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Anything That Burns

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Konoe Konoemon hung up the phone and shuddered a bit. The latter was his normal response to any conversation -- to be very generous to what had been more of a monologue on her part -- he had with Morimoto Reina. There had not been very many bright days over the past fifteen years, but the day on which the head of the Morimoto Financial Group had been installed as principal of Honnoji Academy had been a particularly dark one. Neither of the Honnoji principals before her had done anything to restrain the cruelties of Honnoji's student body, but Morimoto Reina actually urged them on to worse ones.

And now she had (or so she claimed) evidence that a representative of one of the lesser schools -- specifically, his school -- had disrupted an important ceremony at Honnoji, and was fully within her rights (or so she claimed) to demand that Konoemon deliver the head of said representative to her. But she was merciful (or so she claimed) and would settle for that representative being fired from his position and blacklisted by any professional associations to which they might belong, and for some minor budgetary and policy changes at the Mahora family of schools. Which could be translated as, 'give us all your money and close the dorm so we can force your students to live in our apartment complexes and charge their parents rent.'

Konoemon shook his head. Negi-kun had only been here for a few days, and already he was causing problems just like his father had before him.

There could be very little doubt that the boy was responsible for this. Morimoto's phone call had been the second he'd received this morning, and while she had been vague about the details of the 'representative', so much so that he thought it unlikely that she'd actually witnessed the situation, the other phone call had been much more explicit. The agent of -- and here Konoemon broke off to shake his head again. No. Even in the privacy of his own thoughts, he would not use that organization's ridiculous name. The agent had not made any threats or demands, as Morimoto had, but had made two things very clear -- that his organization did not welcome the interference of mages in the activities of a person of interest to them, and that the mage in question had been a young boy wearing an enchanted helmet.

The right thing, the proper thing, to do would be to have Negi-kun come to his office, confirm the details of the situation with him -- since he was an honest boy -- and then regretfully inform the lad that he had no choice but to dismiss him from his post, knowing that it would mean the end of Negi-kun's dreams of becoming a magister. What else was he to do? What were a young boy's dreams, when compared to the safety and security of all of the students under his care, and the educators in his employ?

Quite a bit, Konoemon thought, and decided to tell the right thing and the proper thing to get stuffed. He had, he believed, just enough political capital from his role in ending Japan's magical civil war remaining to him that he could resist these demands. And he also had evidence that the Morimoto-Kiryuuin alliance was not nearly as secure as Morimoto chose to believe. The situation had opportunities as well as challenges.

However, one of those challenges was making sure that Negi-kun did not, in his innocence and immaturity, cause further problems of this sort. Clearly, the boy envisioned himself as a latter-day super hero mage, like the one whose helmet he now wore. (Well, the original of that helmet, which was doubtless a cheap imitation Nagi's packrat tendencies had uncovered somewhere.) This was an energy that could be put to better use than it had been so far.

The ideal candidates to mentor the boy suggested themselves to Konoemon immediately. This time, he nodded to himself. "Shanna," he said, not bothering to raise his voice.

The doors to his office swung open, and his assistant entered, long reddish-blonde hair trailing behind her as she walked like a panther. She said nothing in response to him, waiting for him to state his requirements.

Barbarian, he thought with immense fondness. "Please contact Negi Springfield and tell him that I need to see him as soon as possible. If not sooner," he added.

Again, she concluded that no response was necessary, not even a nod of agreement. Shanna turned on her heel and walked out of the office, closing the doors behind her as she went.

Hopefully, Konoemon thought, the one he planned to install as the boy's mentor would arrange for him to finally get a cell phone, so people wanting to contact Negi-kun wouldn't need to go to these sort of lengths. Speaking of which, he reached for the phone on his desk and dialled a familiar number.

"Itoshiki-kun?" he said when the other end picked up. "I request and require the presence of you and your younger sister for a meeting this morning -- no, you have done nothing wrong -- no, I would not prefer that you expiate your crimes with your life -- look, just come to my office, will you?" he concluded, annoyed as conversations with this particular faculty member always left him.


Meanwhile, Negi and Yuna were having sex.

This hadn't actually been the plan for this fine day. (Well, it was as fine as days got.) This morning, over breakfast, Yuna and Akira had discussed a plan to take advantage of their day off to show Negi the sights of Academy City -- or at least as much of it as they could in one Sunday. But then Akira had received a rather frantic phone call from her swim team's coach and had to run off to an emergency practice session. Yuna found herself a bit bewildered at the idea of an emergency practice session, but then her team was going exactly nowhere. In any event, that left her alone in the dorm room with Negi.

So they fucked. It started with her finishing the blowjob that she'd started (and Haruna had rudely interrupted) two days before, sucking him until he let loose in her mouth while he sat on the table. She realized then why some girls refused to swallow the stuff, though she expected that it might be an acquired taste -- and had a feeling that she was going to acquire it. That done, they switched positions, with her sitting on the table and him crouched between her thighs, licking. And holy crap but he was good at that! His mothers had clearly known what they were teaching him, and Yuna felt a little dazed by the time that he stopped. She didn't do the 'counting the orgasms' thing, mostly because they came too damn frequently for her to keep track.

They'd moved to Negi's nook to continue things, mostly so that if Akira came back unexpectedly, they could quickly separate and make some excuses for why they were together without revealing that they were together together. He'd given her another hard pounding with his lips around one of her nipples, guiding her through a few more orgasms, before he slowed down to his present 'one thrust every few minutes' pace, which allowed them to talk even as they engaged in sex.

"So, this Misa and Rio pair that you fucked yesterday ... how much have you told them?" Yuna asked as she lay flat on her back, knees up around Negi's hips. "Ah."

"Not much," Negi admitted. "But it's Risa and Mio."

"Oh. That's ... good, since you're going to be fucking Kakizaki eventually. Two Misas would get pretty confusing. Especially since this other one sounds like an even worse version of the one in our class."

"Yuna."

"Yeah, sorry sorry sorry. Nnnn. Anyway, you didn't tell them about the magic, or about how they're going to be breeding hero babies?"

"I would have, but then I found out they were on birth control pills. So I've decided to make some arrangements with the person making the pills available to stop distributing them." He considered, briefly, telling Yuna about Mikado, but decided that the situation he had with the alien doctor didn't yet require the sort of full disclosure that Haruna demanded of him. He also considered that he was going to have to have this talk with Haruna as well. It might have been more convenient to have invited her over and --

"Hold it," said Yuna, staring up at him. "What are you doing?"

"I'm trying to stop the distribution of birth control pills," he explained.

"And why are you doing that?"

He blinked. Wasn't it obvious? "Well, the point of the exercise is to impregnate girls, so if they can't be impregnated, that's no good at all. So I have to remove the obstacle --"

"-- and what about everybody else?" Yuna interrupted.

"I'm sorry, what?" Negi asked.

"What about everybody else who's having sex and doesn't want to either get knocked up or knock girls up?"

He stared at her for a moment, missing an expected thrust into her in the process. "Uh," he said.

"And for that matter, couldn't that mess up your plan? What if one of the girls you want to add to your harem gets knocked up by someone else?"

"Ah, um, well, if someone is that close to someone else, I wouldn't want to interfere in their relationship," Negi said, once again seeming to be speaking from rote memorization. Clearly, she'd really thrown him with her first question.

Yuna wished she could be happy about that. "Holy crap, you never even thought about any of this, did you?" she asked, not sure if she should find this outrageous or hilarious.

"I, I just tried to handle things in the most direct way possible," he told her.

"Ah hah hah, no, you didn't. The most direct way would have been to talk to these screwy girls, like you talked to me or Haruna -- especially since they seem to be even easier than Haruna -- and tell them what you were planning, like you did the two of us. Instead, you -- you know, I bet you didn't even tell them why you wanted to talk to this drug dealer friend of theirs, did you?"

"Ummmm," said Negi, who hadn't.

"Oh, man, I might as well be fucking my dad! You're just as addicted to keeping secrets as he is," Yuna said disgustedly.

"I'm trying to be forthright with you," he pointed out ... though he was uncomfortably aware of what he had chosen to hold back.

Yuna let out a long sigh. "Okay, good point. So ... what else happened yesterday?"

Negi resumed thrusting, just a bit more frequently than he had been before. "Well, I made some progress with Suzumiya-san -- but I suppose that I'm going to have to explain to her why I disappeared like that. And I helped rescue two girls from an execution at Honnoji, and I'm hopeful that will lead to something ... particularly with the one who seems to be an exhibitionist."

"Mmm," she said, a bit distracted by the way he was making her feel. "I hope that doesn't come back to bite you in the ass."

There came a knock at the door.

"Awww, fffffuck me," Yuna groaned.

"I, I think maybe we should actually stop now," said Negi, pulling back.

"Not what I mean-- urgh," she concluded, then got up to slide down the ladder to the floor, hastily pulled on the pyjama bottoms she'd abandoned to facilitate Negi eating her out, then dashed to the door just as a second knock resonated. She did her best to arrange her face to look as innocent as possible, then opened the door with a pleasant smile on her face. "Yes?" she said to the blouse-covered breasts in front of her ... then looked up.

"I'm here for Negi Springfield," announced Minamoto Shanna. "Konoe-sensei would like a word with him."

Yuna, who felt her latent bisexuality being drawn to the surface yet again, thought it was absurdly unfair that she'd spent all that time trying to look innocent. "Ah, okay. Negi, it's someone from the Headmaster's office," she called back to the living room.

Negi, now wearing his pyjamas, appeared beside her a moment or so later. "Oh, Shanna-san. If you'll give me a moment to dress --"

"Just Shanna," the tall woman interrupted. "No honorifics. And yes, please dress." She paused. "And shower," Shanna added. "Separately."

"I'll get right on that," said Negi very quietly, and dashed for the en suite.

"Soooo," said Yuna, who suspected that bright red didn't go well with her brown hair. "Would you like to come in?"

"No."

"Just ... going to stand in the hallway and wait?"

"Yes."

"Do you mind if I close the door?"

Perhaps unable to find an appropriate monosyllabic reply, Shanna shrugged her indifference.


Sex, decided Haruna as she leaned her back against the wall of the shower stall while her full sibling -- currently a brother -- pounded away between her spread thighs while a torrent of hot water descended on both of them, was great. It was much greater than flirting. It was even greater than drawing sex, something that Haruna had until recently viewed as the pinnacle of enjoyable activities. She had reached the conclusion that anybody who talked about things being 'better than sex' clearly had a warped set of priorities.

Talking Ranma into having sex with her when Ranma was "boy-type", to use Shan Pu's terminology, had been surprisingly easy. Well, probably not so surprisingly when she realized that he'd been the 'uke' of all of his relationships to date. All she'd had to do was pretend to be just the tiniest bit 'uke' herself, and his 'seme' side had come up as hard as his erection had when the hot water poured down on them.

He'd surprised her, though, by going right for the main event, instead of forcing Haruna to her knees and shoving his cock into her mouth and throat, as a genuine 'seme' would have done, or kissing and carressing her breasts like he did when they were fucking as girls. There'd been none of any of that, just a quick slide of his tool along her folds, then up her he went, then back and forth like the pistons of the little engine that could. To be honest, she wasn't all that impressed with her brother as a male lover, especially when compared with the talent of her other most recent heterosexual romance.

Not that she'd ever tell either of them that.

But she did find herself curious, and, mid-gasp, found the strength to ask, "So how many other girls got the benefit of this?" She knew he hadn't done it with Shan Pu, since that would be 'adultery' in the Chinese psycho's world view, and wondered whether she had a swath of neices and nephews spread over half of China and Korea.

"Errrrgh," Ranma replied. "Only ... Komu."

So who the hell was Komu supposed to be ... oh wait, she'd heard that name, it was the name of Shan Pu's -- "Oh, fuck." She laughed even as she swore. "You fucked your fucking stepmom, you fuck!" She loosened her grip on Ranma's taut abdomen to reach around and tease his butt with one of her fingers.

"Agggh!" he shrieked, pounding on pause. "I told you not to do that! And I didn't know she was my stepmom when we did it, and I don't think this whole Amazon marriage business really means anything, and don't do that again!"

"Mm-hm, sure," Haruna agreed, leaving it very open to speculation which part of his statement had her agreement, and how sincere that agreement was.

Ranma growled and resumed fucking her, even harder than before. She had to give him points for enthusiasm (which was how she interpreted his irritation) if not many for skill.

She supposed that it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Her brother -- or technically sister -- had been fucked by their dad -- and even if it had started as rape, it had clearly become something consensual over time -- and then fucked both her sisters. So of course he'd also had sex with his step-mother. This was exactly how it would have played out in one of her mangas, so of course it was what happened in what she laughingly called real life as well. All that it was, really, was just one more reason that she was never going to introduce her brother to their actual mother.

Even if Haruna had lately found herself perversely wondering what her mother's cunny tasted like, and whether it would taste better if there was a boy's hot white cum dripping out of it. Mmmm, she thought, as the idea mixed with what Ranma was doing to her to give her yet another orgasm.

"Urgh! Urghhh!" Ranma declared.

Ah, he was about to climax. Time to satisfy another curiosity, she thought, and let go of him to reach over and turn the shower setting to cold.

"Why did you do that?" shrieked girl-type Ranma a second or so later.

"To see what would happen," Haruna answered honestly, if a little incompletely, as she unhooked her knees from her sister's slightly narrower hips and stood in front of her. "Hm. I thought it might turn into squirt, but no dice, I guess."

"What the hell are you even talking about?" the red head demanded.

"It's a little hard to explain. Tell you what, though, if I ever run into a girl who can do it, I'll arrange for you to get a demonstration. Meanwhile, I think we used up enough hot water for one day, so unless you want to fool around like this --"

"Not with you, that's for sure!" Ranma-chan declared, stomping towards the en suite's exit.

Haruna shrugged. If she was fool enough to turn down multiple orgasms at her hands, then it couldn't be helped. Meanwhile, she herself had kept to the letter of the agreement she had with Negi-kun, and nobody else was going to drop loads of baby batter inside of her until she was sure that she was pregnant with the child teacher's offspring. Especially not her sibling.

She took the time to pull on a bathrobe before exiting the en suite, and looked over to where Shan Pu was watching Ranma get dressed with a look on her face that seemed almost as curious as Haruna found herself feeling at times. It was a little disturbing to see that similarity on the face of someone whom she didn't like, even if they'd managed to get along enough to have sex.

Before she could address that, however, there was a knock on the door. Haruna headed over to answer it, wondering if Fei had finally decided to come back to get her stuff.

To her mild surprise, however, it was Yuna. "Saotome, we got a situation. Negi needs our help," she said without preamble. Then blinked. "Who the hell is that?"

Haruna looked over her shoulder to see that Ranma was listening in on this conversation. She turned back to look at Yuna with a rather malicious grin on her face. "Would you give me a moment to get a kettle nice and hot before I answered that question?"

"Hey!"


Shanna didn't engage in any small talk as she briskly led Negi to the administration building. He supposed that he could have started some conversation, but the only things he wanted to ask her were probably more suited to a more private setting, and he wasn't much better at small talk, really. So the two of them walked in silence.

 

By the time they were within visual range of their destination, Negi's sixth sense had begun to give him the signal that, from past experience, he recognized as an indication that he was being followed. He glanced backwards to see who it was, but wasn't really surprised when he couldn't see anyone on the path behind him. They were clearly competent followers. Risa and Mio again, perhaps? He hadn't noticed either of them until they were on him, yesterday, though he'd been a bit distracted at the time.

Well, unless they did something to interrupt his meeting with the Headmaster, he wouldn't worry about whoever was following him. And the sense that he was being followed abruptly stopped as he entered the administration building and headed up the stairs that led to the Headmaster's office.

Shanna opened the huge double doors, then stood back to let him enter. Negi did so, then stopped dead in his tracks just as he cleared the entryway. Konoe-sensei was standing on top of his desk, and there was a young woman sitting in a chair in front of that desk, but neither sight was nearly as compelling as the horrific image of a man, wearing glasses and dressed in archaic-seeming Japanese clothes, hanging from a noose tied to one of the office's rafters.

"Ah, Negi-kun," said the Headmaster as Shanna closed the doors to the office behind Negi. "You're quicker than I thought. I hoped to have this business over before you arrived."

Negi wasn't really listening. The hanged man had given a mild twitch. "Good heavens, he's still alive!" Negi cried out. "We can save him -- Raskil Maskel Magister! Sagita Magica, Series Ignis!" And with that incantation, a fiery arrow streaked forth from Negi's shoulder to strike the rope and sear through it in an instant.

"Oh dear," Konoe-sensei mused, but quickly grabbed hold of the hanged man before he could drop all the way to the floor, demonstrating remarkable strength in the process.

And then the eyes of the hanged man popped open and he stared at Negi with outrage plainly written on his face. "Are you out of your mind?" he demanded, demonstrating remarkable vocal abilities for someone who'd just had his airway cut off. "Do you realize how much injury can result from a fall of even that short distance? What if I'd died?"

"Ah?" asked Negi, finding it hard to move his slackened jaw for some reason.

"Yes, yes, Itoshiki-kun, these habits of yours are really quite unwelcome at the moment," said Konoe-sensei as he lowered the man until his feet touched the floor in front of his desk. "However, you have done well as part of an object lesson, so ... good work, I suppose."

"Ah ... thank you, sir?" the man said, a bit uncertainly.

"Now sit down, and do not attempt to kill yourself for the remainder of this meeting." As the man did so, Konoe-sensei hopped down from the desktop. "Negi-kun, I would like to introduce to you two of your colleagues, respectively as a teacher and as a practitioner of your other area of expertise. This is Itoshiki Nozomu-kun, a teacher at our High School level, and his sister, Itoshiki Sakura."

Negi, glad of any distraction from the confusion he was presently feeling, turned to regard the young woman who was now favoring him with a gentle smile. Under most normal circumstances, his eyes would have been drawn to her long before now. Her long black hair, cut in what he believed was known as the 'hime cut', and accented by a red ribbon on the left side of her head, was certainly an eye-catching feature, as was her bust -- not as spectacular or as immodestly displayed as Mikado-sensei's, certainly, but quite noteworthy in a girl of high school age, as he judged her to be.

"Good morning," he said to her.

"Good day to you as well," she replied, very formally.

By the time they finished their greetings, the Headmaster had returned to the back of his desk and taken his seat. "Now, Negi-kun, I hope you will do me the honor of telling me what your next step would have been, if you had just exposed your magic to people hitherto unaware of the existence of such matters, rather than to people well aware of them, as the Itoshikis are?"

Negi resisted the urge to flinch. "I would have volunteered to use a memory erasure charm, sensei ... though if you had volunteered to do so in my stead, I would certainly have welcomed the assistance."

The old man nodded, rubbing his beard. "That's a good answer. The best answer, of course, is not to be put in that position in the first place."

"Yessir," Negi agreed. "But I'm sorry to say that I don't view the secret as being worth even a single human life."

"It's certainly worth my life!" interjected Itoshiki-sensei. "Very few things are less valuable than my --"

"Niisan," interjected Sakura. "Remember the circumstances."

Her brother let out a grunt of annoyance.

"Even if that life ... oddly ... doesn't seem to have been in any actual danger," Negi concluded, ignoring that interlude.

"I suspected that would be your attitude. It was certainly how your father approached matters. But helmet or no helmet, Negi-kun, I hope you are not under the impression that you are Doctor Fate. Or even the White Devil," Konoe-sensei added.

"No sir," Negi agreed, unsurprised that the Headmaster apparently knew all. Then added, "Not yet."

"Hmmm." The Headmaster smiled behind his beard. "In the interest of putting that ambition and that energy to good use, then, I'm going to have you accompany Sakura-chan on a tour of Academy City today, as preparation for your new role as one of its guardians."

Negi blinked. He'd expected to face some disciplinary action for his activities ... and then it occurred to him that being given an assignment like this was probably not meant as a reward, as such. "I will strive to be an effective guardian as well as an effective teacher, sir. I will be in your care, Sakura-san."

She smiled warmly, and nodded.

"All right then, be off, the two of you. I still have some other matters to discuss with Itoshiki-kun," the old man said with a wave of his hand.

"Oh ... um, sir, I do have one quick question that I should probably have asked before now, though ... various matters have prevented it," Negi said as Sakura stood up. "It concerns Hino Rei-san."

"Oh, yes, you do have a student by that name," Konoemon said. "What about her?"

Negi stared. That was not what he had expected, either. "Um ... should I address her in any particular way?"

The Headmaster blinked. "Why would you need to address her any differently than the rest of your students, Negi-kun?"

"Ah ... well ..." Negi hemmed. "No, of course I wouldn't. Certainly not. Please excuse me, then." He bowed, then headed out of the office, accompanied by Sakura.

"... what a strange interlude that was," Itoshiki-sensei mused.

"You. Should really. Not talk." the Headmaster growled.


"Okay," said Haruna, staring up at the doors of the administration building from behind a statue that dominated the plaza in front of it. "What exactly is the worst case scenario, here?"

 

"You don't want to know," Yuna answered grimly, staring at the exact same thing.

"... what do you mean, 'you don't want to know'? Of course I want to know! I wouldn't have asked if I didn't want to know!" Haruna snapped irritably. "I left my idiot sibling and their idiot girlfriend alone and unsupervised in my room to follow you around, Yunagi, do not give me crap like that."

Yuna rubbed her face with her hands. "Okay, A, it's gross like nothing I can imagine, B, I have no idea how we'd prevent it, and C, if it happens you and I are probably going to have our memories erased soon afterwards. And I still can't believe you weren't making that business about your brother and his curse up."

"Well, believe it. As to A, I have a stronger stomach than you, so seriously --"

"They'll carve out his brain to make one of their computers work better or something."

Haruna stopped staring at the door and started staring at Yuna.

"I warned you," Yuna said, sing-song style.

"I'm not disgusted," the mangaka said in a very calm, very patient tone. "I'm pissed off. He's ten, who the hell does that sort of shit to a ten year old boy?"

"People who would probably look down on those who fuck said ten year old boy."

Haruna ignored that. "If that's what could be happening, we shouldn't be hanging around outside the admin building, we should be going in there to stand beside the kid and try to rescue him --"

"Someone's coming," Yuna interrupted, and ducked behind the statue. Haruna imitated her. Peering over the base, they saw Negi exit the building, walking in step and chatting amiably with a high school aged girl in a pink blouse and long white skirt. The pair headed off on one of the paths leading in the general direction of the World Tree.

"Okay ... no brain-carving appears to have taken place," Haruna said after a moment. "That doesn't look like the Risa I've heard rumors about. Is it this Mio girl?"

"I don't know, he didn't exactly describe either of them to me!" Yuna hissed. "Come on, let's follow them and see what the hell is going on here!"

Haruna felt torn. On the one hand, the worst-case scenario clearly wasn't happening, so the vague sense of proportion that she had in place of a conscience was not really troubled. On the other hand, this seemed like something rather interesting, and ... she honestly had felt torn for a few seconds there, but it had passed. Smiling widely, she followed along with Yuna as the other girl began following Negi and his floozy.


"Ah, Negi-sensei, are you aware that we're being followed?"

"Yes," Negi told her. "Well, to be accurate, I'm being followed. It started before I arrived at the administration building. When we came out, I managed to get a glimpse of the people involved -- it's two girls from my homeroom class. They're probably just concerned after I was summoned to the Headmaster's office like that," he partially explained.

"Ohhh," Sakura replied in a tone of great revelation. "Hm. It must be nice to have people that worry about you that much."

He shrugged. "It has its ups and downs ... you must have people who care about you just as much," he added.

"Not really, no. Out of all my brothers, I'm closest to Nozomu-niisan, and ... well, you've seen what he's like. I should say that he's actually improved quite a bit recently; since he started teaching his current homeroom class, he hasn't tried to talk other people into committing suicide in a while. But anyway, nobody in the Itoshiki family has ever been cruel to me, but I wouldn't say that any of them have ever been exactly welcoming."

Negi frowned. "That's ... sort of odd, why would --"

"I'm adopted," Sakura interjected.

"Ohhhh," said Negi, also in a tone of great revelation.

"Usually people guess from the way that my name doesn't fit with those of the others --" she started to explain, then flushed slightly. "Except of course that you've never seen them written down, and don't speak Japanese as a native, and probably wouldn't get the jokes involved. Oh, dear." She shook her head. "I suddenly question the wisdom of having me try to show you anything, Negi-sensei."

"I'm sure that you'll do fine," Negi insisted, smiling warmly at her.

Her flush did not notably abate. "Well, thank you, Negi-sensei. I'll certainly give it my all. Anyway, our first stop is the World Tree, which I assume that you've already seen."

"I've never been so close to it," he replied, gazing up at the immense tree. "It's even bigger than I'd realized ..."

"And we're still about twenty minutes walk from the base," Sakura revealed, smiling as Negi's eyes widened.

They walked together in companionable silence for a few moments, before Negi spoke up again. "I hope you won't mind if I ask a rather personal question."

"Is it about how I came to be adopted?" she asked.

He nodded once.

"I don't mind. Are you familiar with the tradition of the magic crest?"

"Ohhhh," said Negi once again. While his family, with its unique heritage, didn't practice this particular tradition, he had learned about it in classes. "That really explains it all, thank you."

"You're welcome. I should say that I'm very grateful that the Itoshiki family took me in. Considering the lack of blood ties between them and my birth family, it's actually something of a miracle that I was able to accept their family's crest when none of the current generation of their family could."

Negi genuinely boggled. "That's passing strange," he said before he could really consider his words.

"I know, right?" Sakura agreed.

Conscious that he could have really upset Sakura with his ill-chosen words, and glad that she wasn't taking offense, Negi hesitated a bit before speaking again. "Do you ever think about --" He broke off as he realized that someone was walking towards them down the path they were following.

"About my birth family?" asked Sakura, as the two of them passed and were passed by another young woman with dark hair done up in twin-tails, wearing a red t-shirt and a pair of black shorts. "I do my very best to never think about them at all."

"I can see why you might do that," Negi mused.


It was rare for Negi to find himself at a genuine loss for words, but so he found himself as he stood at the base of the World Tree, gazing up at the tangled branches, many of which were probably strong enough to bear his own weight. The trunk of the tree was probably the size of a small city block. "So vast," he finally said, thinking that even that didn't come close to describing it accurately.

"The first mages who found it thought it was a physical manifestation of the tree of worlds, where all the possible realities exist," Sakura said, speaking even more softly than she normally did. "That was a long time ago." She sighed, then. "It's dying, unfortunately."

"What?" Negi gasped, turning to look at her, then back up at the tree. "But it looks so healthy --"

"Well, the good news is that it will still be dying long after you and I and everyone in this city are long dead," she told him. "There've been a number of magical and mundane arborists who've come to examine it, and I've spoken with them -- that's my own career path, you see -- and they all agree that it's reached its maximum growth, and there's nothing left but to slowly but surely wither. It will take a long time ... unless the world ends in fire, I mean." She was smiling when she said that last, but it wasn't the nice smile she'd given Negi earlier.

"There's really nothing to be done?" he asked, clearly not wanting to believe this.

"It really can't be helped. In a way, the World Tree is the literal embodiment of 'it can't be helped'." Sakura shook her head. "But I didn't come here to depress you," she added, a bit more spirited in her tone. "This is also the center of the city, and the best place to describe it to you. Ready?"

"Will there be a test afterwards?" Negi asked, trying to match her newfound good humor.

"There just might be. All right, let's start in the southeastern area of the city, which contains all four of the Mahora schools and their associated dormitories. This is where we do most of our patrols, since, well, this is our home. What with one thing and another, there's enough bad behavior and problems that we can solve here to keep us busy a good three quarters of the time."

"Bad behavior?" Negi asked, frowning. "I haven't seen any such things."

"Thank you," Sakura replied, once again favoring him with the pleasant smile.

"Ah."

"To the immediate west of that is a recreation district that's clustered around the main entrance to Academy City. Like pretty much everything in the south, it's seen better days, but there are still some good times to be found there. On the other hand, when people are having fun, sometimes they have too much fun, and the district has a fairly dark side. There's an active Refrain ring that neither we nor the Executive have had any luck in breaking up."

"Refrain?" asked Negi.

"Oh, I suppose you wouldn't know about that sort of thing," Sakura said, shaking her head. "It's a drug that causes flashbacks to pleasant memories, pretty much incapacitating those who take it. I'm sad to say that it's mostly used by people trying to recapture the days before Second Impact, which includes a fair number of teachers." She looked over in the general direction of the administration building. "Nozomu-niisan tried an overdose once," she added softly. "I think it was as close as he's ever actually come to killing himself, and the aftereffects still linger even though he hasn't touched it since."

"That's awful," the boy teacher said. "We have to stop this."

"If only it were as easily done as said," she told him, looking at him with a somewhat pitying expression. "There's some who think that ... well, I'll get to that later. Anway, in the southwest corner of the city is the area called Astraea Hill. That's a holdover from when these schools were actually located on a hill elsewhere in Japan, if you're wondering why they seem to be on the same altitude as the rest of the south. The schools here -- St. Ursula, St. Miator, St. Spica, and St. Lilim --"

"Hold it," Negi interrupted, flatly. "Now, I'm not Catholic, but I'm fairly sure that there's no Saint Lilim. That's a term from Babylonian mythology, not a name as such. What's going on there?"

"I'm not Catholic either," Sakura answered with a helpless shrug. "You'd really have to ask one of the school historians, and I suspect they'd probably just claim that it's the name of a folk saint, like Japan's Amakusa Shiro, or Marie Laveau in America. Anyway, all these schools are girls-only, and there's not a lot of trouble to be found here. The administration here gets along rather well with Mahora's administration, though, so we pass through on inspection tours from time to time. Things do tend to get a little rowdy around the time that they elect an Etoile." She saw Negi about to ask the question, and smoothly answered it. "That's basically a school idol."

"I see," said Negi, who actually wasn't sure that he did. Was this some sort of work-around to undermine the Joint Student Council's authority? That didn't seem to fit the notion that there wasn't a lot of trouble in that sector.

Not noticing Negi's confusion, Sakura pressed on. "To the north of Astraea Hill, you can find a collection of dormitories, mostly owned by the Morimoto financial group, as well as Haramihama and Hakudo High Schools, as well as Furinkan ... and if you think that Mahora has seen better days, I should warn you that Furinkan is on its last legs. It's very likely that the school is going to be bought up by the Morimoto group and used as a new campus for their school in Kyushu, St. Arcadia."

Negi considered pointing out that there was no St. Arcadia, but decided to just let it slide for now.

"In the northwest corner of the Academy, we can find Kibogamine Academy," she continued, then looked rather sternly at Negi. "We don't go there. Ever."

"Why not?" he asked, startled by how serious she seemed.

"Basically, once a student is admitted to Kibogamine, they don't leave it until they're finished their studies -- one way or another. Not for any reason. The school has its own hospital, its own crematorium -- and a security team that makes the protections around Honnoji look like amateur hour. It is not open to the public, and the administration here does not welcome outside interfence, like us."

Negi found himself gazing towards the northwest, where he could make out a single, multistory building. "What are they doing there that's so secret?"

Sakura sighed. "Based on some of the few statements that they've released, and our investigations? We think they're training people with super-abilities."

"Superheroes?" he asked, eyes wide.

"No," she answered firmly. "Very. Much. No."

"Ohhhh."

"Ahem. To the east of Kibogamine, we have Otori Academy. Whichever of Kibogamine and Honnoji is considered the first among equals, Otori is the second." Seeing Negi frowning, Sakura smiled ruefully. "It depends on what areas you rate as most important -- Otori is second-best at everything Kibogamine excels at, and the same for Honnoji -- and those two excel in completely different areas. Anyway, Otori is much more open to the public than either of them, so when we want to keep an eye on either school, we usually operate out of Otori. I'll be taking you over there later today to show you how that works."

"I look forward to that."

"And of course you've already visited Honnoji and no doubt formed some strong opinions on the subject," she added, smiling just a bit wickedly.

"I have, yes," Negi agreed, nodding politely and saying absolutely nothing else.

"Mm-hm. Most of us have the same opinion ... but patience, one of the more difficult virtues, is generally counselled when dealing with them. Now, to the south of Honnoji's gates and the immediate north of Mahora, you'll find the cathedral, where most of the serious magical education takes place."

He laughed. "Very funn-- oh my goodness, you're serious, aren't you?" Negi asked, as he saw that Sakura seemed quite solemn as she gazed at him.

She nodded shortly. "I know that isn't how things work in Europe --"

"Oh, understatement," Negi interjected. "I don't think we could get away with that in Albion, or even the Scandinavian countries."

"Well, we've managed to establish a working relationship here."

"Indeed!" proclaimed a voice from above. "And the symbol of that relationship is the partnership that exists between thee and I!"

"Oh no," said Sakura, head dropping.

Negi looked up to see that someone was standing on one of the branches. The angle of his vision made it hard to make out any details, "Who --" he started to ask.

"I have no name to give such as you!" the female voice proclaimed. "Know me as -- the Mysterious Sister!" And with that, she dropped down from the great height, landing as lightly as a feather, revealing herself to be a girl in a mini-skirted version of a nun's habit, with a mask over her mouth. After landing, she posed dramatically.

"... I think I recognize that voice," Negi said after a moment. "Aren't you Kasuga Misora?"

The pose slipped a little. "Misora?" she demanded. "Who is this Misora of whom you speak?!"


Just out of hearing range of the three of them, crouched beneath the slope of the World Tree's hill, Haruna and Yuna were watching all this with confused expressions.

Haruna spoke first. "What the hell is Misochi up to?"

Yuna opened her mouth to answer, then whipped her head around to look at Haruna. "Misochi? That's Misora? How the hell can you tell?"

"Her legs, of course," Haruna retorted without taking her eyes off the sight before her.

Yuna kept right on staring at Haruna. "You've spent a lot of time examining the legs of the girls in our class, then?"

"Yes," Haruna answered in a rather seductive tone. Then she added more normally, "Not yours, though. Oh, now what's happening?"

Yuna wanted to respond to that remark. She really did. But she was fairly sure that what was going on beneath the tree was probably more important, so she turned to look in that direction.


"No really, I know no Misora. I'm sure she is a lovely young lady, but I know her not!"

"Ahem. Mysterious Sister?" said Sakura. "I would have words with thee. Privately," she added in a much less formal tone as she started walking towards the Mysterious Sister.

"Perhaps such a conversation should wait until the task set upon us is completed, and our companion moves on," the Sister began to say as Sakura came up to her.

"Nope," said Sakura, grabbing hold of the other girl's collar and dragging her along with her as she walked around the circumference of the World Tree.

Negi blinked at this sight. "Oh-kay, then," he called after them. "I'll just ... wait here while you do that." He glanced in Haruna and Yuna's direction, seeing them drop out of sight immediately as he did so. It was tempting to go over to them so that he could try and explain that they didn't need to be following him like this. On the other hand, and if they did keep on following him, and if matters worked out like he hoped that they would, they would probably appreciate being kept in the loop. So he decided to just wait as he said he would.

Sakura finally judged that they were far enough away from Negi that he wouldn't be able to hear them. She stopped and allowed the Mysterious Sister to regain her footing, then glared at her. "What are you doing?" she asked flatly.

"I'm trying to help you show him around and --" the younger girl answered.

"You are being the exact opposite of helpful, Misora," Sakura interrupted. "How did you even find out about this?"

Misora -- for it was indeed she -- looked away awkwardly. "Sister told me that you were guiding a new arrival, and I figured that it had to be Negi-sensei. I didn't want him to know who I am, so ... Mysterious Sister it was."

Sakura rubbed her forehead. "Misora, the point of this exercise is to bring him into the Mage Order so that he doesn't go around like a masked marauder anymore. That means not using masks, and it means making sure that he understands he can trust us. So no, the Mysterious Sister act is not helpful under these circumstances."

"I just don't want him to look at me any differently in class than he usually does," Misora complained, still without meeting Sakura's eyes.

"Then why did you even come here?" the high school mage asked.

Now she did meet her eyes, and there was a decidedly defiant look there. "Because you're my Magister. If you need help, I'm there."

Despite herself, Sakura felt her normally cold blood warm a bit as she heard Misora say that. The other girl had come so far in the last year. "And you are my Minister," she agreed, bending forward to press her lips to Misora's forehead for a moment. "And even though I don't need your help, I'm glad that you want to help."

Blushing, the other girl waited a moment before asking, "So I can stick around, then?"

"Yes, but try to curb your enthusiasm, all right? You do realize that he's not buying this act?"

"I beg to differ," Misora said indignantly. "I think that last argument completely convinced him."

Sakura opened her mouth to tell her partner that Negi-sensei was just humoring her ... then decided to humor her herself. "Okay, then. Let's go back, then."

"Negi-sensei, let me properly introduce you," Sakura said a few moments later. "This is my Pactio partner ... the Mysterious Sister."

"Okay," Negi said after a brief pause to consider all this. "Pleased to meet you ... Mysterious Sister."

"Indeed," said Mis--ahem, the Mysterious Sister, and posed some more.

"All right. I think our first stop should be the cathedral, so let's head over there, now," Sakura suggested.

Behind her mask, the Mysterious Sister opened her mouth to protest, to state that if they went there she would almost certainly be dragged back into the work she was supposed to be doing instead of this. All words were killed as Sakura gave her a rather firm look, and she just pouted behind her mask as she followed along behind her partner and her (not really) unwitting teacher.

"Are we being followed?" she asked after a bit.

"Yes," Negi and Sakura chorused.


"Now, P-chan," said Makanshoku Sukuyo as she stood in her tiny home's kitchen and held the small black pig in both hands at arm's length. "I want you to know that I am very profoundly grateful to you for your role in saving my daughter's life. And so, no matter what happens, you will always have a place here, and, no matter what happens, we will not eat you, no matter how tasty you would probably be."

"Buuki," replied P-chan, just a bit dazedly.

"However, if you're going to stay here, we need to do certain things to make sure everyone else who stays here is comfortable. Therefore," she continued, turning P-chan to face the stovetop, on which a pot filled with steamy-looking water was sitting, "it's bath-time!"

"BWEEEEE!" the pig protested, shaking in Sukuyo's grip. "BWEE BWEE BWEE!"

"There's no point in arguing, P-chan," she told him, as sure in her convictions as the daughter she'd raised, while she walked over to hold him above the pot. "You definitely need this bath. Now -- in you go!" And with that, she dropped him.

For a few faltering seconds, it seemed that the pig's determination to not go in the pot would enable him to defy gravity. Yet the cruel mistress asserted her might nonetheless, and he finally fell into the hot water.

Some rather dramatic events then transpired.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

Barazo leapt from the chair where he'd been studying medical journals (which were oddly printed on glossy paper with lots of interesting photographs) and ran all the way to the kitchen. "Dear wife!" he gasped as he arrived at the kitchen doorway. "What ever is the matter?"

Sukuyo was standing in the middle of the kitchen with a dazed look on her face. "Ah," she said, on seeing her husband at the doorway. "Well. You see ... I was about to give P-chan a bath," she began to explain.

"Did the pig bite you?" the doctor said, frowning in a way that portended very ill for the fate of any biting pigs that were in the area.

"Oh no!" she protested. "He wouldn't do that! Well, he didn't do that," she amended after a moment of consideration. "Ahem, he squirmed and squiggled and then slid out of my hands before I could get him in the pot, and then he ran off. I was very startled, and that's why I screamed." She nodded firmly.

"I see," Barazo said, then smiled broadly. "Well, then, it's understandable. After all, he probably thought you were going to cook him, not clean him."

"But I explained that I wasn't," his wife protested feebly.

"Dear, dear, dear!" replied the doctor, with a few shakes of his head. "You forget that no matter how clever he might seem, we're talking about a pig, here! He can't understand what you're saying. He only understands actions and phenomena!"

"I suppose you're right," Sukuyo agreed after a moment. "His kind probably aren't very clever, after all. Well. Clever or not, I'm going to have to find the little rogue and take care of him one way or another. So, darling, you might want to head back to your office and just ... ignore any of the strange noises you hear. Like I ignore the ones coming from there when you're at work."

"Will do!" Barazo answered with a jaunty salute, then headed back to his office to put on headphones and listen to idol singers while reading his journals.

Sukuyo smiled in a way that seemed just the tiniest bit diabolic instead of angelic, then danced over to the refrigerator and opened it up. There, inside the nearly empty main compartment, a naked young man with a headband just like P-chan's necktie was curled up shivering in terror and cold. "He's gone now," she told him, singsong style.

"Th-thank you for not letting your husband know," the young man replied. "He w-wouldn't understand."

"Oh, I think he'd understand. He just wouldn't approve of the notion that instead of a small black pig living in the same room as our daughter and her houseguest, it was actually a teenaged boy, filled with teenaged boy hormones, watching them get dressed and undressed."

"No!" the teenaged boy protested. "I-I-I didn't, I turned away whenever that was --"

"Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm, come out of there, now, before you catch your death," Sukuyo interjected, gently but firmly pulling him out of the fridge and over to the table, where she had him sit down. "Now, how does it work?" she asked.

"Work?" he repeated.

"The magic trick," she elaborated. "How you look like a boy sometimes, and a pig other times."

"Oh. Uh, cold water and, and room temperature water turn me into the pig, hot water ... well, you saw."

"Ahhhhh." She nodded as one greatly enlightened. "But not your clothes, I take it."

The boy abruptly realized that he was naked, and, like one who had eaten of the tree of wisdom, gaspingly tried to cover himself.

"Ah-ah-ah!" Sukuyo snapped. "No, no cover up. This is your punishment. No cover up."

He stared up at her in disbelief, but obediently pulled back his hands from the area he'd attempted to conceal.

"Ohhh," she said, gazing. "You have a lot to feel guilty about, don't you? And it seems that the presence of this old lady is making you feel even more!"

"You're not old!" he said. He wasn't quite sure why he said that, nor why he felt a sudden, profound certainty that it had not been the right thing to say under these circumstances.

She smiled even more broadly than she had been up until this point, in a way that was rather disturbing. "Young man," she said lightly. "What is your name? It's important to find out beforehand, I think."

Oh god, she's going to kill me! he thought. He felt like crying. But no. If these were his final moments, let it be said that he met them as a man and not a pig. "Hibiki Ryouga," he answered, in a voice thick with emotion.

"Pleased to meet you, Hibiki Ryouga," she told him sunnily, then dropped to her knees, bent over his midsection, and took his erection into her mouth, drawing it back into the depths of her throat in the process.

Wait, what? thought Ryouga. This isn't -- she isn't -- she can't be -- "Nyaaaaahhhhhhh!" was what he cried out a moment or so later, as the sensation of being touched by a woman for the first time in nearly a decade and the circumstances conspired to send him shuddering towards near instantaneous release.

"GAGKH!" cried Sukuyo as his emission shot down her throat. Slowly, she drew back, releasing his member from her steely grip, but still holding it with one firm hand. "Still hard," she said wonderingly. "Oh ... we're going to have so much fun this afternoon."

"Nnnnnnggghhh," replied Ryouga.

A few moments later, some rather loud bumping noises coming from the general direction of the kitchen managed to distract Barazo from his contemplation, but he returned to it quickly, secure in his certainty that the most wonderful wife in the world was just trying to give an ungrateful pig a bath.

Which was, in a way, true.


"Okay, this is starting to stop being fun," opined Haruna as she and Yuna peered around the corner of the cathedral to stare at the entrance, Haruna's head just above Yuna's

"It was never about having fun in the first place," Yuna replied without looking at her.

"You really don't know me at all, do you?" Haruna asked, then kept on speaking before Yuna could reply to that. "Look, if he's been taken into a church, I think we can assume that he's safe."

Now she did turn to look up at her. "What a time to abandon traditional xenophobia," Yuna growled. "Do you have any idea what kind of rotten stuff people used to do in churches?"

"... in medieval Italy and Spain," replied Haruna. "We're in twenty-first century Japan, the worst they're going to do is try to persuade him to convert!"

"Generally not even that, as missionary work generally focuses on the residents of a country rather than visitors," said a voice behind the two of them. "What are you doing?"

Yuna wheeled, almost spinning in place to look behind her, where Hino Rei was regarding the pair of them quizzically. She found herself answering that quizzical gaze with a bewildered gape. Haruna turned a little more sedately, but found herself no less startled.

"Well?" Rei pressed.

"Ah ... well, I'm Negi-sensei's guardian, you see, and he was called into the Headmaster's office this morning and sent on some sort of tour with a high school girl, and I talked Haruna into following me as we tried to keep an eye on him," Yuna answered.

Haruna turned her startled gaze on Yuna. "The truth? That's what you lead with? No attempt at coming up with a plausible sounding lie?"

"Why would you lie about something so petty?" Rei asked, annoyed. "No, never mind. Have fun with your game." With that, she walked past the two of them towards the cathedral's entrance.

"... between her and Zazie, that's two people I never expected to talk to that I've talked to in this last week," Yuna mused aloud. "All I need now are Eva-chan and Karin, and I've pretty much got the whole set."


The workshops and training areas underneath the cathedral were fairly well-put together, if clearly not as secure as a mage's workshop should be. Then again, given that Negi's current home lacked the facilities for a secure workshop, it was fairly likely that he would avail himself of these facilities if he ever needed to do some serious ritual workings. The expense of cleansing it of residual influences would not be minimal, but it would be very necessary. Would he be able to afford it on a teacher's salary, or would he need to tap into his saved-up allowance?

He also took the opportunity to be introduced to a number of the other magical teachers on campus, with Yuna's father and Takamichi being the only notable absences among the staff present within the catacombs. (It was probably just as well that Akashi-sensei wasn't there, as Negi wasn't really looking forward to the conversation he was eventually going to have to have with the much older man.) Everyone seemed very friendly, if a little distant.

That was his own fault, of course. Now that he saw exactly how much magic work was being done at Mahora, he realized exactly how much he'd unwittingly put in jeopardy through his hasty actions yesterday. With the advantage of hindsight, he realized that he'd had a number of options beyond simply wearing the helm as a disguise. He should have, could have, drawn on the skills Kiritsugu had taught him, and the magical tools he'd collected, to further obscure his identity. He'd have to do better in the future.

"Are you all right, Negi-sensei?" Sakura asked as they walked together up the stairs to the main level of the cathedral. "You're looking a little ... grim."

"I'm thinking some rather grim thoughts," Negi agreed.

"Try not to dwell on them. Nothing good ever comes of that."

Sakura and Negi paused to look at the source of this helpful aphorism.

"What?" said the Mysterious Sister.

"That was good advice," Sakura said mildly.

"Why are you phrasing that as if such things rarely come from my direction?" the Mysterious Sister asked, flushing a bit behind her mask.

"Let's move on," Negi suggested, just as mildly.

"No really, I want to know --"

Abruptly, they heard the door at the top of the spiral staircase open, and footsteps descending rapidly. Moments later, there came into view an older, full-figured woman dressed in the same habit -- albeit with a skirt that reached to her ankles -- as the Mysterious Sister. Her violet eyes were pinched with frustration. "There you are!"

"Urkgh," replied the Mysterious Sister.

"I've been looking everywhere for you!"

"Um ... I could point out that you clearly haven't, since I've been here ... but I won't," the younger sister added that last part quickly.

The older sister let out a brief sigh. "Misora, I have no time for this. I have to get to the train station, and you are going to have to greet Sister Yukariko and show her around when she arrives later this afternoon."

"Oh, come on," said the Mysterious Sister, oddly replying to a statement directed at that Misora person whom she clearly wasn't. "Father Greer can surely look after --"

"Father Greer doesn't give a damn about anything other than the girl's choir and his foster daughter," her superior interrupted. "I don't want it to be you, either, but you are, Heaven defend the faithful, the only person here I find even remotely reliable. Just do it. It's not like you're doing anything important at the moment."

"Good afternoon, Sister Hiroko," Sakura said in an attempt to join this conversation.

That drew the violet-eyed nun's attention. "Oh?" she said, looking at Sakura for the first time. Then she noticed Negi, and her eyes got a bit wider. "Oh," she added.

"Ma'am," said Negi, bowing politely.

"Don't call me ma'am, I work for a living," she replied brusquely. "All right, Misora, take care of this business first, but be back here well before Vespers. I will be back before this time tomorrow, and I will have an account of what went on from you. Sensei," she added, finally answering Negi's bow. Sakura, it should be noted, got nothing before Sister Hiroko turned and headed up the stairs again as quickly as she'd come, if not even a little quicker.

For a moment, the three of them stood in silence, before the Mysterious Sister pulled down her mask to reveal her mouth and nose. "I guess this is kind of pointless, now," she said uncomfortably.

"Gasp!" said Negi. "You were Misora! You were Misora all along!"

"Not funny, Negi-kun!" she yelled, face twisted in fake anger.

"Well, I'm sorry, Misora-san," said Negi, conscious as he did so that the small smile on his face was correctly suggesting that he wasn't that sorry. "But I really don't see why you engage in such a deception."

 

His student let out a sigh and stumped up the staircase past Sakura and him, speaking as she did so. "It started out as a way to keep the fact that I did work for the Mage Order a secret, especially from anybody who knew me. Then ... well, it sort of grew into a habit. If you'll pardon the pun."

"Of course," said Negi, following along behind her, with Sakura trailing after him. "I actually do understand where that impulse comes from. If you'd like, I'd be happy to teach you a few methods that are maybe a little more likely to work to that end than what you've been doing."

The acolyte's stumping steps paused, and she turned to look back at Negi with a skeptical expression. He answered it with a sincere one. "Maybe," she said at last, and started walking again, just a bit more lightly.

"Is there really no one else here who can handle greeting this Sister Yukariko?" asked Sakura.

"Oh, probably. But Father Tamanaka prefers to let the nuns handle nun stuff, and most of the nuns aren't completely read in on all the stuff that we're supposed to pretend we don't notice. So, it's up to the acolytes, and I'm the senior acolyte, and I am read in on all that stuff."

"Wait, a fourteen year old girl is the senior acolyte present?" Negi interjected.

"Fifteen," she corrected. "And yeah, that's me. Even among orphans, not a lot of 'em are going into the church these days. The whole theodicy thing, y'know. If God is good, why did half of humanity die fifteen years ago?" They'd reached the door, and Misora reached out to rest a hand on its doorknob, but didn't open it. Nor did she turn back to look at either of her companions as she continued speaking. "Why am I alive, when so many billions of others aren't?"

"Misora --" Sakura started to say.

She turned and smiled sunnily back at the two of them. "Luckily I'm too dumb to worry about stuff like that." She opened the door, and walked through, followed by Negi and Sakura. "So we don't get a lot of volunteers to work here, or even a lot of visitors, and oh I should have known that I was going to be contradicted as soon as I started speaking."

The door they'd used exited just beside the pews in the nave, and the foremost of them was occupied by a single person ... and the column of flame that engulfed and surrounded her. She looked over in their direction. "Sensei. Kasuga. Senpai," Hino Rei rattled off in sequence. "Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon," Negi replied dazedly. "I didn't realize you were Catholic, Hino-san."

"I'm not," she answered. "I'm a seeker of truth, wherever that leads me. Right now it's lead me here, so here I am." She paused. "Are you aware that two of the girls in our class are following you around, sensei?"

"Yes," he replied, glad to be on firmer ground. He glanced at Sakura, and noted the fact that she didn't seem to be particularly overawed by what she was seeing in Hino's presence. More than anything, she seemed a little impatient to be done with this digression. "Well, I'll see you tomorrow in class, Hino-san," he said, to bring that about.

"Indeed," she said. "Assuming the world doesn't end."

"Of course," he replied after a moment.

"Well, that was a little odd," said Misora once they reached the doors leading out of the church.

"Oh, you noticed --" Negi started to ask.

"'Assuming the world doesn't end'?" Misora repeated. "Who talks like that?"

"Yes, right, that what I was about to observe as well," he said, agreeably. It must be some sort of test. I can't be the only one seeing that aura around her. It doesn't make sense.


"Can we stop following them now?" Haruna asked, just a bit irritably.

After Negi had emerged from the cathedral, still accompanied by the high school girl and Misora, the trio had headed northwestward, and Yuna and the increasingly disaffected Haruna had followed them, careful not to be noticed. They'd followed them all the way to the gates of Otori Academy, and there they had stopped momentarily, having narrowed the lead just a little too much in Yuna's opinion, though not nearly enough in Haruna's.

"Of course we can't stop following them!" Yuna retorted. "Haven't you heard what this place is like? It's pure wall to wall sex!"

"Then he'll be right at home."

"And he'll never leave! What happened to the girl who kept prodding him about sticking around with us once he got what he wanted?" the basketball girl demanded.

Haruna let out a long sigh. Just as she was about to answer, however, her cell phone played its Kujibiki Unbalance ringtone. "Hellooo?" she said into its receiver a moment later. "Uh-huh. Yeah, that's what he said he'd do. Now? Okay, I'll come over and show you how to get -- he did. Wasn't that nice of him. Yes, I am. Okay, just give me a call to let me know how things work out. No, take this phone with you. Yes, yes, get going if he wants to see you that badly. Right. Bye." And with that, she hung up and stood staring at the phone for a moment.

"So ... what was that about?" Yuna asked eventually.

"Nothing important," the artist replied distantly as she tucked her phone away. "Let's go follow Negi-kun."

"I'm pretty sure we've lost him by now," the other girl complained.

"Then let's un-lose him."

"... wouldn't you just use the verb 'to find' there?"

"Do you want to critique grammar or catch up to the little twerp?" Haruna growled.


"It's almost like an Escher painting come to life," mused Negi as he regarded the main school building of Otori ... from a distance, for their course led them to a building on the academy's outskirts, likely an old dormitory.

"Yeah, whoever built this place was clearly pretty much well around the bend," agreed Misora. "It's supposedly the oldest part of Academy City, dating back even before the Library was built in what's now Mahora sector. And the people who run it now are kind of squirrely, too."

"People who run around as Mysterious Sisters are living in glass houses," Sakura said over her shoulder as she led them up the driveway to the old building ... which had apparently been renovated a few times, given that it had an intercom system holding the door closed. She pressed one button in particular.

"Da?" answered a voice.

"This will be the day you waited for," Sakura answered in lightly accented English.

A moment later, the door buzzed open, and Sakura held it so that Negi and Misora could enter before she did. This accomplished, they headed up one of the flights of stairs just past the main entrance, then down a long hallway to its very end. At one specific door, Sakura knocked a specific pattern. It slid open a crack, chain dangling beneath a pale blue eye, with a scar above and below it, that surveyed them. "It's her," a voice said, before the door closed yet again.

"I told you I recognized her voice," a muffled, slightly accented voice could be heard over the sound of the chain rattling.

"And I told you," said the first voice, as the door opened up to reveal an annoyed looking platinum blonde European girl holding it open, "that we don't just open the door to whoever -- good afternoon, Sakura-san," she finally said.

"Hiiii!" added a slightly shorter, Asian girl who seemed to almost bounce into view beside her. She had red tips to her typically black hair, and was wearing a white blouse beneath black overalls. "Oh, you brought company this time! Hurray!"

"Indeed," agreed Sakura, as she led Misora and Negi into the room, with the white-haired girl closing the door firmly behind them. "Negi-sensei, please allow me to introduce two of the finest young members of the Mahora Mage Order, Mei Gui Long and Snegurka Kulenkov."

"Everybody calls me Ruby," interjected Mei Gui. "And she's okay going by Weiss."

"No, but everybody calls me that anyway," Kulenkov said without looking in their direction, a bit of Russian creeping into her own accent, as she finished fastening the startlingly large number of locks on the door.

"Добрый день," Negi said politely as she turned to finally regard them. Sakura blinked at that.

"а ты говоришь по русски?" Kulenkov asked, eyes wide.

"Not much more than I've already used, but a friend of mine taught me some basic phrases," Negi admitted.

"I see that stories of the genius boy teacher do not exaggerate," said Kulenkov, smiling for the first time since they arrived.

"Well, I do the best I can. Kulenkov -- are you by any chance related to --"

"No," said Weiss, smile gone.

"But I'm sure that I read that's the real name of --"

"No."

Behind her, Ruby was waving her hands and shaking her head, mouthing 'no' rather broadly.

"All right then," said Negi, somewhat mystified but clearly recognizing an unsafe topic of conversation. "From what Sakura-san told me earlier, I understand that you two are charged with monitoring the other two major schools."

Ruby let out a sigh of relief. "This week, anyway," she quickly added once Weiss stared balefully at her. "And technically we're also s'posed to make sure nothing's going on at Otori, either, but nothing ever happens here, so that's way too easy. And thanks to Blake, we're mostly focused on Kibougamine, lately."

"Er ... why?" asked Negi, who'd expected to hear the exact opposite.

Weiss turned to look at Sakura. "Is he cleared?"

"He is now," she was told.

She clearly looked a bit uncomfortable, but explained all the same. "One of our teammates thinks that the most likely suspect for the head of the Refrain trafficking organization is a student at Kibougamine. They give out these titles, you see, Ultimate So-and-So. The person in question was given the title Ultimate Yakuza when he arrived here at the start of the previous school year ... which coincided with a huge increase in the amount of the stuff coming into Academy City. We're trying to find proof that he's involved. So far ... nothing."

"I love Blake, but I think we should still be looking at the head of Honnoji's Chem Club, Shimomura Hiroshi," Ruby interjected. "He's at least as suspicious, and Blake's maybe a little crazy where Kuzuryu's concerned. Kuzuryu Fuyuhiko, the Ultimate Yakuza," she explained as Negi started to ask.


It wasn't much of a cemetery, compared to the ones she'd visited with her family as a child. There had been artistically designed stones and plants in those vanished memorial gardens. Here, there were just long, thin markers as far as the eye could see, each indexed to a set of GPS coordinates, on a cold and empty plain. On the one she'd come to see, the name was spelled out in both kana and Roman letters -- Minase Taki. There were no dates, of course. She wasn't even sure if this really was the anniversary -- it seemed to her that it had been later in the year when all that happened -- but it was the day she'd managed to arrange for time to visit.

Sister Hiroko Takashiro quietly knelt before the grave, placed the flowers she'd purchased, and stood up. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I hope God showed you greater mercy than His poor servant managed."

A while she stood there, in silent prayer for the soul of the one memorialized here -- cremated, of course, and so never to rise on the Judgement Day -- until her thoughts were lightly disturbed by the sound of footsteps nearby. The odds were against a visitor to this particular grave, though, so she didn't open her eyes.

Not until she heard a voice addressing her by a long forgotten title. "Sensei?"

Hiroko's eyes flew open and she turned. Just a few feet away stood a younger woman in an orange jacket, a blue blouse tied under her breasts, and a skirt and hose. "I'm sorry, I suppose I shouldn't call you that anymore," said Kurumi Imari. "I'm glad to see that you haven't forgotten him either, Sis--"

"How. Dare. You." Fury such as she hadn't allowed herself to feel in years filled her veins as she glared at the other woman.

It was enough to make the target of that rage take a step back, with a confused look on her face. "What -- why --" she sputtered.

And then her eyes darkened, and the tone of her voice changed. "Given what else I've dared, a simple gravesite visit is hardly worth getting this worked up about. But then, allegedly righteous indignation is your bread and butter, isn't it, Hiroko-san?"

"Leave. Leave this very minute, or I swear that I'll --"

"You'll. Do. Nothing," the voice that was not that of Imari snapped. "This is no holy ground for you to protect or draw upon, and you are in no way ready to face me in battle. What is your problem, anyway?"

"What is my -- the nerve of you," Hiroko almost gasped. "To visit the grave of someone you had killed!"

The person using Imari's body blinked. "What? You think I --" She laughed then, bitter, maddened laughter. "Of all the things you could accuse me of doing, the one you choose is one I didn't do."

"Liar."

"I have no reason to lie to you, false nun," she said with a sneer. "The day before the ceremony, I told Minase that if he tried to cross me, I would kill him. Why would I do that if I were going to kill him anyway? He died well before he could do anything to affect my plans in any way." The voice took on an amused note. "Until this conversation, I thought you might have done it, when I bothered to give the matter any thought."

Hiroko gaped a moment, then let out a bitter laugh of her own. "And of course, having no capacity to feel regret, you couldn't comprehend why someone might regret things that they didn't actually do, so my presence here was proof."

"Again, to the degree that I worry about such things," 'Imari' replied with a shrug. "I suppose, then, that it must have been Saeki-chan, stretching her wings. If you want to blame someone, blame her."

"There's no point in blaming the slave for doing what they think the master would want," her opponent replied scornfully.

'Imari' didn't seem to be paying her any attention at the moment, however. "Must remember to pay her a visit in the psych ward and quiz her about it one of these days," she mused aloud as she started walking towards Hiroko.

"Stay back!" the nun snapped, holding up a hand. "I might not be ready to fight you, but I swear that I'll make it a costly --"

With a disdainful sniff, the other woman set down a second bouquet of flowers on Minase's grave, then withdrew -- in a way that was in no sense a retreat -- to where she had been standing at the start of the confrontation.

Made dumb by the gesture, all that Hiroko could do was stare at the flowers for a few moments. "Why --" she stammered at last, turning back to look at 'Imari'. "Why would you care to --"

"I don't," the other woman said flatly. She lifted up a hand as if examining it. "But she does. She'll feel better, when she wakes from this little fugue, if she sees that 'she' put the flowers she brought where they were supposed to go. She's more manageable when she feels better."

"Manageab--" Hiroko broke off in a gasp. "Kurumi-chan is still in there with you? She's not in --"

"So it worked out," 'Imari' interrupted. "She's actually very useful in operating in this hypocritical society of ours, where I spent most of my time hiding in school infirmaries." A sardonic smile grew on the woman's face. "Have you even bothered to keep track of what I'm doing these days?"

"I stopped when I heard you had become a police officer," Hiroko admitted. "The rest was too painful to imagine."

Another bitter laugh. "I've actually ended up one of the chief investigators of occult crime in this country. Ironic, wouldn't you say?"

"Disgustingly so," the nun replied. "No doubt you sabotage those investigations."

"When I think that would make the world a more amusing place, yes, I do," admitted 'Imari' without notable shame. "But surprisingly often, I don't. It's oddly more appealing to act as a friend of justice, quite a bit of the time. I find it especially funny that I do that while you sit in your cloister, helping no one, praying to a dead god."

"God is not dead," Hiroko snarled, the fury rising up again.

"Yes," said the devil before her. "He is. Believe it or not. I do not care." Her voice became amused once more. "I am curious what you're going to tell Imari, when she wakes up in a moment. Will you break her heart by telling her the truth about herself? Or will you guard that secret? What will you do? What will you do ..."

Abruptly, Imari's eyes brightened. "Eh?" she said. "Sensei?" she asked vaguely.

"... I'm sorry, Kurumi-chan," Hiroko said, in the most sincere statement of her life, followed swiftly by abject deceptions. "Are you feeling better now? After I mistook you for ... someone else, you seemed to be in sort of a trance for a while."

"Oh, dear," the young woman said with a sigh. "That's happening a lot lately. I think maybe I should see a doctor."

"Perhaps so. Perhaps so."


Negi found himself deep in thought as he descended the steps to the front door of the dormitory, only half-listening to the conversation Sakura and Misora were having behind him.

"So why haven't the two of us ever pulled this assignment?" asked Misora.

"Well, mostly because it pulls two students out of classes for an entire week," Sakura answered. "Ruby, Weiss, Blake and Yang are all in the same class, so the two who aren't posted here can share notes with the two who are. If the two of us took this post, we'd both have to get someone to share their notes with us. Is there anyone in your class that you're willing to trust with the reason you're not in class, Mysterious Sister?"

"Okay, okay, you don't have to lay it on that heavy."

"Are you all right, Negi-sensei?" Sakura asked the boy once they passed through the front door and were standing in front of the dorm. "You seem a little bit upset."

"Yes," Negi said, still frowning. "And also somewhat no."

"Ah, one of those," Sakura said, nodding sagely.

"I really need to rethink some of the things I've been doing here since I arrived," Negi continued, perhaps not noticing Sakura's reply. "And also, there's something else I definitely, definitely have to do. It's absolutely imperative that I do it." He nodded seriously.

"If I might ask --" said Sakura, having become a bit nervous. Misora looked spooked too.

"I need to buy a cell phone," said Negi, in much the same way that one might speak of having to kill a man.

As she got up from her face fault, Sakura coughed. "There's a very nice phone store in the recreation district that should have just what you're looking for," she told him. "Since the next phase of the tour was just going to be showing you around the Central West sector, I'm sure that we can put it off for another day. And I'd be more than happy to help you pick one out," she added with a warm smile.

"Thank you, Sakura-san, but I've taken up far too much of your time already, and also I'm pretty sure that Misora-san should be heading back to the cathedral."

Misora checked her watch. "Ahhh, he's riiight. I should get going ASAP."

"Well, take care, and I'll see you later," Sakura told her.

Misora nodded, then looked at Negi. "It's gonna be interesting working with you, Negi-kun. They don't usually team up teachers and students like this. Bye!" And with that, she dashed off at speeds which were quite admirable, if nowhere nearly as fast as she could actually move when given cause.

"It's really no problem, sensei," Sakura continued the conversation he'd been having with her.

"Yes, but it's something I need to take care of myself. And I have a few other things to take care of along the way. I would appreciate it if you gave me your number, though."

"Why, Negi-sensei," Sakura said, hand coming up to her mouth to hide her smile. "How very forward of you."

"Oh, not for any romantic reasons," he quickly assured her. "I intend to call you the next time I have an impulsive idea so that you can talk me out of it."

"Ah," Sakura said, smile fading. "Yes, of course. Good thinking." She told him the number, then watched him head off after a brief farewell.

'Not for any romantic reasons'? she thought.


"I think we can safely say that the reputation of Otori is somewhat exaggerated," Haruna told Yuna as they stood near the academy's gates.

"Haruna, we are both wearing completely different outfits than we were when we went in there," Yuna told her. "I have no idea how this happened. Do you have any theories to explain this that don't involve us being roofied?"

"Oh, whatever," Haruna easily dismissed the prospect of her chemically-enabled sexual assault. "The point is, we've definitely lost track of Negi. Probably the best thing to do is to head home and hope he shows up there sometime this evening."

"What the heck are the two of you doing in those weird outfits?" a somewhat familiar voice asked from beside them.

"Of course, there are other options," Haruna said, smiling in an evil manner.


"I'm sorry, now you don't want me to do it?" asked Mikado Ryoko, seated in the private consultation room of the infirmary.

 

"Yes, that's right," Negi promptly replied from the chair where he was seated in front of her, interrupting the doctor's consideration of her fairly typical Sunday. "I've reconsidered, and realized that stopping the distribution of birth control medication to the students at large is not actually in my interests after all."

"I see," she said, nodding slowly. "All right then. I'm glad that our interests appear to coincide, and will continue to covertly traffic in those medicines. Was there anything else?" she asked.

"Ah ... yes," he admitted.

"I thought there might be." Now what? she wondered.

"You see, as you have correctly guessed, I am attempting to impregnate a large number of girls with my children, ideally to become the heroes that the next generation will require," he started to explain.

Mikado coughed to hide her gasp of amazement at how forthright the boy teacher was being. When she'd made her wild guess the previous day, she hadn't had any idea why he might want to do it. She'd imagined that there was some esoteric purpose behind it, not something so straightforward as a belief in the potential of one's offspring.

"And so I am gathering a collective -- not a harem -- of young women from the various schools here in Academy City. In addition to my students Yuna and Haruna, I already count Risa and Mio, who introduced me to you, among that collective, as I'm sure you had already figured out."

She hadn't figured out anything of the sort, and nodded silently, to encourage further disclosures.

"They are among your customers, and while I don't object to you distributing birth control pills to the majority of the female students -- and the male students, if there is a male birth control pill --" Here he paused and looked inquiringly at her.

"No, I'm afraid not," Mikado answered once she found her voice again.

"Thank you. As I was saying, I have no reason to object to the distribution of the pill to those students with whom I am not yet involved, but it very much contrary to my interests to let it be distributed to those with whom I am involved. I would appreciate it if you either stopped selling it to Risa and Mio, and later to others whom I designate, or, if you insist on retaining them as customers, selling them placebos instead of the actual medicine. Are you all right? You seem to be coughing quite a bit this afternoon." He regarded the doctor with genuine concern.

She waved it away as she breathed deeply. "Well. That is an interesting proposal, Negi-kun." 'Interesting' was maybe not the best word. 'Megalomaniacal' might be better. He was basically acting as though she should simply ignore any ethical considerations simply because he asked it of her. And while Mikado more or less regarded ethics as something that happened to other people, this was going further than she'd gone in quite some time.

It was an awesome plan, in a more neutral than normal use of the term 'awesome'. Possibly even worthy of being called 'a crazy plan'. It was, she abruptly considered, not unlike a certain plan to overthrow a certain galactic dictator. That realization made her squirm a bit in her seat.

"Mikado-sensei?" Negi prompted.

"I believe that I might be able to accomodate you," she said at length. "And, in fact, I could go further, and assist you in some other ways. Of course, there would be some ... conditions ... to my help." She slipped her left foot out of her medical slipper and let her stocking-clad foot stretch out in front of the boy.

He looked at it with a slightly bewildered expression, then blinked as he remembered a scene from a certain movie he'd watched with his parents. "Are you trying to seduce me?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered his earlier forthrightness with some of her own.

His earlier bewilderment returned. "Oh. Uh. That's interesting."

"I certainly hope so," Mikado said, smiling ingratiatingly.

"Ahem. But you did mention that you were an extraterrestrial, earlier. I didn't imagine that, did I?" He watched her silently shake her head from side to side. "Then are our species even genetically compatible?"

"Our species are certainly sexually compatible," she told him. "I have tested that quite a bit since I came to your planet. Whether we can produce offspring is an untested question, and one that I expect would be an interesting, in several senses, experiment." Her smile moved past 'ingratiating' and reached 'enticing'.

"I suppose it would at that," Negi agreed slowly. "Ahem! But here and now are certainly not the right time to engage in that experiment. While this is a safe place for this sort of conversation, other sorts would perhaps attract too much attention."

Mikado's face fell, and for a moment she was definitely pouting. "Yes, I suppose so," she agreed when she regained her equanimity. "And my hours at this clinic extend into the evening."

"I have a few other things to do today," Negi supplied, then took a deep breath. "If you would be willing to provide some preliminary studies on the question of our compatibility, that would certainly persuade me to invite you into the collective."

Her smile returned, though it could now be best described as 'smug'. "Yyyyyess," she drawled. "That's quite doable. I will certainly be in touch, Negi-kun."

"Mikado-sensei."


He left the infirmary, pausing to re-orient himself, and then made his way towards the recreation district. When he finally found the phone store that Sakura told him about, he was relieved to discover that there was still an hour before it was supposed to close. He used up most of that time talking with the salesman about the various sorts of phones and the associated phone plans that were available to him, mostly involving things which he did not truly understand or actually care about. Eventually, he purchased and set up a phone that would do what he needed it to do as well some other things that were entirely superfluous.

With the phone tucked away in his jacket pocket, he wandered through the district, watching different parts of it come alive as the afternoon turned to evening. Eventually, he noticed an alley leading between two buildings, and turned to walk down said alley to the rear of the row of storefronts. There he paused.

"I would appreciate it if you would show yourself," he said. "I have been aware that someone was following me since I left the infirmary."

A moment or so later, the air nearby flickered and Sakura appeared. "A stealth spell," she said. "One of several useful spells in the Itoshiki family crest. Not true invisibility, but you're quite remarkable for noticing me, Negi-sensei."

"Thank you," he said flatly. "So how long before I noticed you were you there?"

"I caught up with you before you reached the infirmary," she told him.

"And you were present during my conversation with Mikado-sensei," he guessed.

"Yes," she replied. "Yes, I was."

"I see," Negi said, nodding. He then walked over to the fire escape behind one of the buildings, and sat down on it. "What are you going to do?"

Sakura frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I'm certainly not going to insult your intelligence in an attempt to convince you that you didn't hear what you heard, so denial won't work," Negi said, holding up the four fingers of his right hand, and then lowering the pointer finger. "Getting angry at you for following me in that manner won't get me anywhere, either, and after all, you just spent the whole afternoon talking about how it's your job to watch over Academy City, which is what you were doing. It's very tempting to bargain with you, but in the end that just becomes pleading, and I refuse to debase myself by begging for your mercy."

With each statement, he lowered a finger, until there was only the little finger of that hand remaining upright. "So that brings us to acceptance of the fact that you're going to do something about this situation. And I'm understandably curious to know what that's going to be." And with that, he lowered the finger, and regarded the young woman before him with patient interest.

"What I ought to do is report what I heard to the Headmaster," she said, regarding him with a bit of confusion. "Students and teachers fraternizing like that is not something he can tolerate."

"Yes, that would be an option," Negi agreed. "However, it's also something you could have done without confronting me." He left the obvious question unvoiced.

Sakura answered it all the same. "I suppose that I was wondering how I could have been so mistaken about you, Negi-sensei," she said, sounding somewhat unhappy. "I really took you for an innocent, all through our tour together."

"Esse enim magi ad mortem exultant lusibus,*" Negi replied. "There are no innocent users of magic, Sakura-san."

"True," she said, nodding. "This plan of yours -- did you come up with it yourself?"

"No, I was persuaded of its merits by my mothers, father and uncle Kiritsugu."

Sakura's eyes went wide. "The Thousand Master came up with it," she said.

"And the Queen of Calamity," Negi confirmed. "And the Ultimate Einzbern. And the Magus Killer. They all took a long look at the world as they found it, after their part in saving it, ten years ago, and they all decided that it was going to need saving again in a decade, and probably again after that." He paused, to let that sink in. "Did you know that the birthrate has gone down every year since Second Impact?"

"One person can't fix that problem, Negi-sensei, no matter who --" she started to protest.

"But one person can lead the way," he interrupted. "Can and must. If not me, then who? I must do what I can do to help make the world a better place than it was when I was born into it, whether that is teaching Japanese girls English, or saving people's lives, or, yes, fathering as many children as I can."

Sakura stared at him, opened her mouth to say something, then shook her head, bringing up a hand to cover her mouth as she did. The hand fell after a moment, when she finally spoke. "I have no idea what I'm supposed to say to any of this," she admitted. "In some ways, I now think you are exactly what I thought you were when we spoke, but ..." She trailed off, and shook her head again.

"What do you want to do, Sakura-san?" Negi asked.

"I told you, I don't know --"

"Not what you're supposed to say," he interrupted again. "Not even what you are supposed to do. We've covered that. Now that you know the answer to the question you had, what do you want to do? Now that you know that I am being true to my fundamental nature, what is yours?"

Sakura closed her eyes, remembered pressing her lips to Misora's forehead beneath the World Tree, remembered thanking her. "I want to help," she said. "I have always wanted to help someone else to achieve their goals, and become a part of their lives in that way. That's why I joined the Mahora Mage Order, to find those whom I could help." She opened her eyes, looked at Negi. "What would it mean to help you, Negi-sensei?"

"There are many ways for you to help," Negi agreed. "But one way in particular."

She swallowed. "I have never ..." she started to say.

Negi slid over on the step, and patted the empty space on it gently. Slowly, Sakura came over and sat down beside him. Seated together in this way, their faces were much closer than they'd been all through the day until now.

"You are very beautiful, Itoshiki Sakura," he told her, and stretched up to press a kiss upon her cheek.

She took a deep breath. "You are very charming, Negi Springfield," she told him, and bent down to answer that kiss with one to his lips. She held the kiss, and was not surprised to feel his tongue pressing against her lips, which opened somewhat reflexively so that her tongue could lick against his own. They pressed against each other until she almost forgot to breathe, and then broke apart, panting heavily.

"Now," Sakura gasped. "Now wha--"

He answered her in a moment, moving from his seat to a crouched position before her, then pushing up her skirt until its hemline was somewhere around her outer thighs, so that he could bend down and begin to kiss and caress her inner thighs. She lolled backwards when she felt the first brief kiss on the surface of her dampened panties. "Ahhh!" she almost cried out.

"Am I moving too fast?" Negi asked quietly, not lifting his head.

"Don't stop," she answered. "Don't staaaaahhh." She trailed off as he kissed her there several more times, while also rubbing at her through the fabric. And then she felt a different sensation, the feeling of fabric being pulled to one side, and flesh touching against the hair and flesh that had until then been covered up. Sakura held herself back from screaming with remarkable strength of will.

The cunnilingus went on and on, bringing her to the first orgasm she'd ever been given, instead of giving herself. She lost herself, a bit, in the pleasure he was bringing her, no longer sure of the passage of time. When at last he pulled back, she almost wanted to weep. Yet the sound of a zipper being undone brought her to her senses, just in time for Negi to ask, "Are you ready?"

Once again, she wasn't sure what she was supposed to say, and chose instead to simply give a shuddering nod. Almost before the gesture was done, she felt him pressed up against her again, and then pressed up within her. There was no tearing sensation, though the stretching was a momentary pain, banished the moment that he began to move back and forth, back and forth. Their gasps of breath seemed to form of a symphony.

Sooner than she might have expected, she felt a release of wetness up inside of her. She blinked, then. The stories said that always made the girl have a release as well. What was wrong with her?

"This would be better," Negi said, sounding a bit uncomfortable, "in another place."

Ah. Of course.

"If you kids are about done, would you mind getting off the damn fire escape?" came a voice from above. "If the place lights up, they're gonna run right over you, y'know?" There followed the sound of a window closing.


"Well," said Tendo Soun, as he gazed across his dining room table at the young girl who had, up until a few moments ago, been a young man. "That is indeed a condition."

Ranma-chan nodded as she sat beside Shan Pu, who had obligingly poured the cup of water that caused this most recent transformation. "I would have prefered it if Haruna had been more straightforward and called it a curse, but I suppose I couldn't have expected you to believe her if she had," said the girl.

"Hard to say, really," Soun mused out loud, eyes gone momentarily distant. "When I was on my own warrior's pilgrimage, often alongside your father, I witnessed many strange events." He recovered after a moment. "But that is neither here nor there. Girls, do you have any questions for young Saotome?"

"No, not really," said Kasumi, staring at the red-haired girl while chewing slightly on her little finger's fingertip. She actually did have certain questions, mostly focusing on Ranma's experiences as one who knew the best of both worlds, but asking them in front of her father and sisters would be most inappropriate. Later. She'd ask later.

"Oh, I think I have a few," said Nabiki, whose eyes had gone wide when the transformation happened before her eyes. The sheer potential profits that were currently being dangled in front of her were almost beyond her imagination, and Nabiki could imagine quite a bit. Right now she was imagining piles of yen notes with mouths crying out to her in chorus, 'Nabiki! Nabiki, we can always be together!" It was beautiful! "But they can wait for a little later," she continued, since she didn't want to give away her many cunning plans to anyone, family or no.

"Nope," said Akane.

Ranma looked at the youngest Tendo daughter a bit oddly. The other girl, whose hair was cropped even shorter than her older sister's was, had had the same dull, disinterested expression on her face when he'd arrived at the dojo's doorway, and it hadn't altered a bit when he introduced Shan Pu as his half-sister or when he turned to she. It prickled Ranma's pride. Surely these events were a bit out of the ordinary!

Akane looked at the girl who'd been a boy. Eh, whatever, she thought.

"Well, regardless, I hope you appreciate why this means there can be no marriage," Ranma at last continued with lowered head, preparing to offer her deepest apologies.

"No, not really," Soun replied before Ranma could do so.

Ranma found herself momentarily paralyzed. "Ahem!" she coughed once she recovered. "But, but Tendo-san, surely you would agree that no woman would ever voluntarily consent to marry someone so cursed as I am."

Soun stared at her in silence, with a raised eyebrow. Nabiki broke out in a giggle. "Oh, wow," she said. "You're serious, aren't you?"

"What woman would tolerate --" Ranma started to ask, genuinely bewildered.

"Now, while we live a simple life here, young Saotome, we do realize that it is actually the twenty-first century," Soun interjected. "If there's a woman who'd tolerate it, that's certainly no business of ours."

"But ... I am a woman myself half the time!" Ranma protested. "Now, even! That would completely invalidate the marriage, surely!"

"No, I don't think so," said Soun dubiously. "As long as the marriage certificate was signed when you were a male, it would appear to be a completely legal arrangement." A thought occurred to him, and he hastily added, "Unless you suffer from certain difficulties while in your male form, which would prevent you from performing your marital duties, at least. But that isn't the case. Is it?" he asked sharply.

"No, him good," supplied Shan Pu. "What?" she asked the horribly betrayed look that Ranma was giving her.

"I ... see," said Soun, considering the girl he'd been told was the illegitimate daughter of his old friend, and reaching several quite erroneous conclusions about the reason she kept following Ranma around.

Showing a rare moment of perceptiveness, Shan Pu promptly added, "Not me! Other girl." She briefly considered naming names, but decided to leave Haruna out of it due to a vague sense of gratitude.

"Oh my," said Kasumi, holding up a hand to cover a smile. One fewer question to be asked.

"But, y'see, I'm planning on seeking out a cure for the curse, here in Japan. This is no time for marriages!" Ranma explained, sure that the obvious truth of this would persuade everyone.

"I don't see the connection," Soun replied. "Surely you could seek that out as easily while engaged as you would be able to do so as a bachelor. And I should point out that having a base of operations for such expeditions would certainly be a desirable thing."

"Um," said Ranma, persuaded of the latter obvious truth.

"Yeah, good point," agreed Shan Pu.

"Of course, you would be welcome to take refuge here as well, Hua-san," Soun said, speaking a little louder and a bit more slowly than was his wont. "As the daughter of my sworn brother, you are every bit as welcome a guest as Ranma."

"Nice!" said Shan Pu with a cute smile, then added, in her dialect, that when the Joketsuzoku rose up and swept the structures of the civilized world away, this act of charity would be remembered. No one understood her, not even Ranma.

"Well!" said Soun, clapping his hands and coming to his feet after Shan Pu finished her short oration. He picked up a nearby kettle and poured its contents on Ranma before the young girl had quite recovered from the dazed state she'd fallen into a few moments before.

"Ack!" said the boy.

"See how simple it is?" Soun continued. "So, here we are, young Saotome. You must choose one of my daughters. Kasumi, age 19, Nabiki, age 17, and Akane, age 16. Which will it be?"

"Oh, he wants Akane," said Kasumi.

"Definitely," agreed Nabiki.

Showing a bit of emotion for the first time, Akane glared at her sisters. "Yes, of course, because anyone who loudly declares that they don't like boys must like girls, right?"

"You said it, I didn't," Nabiki replied piously.

Akane looked as though she was going to say something else, then glanced at Ranma. She let out a long sigh. "Fine. Whatever. I'll marry him, okay?"

"Ah?" said Ranma.

"But I hope you don't mind a long engagement," Akane continued. "Because I'd sort of like to graduate high school before I get married. We good with that, dad?" she asked her father.

"Of course!" Soun agreed. Truthfully, if she'd asked to have the wedding performed in a Mormon tabernacle, he'd have agreed just as cheerfully, as long as she was agreeing. "So it's all settled, then!" he said to Ranma. Said, not asked.

"I guess it is," he replied, staring at Akane, who didn't bother to meet his gaze.

Shan Pu also looked at Akane, and said something in Chinese.

That managed to arouse the other girl's interest. "What did she just say to me?" Akane asked, a bit suspiciously.

Ranma hesitated. The only phrase he'd recognized was 'worthy daughter-in-law'. So he said, instead, "I think she said you're smart."

Shan Pu nodded.

"Huh. Well, thanks," Akane said, and went back to looking at nothing in particular.


Sakura walked Negi back to the dormitory. They didn't speak as they made their way. She was doubtless thinking quite a bit about how her life was about to change in ways that she had never expected, and while he could have offered her comfort, he knew that she needed to come to terms with the situation on her own. When the time came, she would turn to him for support, and he would give it to her, but the initiative had to come from her, or he'd just smother her.

Not until they reached the door to the building did she speak up. "Negi-sen ... no, I suppose that I should just call you Negi, now. Negi ... I don't regret it. But please don't change so that I end up regretting it."

"I will try," he told her seriously. With that, he went in the building after giving her bow in farewell. When he reached the first landing and turned around to go up the next flight of stairs, he could see her still watching through the front window, but she was gone by the time he reached the second landing, which also gave a view of the entrance.

Reaching the right floor, he walked over to the right door, then noticed that there was a sticky note attached to it. Unfortunately, it was attached at eye level for a teenaged girl. Negi made a face, and jumped up to pluck at the note. On his second attempt, he grabbed it and brought it down with him. N, read the note. Come to H's room. Y.

"Why, indeed," he mused aloud. He turned back and walked down the passage, keeping an eye on the nameplates beside the doors until he spotted the one with Haruna's name (as well as that of Fei) on it. He proceeded to knock.

"It's open, come in," called Haruna's voice.

He shook his head, and opened the door, closing it -- and locking it -- behind him. "Okay, we are going to have to have a little talk about security. What if it hadn't been me, but rather your roommate and OHHHHH MY, that would have been a very unfortunate development," he said as he came into the living room to see that Haruna and Yuna were sitting on either side of the table, stripped down to their underwear, while on the table was a tightly bound and gagged Misora, who looked just a bit frantic.

"Nuuheee-huun!" Misora mumbled through the gag. "HULF!"

"Uh, trust me, Fei's not coming back here if she can possibly help it," Haruna told him, affecting not to notice the muffled cries for aid that were coming from her prisoner.

"So anyway," said Yuna, also ignoring them. "We got to talking and decided that, if you were going to be spending so much time with her, you might as bring Misora into the collective. Was that other girl you were with Mio?"

"Uhhs uh huhlluhtuhf? HULF!"

"No," Negi said with strained patience. "That was Sakura, another mage who's going to be supervising me as part of the school's protectors. She also works with Misora."

"UHHHH?"

Yuna and Haruna stared at Negi, then each other, and finally at Misora. "You're a mage?" they chorused.

"NUH! Nuuheee-huun, uhh uhs guhhn uhn huh?"

"In any event, was I not clear when I said that I wasn't going to do anything with anyone who didn't want to do things with me? Do you really think I want to have girls brought to me bound and gagged? Is that what you think of me?"

"Some people like it," Haruna replied.

"I don't. At least ungag her, for pity's sake!"

"Uhhggh!" said Misora as Yuna removed the padding over her mouth. "Negi-kun, why are you telling these two crazies about that and what's a collective and what the hoo-hah is going on here?!"

"Well, in brief -- a collective is a group of women who engage in sexual activities with one specific man in order to give birth to that man's children, Yuna and Haruna are a part of one with me, and they are both well aware of the existence of magic already. But fear not, Misora-san, you will not be forced to join the collective, as I realize you're not heterosexually oriented."

She stared at him, aghast. "Wha-wha-wha-wha?" she stammered. "Sexually -- wha -- children -- huh -- wait, what do you mean I'm not heterosexually oriented?!"

Negi blinked. "Well, I'm considering your relationship with Sakura, which is obviously very important to you if you became her Minister, and I saw her kissing you, and you were speculating about spending a week with her in fairly close quarters, so I reached the conclusion that you were romantically involved with her."

"... I'm a Catholic nun, for Pete's sake!" Misora shouted.

"That was also a factor."

"I'm straight!" she cried.

Haruna snorted a bit. "Yahright."

"Never have heard you talking about boys you like," Yuna observed.

Misora swiveled her head back and forth between the two of them. "Okay. Okay. You're having sex with these two, right?" she snapped at Negi.

"Yes," he answered warily. "But like I said, you don't --"

"Fine!" she interrupted. "Have sex with me, and that will prove that I'm as straight as they are."

"So not very?" said Haruna.

"Um," muttered Yuna.

"Straighter than they are!"

Negi let out a puff of breath, then shook his head. "Very well, if that's what you want, then I can do that. I would prefer it if you were untied when we did so, however."

A moment of work by Haruna later, and Misora found herself unbound but still seated atop the table. That had been just enough time for her to calm down a little. "Okay, so when would be a good time to do this --" she started to ask, planning to maybe make an appointment for sometime during summer break.

"Right now," said Negi, and kissed her soundly. Her eyes went wide as he did so, and she felt his hands moving on her person in ways that no one had ever before touched her. He was touching her down there. That had been stressed as a no no in the stranger danger classes that constituted the majority of Misora's sexual education. She let out an involuntary sound of protest, but the mouth that was covering her mouth turned it into just a moan, as she was pushed so that her back, again, rested on the tabletop.

"Hmmm," said Haruna, watching this love-making with interest. "You know, I think in actual orgies, everybody's supposed to be having sex, rather than watching."

"Ummmm," replied Yuna, also watching.

"You should look into finding someone you can do that with in the future," the artist told the basketball player a bit cheekily.

"Uh ... well ... I mean ... we could --" Yuna started to suggest.

"Not my type, sorry," Haruna dismissed the idea in a tone that was not terribly sorrowful.

Yuna made an annoyed noise that was drowned out by the high-pitched yelp that came from Misora.

"Oh, well, I was bound to find at least one girl with an intact hymen," Negi mused as he began to move against the acolyte. "It will start to feel better soon," he assured her.

"Uhhhhh."

Conscious of the fact that Misora's relatively small breasts would be much more sensitive than those of most of the girls he'd been with, Negi pulled at her habit to expose the girl's sports bra, then pulled its cups aside so that he could lick at suckle at her teat. He was satisfied to see that at least got a smile out of her.

"Such a baby," she gasped.

Even if it was a bit hard on his ego. But regardless, he soon achieved his climax, and sprayed his boy juices up into her fertile womb. He thought she'd experienced at least a couple of orgasms at his hands, but was aware that the female orgasm was not always nearly as violent as fiction made it appear to be. The dazed expression on Misora's face, however, was suggestive.

"Well, you've demonstrated that you are in fact heterosexual," he told her.

"Uh-huh," she gasped. That's it? she thought.

"My turn!" sang Haruna, who'd lost her bra and panties in the interim, and grabbed Negi to pull him off of Misora without any further ado.

"Fine, I had my turn this morning," admitted Yuna, likewise bereft of the shreds of her modesty. "But you'd better be ready to go with me once she's done!"

"Mm-hm," Negi replied through his current state of osculation.

That's it? Misora thought again.


Shan Pu and Soun were managing to have a discussion about martial arts styles designed to be used while wearing armor. Owing to the Tendo patriarch's belief that anyone could understand Japanese if it was spoken loudly and slowly, it was a rather noisy discussion, and so when Ranma realized that he should probably call Haruna and give her the, em, 'good news', he decided to step out of the living room and into the dojo's foyer in order to make the call.

There, he found Akane putting on her shoes. "Uh, hey? Are you going somewhere?" he asked, perplexed.

"Yes," she said without looking at him. "I'm going back to my dormitory. I don't actually live here."

"Oh," he said. "D'you think I should maybe move in there with you?"

She finished putting on the shoe, stood up, and then she looked at him. Frankly, he preferred it when she wasn't. "Okay," she said. "Let's get a few things straight here. I am going along with this farce so that my father, a good and decent man who is very emotionally unstable after my mother's death, will be happy in his last days. I'm delaying the ceremony so that there's a good chance that the world will end before you and I actually have to get married. Frankly, that sounds rather appealing."

Ranma stared at her, open-mouthed. "Wow," he said at last. "You would rather see the whole world end rather than marry me."

She nodded.

"Wow," Ranma repeated. "You know, I thought I was lucky to be marrying the cute daughter ... but lady, you are quite literally uncute."

"Oh, I am wounded to the quick. Baka," she said, then went out the door, closing it firmly behind her.

He was tempted to follow her and give her a few more pieces of his mind, but a voice from the living room stopped him in his tracks. "Son-in-law!" called Soun, even more loudly than he shouted at foreigners. "I just had a rather ingenious thought about how you might be able to look for a cure!"

Well, that did take priority over chasing uncute girls or contacting his sister. Ranma headed back in to see what was on the old man's mind.


Dinner at the Mankanshoku house was, yet again, crutons. Weirdly, Ryuko was starting to find them a bit appetizing. She suspected that if the mystery ingredients were ever revealed to her, that would probably put paid to that opinion, and so she hoped it wouldn't happen.

The weird noises that P-chan was making as he fed from a bowl beside the dinner table, sounding almost like sobs, were a little distracting, though. Ryuko finally turned to look at him. "Is that pig crying?" she asked.

"I'm sure you're imagining it, Ryuko-chan!" Sukuyo, who seemed to be almost glowing, assured her. "Why would a pig cry, when he's being given plenty of good food to help him in his new job of guarding Mako-chan's body, among other helpful tasks?"

"Bweeeeeee," the pig moaned in the manner of one who has lost his honor.

"Okay, then," Ryuko said with a shrug, and went back to eating.

Behind her, P-chan stopped crying and indeed doing anything as he felt a paw lowered onto his back. He turned his head to the side to see the dog, Guts, had lifted up a paw to rest it there.

"Guts!" the dog proclaimed, in a way that seemed faintly encouraging.

Well. He'd take what encouragement he could get, under the circumstances.


The discussion about her father's bright idea was well underway as Kasumi headed out to the foyer and started to pull on her shoes. It wasn't something to which she could meaningfully contribute, so she decided to take the opportunity to head out.

Ranma's situation was more complex than she'd ever imagined. Not only did she now have to worry about his relationship with Akane, and also Nabiki's role, but there was also Shampoo to be considered, and possibly even Haruna, if she was correctly reading his reactions to the mention of his full sister's name. So much chaos! So much opportunity!

It was more than she could handle. And so she went out into the early evening, down the streets, until she came to a certain house, and went up to the front door to knock.

Fortunately, the door was answered by the person she was seeking, and not one of the other residents or a possible guest. "Good evening, sensei. I think I need your help," Kasumi said.

Tamura Umeko sighed. "I've asked you not to call me that so many times," she said fondly. "Come in, dear. Come in."


"Hello?" said the nun as she entered the church. "Sister Hiroko?"

"Good evening," said a voice from the nave, and the young nun froze. It was not the voice of a fellow Bride of Christ, but of a man. "As it happens, I'm trying to find her myself. We often have discussions about art history, but nobody seems to know where she is."

"Oh," the nun said, her heartbeat slowly returning to normal. "I ... good evening, my name is Sister Yukariko. Who might you be, sir?"

"Ishigami Wataru, art teacher at Mahora Integrated High School," the man, whom she could now see clearly, introduced himself. "It's a pleasure to meet you, sister."


"You love Blake, huh?" asked Weiss as she stared up at the ceiling.

"Of course I do," answered Ruby as she lay beside her in bed, covered by a single sheet and nothing else. "I love Blake, and I love Yang, and I love our dad, and I love my stepmom, and I love my uncle, and I love Jean even if he's too shy to ever do anything, and I love Pyrrha even if she's too shy to ever do anything, and I love Ren and Nora, and you know what else, loneliest girl in the snow? I love you most of all."

Weiss let out a decidedly unelegant and unladylike snort. "Promiscuous girl," she said.

"You know it," said Ruby, and their lips came together.


Her hand knocked against the motel room door, and she waited as she was examined through the peephole. The sound of locks being disengaged told her that she wasn't going to need any supernatural phenomena this evening, which was good, because she honestly preferred to save that for when it was truly necessary.

The boy -- her own age, or at least her stated age -- looked owlishly out at her once the door opened. "Um ... h-hello?"

"Good evening," she said. "I represent a consortium of interests who are aware of your father's activities. My name is Zazie. I've been sent here to help you deal with them. May I come in, Ikari Shinji-kun?" she asked.

"O-okay," he stammered, and held open the door to allow her in.

This would be a tricky operation, but very worthwhile, she thought.


The day was swiftly moving towards a conclusion, and, at the moment, all that was on Konoemon's mind was finishing up the last of his paperwork so that he could enjoy the game of go that his opponent had incorrectly declared she was going to completely dominate. But he forced himself to consider whether he was really finished with the business of the day. Sakura's report had indicated that Negi had been brought to a better understanding of his place in the school. There'd been a few odd hesitations when they'd spoken, shortly before, but her message had remained constant through his questions.

So his goal for Negi had been achieved. And yet ...

It was good to have options. He picked up the phone, and dialled Shanna -- who had headed to her home by this hour, but whom he was sure would be there to answer nonetheless. And sure enough, she answered the phone, though she didn't say anything to confirm that he'd gotten the right number ... which was confirmation in and of itself.

"Shanna, dear, I'd appreciate it if you could, tomorrow, arrange for the 'Book of Melchizedek' rumor and the 'fail and go back to the start' rumors to start circulating. Thank you, and good evening." With that, he hung up, filled the last form, and turned to his opponent with a broad smile. "Shall we begin?" 

To Be Continued 


Omake

Negi listened with interest to the accounts Weiss and Ruby gave of various questionable activities that students and staff at Kibogamine and Honnoji were getting up to, but he found himself a bit distracted by something he'd realized a while ago. He wanted to ask, even though it was a bit personal to talk about in a first meeting ... but then again, it was an omake, so he should really just relax.

"Excuse me, Ruby," he interjected. "Your real name is Mei Gui Long?"

"Mm-hm," the girl replied. "Means 'rose' if you write it a different way than you write it."

"And you said your sister's name is Yang Xiao Long. But don't Chinese people put the family name first, like Japanese people do?"

"Ah, yeah, pretty much. But we're only sorta Chinese you see," she started to explain.

"Oh, boy, here we go," muttered Weiss, rubbing her head.

"My dad's dad grew up in Sweden, and my dad's mom was actually Swedish. My mom was born in Area 9 -- Vietnam, they used to call it -- and was part French and part, well, Vietnamese. Yang's mom, and our uncle, are Yakama, and --"

"Yakama?" Negi asked, fascinated.

"Native American, from the northwest. Anyway, from what uncle's said, they're technically not Yakama, as their blood quantum is too low. So we're kinda from all over," she concluded.

"I see. Thank you for being so forthright, Ruby. Admittedly, it's an omake, so the question never actually came up."

"What?" she asked, as the omake came to an end.