlier, sneaking out the back door. Which is why I am now on this deserted road out the back of the CLAMP Campus. I don't care if he _is_ my "Lord and Master", he's got to do this paperwork TODAY!! Like I said earlier, it's that kind of day. Goof-off day.

Although with Kaichou, sometimes that can be _every_ day.

Walking down the street I shade my eyes, squinting suspiciously around to try and spot a hidden target. I wouldn't put it past him to try and hide from me. Fortunately there aren't many hiding places around - that boy can squeeze into the most ridiculously small places, but that shock of blonde hair stands out a mile away.

A flicker on the road up ahead and I strain my eyes trying to see. Not Kaichou - but three other familiar forms - Akira Ijyuin, the Treasurer of the Middle School Student Council, third member of the CLAMP School Detectives, and friend of mine and Kaichou's. His girlfriend Utako Ohkawa, now the president of the Elementary Division. And Nagisa Azuya, my... girlfriend sounds wrong. It seems so plain for a sparkling soul like hers. In the privacy of my mind I always think of her as my Hime.

As always, I blush when I see her. She's so beautiful and intelligent. And she just drips musical talent, even I feel like singing around her (although for the sake of everyone else I usually refrain). When they see me they come hurrying towards me.

"Takamura-sempai!" Akira explodes in happiness. "What a surprise! Kaichou said he thought you'd be along shortly but I didn't think he meant this quickly."

I grit my teeth. That little...

Then Nagisa touches my hand shyly and I immediately forgive Kaichou everything he's ever done. "I'm glad to see you Takamura-san," she says quietly. "I was sorry you couldn't make it to the exhibition."

I grimace, "I'm really sorry too, but unfortunately..." I shrug, embarrassed.

"No, it's alright," she says sincerely, staring up at me with her deep eyes. "We all know that today is your afternoon at home."

For the last year every Saturday from 12 till 2 my mother insists on my coming home to learn about the Takamura clan; our ways, our secrets, our proud history. I don't usually mind, but sometimes it can be a royal pain. And it always gives Kaichou a head start on the weekend, which usually means he stalls me all morning, then slacks off the moment I leave. Exactly as he had done today. I shake off the daze I have fallen into and look grimly at Akira.

"Ijyuin," I say. "Where did you see Kaichou?"

Akira looks taken aback, but Utako grins in instant understanding. "Slipped away from you again did he?" she asks, all happiness and delight. She's such a vibrant being. She and Akira might just conquer the world someday - unless Kaichou gets there first. Speaking of whom...

"Mm," I admit. "And he has left ALL the paperwork! I can hardly see his desk!"

Everyone laughs and then volunteers to come along on the hunt, which is just fine with me. When going up against Kaichou's determined slacking I always feel the need for as much backup as possible.

And so we enjoyed a pleasant, though brisk, stroll down the road. Utako and Akira joked together pleasantly, whilst Nagisa linked her arm in mine and leant against me. Looking down at her, I felt happy for a moment, and then the need to find Kaichou swept over me again. I quickened my pace a little and the others all hopped to catch me up. I felt a little bad about it, but I can't help it really.

Whenever I don't know what Nokoru's doing, or where he is I get a sick, nervous feeling - I can't sleep, and I have difficulty eating. From the lessons my mother's been giving me lately I know that this is a side-effect of the bond we have, and that I will become more used to it as time goes by. I also know that it might get stronger. But this is the burden I was born to bear, and most of the time it's pretty light. Nokoru's either a total joy to protect, or pure, undiluted hell on wheels, but just being able to protect him makes me happy.

Nokoru. It's a good name. I love hearing it out loud, but calling him by it myself is a pleasure I keep only for my most private thoughts. I will never use his name aloud. That would be improper.

Hmph, think of the devil and he appears. He's enjoying the sun on his face and the blue sky. He'd better enjoy them while he can - he's going back to the council room to finish paperwork if I have to pick him up and carry him all the way there myself! He pauses briefly by the roadside to admire some daisies growing in a crack in the road. I can almost see his smile as I close in on him.

***

Beautiful beautiful flowers. I don't know why more people don't like daisies. Ordinary they may be but plain never! Hmmm... a flicker of movement further down the road. Suoh's making good time today. Sounds of an engine. That van's moving awfully quickly. I think something's up...

***

The screech of tires alerts me to the danger. Spinning, I see the plain black van pull up behind Kaichou. I begin to run towards him but the two back doors slam open and before he can move, men in black suits and sunglasses grab him and drag him inside. I can see his wide eyes staring at me as he flails briefly before being overwhelmed. I shrug loose of Nagisa and sprint as fast as I can towards my Kaichou. I'm coming Nokoru!

***

Dammit! Dammit dammit dammit! Can't a guy skip out on his work and smell the flowers without having to fend off a kidnapping attempt? Well, I suppose not if you're Nokoru Imonoyama, but this is almost my holiday! Up the path I can see Suoh accelerating to that fearsome speed he
manages whenever I'm in danger. I struggle with my kidnappers and get one hand on the door. I can see the panicked look on Suoh's eyes as he bunches and leaps towards me.

***

One of the doors slams shut in my face but the other one is hampered by Kaichou. I reach out in midair and grab hold of his hand, and then reach into the van as my feet scrabble for purchase on the outside. I can see two men in the back holding Kaichou, and two in the front. They look mean - undoubtedly professionals, but there's something else.

It's the bulge in their jackets that gives them away. Guns. This is a serious attempt. I bare my teeth - they can't have Nokoru! I will protect him! The van jerks around in a violent swerve and I almost lose my grip. No matter what I must hold on! There are no identifying marks on this van and if I lose Kaichou now... I may not be able to find him again. The van swerves again. What the hell is this driver doing?

I turn my head a fraction and glimpse Nagisa and Utako as they throw themselves in the path of the van again. Those idiots! What do they think they're doing?

"GET OUT OF THE WAY!" I shout. They ignore me and stand firm. I can see Akira rolling away to the left. I guess the van only just missed him. Just then I hear a growled curse and words that chill my spine.

"Just run OVER the bitches," one the men snarls.

What? No!

"UTAKO! NAGISA!" I shout. No time to waste on honorifics. "GET OUT OF THEIR WAY!"

They don't move. They think the van is going to swerve again. I can save them....

But to do that, I would have to abandon Kaichou.

***

My blood turns to ice when I hear one of these pieces of scum say those words. I can see the panic in Suoh's face as he screams out a warning, and the horror when he realises it's not going to work. He turns to look at me and the desparation in his eyes nearly breaks my heart. Why doesn't he go to save them? Why...?

Me... He's going to save me, not them. Because I am the someone he would meet someday. The one he would protect and stand beside all his life. I know how the Takamura clan works, I should have understood. But I never realised what it would cost him.

Throwing all the emotion I can into my eyes, I catch his gaze and hold it, transmitting my understanding. And then I draw my foot back and kick into his chest, hauling back my hand at the same time.

Suoh goes flying, and the kidnappers slam the door shut, then hit me over the head.

Suoh, my dearest friend. Please forgive me, but I'm not worth two lives and your soul. I will be alright for now. I will stay alright until you find me and rescue me. For now, keep safe, and keep our friends safe.

***

For a minute I feel reassured, safe, at peace. And then Kaichou kicks me away like a dog and the door slams in my face. I fall limply to the ground and roll, snapping to my feet instantly. I know what he wants without having to ask and sprint towards Nagisa and Utako, just as they realise that this time the van will not stop. Flinging my arms out I embrace them both and dive for the side of the road. We hit hard but safe, and I twist to my feet and taste bitter despair as the van roars down the street.

"Kaichou! Kaichouuuuu!!!! KAICHOUUUUUU!!!!" I scream, feeling my insides freeze solid with a sharp snap.

Akira comes running up to check Utako and Nagisa. They both have scratches from the landing but are otherwise undamaged. Ignoring them I head straight for the telephone booth I saw a minute ago. Dialing in a quick string of digits I take a deep breath.

"Rijichou? Kaichou has been kidnapped." Blocking out all my surroundings I fill her in on all the details. She is calm, but I can sense her fear.

"Stay where you are," she orders. "I will send a patrol there immediately.

"Yes." I acknowledge and hang up. There's no need to apologise. She already knows that I would willingly end my life right here right now if that would bring Kaichou back. Where is my Kaichou? What are those animals doing to him? Already I feel my stomach roiling, and have to force back the urge to gag.

Kaichou.

A soft touch on my arm has me jumping back, snarling. Akira stares at me as though I am a wild animal. Perhaps I am. A wild dog that has lost its master.

"Ijyuin," I whisper. "What?"

"Takamura-sempai," he asks cautiously. "Shouldn't we go after them?"

I look at him and let him work it out for himself. We have no idea where they have taken him, we cannot chase after a fast-moving van, and both the blimp and penguin-balloon are back on CLAMP Campus. We are alone. I sit down in defeat. There is an uncomfortable pause.

"Takamura-san?" a voice hesitatingly calls my name. I look up to see Nagisa standing over me. I have completely forgotten about her, and I fear it shows on my face. "Nagisa-san," I say, trying to recover. "I'm sorry, are you alright?"

She nods and then looks away. Akira and Utako are staring at me as though they have never seen me before. I put my face in my hands to avoid their gaze and try not to be ill. Kaichou...

***

Pain. Hurts. I blink my eyes and realise that it makes no difference. I must be blindfolded. The back of my head throbs rhythmically and my shoulders are in agony. My hands have been tied up behind my back to something on a wall at an angle that is extremely painful and I can no longer feel my fingers. Rope cuts into my knees and ankles too. I try to move and only succeed in increasing my torment as my shoulders scream in protest.

Movement.

"Good morning," I manage hoarsely. "Or is it now good night?"

"Nokoru?" a voice asks in surprise. There is the sound of a blow and a choked off cry. I open my mouth to respond and a hard fist slams into the side of it. I taste blood as my lip splits and my head rings with the force of it.

"No talking," a harsh voice rasps. It emphasizes this order with several more slaps to my face. I hold my peace but my mind is racing. I recognised that other voice - Idomu Yudaiji! A former friend, then enemy, and now friend again. But he's supposed to be overseas? Where on earth are we? I lick my lips and swallow, trying to moisten my dry mouth. A fist slams into my stomach and I sob, gasping for breath.

After this piece of casual brutality, I am ignored. More blows strike around me, and from their positioning I conclude that there is one other besides Yudaiji and myself. After hearing his swearing at the kidnappers I identify him too - another familiar voice. Ah, the irony.

I can hear footsteps all around me, so I dare not try to communicate with the other two. I have been kidnapped before, but not like this. What can I offer them like this? It must be a ransom kidnapping, which would explain Idomu's presence - the Yudaiji Zaibatsu is second richest after the Imonoyama Zaibatsu. They must be collecting rich children.

Suoh. Akira. Utako. Nagisa. I hope you're all alright. Come and find me soon. Suoh!

***

I hang up the phone and turn to face the others. We have all gathered in the Student Council room. "It is confirmed," I say dully. "Kaichou's kidnapping is just one of several attempts. Two others have succeeded - Idomu Yudaiji, and Kentaro Higashikunimaru, another CLAMP student. Between these three families and their corporations is held most of the commercial wealth of Japan, so it appears to have been a ransom kidnap. Demands are expected soon." I sit down numbly. How can this be happening? He was _there_. He was right _there_, smiling angelically... and now, there is a hole where he was which sucks all the light away.

I want Kaichou back. I feel like a spoiled child. I want to scream and cry and wail and drum my feet on the carpet. Give me back my Kaichou!

I force my thoughts back on to their normal track and look at the assembled group. "Ohkawa-kaichou, Ijyuin, the Rijichou asks that you remain here. It is suspected that you were both also targets as you come from wealthy families. Similar black vans have been seen near your homes. Arrangements will be made for you to stay on campus and the matter has been discussed with your parents. They all feel that you will be safer here. If you wish, I will escort you to the rooms you will be staying in."

Utako and Akira grip each other tightly, and Nagisa holds Utako's other hand. I feel useless. No such van was seen near _my_ home. I suppose we were not rich enough for these bastards. Either that or they were not stupid enough to haunt my neighbourhood.

"Come," I say quietly. "I'll walk you there."

We walk to the empty rooms, safe rooms, located in a building conveniently across from the science departments - which I happen to know are the most heavily guarded of all the CLAMP buildings. Utako's parents are on hand to greet us and she runs towards them, Akira trailing along behind. I leave them to talk and quietly back out of the room.

"Takamura-san," a soft voice behind me. Nagisa. I turn to face her.

"Nagisa, I..." I don't know what to say.

She regards me with a seriousness that I would normally find strange in an 8 year old, but I have always known Nagisa to be wise beyond her years. "I wish to speak to you for a moment," she says.

Quietly we walk out of the building, our feet automatically taking us to the trunk of the wisteria tree where we first met. I stare up into it's branches, remembering everything. The beautiful flowers, her magical music...

Then another wave of nausea wracks me and I turn away to meet sad eyes.

"Takamura-san, no, Suoh-kun," Nagisa stares into my eyes. "I must ask you something."

I wait. Foreboding presses in upon me.

"Nokoru-sama..." she halts, pauses, thinks. "You... care for him."

"He's my friend," I say hoarsely. She's staring at me so sadly. Please don't Nagisa, please... I don't want to hurt you.

"You are the future leader of the Takamura clan," she says. "I have, researched you. Those of the Takamura clan always choose a certain person to devote their lives to protecting."

I nod, helpless in her power.

"Nokoru-sama... Is he the one you have chosen?" she asks.

Wind blows through the air and wisteria blossoms drift down between us.

"Yes." I say finally. I feel the future press in upon me.

She breathes in sharply. "You will protect him always?" she asks.

"Yes." This die has already been cast. This fate already set. This road already chosen. Nagisa...

"You will always be by his side."

"Yes." Oh yes.

I want to cry. Or be sick.

"He is always first in your life."

"Yes."

"You would die for him."

I close my eyes, imagine my Kaichou.

"Yes..." I whisper. An intake of breath.

"If you had to choose, would you save Nokoru-sama or... or..." her voice trails off as I open my eyes and look at her. *Please,* I beg in my mind. *Please do not ask me that question. Don't. Nagisa, please.*

"... or me?"

I have always dreaded that she would ask me this question. Because I know there can be no right answer, only a true one.

*swallow* "I would die for you both," I say. *Accept that, please Nagisa.*

"But if you had to choose?" she insists.

I just look at her. I won't say the words. I refuse to say the words. But she reads the answer in my heart. I'm so sorry Nagisa, so very very sorry.

I will protect my Kaichou, always.

She turns away from me and walks into the distance. I can hear her flute begin a mournful melody and I close my eyes and collapse to my hands and knees.

A cough behind me. I scramble to my feet again, turn and find myself facing the mysterious Rijichou. I have only met Nokoru's mother once, but I know her instantly and we share a look of broken feelings.

"A ransom demand has been sent," she tells me, and offers me something golden. "This accompanied it."

I hold it in my hands, caress it gently, then bring it to my nose and sniff it, inhaling the delicate scent, the proof of his existence, of his life. Closing my eyes again I can almost see him. My Kaichou with his hair of spun gold.

***

I'm hungry. And tired. And thirsty. And bruised. The litany could go on forever so I stop myself before I mentally whine again. I have to be strong. There have been no more words around me since the last random beating. Apparently these people feel unfulfilled if they don't smack a few helpless young people around every half hour or so. Kentaro seems to be getting the worst of it so far, possibly because he always curses them when they get started on him. My inventory of swear words has improved greatly since I've been here. One good thing. And it's been amusing listening to him constantly nearly spill his "secret identity". Idomu has probably guessed it by now. I, of course, already knew.

I hope the rest of Duklyon aren't getting into trouble while I'm not there.

Most of my body smarts and aches, and we have not been given anything but blows and insults since we arrived. I think Idomu is in worse shape than me. They stopped hitting him earlier last time, and are muttering around him. I hope he's alright. He'll have to be because the only thing my fabled charm has gotten me so far is a fat lip. I think I can _feel_ where they cut my hair. I hope it doesn't show too badly. I realise that that sounds _incredibly_ shallow, but I refuse to let my spirits get down by this. I _will_ get out of here in one piece, and I _will_ make these people pay for hurting my friends. Maybe Suoh will teach me how to throw knives and pin people in awkward places. That would be fun.

Where are you Suoh?

***

I pack calmly, carefully. It doesn't do to rush certain things. Lockpicks, lockpicks... where can I put the lockpicks? The vest with my throwing knives is full... I have shuriken in my pockets. Normally I'd keep the lockpicks in my shoes, but I really need the spare smoke grenades there. Hmmm...

"Takamura-sempai?"

Akira. I don't have time for this now, and I don't think I can withstand another sad look. I turn to face him, which is a mistake as he has Utako _and_ Nagisa with him. Nagisa avoids my eyes sadly and if looks could kill all my skills would avail me nothing against the glare that Utako is giving me. Akira is merely subdued.

"Takamura-sempai, what are you doing?" he asks. I wonder what he thinks I am doing with my shirt off, wearing an armoured vest containing throwing knives, fishing deadly weapon after deadly weapon out of my bottom desk drawer. Did he think I only kept stationery in here? Spare staples perhaps? Well I do. Right next to the blowpipe and darts. A trifle archaic I know, but the crossbow wouldn't fit in here.

"A ransom demand has been sent. Rijichou will not respond to it," I say calmly. "She has however located the place where Kaichou is being held." How on earth she managed to do so I don't know. She's like Nokoru that way, all secrets and deductions and tricks. Personally, I don't care if she found out by capturing their messenger who delivered the demand earlier and torturing them for the information. Actually, I think I'd _prefer_ that.

"It is atop a clifftop, and is virtually impregnable. Any approaching rescue effort would be spotted immediately. I am going there to rescue Kaichou." Or die trying. Possibly with lockpicks in hand, as I still have nowhere to put them.

"Wait a moment! If it's impossible, how are YOU going to get in?" Utako is angry with me. That's alright. In a strange way, it makes me feel better.

I shrug my shirt back on, meticulously doing all the buttons up and turning away to tuck it in. Turning back, I carefully tie my school uniform tie, then thread the garotte around the edges of my collar. Two more knives into the wrist sheathes. Hmmm... my shoulder sheathes are already full, so I can't slip the lockpicks up there either. If only I were two years older - then I would be wearing trousers as my uniform, which would solve an awful lot of munitions problems. Not to mention being a great deal warmer.

"There is almost no cover leading up to the base," I recite from the briefing I had received from Rijichou earlier, while still continuing in my tasks. Where the hell am I going to put these damn lockpicks? "An adult would be spotted. However, I am much smaller than any adult. They will not see me get in."

"It's just like Takamura-sempai to think of that!" shouts Akira, brightening up. "When do we leave?"

"_I_ am leaving in ten minutes," I tell them, checking the spare garotte on my watch. "_You_ are all staying here." I hold up my hand to stop the protests. "None of you have the training needed for a situation like this. By all accounts these people are animals, and their previous actions prove that they have no qualms about killing anyone who gets in their way. I will not place any of you into more danger. I have already failed you enough today." I can't look at Nagisa. From the glances Akira and Utako are exchanging I gather she's told them about me and Kaichou.

"Takamura-sempai," Akira tries again.

"Don't you understand?" I burst out, unable to control myself anymore. My temperature has risen 10 degrees in the last hour and it's all I can do not to wipe the sweat away from my brow. "I won't be able to protect you! I can protect Kaichou, and that's it! Why don't you realise that I would just abandon you if I had to? I'm sorry Nagisa-san..." Wonderful, now I'm babbling. "Truly sorry. I do care about you. I care about you all! That is why you cannot come. Please don't make me make that choice." And now I'm begging. What a coward I am.

"Takamura-sempai..." They're all staring at me. Utako speaks, of course. "What about you?"

I freeze rigid. "I would die for Kaichou." I tell her softly, and she looks away from me.

I am disgusted with myself. Should I make it back from this mission I will resign from my clan. I am unfit to lead it. How much lower will I sink? I fight back the nausea again. I will not be sick in front of everyone.

The door opens, closes... Utako and Nagisa have left. Akira...

"Let me come," he approaches me. "Let me come with you."

I begin to shake my head. "Ijyuin... Akira-kun... you can't. This must be a sneaky operation and you, you are..."

"I am 20 Masks," he says.

I freeze, my brain disabled by this information. It's just too much all at once - on the one hand it explains a great many discrepancies I have never had time to look at, on the other hand I can't see how it relates to the current situation and my mind won't help process this, it just keeps repeating 'Nokoru Nokoru Nokoru' over and over again. While I stare at him he removes a mask from his pockets and dons it. "The Mysterious Thief 20 Masks," he intones, and then lets his hand drop.

"I want Kaichou back as much as you do. I want the CLAMP Campus Detectives to be together again." He ghosts across the room towards me. How could I not have seen this? He moves with such grace... like a thief... like a ninja...

Like me.

He touches my arm and I jerk in surprise, snapping back into the here and now. "Please Takamura-sem... Suoh-kun, let me come," he says. "I am a pacifist, I can't help you fight. But there are other ways I can help, and I promise, you won't need to worry about me."

I stare at him for a long moment, and then hold the object in my hand out to him.

"Do you have room somewhere for these lockpicks?"

He takes them without a word and we prepare to leave.

***

I'm feeling _really_ sick now. One too many punches to the stomach. I'm leaning a little forward, hoping to avoid further blows there. Or at least to put myself at an angle where I can throw up all over their shoes if they do it again. Marvelous tactic Imonoyama. What happened to the invincible boy who could pull rabbits out of thin air? He seems to have left the building, leaving me behind. The weak, hurt one. I wish I could do something, but I'm a little tied up at the moment. Heh. That was feeble.

Oh God, I can hear footsteps. Please not in the stomach, not in the stomach...

"Hello brats."

Urgh. It's Smells-Like-Sake. No, that's not his real name, how'd you guess? Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit Imonoyama - you're really slipping now. And how long have you been talking to yourself?

"Hope you're enjoying our five star hospitality."

Five star brutality you mean. Kentaro, predictably, gets things rolling.

"Hey, drunkard, why don't you go drown yourself in sake and make the world a better place? The Special Campus Cops... I mean, um... You're an asshole, you know that? And you're probably ugly too! Thank GOD for these blindfolds, huh guys? No, no, don't come any closer. I know you are, I can smell you from OOF!!!"

Idomu moans as the sound of blows penetrate his conciousness. I think he's slipping away from us.

"Oh, so the other little snot is waking. Here's your wake-up call sir!"

I can hear him slapping Idomu around. Dammit.

"Leave him alone!" I rasp. "Don't hurt him!"

*WHAM*

I think I can see again. I'm outside, and there are so many stars in the sky. Dazed, I await the next strike but it never comes. Ears ringing, I continue waiting until they clear again.

"... that the best you can do jerk? My friend Erii has a better punch than that!" The sound of another blow. "Oh come on, I barely even felt that one!" And another. "Ha! You think that hurt? I've had harder punches from..." More blows follow, each one louder than before. No more comments now, just muffled grunts.

Bless you Kentaro. I think I've underestimated you.

Another blow lands on my legs and I cry out in pain.

"Call yourself a man?" Kentaro yells. How does he do it? "Are you so afraid of these two kids..."

Who's _he_ calling a kid? I've met kindergarteners more mature than him! Just because we're _younger_...

"... that you have to tie them up first? I can understand you tying me up! After all, I am Duk... a one man army..."

He chokes off. I can hear his head being rammed against the wall over and over again. Finally it stops.

"Takepon," I hear him murmur. "You've come to rescue me."

I want to cry, but I pull it together to try and help.

"Don't call him Takepon." I whisper. "You know he hates it when you call him that."

I can almost see Kentaro's smile. "I know," he whispers back. "But he's so cute when he's angry."

His voice is coming lower, he must be slumping to the floor. Smells-Like-Sake is leaving, he must be happy with his work. I can hear the others moving around, but they're too far away to hear us.

"I know what you mean," I tell him. "My friend Suoh is cute when he's angry too."

"Takepon," Kentaro whispers like a prayer. "My friend, my love."

From his breathing, I can tell that he has joined Idomu in unconciousness. And now that they're both out I do something I've wanted to do for a while now. I cry. Silent tears, dripping down my face.

***

Another guard sloppily wanders past, scratching at himself like an ape. I aid in the curing of his itch by pressing my knife against his ribs. He gets the idea almost immediately.

"Where is my senpai?!" I spit out harshly. Oh, I could have asked him another way, but these words have history behind them. "Where is he???!!!"

"Wha? Huh?"

"Where are Nokoru Imonoyama and the other children you have kidnapped?" The Mysterious Thief 20 Masks looms out in front of the thug. "Answer truthfully - my friend with the knife is short-tempered tonight."

"Uh, guh..." the man gurgles. I bare my teeth at him and materialise another knife in the other hand.

"The brats?" He manages.

Ah, it speaks. Must be further up the evolutionary ladder than I had thought.

"They're tied up in the main room! Down the hall, left... two doors down! Don't kill me!" The man tries to squirm away from my knife.

Astonishing how sharp steel can also sharpen the mind. I sneer and slam a fist into the base of his neck. As he crumples I have to strongly resist the urge to kick him repeatedly in the ribs.

20 Mas... Akira looks at me reproachfully. "Was that truly necessary?"

I breathe harshly with the effort of controlling myself. "Yes, it was." Turning my back on him, I stalk off down the corridor. He has no idea. He can't possibly imagine how much I want to scream and howl and claw at the walls. I can almost _smell_ Kaichou. His scent, his taste, his presence lick at the corners of my awareness. Like blood to a shark, it maddens me. I lick my lips, and concentrate on moving. Sharks die if they stop moving, and more than likely so will I in this rat-trap.

I can barely hear Akira behind me and that, more than anything, pleases me. He _is_ good. A true master thief. I'll have to think about how this affects things between us later. Not now however, now I can think of only one thing.

NokoruNokoruNokoruNokoru...

***

My head comes up a little. Something seems to be going on. I can feel the excitement in the air.

***

I kick open the door, throwing knives left and right, almost screaming with triumph when I see the familiar golden hair. I've found him! Must be calm, must be calm, mustn't ruin things now. Must... focus...

Nokoru!

***

An explosion of sound has both Kentaro and Idomu waking up. I wish I could see! I can't make out distinct sounds in that mess so I have no idea what's going on.

Suddenly there's a sharp thud above me, and another to my right and left. The rope binding me to the hooks in the wall abruptly releases and I fall forward, just as another blade crashes through the bonds holding my feet. Only one person throws blades like that.

"Suoh!" I scream, and then curse myself for drawing attention. Quickly I begin to struggle with the remaining ropes. I can hear the other two following my lead when suddenly I hear a cry that chills me to the bone. Two voices in unison. Female voices.

"Nokoru-sama!"

***

As I hear the cry I jerk spontaneously and accidently dislocate the arm of the man I am throwing instead of just slamming him into the ground. He screams virtually in my ear and this adds to the disorientation. Shaking my head, I jump high into the air in an attempt to work out where everyone is.

Akira has made his way to Idomu Yudaiji and is helping him with his ropes. He looks to be in a bad way. Kaichou is almost free and the other boy, Kentaro, is trailing him by about two seconds. Most of the kidnappers have been taken out, but there are still at least four at large.

The one nearest me pulls out his automatic rifle. A Swedish K I recognise from my lessons at home, as I lunge for him, secure it in my grip, pull and twist. This time the shoulder pops out intentionally, and for emphasis I kick him in a number of painful places as he falls, and then help his head impact on the floor.

Glancing up I see that the situation has not changed. The other three kidnappers are still up, the captives are still not freed, Akira is not looking this way, Nokoru is blind, helpless and vulnerable.

And Nagisa and Utako are standing in the doorway like target dolls.

***

"Brats! I'll kill you!" I hear a man snarl. I struggle with the last of the bonds and I feel as though the earth is opening up beneath me with the clik-clak of a round being chambered into a gun.

***

I can see Nagisa and Utako hugging each other tightly to my left. How the HELL did they get in here? For that matter, how did they get out past CLAMP Campus Security? Someone in the security department is going to be presenting their _final_ apologies for this if I have anything to do with it. A snarl plasters itself across my lips as I rapidly assess the situation.

The final three kidnappers are up, armed and ready to fire. There is NO cover in this room. Akira is running towards the girls now, but he'll never make it. Idomu is struggling to get free of his bonds to my right, and he'll lose them in a minute, but that's not soon enough. Kentaro is nearly free, but not near enough. And Kaichou is lagging behind.

I could reach any one of them in time, but only one. I grapple with indecision for half a second and then make my choice.

There was only ever really one choice.

***

I cried out in shock when I heard the burst of automatic gunfire. Tensing, I waited for the pain, but no bullets hit me. I was unable to stop a short sigh of relief, before my mind reasserted itself. If not me, then who was hurt?

Hands touching me, I cry out.

"Kaichou!" says a familiar voice. "It's me!"

"Akira," I breathe. He doesn't sound hurt, but he does sound on the verge of tears. Other hands join in and I identify Kentaro from the swearing, and Idomu from the words he keeps saying.

"It's okay, it's alright, it's okay, it's alright."

If they are all here...

"Nagisa-san! Utako-san!" I scream, pushing myself upright.

The light almost blinds me and I have to blink several times before I can see again.

"Kaichou!"

"Nokoru-sama!"

I relax as two small bodies impact against mine. "Thank goodness you're alright." I hold them close. I could never have forgiven myself if something happened to these two small princesses.

"I'm sorry," Utako is in tears. "It's not his fault! We snuck out past the guards and then followed Suoh and Akira in. It's not his fault!"

Followed Suoh? Oh, of course, they must have followed Suoh... My mind is reeling. Followed Suoh where... here... Suoh...

Suoh!

I look up, and glimpse hell. Wall to wall blood and bodies.

Suoh Takamura stands upright, blood spattered all over his body, like some sort of avenging angel. His eyes lock with mine and I can feel him mouth out the words.

"Forgive me. I was weak. I couldn't make that choice."

Eyelids snap down to hide fearful golden eyes and Suoh buries his face in his hands and sobs and sobs and sobs...

And slowly, so slowly that I want to cry out and deny its existence, the machine gun falls from his hands to lie with the bodies of those who tried to harm us.

***

Epilogue:

It has been seven days since we rescued Kaichou.

Rescued. Ha.

After I... afterwards, Akira and Idomu Yudaiji pulled it together enough to make a call for help. Within minutes the entire place was overrun by CLAMP Campus Security teams, police SWAT teams, half of Duklyon and most of the Takamura Clan. Nok... Kaichou and the others were taken back to the campus to have their wounds treated. I was briefly taken into custody by the police.

For a while I thought they were going to send me to prison, but then Hahaue and Rijichou showed up and had me released into their custody pending examination of the situation. Since then I have received notification that I have been cleared of any wrongdoing, along with a formal apology from the police for ever questioning me in the first place. It appears that the Takamura name and it's meaning are not unknown in law-enforcement circles.

On the way back from the police station I announced my intention to resign my position in the Takamura Clan. My mother refused to accept my resignation and when we got out of the car the entire clan was waiting. Whilst I stood there, still covered in blood and gore, they all bowed before me. I went to my room and got into bed. I'm still here.

I haven't said a word to anyone since that night, and I won't see anyone. I know Akira's been by, and Nagisa-san but they were politely turned back at the door. I know this because I received reports of it. I seem to be receiving a lot of reports lately. And if I'm _not_ receiving reports then Hahaue comes into my room and receives _her_ reports here.

I have a bad feeling about this.

Anyway, today is a beautiful summer's day. Hahaue has just finished today's session of the history of our clan. We're now up to the Warring States period so I anticipate this next part will take a while. As I lie here I can hear Hahaue talking to someone outside in the garden. A familiar voice - Rijichou!

I sit bolt upright. Is this what I have been waiting for? My expulsion from CLAMP School must have been assured by my failure to ensure the safety of my companions, I have merely been waiting for the formal announcement of my disgrace. Nokoru - for the last time I will allow myself the pleasure of saying your name in my mind. Farewell my lord, may you find someone more worthy of you.

***

"Thank you for stopping by our humble home." Suoh's mother said to the Rijichou and head of the CLAMP Campus.

The Rijichou, her head hidden behind her trademark fan, smiled. "Please accept my humble apologies for your son's brief incarceration. It was not my intent to involve the police. However, the circumstances...." She trailed off politely.

The Takamura, current (though not, she hoped, for much longer) head of the Takamura clan smiled in return. "Please do not feel yourself at fault. As you say, circumstances. Shall we sit here?" She indicated a clear space beneath a small window.

The Rijichou looked at the window. "Indeed," she said, eyes gleaming. "How are things in your home?"

"Oh well, well enough," the Takamura replied. "We wait, we are patient."

"You certainly are," agreed the Rijichou with a wry grin. "I regret infringing on your patience, but things have been strange of late."

"I trust there are no lingering pains caused by recent events."

"Oh no... None at all in fact. All involved are well. Higashikunimaru-kun has happily returned to his friends and normal routine, and Yudaiji-kun has decided to once again return to our school, where he has been joyfully welcomed by the Student Council."

"Oh? So there has been no specific occurence which led to your visit?" The Takamura smiled at the Rijichou. If I had not already met the one I would always protect, I think I would decide now to protect you, Imonoyama-san, she thought to herself. You are like your son, crafty and charming all at once.

"No, not a single one." said the Rijichou. "In fact, it is as though nothing had happened. There have been no incidents at all. No women have needed rescuing, Duklyon have not been required, nothing mysterious has occured, no treasure hunts, no anything. It has been the most boring week of my entire life."

"My condolences," the Takamura restrained the urge to laugh.

A strangled sob sounded from the room inside and her eyes clouded over. She began to stand when a fan tapped her hand gently.

The Takamura looked up in surprise into the uncovered face of Imonoyama-Rijichou and paused, then fell back into her sitting position.

"In fact, out of the entire week, only one thing has been drawing attention." The Rijichou continued, fanning herself gently. "And that has been the growing pile of paperwork generated by the Middle School Student Council."

Pause. Silence.

"Nokoru-san quite _refuses_ to do any of it." She continued. "He claims it cannot be important because Suoh-kun has not plagued him to do it.

Pause. Longer silence.

"Indeed, it has gotten so out of control that one cannot now get _into_ the Student Council rooms." she said plaintively. "It's spilling out into the corridors. The entire school is grinding to a halt and Nokoru-san and his friends just sit there like statues in front of it playing endless games of mah-jongg! I begged Nokoru-san to at least stamp a few papers, but he explained that he had lost his stamp..."

Long pause.

"That it was somewhere _underneath_ all of the papers. We nearly lost three students to a landslide of it last week."

Long pause. You could cut the silence with a knife.

"And just when I thought it could get no worse I discovered that Nokoru-san had trucked in several tonnes of white sand and was having it piled up over the top of the papers in the corridor in an attempt to create a beach of his own!"

There was a high shrill scream and the sounds of running footsteps. The two women waited a moment until they heard the front door slam and then grinned at each other.

"Would you like some tea, Rijichou?"

***

He wouldn't. He couldn't. He'd never.

I sprint into the main building, past two older students who I vaguely recognise. Their voices recede behind me.

"So you're alright now?"

"Yes Takepon."

"You're quite recovered from your injuries?"

"Yes Takepon."

"Well in that case STOP CALLING ME TAKEPON!!!!"

I ignore them as I run.

He couldn't. No way. Never. He wouldn't.

He bloody HAS!

I stare in horror at the sight before me. The corridor is full of papers and I can see the door to the spare room next to the Council Rooms has been nailed shut. A sign on the door says, "Caution: Do Not Open" in Akira's handwriting. Papers stick out under the door.

Two blocks of wood are holding the Council doors shut.

"No... no no nonononononononononononono..."

"Ah, Suoh!"

I freeze and turn around.

They're playing mah-jongg! Has he no pride? Has he no dignity? Has he no sense? WHAT DOES HE THINK HE'S DOING???!!!!!

***

Suoh looks like he's about to keel over. Nagisa and Utako can barely keep from laughing and Akira and Idomu aren't far behind. I musn't laugh. I musn't laugh.

***

"Kaichou!" I splutter. "How could you do this? Why haven't you done any work? How could you slack off like this??!!!"

***

I grin and snap open my fan. I knew this would get him to come. And now for the coup de grace.

"Oh, but Suoh, _you_ were slacking off too."

***

What??!! Me? Slacking off?! I've been in agony all week!!!

"I..." I begin to shake with rage. Fine, he wants to play games, I'll set him straight. I'll tell him! Tell him that I am no longer worthy to be here! That I should have been a better bodyguard! That I'm leaving for good! That he'll have to take the responsiblity for doing this work himself!

Kaichou turns and regards the papers. "Hmmm... I wonder if an autumn theme might not suit it better," he says, shuffling his feet in the sand that blankets the halls.

"I..."

Dammit Kaichou! How can you be so nonchalant? I gunned down three people in front of you. In front of all of you!

I glare at the assembled group, who are now all concentrating on their mah-jong game.

"It's true Takamura-san," says Utako. "You have been slacking off all week."

"I..." Oh this is unjust! How can you not understand that I couldn't come back after what I've done?

"We TRIED to make him work, Takamura-sempai," Akira adds. "But he was too fast for us."

"I..." I knew you'd all hate me and despise me so I stayed away out of respect for your feelings! I care about all of you!

"Even I couldn't outsmart him when it comes to making him work," Idomu says.

"You..." Are any of you people LISTENING to yourselves! You should hate me! Loathe me! You should be my enemies!

... Although they don't seem to be angry with me.

Nagisa-san smiles and makes a winning move. "Takamura-san is the only one here who can keep up with Kaichou." she says happily. "Kaichou is lucky to have such a loyal and noble defender as Takamura-san, who will be with him through thick and thin for the rest of his life!"

Pause.

"I feel sorry for Takamura-san!" the others all chorus. I swallow as Kaichou face-faults to the floor.

They... they don't hate me.

"I... I..."

In fact, they all look happy to see me. Utako and Nagisa are beaming at me, Akira looks like he's about to burst with joy as he regards my spluttering visage. Even Idomu is smiling. And Kaichou...

Kaichou is standing up from his face-fault, brushing himself off and smiling at me. He seems almost to be glowing with happiness. I stare into his face, his eyes and feel a smile involuntarily come over my face.

I try to fight it and look around them, examining each set of eyes for condemnation, disgust, even the slightest hint of disappointment. Without fail, they all smile back at me welcomingly.

"I..."

In Akira's eyes, I see his familiar warmth and respect, tinged with a gleam of mystery off a mask.

In Utako's eyes, I see warmth and acceptance.

In Idomu's eyes, respect and welcome.

In Nagisa's eyes... friendship and warmth.

And in Kaichou's eyes, acknowledgement of our bond, friendship, warmth and happiness. And something else which I can't understand, but it doesn't seem bad. Perhaps someday I'll find out what it is. With a jolt, I realise that my decision has already been made. I look down, sigh, shake my head and look up again.

"I _have_ been slacking off, you're quite right Kaichou," I say with a slight smile. "Shall we get to work?" My Kaichou, I'll follow you anywhere always.

"In a minute, no need to rush," my Kaichou says. Nokoru says. "After all Suoh... it's summer! How about some iceblocks?"

"Kaichou..."

THE END


Author's Notes:

Thanks are due to Nokoru Imonoyama, Digest Master and Kaichou of the CLAMP Bistro, for his incredibly detailed critique of the original version of this story, and also to Truth and her mother for correcting me on the gun information. I couldn't have done it without both of you.

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