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Anything That Burns

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Hyoudou Issei was certain that he had to be the luckiest guy in the world.

He was, amazingly, on a date. With a girl. And not just a girl, but rather A GIRL. Never in all his sixteen years had he ever even dared to dream that a female person as unfathomably gorgeous as Amano Yuuma would give him the time of day, much less spend much of said time of day in his presence without being tied up or something! And yet it was happening. It wasn't a dream -- he'd discreetly checked several times to confirm that.

And now the sky had gone dark, and the moon could be vaguely seen through the red haze of the evening sky, and their steps had led them to a park, and Amano was looking off in to the distance and saying, "Hey, Issei-kun ... could you do me a little favor?"

Ohmigodohmigodohmigod she wants a goodbye kiss! he shrieked inwardly. "Ub, um, uh, sure," he replied suavely. "Anything you like!"

"Really?" she cooed, slowly turning to face him with a sweet, loving smile on her face. "Okay, then. What I'd like for you to do is to dUUUUURK."

"Duuurk?" Issei repeated, confused. "I'm sorry, I don't think I know how to do that." It must now be said, somewhat to Issei's credit, that his eyes were rather firmly fixed on Amano's face rather than the more traditionally interesting parts of her anatomy below that.

Amano, or rather the person who called herself Amano, wasn't really listening to Issei though. Unsteadily, she looked down at her chest area, from which a shadowy spike was presently protruding. "Wha?" she mumbled, finding it somewhat difficult to articulate her thoughts with all the fluids in her throat. "Who ... dares ..." This question was followed up by the explosion of dark wings from "Amano's" shoulders and equally abrupt transformation of her cute but modest outfit into a terribly revealing set of black leather undergarments.

That was the sort of thing that not even Issei could miss, and his reaction to his date's injury, winged status and (most importantly) near nudity was a completely understandable decision to stand and gape.

"Wins," said a quiet voice from behind a nearby tree.

"What?" growled Raynare -- for this was in truth the real name of 'Amano' -- turning in that general direction even as one of her hands came up to try and push the spike in her chest back. This gesture proved ineffective, as it seemed the spike was only selectively present and would not condescend to be touched by her.

"The phrase I assume you are trying to quote," said the voice, whose source now stepped into the line of sight for both . She was a rather petite young woman, possibly middle-school aged, dark skinned with silvery white hair, holding a chain in both of her hands that trailed down into the shadows. "'Who dares, wins'. It's a sentiment with which I find myself in agreement."

"Ma ... mazoku filth!" Raynare managed to squawk. "Do ... do you know what you are starting?"

"Yes," the young woman replied calmly. "Though I suspect my understanding of it differs. Where you imagine that my attack on you is the renewal of hostilities between the fallen angels and my kind, the truth is that your death will be of little note among your fellow travellers. You will die here, alone, unmourned, and unremarked. If you would blame someone, blame the God who sealed a Sacred Gear inside that young man."

"Huh?" said said young man.

"Except of course that you already blame Him for everything anyways," the young woman concluded. Abruptly, her grasp on the chain she was holding shifted.

In the same moment, exactly a dozen more spikes erupted from various parts of Raynare's torso, and the winged woman let out a bellow of purest agony. Her head lolled to one side, eyes momentarily focusing on Issei, and her mouth moved several times before the words 'Help .., me ..." emerged from her throat.

"Whawhawhawha?" he asked.

"Oh, not even a bit of dignity," sighed the young woman with the chain, and began to swing the end of it that dangled from her hands.

The spikes began to move in a manner not unlike the blades of a cuisinart, and tore Raynare's body to pieces, sending blood as crimson as the sky and the sea flying through the air. Quite a bit of it landed on Issei, unfortunately, doing nothing for his state of horrified confusion.

Once the various pieces of Raynare's anatomy had reached maximum dispersion, the young woman -- whose name, as it happened, was Zazie -- began to walk towards Issei.

"Oh god," he said. "You're going to kill me, too, aren't you?"

She halted, seeming somewhat startled. "Nnno," she said, then paused as if to consider the fact that this had not been a particularly convincing response. After shaking her head somewhat ruefully, she continued. "It is actually my intention to take away your memories of these unfortunate events. However, I should tell you that the reason these matters occurred the way that they did is because of a certain artefact which is sealed inside your body. As long as it is there, events of this sort will continue to happen to you. I may be able to remove it from your person without killing you. Would you like me to do this?"

"What is this I don't even," Issei replied, then took a long breath. "This, this thing you're talking about ... can I use it to become a harem king?"

Zazie stood a moment, considering the question. Then she nodded firmly, smiled, and lied. "No, not at all. If anything, it will lead you to a life of celibacy and chastity."

"Getitoutgetitoutgetitout!" Issei shrieked, finally pushed past his breaking point.

"Very well," said Zazie, who closed the distance between them rather quickly and took his left arm in her hands. "Now, this will hurt. And possibly kill you. Warning over."

Issei's universe dissolved in agony.

"Deets!" chorused Matsuma and Motohama. "We want deets!"

Issei laughed uncomfortably. "Well, guys, the funny thing is, she was just dating me to win a bet."

"Knew it!" said Matsuma.

"So what happened to your arm?" asked Motohama.

"I broke it, I guess?" Issei replied, staring at the cast.

"You guess?"

"Must've done."

Quite some distance away, Zazie was observing the work of her hands with quiet satisfaction ... a sentiment which was not shared by the rather large gem she was carrying.

"Be still, Y Draig Goch," she told it absently. "I will find you a better host. A younger man. A Welshman, as it happens. I think you'll approve."

He was moving faster now, his hips like the pistons of a locomotive under way, where before his thrusts had been almost languid and gentle. Still he leaned forward to press his lips once more to those of the pale girl with whom he was coupled, just as he'd kissed her so many times at the start of their union. Then the not-all-that-gentle pressure of teeth on his ear and fingers at the base of his scrotum made him rear back. "Coming," he announced, eyes tightly shut.

"Negi," the girl beneath him moaned once, perhaps bemused that he'd felt the need to declare himself thus, a moment before her red eyes burst open and she shrieked his name a second time as he burst within her, painting her insides as white as her skin. He collapsed upon her after a moment of paralysis, their faces coming together to whisper endearments to one another.

"Well done, children," said the older woman with golden hair and mismatched eyes who'd crouched behind the boy, her full breasts pressed against his back, her fingers against the place where the boy and girl's flesh met. She doubted that either of them had actually heard her, and felt somewhat absurd for having said anything. Yet she supposed the formalities must be observed in this rite of passage. Ignoring her own hunger, for the moment, she pressed her lips to the back of her son's head, then rose from the bed and walked naked out the bedroom door.

Down the hallway she went, pausing at the first door on the right to open it wide enough to see within. Satisfied that she would not be interrupting anything, she opened the door the rest of the way and went in. "It's done," she declared quietly.

"So we're both to be grandparents at this young age," mused the woman ensconced in the bed within, clutching to her the shoulders of a sleeping young man. Just as she might have seemed the older sister of the girl in the other bedroom, his red hair might have made him look the brother of the boy there, had one ignored the other signs of his heritage. "So many things I never thought I'd live to be. Thank you, Arika."

"You are welcome, Iri. I admit surprise that you chose this instead of coming to watch, however."

"He was ... unsettled. Afraid for her, I think. I comforted him as best I could." She fell silent a moment, before her hand came up to run her fingers through his red hair. "It's a terrible thing. He was so vital when we met him, after all of that, and yet now he's so empty. I wonder what could have gone so wrong."

"It is simply the way of this sickened world," Arika replied.

"I know, I've seen the same numbers as you, and yet it hasn't happened to Negi, has it? Just to Shirou. It makes me wonder if I failed him somehow."

"No," the other woman said firmly. "You could no more fail any of our children, Irisviel, than you could fail me. Or either of our men. It's not in you to fail those you love. It is just the way of the world."

Iri smiled then. "Such sweetness, beneath that coldness," she said. "And so stern. You remind me of her in so many ways. Come here, my love. He'll be ready to go again when he wakes up."

With a sigh of release, for never would she go where she was not invited, Arika joined the two of them in bed.

The day after this ceremony of graduation, spirits on high declared that Negi Springfield was to become a teacher at a girl's school in Japan.

A few months passed.

Once upon a time, or so the sempai told them, the buildings that lined the streets leading to the school gates had been flourishing businesses with fascinating and useful stuff on sale. These days, all that was to be seen there were boarded-up windows and 'we thank our customers' signs, and the buildings themselves seemed to almost be leaning over like they could collapse at any moment. Or not really seeming, for some of them clearly had done just that and nobody had bothered to show up to clear away the debris so something new could be built on the empty lot.

Then too the streets themselves were covered in cracks and potholes, and one of the reasons that Asuna was firmly convinced that Konoka was a genius, test scores or no test scores, was that her best friend and roommate was somehow able to avoid all these hazards while merrily rollerblading along beside her, and reading at the same time. Granted, it was probably safe to do that here. The more social obstacles along this route had been taken care of a while ago, when Asuna had gently persuaded Mankanshoku Matarou and his band of hooligans to engage in petty banditry elsewhere on campus. She doubted that the little brats were anywhere nearly as scared of her as they were of Matarou's older sister, but they knew what was good for them.

Such concerns never troubled Konoka's mind, as she read aloud from her Weekly Fortune. "So the first part of the charm is to repeat the name of the man you love five times in public and then bark like a dog. Not very enlighten--"

"Takahata-sensei, Takahata-sensei, Takahata-sensei, Takahata-sensei, Takahata-sensei, RARF!"

Non-plussed, Konoka gazed at Asuna for a moment, then returned her attention to the magazine. "Second part, assume a handstand with your legs spread and walk forward fifty meters before purring like a pussy cat."

"Who the hell can walk fifty meters on a handstand?" Asuna demanded.

"Apparently the powers that be really demand a lot of people who ask stuff of them," Konoka replied with a careless shrug.

"While that's true, I think that this particular charm is probably just nonsense," said the young man who was keeping pace with the two of them without their noticing him.

Jolted, Asuna whipped her head around to stare at the boy, the bells holding her twintails ringing as she did so. She intended to yell some imprecations on general principle before figuring out which of the local gangs was trying something, but the sight of the boy in glasses with a long, twisted staff strapped to his back stopped her -- literally, making her stop in her tracks while the boy and Konoka kept moving forward for a few meters before realizing that she'd fallen behind. He stopped first, turning to look at her and wave politely.

"Negi?" Asuna Springfield gasped. "What are you doing here?"

"This is my assignment, of course," he answered her, smiling warmly, eyes firmly on her face rather than on her chest, hips, legs or other interesting portions of her anatomy.

"Asuna, how do you know this boy?" Konoka asked, turning to skate towards the two of them.

"Negi Springfield," he introduced himself with a bow that let him check out her ass. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Supulingufeedo?" Konoka repeated, blinking. "But that's --"

"Yes," Asuna interrupted, feeling very weary. "This is the younger son of the ... couple who adopted me." She deliberately censored certain details that would only confuse and worry poor Konoka, even though she knew that the bare facts would provoke a different yet equally unwelcome response.

And sure enough, Konoka's face lit up and her hands clapped together just beneath said lit-up face. "Your little brother!" she cooed.

"Technically, yes, you could call him that, but Konoka, calm down, why are you drooling --"

"'Technically'?" Negi repeated, looking a bit hurt.

"It's a complicated language," she said, glaring at him. "What are you doing here, Negi?"

"I'm pretty sure that I told you that this is my assignment," he said, peering at Asuna worriedly. "Have you had your ears checked recently?"

"What do you mean, it's your assignment, is what I was trying to not all that subtly ask."

"Well, after I graduated --"

"I thought you were supposed to be attending that crazy school until you were twelve."

"Crazy school?" Konoka interjected in an attempt to join the conversation.

"-- early," Negi added, then continued the original thrust of his remarks. "-- I was assigned to act as a teacher in a girl's school in Japan. So after I got my teaching certificate, I came here." He spread his hands. "See how simple it all is?"

"Oh no," said Asuna, who could tell where this was going.

"No, really, it's very simp--"

"No, you are not going to be teaching our class."

"... well, no, that doesn't seem very probable. There are many classes here, and there's no reason to assume that I'd be assigned to your class in particular, oneesan."

"He even calls you oneesan!" Konoka squealed, grabbing Negi in a sudden embrace. "Please can we keep him?"


"I still have to get the details from the headmaster," said Negi, subtly pushing up against the more interesting parts of Konoka's embrace. "Do you know where his offices are?"

"No," Asuna repeated.

"There's a strange omission in your local knowledge, oneesan," he told her, looking quizzical.

"Oh, of course Konoka-san knows where the headmaster's office is," said Negi in a tone of great revelation. "I suppose it stands to reason that she would know, being his granddaughter, and that oneesan, who has less business with him, might not know."

"I knew, okay?" Asuna growled as she stood beside him. "That wasn't what I was saying -- and wait a minute, Konoka-san? You just met like six minutes ago, it should be Konoe-san!"

"I'm good with whatever Negi-kun wants to call me!" Konoka declared from Asuna's left, eyes twinkling. "I mean, if he's going to be our homeroom teacher and all."

"Negi-kun?" This came out as more of a gasp than a growl. "Okay, come on, this isn't seriously happening, is it?" she asked the elderly gentleman sitting at the desk in front of her.

"I suppose that the degree of seriousness which informs these events is in the eye of the beholder, Asuna-kun, but they are in fact transpiring in what we call reality," Konoemon-sensei replied calmly. "Starting today, Negi-kun is being given the assignment of being the homeroom teacher for class 2A, and teaching your class, and several other classes, English lessons. Are you ready to face this challenge, Negi-kun? Knowing that there will be no second chances if you fail?"

"I will not fail, sensei. Too much is at stake," Negi replied with a firm nod of his head.

"But what about Takahata-sensei?" Asuna asked, somewhat thrown by how seriously the boy was sounding right at that moment.

"Oh, was Takamichi your previous homeroom teacher? He didn't tell me that, the rascal!" The serious tone was utterly banished from Negi's voice.

"You're on first name basis with him?"

The old man politely coughed to break off this side discussion. "Takahata-sensei is being reassigned to certain duties which will be taking him away from campus for long periods of time, Asuna-kun. I'm sure that he will miss you and the rest of your classmates a great deal, but needs must. In the meanwhile, your class will be in Negi-kun's care until at least the end of this term."

Asuna looked the exact opposite of happy about all this, and the faintly accusatory look she gave Negi was not the sort of look one should give one's younger brother. While Negi of course wanted her to be giving him the sorts of looks one should not give one's younger brother, ideally while she was naked and panting, this was not quite what he had in mind, and he attempted to answer her expression with one of helpless regret. It didn't seem to mitigate matters.

"Now we move on to the question of where Negi-kun will be residing for the next little while. There are a number of possibilities --"

"I wanna keep him!" Konoka announced.

"Well, that settles the matter, then," said Konoemon cheerfully. "Negi-kun, you will be rooming with your older sister and my granddaughter for the duration of --"

"Say what?" said Asuna.

"Um!" interjected Negi on the heels of Asuna's interjection. "I actually should probably have already mentioned that Father sent a letter to sensei with me, and said that I should give it to you when we started to discuss this matter." He produced a small envelope from somewhere in the enormous backpack he was somehow carrying, and offered it to Konoemon.

Who accepted it with a raised eyebrow, and opened it quite quickly, unfolding the single sheet of paper within. The contents of the paper were a caricatured picture that was unmistakably that of Nagi Springfield with his usually mocking smile and the middle finger of his right hand extended. Screw you, old fart! read a small missive beside this image. No trying to hook-up your granddaughter with the kid, or else I'll come there myself and you know what I'll do!

"I see," Konoemon said at last. "Your father apparently has some strong views on the subject, Asuna-kun."

"Oh, thank you, god," Asuna murmured. Or rather, thanks, Nagi. I guess the sex hasn't completely rotted your brain.

"So what shall we do with Negi-kun, then?" the old man continued to muse. I need someone who will tie him to the school, if not my family. A faculty member? Perhaps Itoshiki and his sisters. No, that's too cruel. Not to mention too blatant. Not a faculty member, but someone closely associated with the faculty. Ah. The solution presents itself at once. He reached out to pick up the phone headset from his desk, dialed a certain number on its rotary dial, and waited for the other party to pick up. "Shanna, would you please contact Akashi-kun and Okochi-kun and have them join me in my office as soon as possible?"

There was a subtle art to being 2A, an art that had developed surprisingly quickly back when they were 1A. Overt defiance of a teacher's authority was unwise, even if the teachers were usually not as fanatical about having their authority recognized as the Student Council Executive were. So the class had grown adept at seeming to respect that authority while preparing ways to flout it that were put into motion as soon as the teacher's back was turned, or even, more daringly, as soon as their eyes were closed.

So it was a bit surprising to Akashi Yuna that she responded to the quite unexpected news that a ten year old boy would be (a) teaching her class for the next little while and (b) living with her and Akira with an overt statement of defiance, to wit, "That's insane!"

The Headmaster blinked, and then did something incredibly nice. "Excuse me?" he asked in an incredibly mild tone.

Having regretted the words, even if it what had just been revealed to her really was a really insane thing, as soon as they were out of her mouth, Yuna found herself profoundly grateful for the out she was being offered. Her hand came up to her nose. "Thatchinsane!" she said in the manner of one sneezing, then sucked in a difficult breath and let out a mild groan.

"Gesundheit," the Headmaster said, still in that remarkably mild tone.

"Thankeeser," Yuna replied. And Akira, dear Akira, offered her a handkerchief.

Of course, the thing about having taken an out like that was the fact that Yuna now had to keep the rest of her protests, her much more reasonable and less likely to get one crucified protests, to herself. So no mentioning that neither she nor Akira had any younger siblings and so no idea how to look after a young person, no suggestion that putting him with another teacher made more sense, not even the rather clever objection that the temptation to sneak a peek at the test answers that a teacher had with them would be too much for them to bear. She could just smile and nod.

"I'm sorry to be a bother, but please bear with me for the time being," the charming little guy begged, taking Yuna's hand and delicately kissing it, then Akira's. He was a small smooth customer, that kid, but not enough to charm Yuna, who just kept up her smile and nod while inwardly groaning at it. Her taller roommate, however, seemed thoroughly won over, as the soft blush on her creamy white cheeks proved. Akira was a sucker for cute things, almost as much as Maki-chan, even if not so loudly, so that came as no surprise to Yuna. Even so, Yuna had expected more of an objection from her.

Then again, Akira-chan (as Yuna sometimes called her in the privacy of her own thoughts) was often difficult to read. For example, Yuna had no notion, until it actually happened just a bit before they arrived at the classroom door, that Akira was going to say, "Negi-sensei, you should know that they are probably going to prank you." Not only was it more words than she'd said all day up until that point, Akira had never impressed Yuna as being a snitch.

Negi, who'd spent the trip down the hallways from the headmaster's office carefully studying the class roster and making small notes on it, looked up in some confusion. "Excuse me, Akira-san?"

Before Yuna could implement her hastily conceived 'ha-ha Akira is such a kidder' strategem, Akira continued to speak. "The girls in the class are going to prank you when you arrive to be introduced to them. They know that they're getting a new teacher today, and they'll have set up a booby trap to embarrass whoever that new teacher might be."

"Akiraaaa," Yuna groaned.

"It's not right, Yuna," said Akira, sounding incredibly patient to anyone who didn't realize that she'd just run out of patience. "If the new teacher were a grown-up, that would be one thing, but Negi-sensei is just a child. He could be really hurt by the sort of prank that the girls come up with."

"I see," Negi said. Yuna thought he seemed a little affronted at the 'just a child' business, but she decided she had to be imagining that. "Well, thank you for the warning, Akira-san, but I'd already been given some briefing about the ... mischievous members of this class by your previous teacher, and I assure you that I'm ready for anything."

They were at the door by that point, and Negi paused to silently gesture towards it with a glance in Akira's direction, as if wordlessly asking her to confirm that it was part of the trap she'd mentioned. Akira nodded. Negi closed his eyes, shook his head, and reached out to slide the door open while keeping a safe distance away from the threshold. Sure enough, an eraser dropped down from above the door, falling right into Negi's waiting hand. 

Yuna blinked. For a second there, it had seemed that the eraser was falling diagonally, which couldn't be right, could it? 

There was no real time to consider that oddity, however, for Negi was speaking quite loudly. "Oh, look, the old blackboard duster trap," he declared, tossing the eraser in his hand. "How clever! But I'm sure that whoever set this up didn't really mean toAAAAAAAAAAAGH," Negi concluded, as while he was addressing the class on his entrance, he wasn't looking at where his feet were going, and so missed the tripwire that released the bucket of water hanging from the ceilling which dropped on his head, sending him stumbling forward so that the trio of suction-cup tipped arrows could be shot down at his rear, leading to a finale which had him collapsed against the teacher's lectern with swirly eyes.

"... so ... warning him about the prank was part of the prank?" Yuna asked Akira after a moment.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," replied Akira, hand over her mouth.

"Oh, you horrible children!" shrieked a tall blonde student from the first row of the class, darting up from her seat and down to Negi's crumpled form. "This is a just a young boy, not our teacher. I'm sorry, my dear young man, this should never have happened --"

"But I am your new teacher," Negi said a bit dazedly.

The young woman, who had clasped his hands in her own, broke off in mid-frantic apology, and then, in the tones of one having recently received divine revelation, asked, "I'm sorry, what was that?"

Negi's eyes finally focused, and he took in the blonde girl's face in an instant. "Ah, you must be Iinchou," he said. Juuuuust like the stories oneesan told me. I should apologize to her for doubting her when I get the chance.

Helped to his feet, Negi took his place behind the podium and surveyed the class, nearly all of whom were staring at him in confusion and wonderment, with the exception of those who'd already met him ... and the quartet in the furthest back row, which included the one his father had warned him about in his last letter. He found it a bit disconcerting that she seemed to be ignoring both his presence and the class' tumult. Then again, the young woman sitting beside her was regarding him with enough anger and irritation for at least two people ... which puzzled him, as he had no idea who she might be. He paused to glance at the class roster, momentarily wondered which of the two startlingly similar girls might be seated there. He eventually decided to assume that she was the one called Yuuki Karin until he was proven wrong.

On the other side of the back row, there was something of a repetition. He knew one of the girls there -- by reputation, at least -- and found the fact that she was staring out the window to be a bit puzzling. Somewhat more of a confusion was the girl on fire.

Negi took a deep breath through his nose. No, there was no smoke, and none of the other people in the room were reacting to the fire, which suggested that it was a spiritual phenomena that he was detecting with his extrasenses. It certainly wasn't present in the roster's photograph of the girl in question, labeled Hino Rei. A mystery to be solved at a later date, perhaps.

"Ahem," he said at length. "My name is Negi John Springfield. From today forwards, I will be teaching you English. I may only be here for a short time, but it's nice to meet you all."

The bombardment of questions began at once. They first sought the clarification of his age -- "I turned ten a little while ago." -- and nationality -- "No, I'm not from America or Brittania, I'm from Wales." -- and certain points of geography -- "That's one of the provinces of the Union of Albion." When they asked where he was living, he accurately told them that he had not yet settled in anywhere, hoping that to do so would score points for his discretion with his two new roommates. It was somewhat unexpected that this response provoked cries of 'come live with me!' from several of the young ladies, who proceeded to rush forward from their desks to embrace him physically. Unexpected yet certainly not unwelcome.

"Is this really happening?" Yuna heard someone asking as she watched, wondering if she was also imagining the way that Negi seemed to be enjoying the way his head was pressed up against Haruna's breasts.

She blinked, turned to her side and discovered that, wonder of wonders, her seat-mate, Hasegawa Chisame, was actually condescending to address her. The bitchy side of Yuna's personality wanted to point that out, but she suppressed that side of her with some difficulty. It was a strange day, after all, and Chisame would probably have asked anyone. "Um, well, I met him in the head's office, and I don't think the old guy would spring this on us as a joke."

Chisame stared at her for a moment.

"Okay, yes, I do, but who the hell keeps jokes going for this long?"

Up at the front, Misa had almost gotten Negi's belt and pants buckle undone when the Class Representative rose up. "All right, that's Enough," Yukihiro Ayaka declared, making you really hear that capital. "You're making trouble for our new teacher, and we can't have that on his first day."

"I have one more question, though," noted Asakura Kazumi, who was standing in the rear of the group of girls embracing said new teacher.

"I'm sure that you have many, but --"

"Just one," Asakura interrupted. "Hey, Negi-kun."

"Sensei," hissed Ayaka.

Asakura cheerfully ignored her. "Your family name is kind of familiar, as it's the family name of one of the girls in our class. Is that a coincidence?"

"Ahem," said Negi, as he removed his teeth from around one of the blouse buttons of the broadly grinning girl with glasses. "No, it is not. My parents adopted your classmate, Asuna, several years ago, and I consider her to be my older sister. I should note, though, that since she's been here for most of that time, she and I have not spent a lot of time together and I'm afraid that I don't know any embarrassing stories about her. She might know one or two about me, though." That should help to broaden the circle of Asuna's friends!

Why then had she collapsed face-first to her desktop, groaning as though in great pain?

"A. SU. NA. San!" shrieked the terrifying entity who had appeared where the class representative had been standing, golden firey hair streaming upward to the ceilling and impossibly blue eyes as wide as saucer plates. "You have had a charming young man like this as a younger brother for several years and have never mentioned it to me-I-mean-the-class-as-a-whole? Whyever not?"

"Oh, I dunno," Asuna replied, picking herself up again. "Maybe I just didn't want to distract you from the last few loves of your life?"

"What in the world are you talking about, you horrible person, I am an innocent blushing maiden aaaaaah muh tung muh tung et burns!"

Amazingly, after this things started to settle down, and Yuna found, to her amazement, that the kid was actually a fairly typical teacher -- which meant that she could easily let the lecture wash right over her without really paying it any attention. He didn't call on her to do any of the readings, instead asking it of Haruna, Misa and Zazie in quick succession. She had to give him points for paying obvious attention to each of them when they were speaking, and even more for not being a jerk when he pointed out errors in pronunciation. The whole situation was still weird though.

"You're going to have to show him to the dorms," Akira told her as they took their break together.

"Why me?" Yuna asked reflexively.

"I have practice," Akira answered, as though this was a great revelation which Yuna could not possibly have anticipated.

"So do I, y'know. Don't look at me like that, it could happen that we won't get shoved off the court this time. Fine, fine, if that does happen I'll pick the little darling from the teacher's room at the end of the day."



"When it happens."

A sigh of deep annoyance. "Stop picking up on my cynicism, will you?"

It had, thought Negi as he sat at the desk he'd been assigned in the teacher's office, been an interesting introduction. He had learned a lot about the priorities of the young women who'd been placed in his care from the questions they'd asked him. Of course, that was the least of what he intended to learn about them, foremost of which was what they looked like with no clothes on, but every bit of insight was a tool towards that end, with that end as a tool towards the salvation of humanity.

Still, something had been lacking in the experience. In all the courses he'd personally attended, he'd never seen students run up to and, well, grope the teacher in the way that the young ladies of Class 2A had done. While it had been rather enjoyable in some ways -- in many ways, to be honest -- it did seem to suggest that he did not yet command the respect of his students, as all of his own teachers had been able to command the respect of his fellow students and himself. He clearly had a ways to go ...

Thinking about that brought to mind the way that Headmaster Konoe had been able to get Yuna-san to retract her initial reaction with a few short words. Amusing himself by doodling 'that's crazy' in a word balloon over the picture of Yuna on the class register, Negi realized that the headmaster, with his many years of experience, was an ideal person to consult for advice on how to go about gaining the respect of his students. He had quite some time before he was to be introduced to his next class, so why not see if the Headmaster had a spare moment?

He quickly got up from the desk, announced his momentary departure to the rest of the teachers (none of whom bothered to look up as he did) and headed out into the hallway, fairly sure that he knew the right way to the office. And his surety didn't seem to be tested until he arrived at a pair of heavy wooden doors like those he'd seen before. He knocked twice.

"Enter," said a muffled woman's voice.

Negi paused a moment, then opened the door and went in. It looked like the office he'd been in earlier today, but behind the desk was a tall, blonde woman -- taller and, strangely, blonder even than the class representative of 3A -- rather than the elderly gentleman who'd been there before. She was in the middle of examining some paperwork and did not immediately look up. "Yes?" she said.

"Uh ... is this not the Headmaster's Office?" he asked.

Now she did look up. She had, he realized, a pair of eyes that were the exact same color as one of his mother's eyes. "Yes, this is the Headmaster's Office. I am his personal assistant, Minamoto Shanna. And you must be the new teacher, Negi Springfield."

"Minamoto Shanna," he repeated, dubiously. This woman was no more Japanese than he was.

"Yes," she said, flatly.

Well, it was hardly appropriate to pry into private affairs, was it? "I was hoping to speak to the Headmaster about my first day of classes. I think I could use his advice."

"He's not here," she calmly stated the obvious. "For the most part, he's only here during the early morning and some evenings, and spends the rest of his time at his private residence, resting. He's old." Again, a rather blunt statement of the obvious.

"I see. Well, um, if you could let him know that I'd welcome the opportunity to discuss ... matters," Negi concluded at last.

"You will be expected to give him a progress review in about a week," she told him. "That would be the time to do so."

"I see," Negi said again. "Thank you for clarifying."

She gazed at him a moment, then stood up. With the desk out of his way, he had a clearer view of her full figure, and could tell that she was in all probability slightly bustier than his mother, something that rather shocked him. She walked around the desk, standing before him in rather short order, far enough away that she didn't have to tilt her head down to look at him.

"Do you want to mate with me?" she asked.

"... yes," said Negi, whose mother had raised him to be truthful except when absolutely necessary.

She reached out and placed her hands flat on his shoulders, then moved them down to his chest -- then suddenly to his side, under his arms. Without apparent effort, she lifted him up and brought his face up to hers, so that no more than a few inches separated their eyes. If those eyes were the windows into her soul, then that place was a very dark one indeed, Negi decided. There was no real fear in that realization, though. Once again, he was reminded of his mother.

Her eyes closed, and she moved forward -- not to press their lips together, but to sniff at him. She moved her nose around his face, breathing in the scent of him. Then she lifted him higher while smelling at his chest area, then his abdomen, and finally his groin ... a particularly deep sniff there. Her eyes opened, then, and she released her grip on his sides. Negi dropped like a stone, but was careful not to lose his footing as he landed before her.

"Not now," said Shanna.

"V-very well," Negi stammered a bit. This was definitely among the stranger conversations he'd ever had, but it would hardly be gentlemanly to press the issue. "Excuse me, then." And he headed out the door.

Shanna -- only Shanna, for indeed she was not even remotely Japanese -- waited until her heartbeat slowed a bit before turning to head back to the desk and resume her work. Unfortunately, that meant that she had to, however momentarily, look out the window and see the damage done to the world. It had never been, she knew, as beautiful a place as the beloved, savage land where she had been 'born', but to see what man had wrought here was just as painful, in its way, as her memories of the loss of that homeland.

And those who'd been lost with it. Mother. Doc.

She had never really learned to process grief well. Anger felt cleaner. When he'd found her, Konoemon had told her that he believed the man who'd caused all this was here, in this country, and that he would help her to find him. That was all that she lived for, at this point -- the thought of what she would do to the man who, fifteen years earlier, had tried to kill the world, and had killed her home and those she loved. Eventually, of course, he was going to die, and she would have to find something else to satisfy her.

The boy might do. Considering it a bit further, she supposed that he might be a good distraction in the meanwhile, too.

Eventually, the school day ended, and the school building quickly emptied of students departing to go to their clubs, or so it was generally assumed. A little while after that, the other teachers in the office began packing up as well, and Negi followed their lead as best he could, gathering up his backpack and heading out of the building to head for the dormitories.

It was at that point that it occurred to Negi that he had no idea where the dormitories were. Yes, on the whole, it would have been a good idea to ask someone about that at some point. Shaking his head in self-reproach, Negi headed out in no particular direction, hoping that he might run into someone whom he might ask for directions.

"Negi?" came a voice from behind him.

"Takamichi!" he said, turning to smile at the man in the rumpled white suit. "The Headmaster said that you were leaving on a mission."

"I actually leave in just a few hours," said the older teacher, walking up to him and giving him a nice thump on the shoulders. "So, sensei, how was your first day with the nicest and best behaved class on campus?"

Negi stared at him.

"Yes, that was a joke."

"Oh good, I wasn't sure. Well, I think we're off to an all right start. They like me, but as for the respect due a teacher ... um."

Takahata took Negi's shoulder and began steering his young friend towards one of the large marble fountains that still decorated the school's promenade. Like most of the rest of the campus, it had seen better days. "Well, Negi, the alternative is to be respected by all your students and know that none of them like you at all ... except for the ones who like you too much."

"We are speaking from experience?" Negi asked, nose wrinkling at the stench of the impure water and the garbage that nobody had bothered to clean up in far too long.

"We are speaking from experience."

"Okay, then. I'd like to strive for a happy medium, then. But on the subject of students who like one too much --"

"Don't worry, Ayaka is harmless."

"Aya-- oh, Iinchou. I was actually talking more about your relationship with Asuna."

Takamichi coughed to fill the silence.

"It's funny, I don't think either of our parents are aware that you're her homeroom teacher," Negi continued in the same artless tone. "It's sort of an interesting thing to leave out of dinner conversations, don't --"

"I'm not her teacher anymore," Takamichi interrupted, calmly but firmly. "You are. And there's nothing else to discuss."

"All right," Negi said, after a moment. "I can think of more important subjects to mention in my letters home."

"Thank you."

"I really do need some advice on how to gain their respect. One of my new roommates actually warned me about the trap they were planning on springing, but I think she did so to put me off my guard so I'd ... well, never mind. I'd welcome any advice you could give me."

Takamichi chuckled, imagining Yuna playing mind games. "Well, in that case, I can recommend an even better source for advice. I think you might even have heard about him before now -- does the name Akashi Wataru ring a bell?"

"The one who sometimes works with Miss McGuinness? He's here, too?" Negi asked.

"Yes indeed, he's a very valued member of the local mage community. Let me send you his number to your cell phone that you don't have yet, ah heh." Takamichi rubbed the side of his head while Negi looked up at him with a somewhat unimpressed expression. "Oh, he's in the campus directory, you should be able to find a copy in the office. And if not, Yuna should be able to tell you where to find him."

"They know each other?"

"They're father and daughter," Takamichi said patiently a moment later. "Didn't the name tip you off?"

Negi coughed. "Now, I think it's a bit much to assume that I know whether a given Japanese family name is common or rare."

"Right," Takamichi said, enjoying Negi's moment of surprise and fallibility just a bit more than he should. He glanced again at his cell phone, taken out a moment before, and made a face. "Ech, I'm going to miss my taxi at this rate. Negi, let me just say that I have every confidence in your ability to undertake this assignment, and I'm sure that you'll exceed everyone's expectations. I hope to see you when I get back." With that, he hurried off.

"'Didn't the name tip you off,'" Negi repeated, sounding annoyed, once his friend was out of sight. He didn't like surprises, and learning that at least one of his roommates was actually aware of the magical world was a considerable one. He sighed. Well, it might make things a little easier.

A scuffling noise drew his attention, and he looked up to see a girl carrying a stack of books almost as tall as she herself while walking down the stairs leading to the fountain. There was something familiar about her, but that was less noteworthy than just how unsafe she was --

She slipped.

The pecking order at Academy City was rather strict, to understate things a bit. More honestly, it was a dog-rape-dog-then-eat-dog system, with the vague consolation that it wasn't as bad as the world beyond the walls of the school. The influence of Kiryuin Satsuki seeped down from her position as Student Council President at the top school all the way into the lower ranks of the system, like Mahora Girls Middle School. In imitation of her, the other sempai would never miss a chance to exert their authority and superiority, such as by say pushing the Middle School basketball club off the court before they could practice, then justifying it by the fact that said club had never won a game in the last decade.

Yuna thought that they could've been contenders if they'd had the chance to practice, but no one cared what she thought.

Akira's swim team did not have this problem, as they did win at competitions -- largely because Akira was on the team, in Yuna's totally unbiased opinion -- and that meant that her team would have the chance to practice. Which meant that, just as they'd discussed, Yuna had to head back to the school building to pick up Negi and take him over to the dormitory. She headed in expecting to find him in the teacher's office.

It was at that point that it occurred to Yuna that it might have been a good idea to tell Negi about this plan, sometime after they'd come up with it and before classes had ended for the day, as he was nowhere to be found. She darted out of the building, hoping against hope that the little boy, who had for all she knew walked here from Wales or wherever, had not gone far. She had the distinct impression that letting a teacher get killed when they were supposed to be living with you was the sort of thing that got you expelled.

Yuna let out a huge sigh of relief when she saw him on the plaza, and opened her mouth to yell out to him as she watched Miyazaki Nodoka -- 'Honya' to pretty much everybody except her fellow junior librarians -- and a large collection of books descend from midair above the stairs towards the ground at roughly a feather's falling speed, with Negi diving to catch the young librarian girl. Something seemed a bit odd about that, as though something unusual was happening, and wait wait wait!

Negi took a moment to examine Honya, whose nickname he did not know but whom he now recognized as one of the quieter girls from his class. She'd fainted as delicate maidens were wont to do. He brushed her long bangs aside, took a good long look at her face. "Exquisite," he murmured, and bent down to press his lips to one of her cheeks.

Yuna made a noise at that point.

"Oh, hello, Yuna-san," Negi said, looking up.

Yuna made more noises, pointing in the general direction of the staircase and, theoretically, the region from which Honya had descended.

"Yes, I suppose that was a rather blatant use of magic, but it was an emergency, after all. I hope she doesn't remember exactly what happened when she regains consciousness, I'd hate to have to use a memory erasure charm on her. I'm not very good at them," he added in the tone of one offering a confidence.

More noises.

"I'll try to be more discreet in the future. Maybe that's another thing your father will be able to advise me about," Negi mused.

Snap went what was left of Yuna's equanimity, and she darted forward to grab Negi by the lapels of his suit and lift him up off the ground. "What do you mean, my father will be able to advise you?!" she demanded, eyes gone a bit wild.

It seemed that it was his day to be manhandled. "Well, he's a very valued member of the local mage community, after all," he reminded her. Well, that's what he thought he was doing.

Impossibly, her grip on his lapels tightened. "What do you mean, local mage community?"

Behind his glasses, Negi's eyes went wide. "Oh dear," he said faintly. "Were you under the impression that your father was the only mage in the area? One of the other students in my class back at Merdiana was in the same situation. She thought her father was the only actual mage in all of the British isles before she was sent to school."

"Papa is a mage?!"

"... ohhhhhhh, feathers."

"But Paru, I don't want to watch boys being chloroformed," said Honya as she started to come around.

Livid, Yuna cast a glare over her shoulder at her collapsed classmate, then returned her furious glare to Negi's face. "Okay," she hissed. "We're gonna help Honya out, and then we're gonna go to the dorm, and then you're gonna explain all this, this screwiness. Got it?"

"Yes, I will explain," Negi agreed, way more patiently than you'd expect of someone being manhandled.

She honored his agreement by dropping him -- fortunately a lesser drop than one he'd already experienced -- and went over to help Miyazaki back to her feet.

Yukihiro Ayaka had a profound dislike for some of the policies that had been instituted in Academy City following Kiryuuin Satsuki's rise to power. Unfortunately, it was her responsibility as Class Representative to see that those polices were observed, and Ayaka had been carefully taught to live up to her responsibilities. So even though she would have very much liked to have a welcoming party for dear, sweet, impossibly cute Negi-sensei, as several of the awful children had proposed, she'd followed her duty by refusing to allow that sort of public gathering without approval from the faculty who'd need to get approval from even higher authorities, all of which would have been difficult to obtain.

Difficult ... but not impossible, given Ayaka's pull as the daughter and heir of the Yukihiro Financial Group. She'd had ulterior motives in forbidding the party, even though she was well aware that she would have enjoyed the chance to socialize with dear, sweet, unfathomably cute Negi-sensei. But she also had another responsibility. A self-imposed one, but a responsibility nonetheless.

That responsibility had brought her here, to a boulevard of broken dreams and homes that looked like they'd been built sometime in the previous century and would fall over in a stiff breeze, to say nothing of the terrible storms that still wracked these islands every few months. Yet they were still standing, and she supposed that there was something admirable in that. She walked along the sidewalk, one hand in her pocket holding her taser and the other firmly gripping her rape alarm. She'd never needed either implement before during any of the times that she'd come here, but there could always be a first time.

Eventually, her steps brought her to the house with the Tamura nameplate, and Ayaka took a deep breath before walking up to the front door and pressing the buzzer. Moments later, the front door opened to reveal the smiling face of a mature woman slightly shorter than Ayaka, with her hair pulled back in a pony tail. "Ayaka-chan!" said the only person on Earth who called her 'Ayaka-chan'. "It's been a while!"

"It has, Umeko-san," Ayaka agreed. She had attempted to call her 'Umeko-obaasan' exactly once. Her neck still ached, but that didn't matter right now. "Is Makoto-kun present and, em, not otherwise engaged?"

She flushed as she watched Umeko mouth the words 'not otherwise engaged', before the older woman coughed and spoke aloud. "Yes, he just got back from class and he's in his room, hopefully doing his homework!" She pitched that last to carry.

"I need to speak with him. Privately," Ayaka added, hands clenching in front of her stomach.

Umeko's eyes got rather wide, but she stepped back and let Ayaka walk deeper into the house, to a room the class representative knew rather well. Ayaka paused at the door, knocked again, and declared, "Makoto-kun, it's me. Can I come in?"

"Oh, sure!" came the sound of a young boy's voice.

Sure enough, he was seated at his desk, clearly focused on his homework (and if there was any manga hidden under the pages of homework, that was hardly any of Ayaka's business.) He turned to look back at her and smiled warmly. "Hello, Ayaka!"

The smile was what broke her. She was on her knees, then on her hands and knees, and sobbing, in moments. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry, Makoto-kun!"

"Ehhh?!" the boy exclaimed, pushing his chair away from his desk. "A-Ayaka? What's wrong? What happened?"

"I wanted to be faithful! I really did want that this time!"

"Ohhhhhhh," said Makoto, understanding dawning as he stood up.

"And it's not because he's younger than you are! It really isn't!" Ayaka insisted through her tears.

"I believe you," said Makoto, who didn't, but that wasn't important right now. He walked over to where she was crouched, knelt down to take hold of her shoulders and try to help her to a more upright posture. "Tell me what happened, please."

"Ooookay," Makoto said a few moments later as he sat beside Ayaka on his bed. "So ... actually, you haven't done anything yet with this Negi person."

"But I'm in love with him," Ayaka repeated. She'd calmed down a lot, but she wasn't budging on this point. "I can't be in love with him and be in love with you at the same time. It's just not possible."

"Okay," said Makoto. Maybe she was wrong, maybe not; he certainly didn't have anywhere as much life experience as she did and wasn't about to contradict her under the circumstances. Besides, thinking about Hitomi and how he'd felt about the idea of her having sex with someone else made him suspect that there might be something to what she was saying.

"So ... what we have, this wonderful thing that we have," Ayaka said, almost tearing up again. "It has to end, you see."

Makoto didn't see, but he did understand that this was really hurting this very kind if rather screwy girl. He put his hand on hers and smiled up at her. "If this Negi is what you need to be happy, Ayaka, then I wish you nothing but the best with him. I'm sorry that this is causing you pain."

"Makoto-kun," she breathed, eyes gone heart-shaped.

I overdid it again, didn't I? thought Makoto in the last picosecond before he was kissed, and kissed soundly. And he was being pushed back onto the bed, and his clothes were being tugged at, and --

"No!" Ayaka cried, pulling back. "No, this will only make it hurt more, in the long run. I ... I have to go."

Makoto, lying on his back and his clothes in some disarray, blinked. This never happened. He opened his mouth to say Are you sure? when a noise like paper sliding under a door attracted his attention. He turned to one side to see a piece of paper attached a stick poking through his semi-open door. On the paper were written the words, DON'T say are you sure. Makoto swallowed. "Yes, you should go," he agreed rather stiffly. The stick and paper slid out of sight as soon as he did.

Ayaka, oblivious to all this, let out a long sigh of profound grief. "Yes, I know." She stood up and looked down at him one last time. "I will always love you a little bit," she said in a trembly sort of voice. And then she hurried out the door to his room. Moments later, Makoto heard the sound of the front door of the house opening and closing in quick succession.

Another moment passed, and his mother poked her head in the doorway. "Are you okay, Makoto?" she asked.

"I don't know," he told her, looking up at the ceiling instead of in her direction. "I've never been dumped before, and I'm not sure how I'm supposed to feel."

Umeko came the rest of the way into his room and started to pull her shirt off. "Well, that too is a part of grown up fun. The time when you realize that you want the person you're with to only have sex with you, the time when you realize that you're never going to have sex with someone ever again ... these are all parts of the glorious spectrum of life."

"Huh," said Makoto. "Is that why you told me not to say that? So I'd experience more of the glorious spectrum of --"

"Oh no," said Umeko, smiling lasciviously as she removed the last of her clothing. "I did that because this is one of my days, and I don't feel like sharing with the girl who dumped my poor sweet baby. No matter how yummy her sweet blonde cunny is!" With that revelation she climbed into bed atop her son, reached into his pants and began to massage him to hardness. Of course, it took no time whatsoever and they were soon in blissful transport.

"Okay," said Yuna. She and Negi were both seated on the edge of the rooftop of the dormitory building, looking towards the place in the sky where someone would have been able to see the setting sun if the reddish cloud cover hadn't been thick enough to block it out completely. "You're not planning on using one of those memory things on me, are you?"

"No," the boy answered firmly. "Using one of those charms on the family member of a fellow mage might be considered assault, and regardless of how the community would view it, I have no wish to get Aka-- your father angry at me when I expect I'm probably going to need his help. Also, as I said, I'm not very good at them, and there would be a possibility that I'd erase your entire memory rather than just the details of the last few hours. That would be a terrible thing to do to one of my students."

"But you were thinking you might have to do it to Honya," she objected.

"Yes," he admitted. "Keeping the secret of our magic from the public is one of the rules of our community, and failure to do so carries some rather serious penalties."

"Let me guess, you get turned into funny animals if anyone finds out," Yuna said wearily.

"No, I would be sold into slavery to one of the Occult Academies, who would most likely forcibly remove my brain and use it to increase the processing power of one of their biological computers," said Negi. "I'm sorry, were you under the impression that you'd somehow fallen into a children's television program?"

"Sla -- bio -- Occult Academies?" Yuna asked, looking sick.

"There are two primary schools of thought in the magical community," Negi exposited. "The one to which I and your father belong holds that it is our responsibility to use our magic to make the world a better place."

"You've blown it."

Negi coughed sharply at that interjection. "All that I can say is that the world would be in an even worse situation without our efforts. Regardless, the other school feels that the only thing that matters is using magic to learn the truths of the universe and eventually gain access to the metaphysical source of all being and reality, and are willing to do just about anything that will get them closer to that goal. They run the majority of the Occult Academies, which employ some very unwholesome practices as a result. Like the slavery and the biocomputers, among other things."

"So what you're telling me is that there's more evil wizards than good wizards," Yuna said, no longer looking sick. Anger was not a particular improvement. 

"We don't use the word 'wizard', and it's not about good and evil, it's just about one's point of view. I'm sure that members of the other school of thought have excellent reasons for believing what they do, even if I don't share those beliefs. And there is more that unites us than divides us." This last was, perhaps unfortunately, delivered in the manner of one who'd learned it by rote.

"Well, that's just spiffy," growled Yuna. "Anyway. You want to make the world a better place? Then why the hell are you assigned to teach English to a bunch of Japanese girls at a third-rate school like this?"

"You're being far too hard on your school," he reproved her. "I admit that it's not first-rate, but it's ever so much better than third --"

"Cut the crap!" she snapped, grabbing his tie this time and holding it in a way that suggested she might tighten it at any moment. "Why are you here, you little Casanova?"

"All that I can tell you is why I think I was sent here," Negi replied after a moment. "As you yourself have said, the world is not in very good shape. To be honest, it is probably dying, and humanity has not yet faced the worst threats to our continued existence. I believe that I was sent here to find partners and allies for the struggles that are to come, among the people who will have to live in the world our struggles will create and defend."

Yuna stared at him. "You're serious."

He nodded shortly. "And then there's the other thing, too."

"What's the other thing?"

"According to my mother, I was sent here to find as many women as possible to bear my children, who will become the heroes that the generation after ours will need."

Yuna made a noise again.

"I hope you will be one of them, as I find you very attractive," he told her, resting a hand on one of her firm, toned hips. "However, right at the moment, I believe we have other matters to concern us." Negi looked over his shoulder. "Not so?" he asked.

"It is so," agreed Zazie, who'd just stepped out of the door leading to the stairs down.

"I was kidding!" Yuna shrieked, holding her face in her hands as Negi stood up to look directly at the new arrival. "I was kidding about the Casanova bit!"

"Princess Zazie," said Negi, offering her a European-style bow, right arm folded against his stomach. "My apologies for not having been able to offer you an appropriate greeting when we met earlier."

"Wait a minute," said Yuna, lowering her hand and looking back towards the door.

For her part, Zazie offered Negi an elaborate curtsey somewhat at odds with her uniform. "Young Master Springfield," she replied. "It is of no moment. The circumstances did not allow for such things."

"Zazie? As in the girl who sits in the back of the class and never talks to anybody?" Yuna asked, coming to her feet.

"I was asked to recite from the text this very afternoon," Zazie reminded her patiently.

"That doesn't count!"

Zazie looked at Yuna for what felt like a very long moment, then returned her gaze to Negi. "I hope that your mother is well."

"When last I saw her, she was quite well," Negi replied. "Might I inquire after your sister?"

"Were she not well, I would not now be here. Speaking of her, however, I would like to pass on an inquiry from her. Do you know, and can you say, why we are having difficulty contacting your father?"

The question hung in the air for a moment, as Negi considered.

"His dad's a big deal among the wizards, right?" asked Yuna.

He half-turned to look back at her. "We don't use the word 'wizard'," Negi said, sounding just a bit annoyed. "But yes, my father is the greatest mage who ever lived. Your Highness, I offer my apologies for any inconvenience your sister may have endured in trying to contact my father. All that I can say about his whereabouts is that, at last report, he and Uncle Kiritsugu were questing for the Orb and Amulet of Agamotto, so that he might formally take the role of Sorcerer Supreme and Master of the Mystic Arts."

"Oh, man, how is it that I can hear the capital letters?"

Ignoring Yuna, Zazie nodded somberly. "I see. That is unexpected, but of course Lord Nagi is infamous for the unexpected. And I have seen that he has given you his wand. Perhaps that is even more unexpected."

Negi looked uncomfortable. "Yes, he ... said that if he didn't succeed, I would need every advantage. But of course he will succeed so I am only holding it for him temporarily," he added very quickly.

"Indeed. Yet Lord Nagi is correct that you will require every advantage. It is to that point and purpose that I have sought a gift to give to you, Young Master Springfield." With that, Zazie reached into the gift bag she was carrying, producing a large, red gem. "Do you know what this is?"

Negi adjusted his glasses. "Is that ... a Sacred Gear?" he asked, speaking quietly.

"Indeed. Please be introduced to Y Draig Goch, the Great Red Dragon. This is the one I have chosen to host you, Y Draig Goch. You might wish to introduce yourself," she said to the gem.

And the gem spoke, in a very deep voice that seemed, to Yuna, to be coming from everywhere at once. "I have nothing to say to anyone present. You are all thieves and miscreants."

"He is such a charmer," mused Zazie.

Negi took a step towards Zazie. "I have heard the stories of what can be done with this artefact. And you mean to give me this wonderful gift?" he asked, voice still soft and quiet.

"Yes," said Zazie ... then dropped the gem back into the bag. "But not now."

Negi blinked. "I ... what? Not now? Then when?" he asked, sounding somewhat startled and upset.

Zazie rested two fingers against her lips and seemed as though deep in thought. "Twenty," she declared at last.

"... you would have me wait another ten years?" Negi asked, and he was no longer somewhat upset. "What possible --"

"No, not the age of twenty. When you have claimed twenty partners for your ... collective ... then I will recognize you as having demonstrated enough worth to be able to use this artefact well," she explained.

"Of all the cheek! You think you can judge my worth?" he asked.

"I think," said Zazie, very quietly, "that you would do well to remember that we are your allies in this great working, and not your servants, Young Master Springfield."

It became very quiet on top of the roof.

Somewhat predictably, that quiet was broken by Yuna. "Okay, two questions here. Is the number twenty somehow mystically significant or something?"
she asked.

Zazie blinked. "No, it is simply the number of partners that I believe he will be able to gather in a fairly short amount of time, based on what I have already seen of his ability to attract romantic and sexual interest."

Yuna facepalmed. "Yeah, yeah, that was what I was afraid you were gonna say. No, never mind, question two, are all wizards as big a pervert as this kid -- actually forget that, is my dad as big a pervert?"

"We don't use the word --"

"Why the hell not?"

Negi let out an angry sigh. "Because that word is derived from the elder term 'istari', which meant the material incarnation of a ... of a ..." And suddenly his eyes got very big, as he turned back to look at Zazie.

"They themselves prefer the term Guardians, usually represented by the Japanese word 'senshi'," she explained.

"They? H-how many more of them are there?" he asked weakly.

"Eight or nine, I believe."

Negi made a noise.

"Great. So about my dad --" Yuna started to ask.

But Zazie had already departed.

"Why were you up on the roof?" Akira asked when the two of them trooped into the dorm room a few minutes later.

Yuna glanced at Negi, who seemed a bit distracted at the moment, then spoke for the both of them. "I was giving him the full tour of the dorm, from the basement up."

Once again, Yuna was reminded that it could be really hard to read Akira sometimes. Like right then, when she just stood there and looked at Yuna for what felt like a full minute, and Yuna found it impossible to guess whether her friend and roommate was swallowing her lie. "All right," Akira said at last. "I'm going to go have a bath before dinner. Coming with?"

"Ah, no, I think I'll go later, to avoid the rush," Yuna replied.

"Okay. How about you, Negi-kun?"

That certainly drew him out of his distraction, as he blinked rather rapidly before his face assumed what Yuna took for a rather conflicted expression. "I'm --" he started to say.

"He doesn't need one," Yuna interjected.

Akira looked at her again, then walked towards Negi-kun, bent down towards his head (in what he found to be an unfathomably graceful motion) and took a delicate sniff. "I think he sort of does," she reported.

"He'll go later, too," Yuna assured her.

And now Akira gave Yuna a look that wasn't at all hard to interpret. "I see," she said, nodding, then picked up her bath supplies and headed out of the room while Yuna was still only starting to form a response to that.

"Okay!" she finally managed to snap once the door closed behind her roommate, turning to glare at Negi as she spoke. "Rule number one of this cohabitation situation -- Akira is out of bounds. She doesn't find out about all this magic crap, she doesn't become part of your 'collective' -- I'm assuming that's mage for 'harem' -- or anything else. Got it?"

Negi nodded politely, then said, "No."

"Excuse me?" asked Yuna in a tone which spoke eloquently of 'gonna kick your shit'.

The young mage blinked. "Oh, um, I'm sorry, I meant that I agree to your stipulation, even if I think it's a bit unfortunate." That was as far as he was willing to go towards saying that he was, frankly, more attracted to Akira's ineffable beauty than he was towards Yuna's undeniable charm. "I was answering no to your earlier question, on the roof, about your father. He doesn't share my family's priorities, so he wouldn't have our attitudes towards sex. So, no, your father is not what you'd consider a pervert. As far as I know."

"Oh," said Yuna, a bit deflated. "Thanks," she added after a moment.

A somewhat awkward silence descended.

There'd been a forest in the hills of Academy City, once, but the lumber rights had been sold a few years before and most of the trees cut down. So the cabin in the woods was more of a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Still, that suited the residents of that cabin just fine. At the moment, said residents were seated on the veranda of their home and addressing a courtier.

"So that is him, then?" asked Hino Rei, school uniform abandoned in favor of a red leather jacket, white shirt and tight leather pants.

"Yes," replied Evangeline McDowell, not really looking at the fashion victim before her as she reclined in her nightgown on a long-backed chair and gazed up at the sky. "That is the son of the son of a bitch. As I've never been formally introduced to the boy's mother, it's unfair of me to call him a son of bitch himself, but rumor has it that the title is accurate."

"May I ask what your plans are, then?" Rei pressed.

"You just did."

After a moment, Rei spoke again. "And?"

"And what?" Evangeline asked, fixing her gaze on Rei for the first time in this so-called conversation.

"I should probably take this whole tangent as a 'no', then."

Evangeline turned towards the young woman in the costume of a Quebecoise maid who stood beside her chair. "Karin," she said. "Please remind me whether we owe the heirs of the Moon Kingdom anything, particularly anything in the form of explanations."

"Well, Evangeline-sama, you live on the planet Earth. In the last thirty years, I believe that the heirs of the Moon Kingdom have saved the planet Earth from destruction or conquest approximately twenty times," the woman called Karin replied.

Rei nodded in a possibly humble manner.

"On the other hand, in the overwhelming majority of those instances, the threat to the planet Earth arose from unfinished business from the Moon Kingdom, or from matters relating to a hypothetical future Moon Kingdom," Karin continued. "So one could say that such business is a net zero, and, in any event, you personally owe them nothing."

"That's what I thought," Evangeline replied, entirely satisfied.

Rei let out a disgusted sigh.

"I am, however, willing to bargain," the girl with the long blonde hair asked. "I offer the answer to your question in exchange for the answer to one of my questions. Of course, as this is a seller's market, I expect to have my answer first."

"I'm willing to hear your question out."

"Very well then. Where is the Moon Princess?"

Rei started. "What? What good would that knowledge do you?"

"That's an entirely different question, subject to an entirely different set of negotiations. Where is the Moon Princess?"

"Evangeline-san, I've told you before," Rei said. "We are more than willing to have her come to you and try to break your curse. All that you would have to do would --"

"-- be to accept that I must give up all the power I possess in the process, and become a helpless child once more," Evangeline interrupted. "Not. Interested. And not what I asked. Where is the Moon Princess? Final offer."

"I'm not going to answer that question," she said, teeth clenched.

"Alas." But then Evangeline favored her with a rather cruel smile. "Do you actually know the answer to that question?"

Rei drew a deep breath. "That is an entirely different question, subject to an entirely different set of negotiations," she answered after a moment.


"Good evening, Evangeline-san. Good evening, Karin-san."

"Good evening," Evangeline answered politely.

Karin said nothing, and eventually Rei turned away to walk down the stairs leading up to the cabin's veranda. She kept walking away from the cabin, along the path leading through the harvested woods. Not until she passed an invisible line did she reach into her jacket pocket, pull out her cell phone, and hit her top speed dial.

"It's me," she said a moment later. "Where are you?"

Roughly ten minutes earlier.

The problem with doing something rather enjoyable -- in this case, masturbating to a porn video featuring a beautiful golden-haired girl getting fucked by five different guys at once while she cried and begged them to stop -- was the way that it could get one to let one's guard down. So he didn't hear footsteps in the hallway outside his bedroom door, and he didn't hear the door opening, and it wasn't until he heard his sister's voice saying "What'cha doin'?" that he realized how much trouble he was in. 

"Sis!" he squawked, covering his hardon with his hands -- which unfortunately left flailing with one of his feet in an attempt to shut off the DVD player, getting him absolutely nowhere. "Don't just come into my room like this! What the hell is wrong with you!"

"Oh, so many things," she answered, taking a nice long look at the images on the screen. She walked over to his bed and sat down on it, her bare knees at his shoulder and the tee shirt that was the only thing she was wearing giving him easy visual access to her pubes. "So, what do you think of my acting abilities in this scene? Do I really convey the idea 'I hate what's being done to me even as my body betrays me in orgasm'?"

For it was true, the beautiful golden-haired girl on screen -- who did not, legal warning or no legal warning, look eighteen years of age or older -- was also the beautiful golden-haired girl sitting behind him. The only difference in the look was that the one who was actually present was wearing slightly more clothes and had a rather large bruise on her cheek.

"I really don't want to discuss the details of your performance with you, sis! Please leave!"

"Aw, come on, I don't get these kind of opportunities very often. How many of my DVDs have you seen? How long have you been watching me get fucked? These are things I always wonder about my audience."

"Four," he told her through clenched teeth. "And I've known about your ... career ... for about six months, now."

"Okay, I guess you've seen everything that's out commercially, then. Six months. Hm. I guess it's no surprise that dad knows, then. I sort of hoped he wouldn't find out, but if you've been choking your chain to me for six months, there was no way he wouldn't know." She shrugged. "Ah well."

He swallowed. "Did ... did dad give you that bruise?" he asked, not looking back at her as he did.

"Yeah. He got pissed at the way I was walking around the house in this shirt, and called me a whore. Which is such a hypocritical thing to say, I mean, he's the one who wants me to be ready for it wherever and whenever, but when I take steps to be like that, he gets pissed off." She collapsed back onto the bed, legs kicking a bit. "Anyway, he's gone out to get drunk, now."

And there it was, the open admission of something he'd suspected for entirely too long. "So, uh ... h-how long have you and dad been ..."

"Since mom went in the hospital," she admitted. "Ah, no, wait, he started making me give him blowjobs a little before that, but we weren't really going at it all that often until after she died. I kinda felt sorry for him when it started, but these days it's just so much hassle."

He found this whole conversation very disturbing. To distract himself, he decided to focus his attention on the version of his sister on the screen, the fake rape victim who was clearly enjoying what was being done to her instead of the genuine one who was so much more ambiguous. Almost mindlessly, he started to rub his cock again.

"Want a hand with that?" came the teasing voice at his ear, moments before another, softer hand did in fact join his hand on his erection. "Or maybe a tongue, instead?"

"Sis!" he yelped again.

"Mmmm!" she added, leaning over his shoulder to look down. "Not nearly as big as some of the guys in the biz, but it looks so much yummier for some reason. Itadakiamasu." And with that faintly blasphemous remark, she pulled herself over his shoulder so that her mouth could reach down and lick at him while her right knee came down on his right shoulder to open her crotch to him.

"Sis, we can't!"

"Schlorp!" she replied, as she took him down to the root. Then pulled back, clearing her throat so she could speak clearly. "Fuck's sake, little brother, if you didn't want to fuck me, why the fuck were you watching me get fucked and fucking rubbing yourself off? Shut up and lick me already, don't be such a selfish prick! Here we go again! Gagkh! Gagkh! Gagkh!"

"Sis," he moaned.

Several moments later, he was shrieking that instead. "Sis!" he cried as he pounded into her, forearms hooked around her knees as she spread across his bed. "Sis! I'm better than dad, right! You love me more than dad!"

"Yeah, sure, you're way better!" she agreed. "Now go harder, harder!"

He couldn't help but laugh at the way her cries for him to do it more, do it faster, do it harder synched with the cries from the video image of her begging for it to end. "I love you, sis! I love you so much!"

"Ditto!" she shrieked as he drove her to yet another climax.

"I'm gonna take you away from him! I am! You're never gonna fuck him again! And you're gonna retire from the AV biz and only fuck me from now on! Oh god, I love you! I, I ... cumming!" he cried as he spewed out within her.

"Yeaaaaaaah," she sighed.

"I mean it, you know," he murmured as they lay in post-coital bliss. "When I graduate from high school, we'll get a little house together, and live there, and dad will never know where we are, and every day will be beautiful like this ..."

"Uh-huh," she murmured back, playing gently with his hair. "How long do you think you've been in high school, little brother?"

What a strange question. She should know how old he was. "Well, I'm in ..." Was it first year? That sounded right. But hadn't he been in first year last year, too? And ... no, wait, that couldn't be right.

In the distance, he heard a phone ringing, bringing him out of his confusion.

"Fuck," said his sister, pushing out from under him. "I gotta go get that." She paused long enough to kiss him deeply. "You really are an okay fuck, you know?"

"Okay?" he repeated as she ran naked out the door, fluids dripping from her.

She found her cell phone in her room, of course, and flipped it open. "Allo allo," she said. "Nice talking to you too, Rei. I'm in my house. Where else would I -- yes, it's safe to talk." A pause. "Why do you need to know that information on your current assignment?" she asked sharply. "Oh, for gods sake, Rei, of course she's safe, I reviewed her security arrangements just yesterday! Don't be so needy!"

She walked out of her room, down the hallway past where her little brother had started to watch her video again, as though nothing had happened, and then into the living room, making conversational noise as the other side of her dialogue monopolized it. She glanced at the TV, displaying an infomercial, and shook her head. "Rei. Rei! Enough. Your job right now is to keep an eye on things there. Do not worry about the Princess. Yes I know you love her, and she loves you. You have a wonderful, wonderful love, and this is me saying it. But right now, we need eyes on Kiryuuin and Morimoto, and you are best suited to this task.

"No, of course I don't think your intuition is wrong, but I'm sure that she's fine, and there's no reason she wouldn't be fine. Everything else is --" And as she spoke, she glanced at the television again. "-- I hate you sometimes," she concluded. "Go to A-12." She ended the call, then tapped her second speed dial button. "Ami. Go to C-8." Ended call, speed dialled three. "Mako-chan. Go to D-21." Ended call. Considered speed dials four and five. No. Under the circumstances, they would already know and a call would be a distraction. Speed dial six had not answered in fifteen years. Speed dial seven ...

Aino Minako closed her eyes and begged her Goddess' forgiveness, then pressed speed dial seven. "We may be needed, Usagi-chan," she said, in as gentle a voice as anyone could imagine.

Behind her, the front door of the house slammed open. "Oh, gah, nah y'walk around naked?" a voice slurred, and footsteps stomped towards her. She casually backhanded her father through the front wall of their home, and went to get dressed.

"So, um, all this stuff about you finding girls to have your kids," Yuna asked, uneasily. The two of them were seated in front of the TV, watching a celebrity gossip program. (Well, Yuna was sort of watching it while Negi read a book.) "You haven't ... yet ... um. I don't know quite how to ask this. I mean ... you're just a kid, right?"

"Actually, I have actually begun to build what Zazie dubbed my collective," Negi explained. "I began sexual experimentation with my mother, father, and their lover Irisviel some months ago, and before I came here to Japan I had my first full sexual experience with my older sister." He frowned. "I should probably clarify whether Zazie meant twenty partners in addition to her or twenty partners including her," he added, speaking more to himself.

Yuna's jaw had dropped when he reached the point about experimentation. When he finally started muttering to himself, she let loose some faintly hysterical laughter. "Okay. Okay. You really had me going there for a while. Good on you! I appreciate a clever joke! But now I know that you have to be making this stuff up, because there is noooooo way in hell that Asuna would let you do that stuff to her. She hates kids!"

"Oh, I'm not talking about Asuna," he hastened to clarify. "I meant my even older sister, Irisviel's daughter Ilysaviel."

"Of course you did," moaned Yuna, hand firmly resting on her face. "Geez, kid! Geez!"

"I take it that you yourself are unfamiliar with sex, and somewhat uncomfortable with the subject?" he asked.

"What was your first clue?" she asked withoout looking at him.

"I'm very sorry to be a source of so much discomfort, Yuna-san," Negi continued, looking very contrite. "I think sex is a wonderful and natural part of life, and there's no reason to be ashamed of what nature gave us, or of communion with our fellow men and women." He seemed unaware that he was speaking like one reciting from a manifesto he'd been given to read. "I'm actually sort of surprised that you're so shocked, since my research about this country indicated that young people, such as yourself --"

"Think about what you're saying!" said the fourteen year old girl to the ten year old boy.

He pressed on regardless. "-- were becoming sexually active at younger ages. Specifically, around your age."

"Well, you're ... your research was ..." Yuna started to say something, then fell silent, before dropping her head to the living room table. "Gheh," she said at last. "I can't even say 'you're wrong' with a straight face. Plenty of the girls on my basketball team have got boyfriends, and plenty of them have talked about going all the way. I don't, we don't talk about these things in class, but I wouldn't be surprised if lots of the girls there have done the same. Just ... not me."

"There's no shame in being different," Negi started to say.

"Oh, you are definitely not Japanese," she said without looking up. "But ... all I wanted to do was play basketball, not flirt with guys!"

"... have you considered the possibility that you're more attracted to other females than --"

"No! I just wanted to be a nice, normal student like --" Yuna broke off in mid-sentence, and her eyes got very wide as she stared at the table top. "-- like my dad taught me to be," she concluded very quietly. "My dad. The liar. The cheat. The man who is definitely not a normal anything. The terrible example."

"Um," said Negi.

She lifted her head to look at him ... but before her head could fully turn in his direction, her eyes focused on the TV screen. "What the hell?" she asked.

A flying saucer roughly the size of an aircraft carrier was hovering in the sky above Tokyo-2.

There was another one above what the natives still called Hong Kong, and the occupiers called Area 11. And yet another above the Brittanic Empire's southern stronghold in Australia, and above the capitals of the Chinese republics. All over the world, it was the same. Wherever humanity came together to govern itself, a great vessel, unmistakably not of this world, could be seen in mid-air.

They had descended past a crumbling satellite network that no one had the ability or inclination to fix anymore, and arrived in total silence. No radio messages had been transmitted, nor any response made to those sent out by the humans.

"Gentlemen," said the Japanese government's Minister of Defense. "This is surely our darkest hour. Yet for fifteen years, we have been preparing for this day, and now the time has come to put those preparations into action." He turned to his secretary. "Bring me the hotline to NERV."

This was done, and the Minister unhesitatingly picked up the headset of the innocuous white telephone. "Yes, this is the Minister -- what do you mean, please hold?" He moved the headset back from his ear.

"... and tan and young and lovely/the girl from Ipanema goes walking/and as she passes/each one she passes --" came from the receiver.

In a place far below Tokyo-3, a man with shiny glasses and a closely trimmed beard drew a line through the words 'put the Minister of Defense on hold' on a To-Do List that included 'show them all' and 'force Emperor Charles to shave off his beard'.

"Ikari," said the rather older man who was standing behind him. "Are you sure --"

"None of this is in the Dead Sea Scrolls. None of this can or will prevent what must happen from happening. It is not our problem."

"We're fucked," said Yuna.

"Yuna, there's no need for such language," Negi told her.

"Are you kidding? This is it! This is exactly what you were talking about, threats to the world that we aren't even remotely ready for! You were right! Oh god, you were right." She rose up on unsteady legs.

"I'm sure that this challenge will be answered by mages such as my father --" Negi started to say.

"You said he was questing for some orb or whatever!" she said. "He might not even know what's going on until it's too late!"

"-- and there are others who will --"

"And most of them only care about their research!"

"-- and the wizards I just found out about might --"

"And they have such a great track record that you've never even heard of them until now!"

"Ummmmm," said Negi, not really able to refute this point. "Well, I don't --"

"No," Yuna said, shaking her head frantically. "You were right. You were right about everything. It's going to be up to the next generation to do something about this. Maybe they'll be the ones to lead some kind of resistance to the aliens. That sounds like the sort of thing that would happen. So come on, we've got to get started on making the next generation." She stumbled over to her bed, undoing her skirt as she went, dropping it to the floor before lying down. She rolled her legs up onto her chest, then slid her panties up to her knees, exposing herself. "Get on with it!" she commanded.

"Oh," said Negi. He was just a bit concerned about how quickly Yuna's mood had shifted, but to be honest, her forthright attitude was something of a turn on to him. "Are you sure about this? I would be willing to wait and see --"

"It's not about being sure, dumbass! I said, get over here and insert column a into slot b!"

"That's a terribly objectifying way of putting things," Negi told her, but nonetheless undid his belt and pants buckle so that, once he got his suspenders down from his shoulders, he could lift his erect member out of his boxers and begin rubbing it against the surface of her vulva. "All right," he said, when he believed that he'd lubricated it enough. "This could hurt a little --"

"If you don't do it right now, it's gonna hurt you a lot," she promised, eyes quivering.

"All right," he said, and pushed in.

"Ggh," said Yuna.

"Ah, no hymen. Good. It's actually been discovered that many females born after Second Impact have been born without them," he informed her.

"D-do I look I give a fuck?" Yuna managed to stammer as she felt herself clenching around the intruder below.

Now was not the time to address her language. "All right, I'll just ..." He trailed off as he began to move back and forth as her ankles dropped onto his shoulders. Slowly at first, then more quickly as he got the measure of her. His hands moved up the sides of her ribs to start rubbing her bra-covered breasts.

"What are you doing to my tits?" she asked, between gasps.

"I'm trying to make the experience a little more pleasant for you," he told her. "I want you to enjoy sex, the way that I do. Oh my, you're very ... you have very strong muscles down here!" he added, a little breathlessly.

"I, what, you, ugh, uh, uhhh, UHHHHHH!" she replied in a rather high-pitched sound somewhere between a squeal and a scream.

"Ah!" Negi gasped as she constricted even further. He responded by moving himself even more quickly, and let out a sound somewhere between a gasp and ... no, it was really just a gasp, as he released into her. With that, he sagged forward, pressing against the panties with his upper chest, so that his face was in front of hers. Their lips pressed against each other.

The order of this, thought Yuna, somewhat vaguely, is fucked up.

No ... we're fucked up. And yet, despite everything, she found herself laughing a little as she had her first kiss.

Then they heard the dorm room door open. "Yuna!" Akira's voice, sounding just a little concerned.

Forever after it would remain something of a mystery exactly how, in the second or so before Akira got from the doorway to the living room, the two of them managed to not only get their clothes arranged in some semblance of order but move from the bed to the table, so that when Akira saw them she saw nothing out of the ordinary, just two children seated at a table with confused looks on their faces.

Akira looked at them, looked at the television. "You saw?" she asked.

They nodded in unison.

"What's going to happen?" she asked.

Yuna looked at Negi. Negi shrugged. "I don't know."

Akira stared at them for a moment before she came over to them, sat down on the floor and scooted up to the table between the two of them, then hugged them both tightly to herself, their heads to her full breasts. "No matter what happens," she said, "I want to be with you when it does." The you was a plural one.

... oh shit, I think I might actually be more attracted to females than males after all, thought Yuna a bit dazedly.

... oh feathers, I hate being a man of my word sometimes, thought Negi a bit dazedly.

Na Mo Amitabha Buddha, Na Mo Amitabha Buddha, Na Mo Amitabha Buddha, Na Mo Amitabha Buddha, thought Akira with frightening clarity.

"So, let me see if I understand you correctly," said the Prime Minister of Japan. "You would like to play a game of tag."

"That's right," said the rather large Invader.

Prime Minister Yagami Raito laughed slightly. (His invisible companion laughed quite a bit more.) "I believe we can accommodate that."


To Be Continued

Chapter Text

"You want me to do what?" Moroboshi Ataru asked.

Gathered in the small living room of the Moroboshi family home in Tokyo-3 were all three members of that family and their frequent visitor, Ataru's at-times-nominal girlfriend Miyake Shinobu. Ataru was honestly a bit confused about why she was there at the moment, but as she was the least surprising of the three non-residents present, he'd decided to just go with it.

"Your country would appreciate it if you would play a game of tag," the gentleman who had introduced himself as Mr. Kuro, and was dressed appropriately, repeated. "But perhaps I should clarify. Let me reintroduce 'Invader'."

"How ya doin'?" said the nine foot tall man with horns in a tiger-striped one piece who was occupying most of the floorspace of the living room. Ataru found himself a bit confused as to how he had gotten through the front doorway.

"Could be better," replied Ataru's father with an admirable amount of sang-froid. Ataru's mother nodded agreement.

"Invader is the commander of the alien armada that is orbiting our planet," the government agent continued to explain. "He has decided to give our species a sporting chance to avoid conquest at his hands."

"Ummm," Invader interject. "'Bout that. Slight change of plans, here ... well, we've changed our minds about conquering you guys."

"E-excuse me?" asked a startled Mr. Kuro. "Then, what exactly is the point --"

"Well, y'see, it ain't really worth it to occupy and garrison you guys, under da circumstances, so we scrapped dat notion. Instead, if dis here Ataru feller don't win da big game, we'll just pillage and loot da planet, and take ... oh, I dunno ... maybe a few million of you wit' us as slaves when we leave." Invader nodded for no particular reason.

"Oh," said Mr. Kuro. "How ... generous."

"Dat's us all over. On da other hand, we're kinda in a rush, here, so we ain't gonna give you ten days to see if you can pull a win off, either, like we said we would. Game starts tomorrow morning at sunrise, ends at sunset, nice, quick, easy peasy."

"And I have to play tag with you?" Ataru asked, having finally found his voice where it had run off and hid.

The oni laughed. "Oh, not me, kiddo! Damn, don't I look a bit too old for dis sort of thing? Hey, sweety, get in here and meet da competition!"

"Sure thing, cha." With that, there walked into the room an impossibly beautiful woman of an unguessable age, dressed in a tiger striped bikini top and a matching pair of hot pants and furry boots, with bedroom eyes and hair that changed color five times in the minute that Ataru spent staring at her in poleaxed amazement. "Lum," she said.

"Lum?" Ataru repeated.

"My name. Lum," she confirmed. "And you're the guy who's going down tomorrow, right?"

"Ah ..."

"Ataru-kun, please stop drooling at the agent of humanity's downfall," said Shinobu with quite appropriate patience.

A few moments later, with no clearer idea of how Invader had managed to get out of the house without damaging it, they were in the street in front of the house, in a small area that had been cordoned off by Mr. Kuro's associates in order to keep the press and the rest of the neighborhood back.

"Well, see you tomorrow morning," said Invader cheerfully. For her part, Lum just offered a jaunty wave. With that, they lifted into the sky on their own power, heading towards a much smaller version of the flying saucer that was still hovering over the Japanese capital.

"Hey! Hold it!" Ataru cried, finally breaking out of the mild daze he'd been in since Lum's arrival. "You can fly?"

The two aliens' ascent paused so that they could look back. "Can't everybody?" asked Lum.

"No, but, I mean ... you're not going to be flying in the tag match, right?" he demanded.

Invader and Lum exchanged an incredulous look, before Invader turned back to reply, "Who'd hamstring demself like dat?" With that, they resumed their climb towards the spaceship.

"Sporting chance my ass!" Ataru yelled out his bedroom window. "We're doomed!"

"Ataru-kun!" Shinobu said from behind him. "You cannot think that way. If you do, it really is over ... and not just for you, but for all of us."

"But she can fly!" he said, turning back to look at her. "All she has to do is hover outside of my reach and --"

"Then extend your reach!" she said. "Ataru-kun, you have no good qualities. You're a coward, a weasel, a jerk, a cheat, a cad, a bounder -- but that's not important right now! Right now, one of your bad qualities is what's needed -- and there is no one in Japan, and maybe not even the world, who is as much of a skirt chaser as you are!" Shinobu took a deep breath. "Win, and I swear that I will marry you!"

"... wow, an offer of marriage from someone who thinks I'm a coward and a weasel," sneered Ataru, having gone back to glaring out his bedroom window.

"You're not likely to get a better one anytime soon!" snapped Shinobu, who then turned and stormed out of the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind her, leaving Ataru in shadows.

"Hello," said the shadows after a moment.

First period the next day was rather subdued, by 2A standards. Having seen this same sort of worry in the faces of his two roommates all through the previous evening and into the morning, Negi was in a better position to pick up on the class' mood than he might have otherwise have been, and chose to address it at the start of the class. "Okay, everyone? I'm sure that you're all concerned about the events that are happening today in Tokyo-3, and I can't really blame you. But ... regardless of the world's situation, we have class to conduct. So please pay attention, and, um .... Hasegawa-san? Please stop sneaking peeks at that small television you're hiding in your desk, all right? I'm not going to confiscate it, under the circumstances, but it is a distraction from the lesson."

Chisame gave him what he recognized as a scorching look in response to that remark, but shoved the smartphone into her bag. That also won Negi an unhappy glare from Yuna, who'd been sneaking peeks at the display whenever Chisame brought it into view. Yuna had been less than impressed when she found out that, instead of giving up her maidenhead in response to an impending alien invasion, she'd done so in response to an impending game of tag with the stakes of alien invasion riding on it. She didn't actually complain about it, since Akira had been with the two of them all morning, but the looks she kept shooting Negi were not of a warm or cheerful nature.

It was neither an easy class, nor a fun class, but it was a class that they finally got through. "All right," Negi said, as the minutes clicked down towards the end of the hour. "I've had the chance to go over your test scores, and ... well, I'd like to meet some of you at the end of class today to discuss supplementary lessons."

"Go go Baka Rangers," someone sang from the middle of the room. (It was Misa, if you're curious.)

Negi decided to ignore that. "So if Asuna, Ayase, Nagase, Sasaki, Ku and Naba could remain after the end of class, we'll have that discussion then. In the meanwhile, take care for the rest of the day, try not to worry too much the tag game, and try to avoid carrying large quantities of books that block your view of where you're walking." He honestly thought he was doing the heavily blushing Nodoka a favor by not mentioning her name, but judging from the looks the other students were giving her, it became painfully obvious she was the only one in the classroom who would ever have needed such farewell advice. Ooops.

He slid open the door and was promptly seized by the person on the other side of it, physically picked up and carried as that person ran down the hall towards the building exit.

Hm, Negi thought. I wonder if this sort of manhandling is going to be a theme of my time here. Well, he didn't exactly sense any hostile intent at the moment, so he just settled in to enjoy the ride, or, more specifically, the bosom he was pressed up against.

"Kidnapping!" he heard the class representative's voice shriek just as the person carrying him cleared the front door and started running along Academy City's streets.

A few moments later, he heard his captor speak for the first time. "They're chasing me," she said in a tone of clear disbelief. "Those screwy middle school girls are actually chasing me! Why are they chasing me?" 

She had, Negi thought, a rather sexy voice. Perhaps that was why he felt moved to answer. "I suspect that they might be under the impression that I'm being kidnapped."

"Well, where did they get a silly notion like that? Yip!" With that, his kidnapper turned and entered the front doors of a different school building, racing down yet another hall that led to a set of stairs which she quickly hustled up, followed by a short jog down the hallway, then into a supply room where she dropped or perhaps threw Negi to the floor while she turned back to the door, locking it with a loud click.

"That last bit was the sort of thing that kidnappers might do," he advised her.

She turned to look right at him, and he finally saw her face. The smile was the first thing he noticed. Some of the girls in 2A had a smile that was almost like that, with its mixture of unholy glee and sheer enthusiasm, but he'd never met a girl quite like this before. The fact that she was rather beautiful, with her long brown hair held back with an orange ribbon that set off her eyes, did not escape his attention. "Hello, sensei, I need your help," she cooed.

"And ... you didn't just visit me in my office, because ...?" asked Negi as he looked up at her.

"Bureaucracy is for suckers."

"I see. Well, then, what can I do for you, uh ..." 

"Suzumiya Haruhi, supreme commander and perpetual dictator of the Spreading Excitement All Over The World With Suzumiya Haruhi Brigade," she stated, posing heroically. 

The effect was somewhat undercut by the way that the door began to rattle on its hinges. "Sensei!" cried the class representative's voice from the other side. "Sensei, are you in there?!"

"No!" Haruhi yelled.

"Yes!" Negi contradicted her. "But please don't vandalize school property! I'm all right, just wait a few moments, please!"

"Why did you do that?" Haruhi asked him, both perplexed and annoyed.

"I think that's really my question for you, Suzumiya-san. What exactly did you want me to do? And you might want to make it quick, I don't think those young ladies are going to wait very long before they break down the door."

She pouted. "All right, here it is. The Spreading Excitement --"

"You don't have to repeat your club name."

"-- we need a faculty adviser."

Negi stared at her. "I'm a teacher at a completely different school."

"You're a teacher at Mahora Girls Middle School," Haruhi explained to him in the manner of someone telling the prince about their father the king. "This is Mahora Integrated High School, which shares an academic hierarchy with your school, Mahora Boys Middle School and Mahora Elementary." She spread her hands. "It's all good."

"I see," he said, impressed by her knowledge of school regulations, somewhat in spite of himself. "Well, I'd like to know exactly what you do -- wait, no," he broke off as Haruhi opened her mouth to "explain". "In what way are you spreading excitement, is what I meant."

"Primarily, we search for aliens, time travelers, espers or sliders," she revealed.

"Ohhhh," Negi said, in a tone of great understanding. "Now I understand why you're so excited, the business in Tokyo-3 must be very much on your mind?"

She frowned. "That hoax? Why would I give a damn about that?"


"Hoax. Fraud. Fake. I mean, come on, sensei, you're a genius. You should know that when aliens show up, they aren't going to look just like us. They'll look weird, and mind-bending, and sanity disturbing, and weird."

"You said weird twice."

"Most important part."

"'When aliens show up,'" Negi repeated. "But aren't you familiar with the stories about --"

"Sensei!" Haruhi honestly looked a little appalled. "Don't tell me you believe in the nonsense about Superman and all that rot."

"Well, I visited his grave with my family, so I suppose that --"

"Exactly, it's a tourist trap. I mean, if Florida still existed, you could visit Disneyworld, but that wouldn't mean that Mickey Mouse had ever been real, would it?"

The door began to rattle on its hinges again. "Sensei! Haruna-san has found a fireman's axe! Please let us know that you're all right, or we're breaking down the door!" Ayaka cried out from the other side.

"Where in the world did she find a --" Negi started to ask, then shook his head. "I'm still all right!" he called out. "Suzumiya-san, would you mind if I held off on becoming your advisor until after I'm introduced to your club? Today after school, events permitting?"

"Oh, we can do that right now," Haruhi assured him. "Almost all our teachers buggered off because of the hoax. I think that was actually the point of the whole thing, to be honest," she confided.

What an unfathomably strange and yet incredibly attractive young woman, Negi thought.

When Negi at last unlocked the supply room door and stepped out into the hallway, he was genuinely surprised, both at how many of the girls of 2A had followed Haruhi all the way to this school, and at the fact that Akira and, very surprisingly, Yuna numbered among them. Aside from those two, the Class Representative, and Haruna -- who had indeed found an axe somewhere and was rubbing its edge while murmuring 'blood soon, blood soon' as the lenses of her glasses gleamed -- Makie, Ako, the trio of girls whom he knew to be cheerleaders and the pair of twins had also engaged in the hot pursuit.

"Thank you all for your concern," Negi said. "But this is all just a huge misunderstanding that I'm going to correct as soon as possible. Suzumiya-san just wanted to ask me to be her club's faculty adviser."

"Then why didn't she ask you in your office?" the girls chorused. Well, most of them did. Akira nodded in agreement with the sentiment. On the other hand, Yuna was giving him a very skeptical look, which felt extremely unfair.

Also unfair was the fact that he suspected that a straightforward and honest answer would not be well received. "Well," he hemmed, looking back at Haruhi who'd just stepped out of the supply room behind him.

She yawned exaggeratedly without bothering to meet Negi's gaze or look at any of the girls surrounding the two of them. No help there, clearly.

"Answer the question!" demanded Makie, frowning ... but Negi realized that she was frowning up at Haruhi rather than downwards at him.

Now Haruhi did meet Makie's gaze ... and whatever Makie saw there made the pink-haired gymnast take a step back. And that was before Haruhi started talking. "You know, I wonder what the Student Council Executive would have to say about a bunch of middle school girls confronting one of their sempai like this. I wonder what sort of academic and social penalties those middle school girls would suffer. I wonder if some of them might end up crucified on the hill. I wonder all sorts of things."

Negi let out a cough. "All right then," he said, just a bit more loudly than was necessary. "I think all of you young ladies should probably head back to our school before you get in trouble with the authorities for missing class. I will see all of you later. Thank you again."

They didn't go happily, but, in the end, they did go. Once they were gone, Negi turned to look at Haruhi with an annoyed expression that only Zazie had provoked from him thus far. "Suzumiya-san, do you really think that threatening my students is a good way to get me to me to agree to be your club's adviser?" he asked sharply.

"That wasn't threatening, that was reminding them of how things work here," Haruhi answered. "I wouldn't narc on anybody, but somebody else who saw this might. Or had you forgotten we're kind of in public?"

"But that crucifixion business --"

"That's how things work here, when Honnouji decides that there's been sufficient cause," she interrupted. "I've seen people go to the hill for insolence to a sempai, Negi-sensei. And I've seen what's left of them when they're taken down from there, too." Haruhi looked away, then. "The club room's over this way," she said, just a bit harshly. "Or have you already made up your mind to say no?"

"Lead the way," Negi said after a moment.

"Well, I found a teacher to sponsor us like I said I would," Haruhi announced as she threw open the door. "Praise me, filthy minions!"

"Oh, no, you kidnapped someone again," said one of the three young women who were sitting around the table inside the room behind the door. "And an elementary schooler, too!" The speaker was of average height, slender and flat-chested, with a long brown pony tail and an incredibly dry expression on her face.

"Kyonko, this is the very talented and very mature Professor Negi Springfield from Mahora Girls," Haruhi explained in a long-suffering tone. "Negi-sensei, this is Kyonko."

"My actual name is --" she started to say.

"Kyonko. In this room, your name is Kyonko."

"But --"

"Your name is Kyonko, your sign is Kyonko, your number is Kyonko, you need to let it go," Haruhi concluded.

'Kyonko' started rubbing her forehead.

"Over to her left, we have Koizumi Itsuko," Haruhi introduced the other, slightly taller girl with brown-blonde hair who was, indeed, sitting beside Kyonko with a pleasant smile, having just set down a copy of the Asahi Shinbun.

"Good afternoon, Negi-sensei," she said, in a much less harsh voice than Kyonko possessed. "My personal name is actually Itsuhime."

"Itsuko sounds so much better," Haruhi asserted. "You should consider changing it."

"Perhaps so," said ... Koizumi.

"How come she gets to --" Kyonko started to ask.

"She outranks you. Even further outranking you, on the other side of the table, meet Nagato Yuki." The young woman Haruhi was gesturing to wore a thick black jacket over her school uniform, a pair of glasses, and was carrying a thick book in such a way as to suggest that she intended to use it as a shield if it became necessary. She made a faint sound that might possibly have been the word 'hello'.

"Well, it's very nice to meet you all," Negi said, since he was a polite young man. "But, Suzumiya-san, since you know student regulations so well, could you maybe tell me whether or not I'm mistaken about school clubs requiring five or more members?"

"Yes, it used to be four, but they upped it to get rid of all the clubs that only had four members," Haruhi agreed. "Of course we do have a fifth member, they're just engaged in field research! I'll go get them right now!"

"That's not necessary," Negi told the void where she'd been standing a few seconds earlier. Slowly he turned to look at the students at the table.

They looked back.

"So ... aliens, time travelers, espers, and ... um ... what was the fourth thing?" Negi asked.

"In my case, Suzumiya-san recruited me on the basis that there must be something odd about someone transferring in so late in the year as I did," Koizumi explained. "Also I believe that she believes I'm a lesbian."

"I can't imagine what gives her that idea," Kyonko said sourly. "This whole thing is sort of my fault, I sit behind Haruhi in our class and gave her the idea of starting a club. I wish I'd kept my mouth shut."

"This used to be the literary club's room," said a third voice. It took Negi a moment to realize that Nagato was speaking. "But we only had one member left, so ... I joined Suzumiya's club, instead."

"I see. So, there's not actually that much enthusiasm for the club's endeavors," said Negi. "That's ... unfortunate."

The door slammed open again. "And here he is!" cried Haruhi, dragging in with her a young man with hair just a bit lighter in shade than Negi's own.

"Oh no," the boy wimpered. "Not again."

"Meet Asahina Mitsuru, our resident bishonen-type!" Haruhi introduced him.

"And the first kidnapping victim."

"Shut up, Kyonko."

"All right, hold it," Negi interjected. "Asahina-san, is someone forcing you to be here?"

Asahina's eyes lit on Negi when he spoke up. They stayed there for a while. "I'm sorry, could you please repeat the question?" he asked dazedly.

"Are you actually a member of this club, or just someone the leadership calls in to make up numbers?" Negi pressed. "Nobody should be forced to pretend to belong to a group that they don't actually want to participate in. If you'd like to leave, you should feel free to do so."

"I love it here," Asahina said, eyes never leaving Negi's face. "I'd never leave if they'd let me stay."

Negi blinked. That was an odd reversal of the position he'd seemed to be expressing when he arrived, but maybe 'not again' had referred to being dragged around by Haruhi, rather than the destination, as such. "Well, all right, then."

"So, then, can we count on you to be our adviser, Negi-sensei?" Haruhi asked, holding up a legal document covered by seals and stamps.

Negi took the document, and examined it while adjusting his pince-nez. "I suppose that you've answered my most important objections. But you should understand that I wouldn't be able to advise you very much."

"That's not a problem," Haruhi assured him, since saying, 'That's the whole point of asking an incompetent child teacher to take the job' wouldn't have gone over very well. "All you really need to do is sign, and we'll take care of the rest."

"Oh, I wouldn't be that negligent," Negi assured her. "I'll show up for a meeting at least once a week to make sure you're actually taking steps towards finding the subjects of your inquiries."

Haruhi's smile froze a bit. 

"Hurray," said Asahina, smiling bashfully.

"And signed," he said, matching the word to the deed.

"Heigh-ho/heigh-ho/it's back to class we go," Haruna sang, resting the shaft of the axe against her left shoulder. She gave voice to a short little whistle, then concluded, "Heigh ho/heigh ho heigh ho heigh ho! Come on everyone, you know the words!"

Misa, Sakurako and Madoka exchanged a look, then shrugged as one. "Heigh --" they sounded the note.

"Stop that," snapped Ayaka, irritably, turning back from her position at the head of the small crowd. "Saotome-san, do you understand the meaning of the words 'low profile'? We are trying to sneak across campus. You cannot sneak and sing songs."

"Being in large groups is pretty bad for sneaking, too," Haruna replied cheerfully. Of course, if we split up to get back to class on our own, you wouldn't be In Charge, would you? she thought, as fondly as she could think of Ayaka. Which wasn't much.

"And get rid of that axe already!" Ayaka continued to rant, ignoring Haruna's well-considered observation, of course. 

"But what if we run into trouble?" Haruna asked sunnily.

"The only trouble we are going to run into would be representatives of the Student Council Executive, who will not be impressed or intimidated by that thing, but who will be angered by the fact that you are walking around outside of class, outside of school, above and beyond your possession of a deadly weapon! So get rid of it, Haruna-san, get rid of it so that we can hurry up and get back to our proper place and avoid those judgmental violent maniacs, and why are all of you waving your hands at me in that manner?" asked Ayaka ... before her eyes slammed shut in realization.

"Perhaps they are trying to warn you about judgmental violent maniacs," said Suzushiro Haruka, resplendent in her white Student Council Executive uniform, with a small black star on its collar, standing in Ayaka's blind spot.To her side was a younger woman with long black hair in the same outfit, minus the star. 

Ayaka opened her eyes, took a deep breath, and turned around with a pleasant smile on her face and thoughts of being crucified on her mind. "Suzushiro-sempai. I don't believe we've ever been formally introduced. I am --"

"Yukihiro Ayaka, Class Representative of Class 3A, Mahora Girls Middle School, Vice-President, Mahora Girls Middle School Equestrian Club, Member, Mahora Girls Middle School Flower Arranging Club, only daughter of the head of the Yukihiro Financial Group," Suzushiro rattled off without blinking an eye. She paused, eyebrows raised on her high forehead, before adding, "Under suspicion for several acts of child molestation."

"Never formally charged," Ayaka growled reflexively, and then immediately strove to repair her smile. "As of course you are surely aware."

The executive didn't bother to respond to that. "So, are you going to take responsibility, here? Or --"

"It was me," interjected Haruna. "All me. I led my poor classmates astray, and poor Iinchou came to try and stop us. And on top of that I have this lethal weapon that I feel strangely inclined to start swinging wildly! Oh, won't someone stop me!"

Suzushiro turned away from Ayaka and stared blankly at Haruna. "Drop the weapon or get dropped," she offered as a suggestion.

"'kay," Haruna replied, and let the axe fall to the ground.

"Cuff her, Kokegawa. You're going to Detention, Saotome." Suzushiro looked around at the other 2A students. "The rest of you should consider yourselves on watch. Now get back to class."

The accompanying member of the executive looked like she wanted to say something, but kept her mouth shut as she walked forward to secure Haruna's arms behind her back and put a pair of metallic cuffs on her. For her part, Ayaka also looked like she wanted to say something, but settled for making a forceful gesture to the rest of the girls, who followed her (not without a lot of unhappy looks in Haruna's direction) on the path towards the school.

"We don't actually want you, you know," Suzushiro said over her shoulder, walking ahead of Haruna while her adjutant followed along behind.

"Hey, great, I don't want you either. So can I go?"

"Ah, very funny. And very brave, to be defiant under these circumstances. Kokegawa, you should make a note of how brave the prisoner is." Suzushiro nodded, and kept walking. "You see, you are a little fish that we might be able to use in order to ... to ..." She paused, noting the absence of footsteps behind her, and turned to look behind her. "For pity's sake, that was sarcasm!" she snapped at the sight of her adjutant standing still and fishing her notepad out of her skirt pocket. 

"It was?" she asked.

"I couldn't tell either," admitted Haruna. For her part, she had also come to a halt right in front of the adjutant.

Suzushiro muttered for a few moments. The most audible part of it was, "-- never went through this crap with Yukino, why the hell did I let them talk me into giving her --" At last she spoke up again. "Look, Saotome. You can probably guess who I want."

"This Yukino person, probably."

The temperature of the area dropped precipitously. "I would progressed that you distract that stagement," Suzushiro snarled. "We want Tatsumiya. Tell us what you know of her festivities and you can walk all the way back to your class of phycoliths with our thanks."

Haruna stared. "Okay, not only am I not entirely sure what you just said, but if this is about who I think it's about, you should know that Tatsumi stays out of everybody's way and we all do the same for her."

"Fine," Suzushiro said after a moment. "Play dumb. To Detention, then, Kokegawa."

"It's Kotegawa, sempai," said Kotegawa Yui.


In the before-time, in the long-ago, "Detention" had been the police station of the town that grew into Academy City. When campus security took over the duties of the police in the area, they took over the station as well ... and when campus security had been succeeded by the Student Executive, the station came to them. Haruna had vague memories of having visited the building on a field trip in elementary school, and honestly, it didn't seem like much had changed. Certainly the cells hadn't.

Standing in front of one of them, seeing and smelling the two girls seated on the bench within, made Haruna start to really wish she'd had some dirt on Tatsumiya after all. "I don't suppose that I get a phone call?" she asked Kotegawa, who was undoing her cuffs.

"This isn't America, Saotome, and I don't think you even get a phone call in America these days," she answered. The cuffs came off, a buzzer sounded, and the cell door slid into the wall. With a helpful shove, Haruna entered the cell just before the buzzer sounded again, with the cell door closing behind her.

There was actually only one girl seated on the bench on the far side of the cell from where Haruna was standing. She had purple hair just a bit brighter in shade than Haruna's own, and dark red eyes that seemed (to Haruna at least) to be sizing Haruna up for her tolerance for pain. The other girl, a redhead, was asleep on her lap.

"I actually have no tolerance for pain whatsoever," Haruna decided to risk saying. "You would not find the experience at all diverting."

The girl blinked. "What?" Then shook her head. "Never mind. You name Saotome?" she asked, with a Chinese accent that was thicker than that of Haruna's roommate.

"Yep. Saotome Haruna. Nice meeting you. Why don't we divide this cell evenly, with you two having that half over there, while I take this half over here, and neither of us trespasses --"

"Stop talking, talks-too-much-girl." She slapped her rather large chest. "I Hua Shanpu."

"... wash shampoo?"

The girl said something that Haruna couldn't understand but had a hunch was not very complimentary, then pointed to the slumbering redhead. "This Saotome Ranma."

Haruna stared in silence.

"You daughter of Saotome Genma?" Shanpu asked.

Haruna continued to stare in silence.

"Not hard question," the Chinese girl said irritably. "Him father, yes or no?"

"Okay," Haruna said after a long moment. "I'm not sure whether you are one of the best con artists I've ever met -- because you've clearly done your research, and great job on setting up a seeming coincidental meeting, seriously, I'm beyond impressed here -- or whether you are one of the worst con artists I've ever met -- because while I had an older sibling named Ranma, he was my brother, not my sister. Also, I'm pretty much beyond outraged that you'd use my dead brother and father's names like this."

"Not follow. You call me a liar?"

"Yes, I'm sorry, I was using more words than I needed to say that I think you're lying to me."

"Why?" Shanpu asked bluntly.

Haruna blinked. "Like I said, I had a brother, not a --"

"No," Shanpu interrupted, with feigned patience. "Why I lie to you? You in jail, same as us. What lie to you get me?"

She stared. "You ... honestly have no idea, do you?" 

"No idea of what?"

Haruna ignored the question, focusing her attention on the slumbering figure in Shanpu's lap. "You're trying to tell me that that's my brother."

"Yes. Long story."

"Wake her up so that I can hear it from her," Haruna growled.

With a shrug, Shanpu smacked the redhead, jolting her into consciousness. "Whatchadothatfor?" the other girl yelled as she looked up.

"I find another sister," Shanpu informed him, pointing in Haruna's direction.

The redhead followed the pointer and looked at Haruna. "Oh. Um. Hey."

"Hey yourself," Haruna said agreeably. "What's your mother's maiden name?"

"I don't even know what her personal name is," she admitted.

"Oh we are just off to the races as far as convincing me of your identity is concerned," Haruna told her, though she privately noted that the claimant was clearly a native Japanese speaker.

"Look, dad wouldn't even tell me if my mom was alive or not," the redhead protested. "I didn't even know I had a sister until ... look, my name's Saotome Ranma, and yes, despite everything you're seeing, I am in fact a guy. My dad dragged me to a cursed training ground in China, I fell in a cursed spring, and now anytime I have water spilled on me I turn into a girl. If you're the daughter of my mother, I really need some help, here."

"Worst. Con artists. Ever," Haruna proclaimed after a moment.

"Step back from the cell doors," said an irritated voice from the other side of the door. Haruna obediently stepped toward the invisible line she'd drawn down the middle of the cell -- though not over it -- and turned to look back.

"How exactly do you know the Minister of Communications?" Kotegawa demanded.

"In the course of an active life, one acquires connections," Haruna replied.

"You're fourteen years old."

Haruna shrugged in a way that suggested that she didn't see what that had to do with anything.

Kotegawa let out a long sigh. The buzzer sounded, and the cell door opened. Haruna took a step towards the open doorway, then looked back at her cellmates. "Are you coming or not?"

"Now wait a minute --" said Kotegawa.

"Two ways this plays out," Haruna interrupted, holding up a pair of fingers. "They walk out of here with me, and are out of your hair. Or, I walk out of here alone, make a few phone calls, then you get another one."

"All right, all right! Just have them out of town by nightfall!"

"Sure thing. Let's go, you crazy girls."

High noon.

It was almost impossible to tell if the plan was working or not. Lum didn't seem to be getting fatigued, but Ataru had noticed that she was mostly "skating" within a few centimeters of the ground, keeping out of his grasp with speed, where before she'd launched herself into the air and above his reach without moving terribly quickly. It gave him hope that she might have limits when it came to flying. On the other hand, it also gave him cause for concern that she might want him to think she had limits when it came to flying.

All right, he thought. Phase 2. Drawing on reserves of energy that he'd carefully held in check all through the morning for just this point, Ataru pushed himself to run just that little bit faster down the cordoned-off street, leaping into a diving tackle at the end. Startled by the burst of speed, Lum found herself grapped around her waist even as she started to rise up towards the sky.

"Not getting rid of me that easy!" Ataru yelled, and reached up with one arm to grab hold of one of her breasts. Greatest girl-chaser on Earth? he thought as he molested the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Fine, I'll be the greatest girl-chaser on Earth!

"Release me da cha!" Lum shrieked, slapping him harder than Shinobu had ever managed.

The force of the blow made him lose his grip on her torso ... yet he heard a tearing noise as he did so, before tumbling back down to Earth. Opening his eyes after a moment, Ataru blearily looked at what he was holding in his right hand. Son of a gun, it worked, he thought as he looked at the bikini top.

"Return that," Lum demanded, any trace of insouciance utterly banished from her tone as she hovered in the air, one arm crossed over her chest.

Ataru smirked as he came to his feet. "Oh, this? You want this?" he pretended to ask, waving the top in the air. Before she could dart forward and grab it, though, he brought it up to his nose. "Oooooooh," he groaned, painting a look of utter, depraved hedonistic bliss on his face. It was surprisingly easy to do.

"You -- YOU!" the partially-denuded princess seethed ... 

And storm clouds rolled in out of nowhere, with lightning bolts crackling between them.

Uhhhhhh, thought Ataru. Nobody mentioned she could do that. This isn't part of the plan!

"I represent a consortium of interests who have no desire to see Earth pillaged by interstellar slavers," said the dark skinned girl who materialized out of the shadows in his bedroom. "My name is Zazie. I've been sent here to help you win this conflict."

"Well, great," said Ataru, displaying remarkable equanimity about the presence of an unfamiliar girl in his room. Under most other circumstances, he'd have been flirting by this point. "How're you going to help me?"

"Not in the material way that you'd probably prefer," said Zazie, crossing the room to sit on his bed and look up at him. "Giving you any superweapons or biological enhancements is right out, the Urusei would detect them, cancel the game, and begin their assault. Magical assistance would 
probably run the same risk; most starfaring cultures have technology that can recognize, counter and in some cases duplicate esoteric energy manipulation. So our best option is to give you some tactical assistance, in the form of information about how Lum Invader has played this particular game in the past."

"Right," he said, after a moment, sinking down into his desk chair so that he could face here. "The sheer amount of additional questions the answer to my question just gave me ... no, forget it, alien oni have descended to play tag, nothing makes sense anymore." Despite that, some lingering attachment to cause and effect made him ask, "Have these obnoxious assholes been here before, that you have that information about how that chick fights?"

"No," she replied calmly. "I said I represented a consortium of interests. I never said anything about those interests being restricted to Earth."

They talked, and schemed, and hammered out the details of the plan over the next few hours.

At last, Zazie rose to go. "Hopefully, we won't need to meet again," she told him as she walked over to the window and climbing half-way out of it. She paused, however, and stepped back into the room. "Just one more thing, in the interest of giving you a morale boost. The young woman you were speaking with before I revealed yourself ... she does in fact have strong romantic feelings for you. I suspect that, like many people, she's just not very good at expressing them. You might want to consider holding the promise she made in your heart. After all, if she marries you, she'll have to you let you do this sort of thing."

And very suddenly, her face was up against his own and her lips were pressed to his and her tongue was in his mouth. When next he regained self-awareness, Ataru found himself alone in his room, lying on his back on the bed ... and fully dressed.

"Divine Retribut--" Lum began to shout.

"No," came the voice of Invader, seemingly from everywhere at once. The clouds began to clear just as suddenly as they'd appeared.

"Father!" she growled. "Do you not know what this one has done?"

The omnipresent voice sighed. "Sweety, I don't pretend t'understand why you care dat a bunch of monkeys are gettin' a look at what ya Mama gave you. But it don't matter, either, 'cause dis is a tag game. You don't use Divine Retribution in a tag game."

"It's the principle of the thing!" Lum cried out, hands shaking at her sides -- incidentally giving the "monkeys" an even better look.

"Yeah, da principle is, we follow da rules of da game. Play tag, daughter." By now, the clouds were nowhere to be seen.

Lum glared down at Ataru even as she somewhat belatedly remembered her modesty. He smiled saucily up at her, waving the bikini top in the air. "Come and ge-et it," he sang-song, "or it's go-ing down my sho-orts!" He began to pull his shorts elastic outwards in preparation to do just that.

"Nooo!" Lum shrieked, darting towards him. She grabbed hold of the loose end of the top ...

... and with everything he had -- including, as Zazie had told him, the promise of Shinobu -- he snapped the top like a whip, dragging her down to the ground, then grabbed hold of her shoulders with one arm and the all-important horns with the other. "TAG!" he cried.

Lum went stiff in his arms for a moment, then very limp. "Tag," she quietly agreed.

All around him, he could hear the sound of human cheers, of people chanting his name, of praise for the savior of humanity. None of it mattered to him, though. "Now she has to marry me!" he declared.

Slowly, Lum turned to look at him, those beautiful eyes seeming to stare into the very depths of his soul.

"Are you fucked in the head?" she asked after a moment.

When the news came over the radio in the teachers' office, the collected educators let out a spontaneous cheer. Negi couldn't quite bring himself to join in; the possibility still existed, at least in his mind, that the aliens might renege on their agreement. In which case, this wasn't the end, but the beginning. But he had to admit that he was breathing a little easier now. By the end of the school day, it had become apparent that his concerns were moot, and it was with a somewhat lighter heart that he made his way back to 2A's classroom for the meeting he'd scheduled earlier.

"Ah, good, you're all still here," he said, walking in the door. "I thought some of you might --"

"Baka Rangers Assemble!" the majority of the girls chorused, posing in unusual manners.

"Baka Black," declared Yue, the petite philosopher who was apparently part of some library club with Nodoka -- whom Negi saw was waiting in the back of the room for her friend.

"Baka Blue," proclaimed the remarkably tall Kaede.

"Baka Pink," admitted Makie, blushing prettily.

"Baka Yellow!" cheered Ku Fei.

Asuna let out an annoyed sigh. "Yeah, yeah, I'm Baka Red, let's move on?"

"Baka Greeeeeeen!" Chizuru declaimed gleefully, even making some rather elaborate martial arts moves in the process.

"... ooooookay," Negi said a moment of consideration. "This is all clearly in reference to some popular culture with which I'm totally unfamiliar. It is amusing, though. Take your seats, please." Once they did so, he continued. "Now, before I start handing out test papers, I'd like to have a little conversation about the reasons that you're not doing so well in English. Why do you think this is?"

"Because it's hard?" Makie answered into the silence.

"True," he replied.

"Wait, that was the right answer?" Makie asked, gaping. "How'd that happen?"

"... there's no right or wrong answer, Makie-san, I want to know what you think."

She stared at him. "Negi-kun, you are very cute, but I think you might be kind of crazy."

He chose to ignore that. "What about the rest of you? Do you agree or disagree with Makie-san's perspective? With regards to English, not with regards to my mental health," he added, as Asuna started to open her mouth. She promptly made a show of closing it.

"I agree-aru," Fei spoke up, now that the floodgates had opened.

"I'd say it's more boring than hard," said Yue after a moment. 

"There are numerous activities with which one would choose to engage before selecting the study of English as one's task," Kaede admitted.

"It is hard, though not really much harder than Japanese," Chizuru observed. "At least for me."

"Ah, thank you, Chizuru-san, I wasn't sure whether you'd want your special circumstances acknowledged or not," said Negi.

"No, you can say that I'm dyslexic. I don't mind."

He paused momentarily to consider Naba Chizuru. Between her height and her other physical dimensions, she deserved the term 'young woman' even more than Iinchou, to the point where Negi found it incredibly difficult to believe that she was not only of an appropriate age to be in the second year of middle school, but the second youngest member of the class. She was also surprisingly forthright ... yet as one who strove to be as straightforward and honest as possible while still keeping a secret, he had the sensation of recognizing another such.

"Okay, what is the point of this?" Asuna asked abruptly, verbally pulling Negi away from his speculations. "What does knowing why we suck get us?"

"You don't 'suck'" Negi replied, making air quotes around the word. "You just have problems. And problems can be solved."

"But what is the point?" Asuna repeated. "This is an elevator school, you have to seriously work to not get accepted into the attached high school, regardless of what kind of grades you get. So why bother to study?"

"There are many good reasons. Learning can be its own reward, it can open up doors you didn't realize existed, it can help to impress teachers on whom you have a seemingly hopeless romantic fixation, it can serve as a way to pass time even when other options aren't avail--"

"I am seriously going to kick your ass one of these days," Asuna informed him.

Briefly, the eyes of all six girls in the room settled on her with a quizzical look, then looked elsewhere when it became apparent that no further outbursts would be occurring.

Negi coughed. "Okay, then, I'm going to pass out a test paper. In the future, you won't be allowed to leave these sessions without answering at least half the questions right, but for now we're just trying to get your measure."

"Okay," Negi said a little while later, restraining his inclination to flinch as he saw the test papers. "We've got a ways to go, but I'm confident that we're going to get there together. Class dismissed ... but could Fei-san and Asuna remain behind just a little longer?"

The rest of the girls hastened to escape the classroom, with Nodoka in particular catching up to walk beside Yue as they both left. Once they were gone and the door slid shut behind them, Ku Fei looked at Asuna with a rather horrified look on her face, then turned her head to stare at Negi. "I do that bad on first test?" she asked.

"Oh, gee, thanks," Asuna groused.

"No, that's not what this is about," Negi reassured her. "I was just wondering if you'd mind answering a couple of questions, Fei-san. One of them is a bit personal -- I hope you don't mind my asking where in China your family are from?"

Ku blinked. "Oh," she said. "I no mind. My people come from Qinghai, originally, but we move to Guangdong in great-grandfather's time. Then to Japan not long after I am born. I still have family in Guangdong." A shadow crossed her face. "If Brittanians not yet kill them all."

"That's what I thought, and I'm sorry if the question brought back unhappy memories," said Negi. "Um. It's against school rules for me to offer any of my students private tutoring, so I can't do that. On the other hand, it's not against the rules for a student to offer their teacher private tutoring -- say, in the Chinese language -- and then accept payment for them in whatever form they chose. Would that idea interest you?"

Ku Fei looked moderately perplexed, and then a lantern lit inside her head. "Sneaky Negi-bouzu!" she proclaimed, grinning broadly. "Oh ho! Yes! We speak on this again, soon!"

"I look forward to that," Negi agreed.

Fei turned to wave at Asuna, then half-walked, half-skipped out the door of the room, humming something as she went.

"So I do that bad on first test?" Asuna asked, imitating Fei's somewhat childlike Japanese.

Negi silently held up a test sheet with a large red 1/10 on the top. "Please tell me you didn't deliberately do this badly, just to spite me," he asked in return.

"No," Asuna sighed, lowering her face to the desk. "Don't get me wrong, I'm still mad about the 'hopeless romantic' thing, but I really, really am just not very good at this. And yes, they've checked, and there's nothing wrong with my ability to read. I just ... don't get it. We all have things that we're not that good at, and this is one of mine." She fell silent for a moment, before speaking again. "Do your mom and dad know abut Takahata-sensei?"

"No, and I promised him that I wouldn't say anything," Negi assured her, leaving out the fact that Takamichi had said that there was nothing to know. He thought that would probably not go over all that well.

She looked up, then, a little. "Thank you," she said quietly. "Hiding things from your mom ... can't be easy for you."

"She'd be really happy if you started calling her 'our' mother, you know."

Asuna let out a sound somewhere between a growl and a sigh as she sat up the rest of the way. "There are lots of things that would make her really happy that are never, ever, ever going to happen, okay? And I know that you know what I'm talking about, I saw the way Yuna was walking to school this morning."

Negi coughed. "A gentleman doesn't discuss such matters."

"Suuuuure he doesn't. Look, whatever. Charm whoever else you like, and don't think I don't know what you're trying to pull with those so-called Chinese language lessons --"

"What?" Negi interjected. "No, I'd really like to be able to --"

"-- but nothing sexy is going to happen between you and me. Ever." She was full-on glaring at him, mismatched eyes seeming to gleam and the bells in her hair were like a victor's laurel. He didn't think that he'd ever wanted anyone as much as he wanted her in that moment.

"I understand, and I will respect your decision," Negi told her.

"Fine. We done here?"

"For now."

She got up from her desk and headed for the doorway, pausing once she was there, and looking back. "Like I said, we all have things that we're not that good at ... and on the other side of things, things that we're really good at. I've found out that I'm really good at fighting. If you need that kind of help, Negi, then I'm with you. All the way. See you tomorrow." And then she was gone.

He stayed where he was standing until he could move safely.

"Excuse me, sensei?"

Negi's solitary walk to the dorms, during which he tried to think very unsexy thoughts, was abruptly interrupted. He looked up, and blinked. "Oh, it's Kyonko, isn't it?"

"No," said the girl he'd met earlier that day. "It's not. We're not in the clubroom, and Haruhi is nowhere to be seen." She paused, and took a moment to look around -- thoroughly -- in order to confirm that. "So my name is Tadamichi Kyouko," she concluded when she felt secure.

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," said Negi. "Would you rather I called you that than the other at club meetings?"

"I would rather not have on my conscience what Haruhi will do to you if you do," said Kyonko, for that was her true name regardless of what she thought. "But Kyouko-san will do for private business. Anyway. I was hoping that I might ask you for a pretty big favor." She pulled a small envelope out of her skirt pocket. "I found this in my shoe locker after school today."

Negi's eyes widened. "Is that a love letter?" he asked.

"No. Well, maybe. Sort of. Basically, it's an invitation to come meet someone in one of the classrooms of our building, and ... well, the tone is sort of love letterish." Kyonko was, it should be noted, blushing a bit. "But, anyway, not only can I not ... handle this sort of thing, I also have to get home to take care of my little brother. So I was planning on just ditching whoever sent this, but then I ran into someone I knew who could go in my place and let whoever sent this down gently." She held it out to Negi. "Please, teacher?"

"... I'll consider this reason to keep calling you 'Kyonko' when I visit the club," said Negi, as he took it from her hand.

Going to a semi-deserted school building in order to 'let [someone] down gently' was not among the things that Negi had ever envisioned doing when he imagined coming to Mahora -- and he'd envisioned quite a bit. In all honesty, he was not even sure how to go about letting someone down gently. He had a vague idea of how to comfort someone, from times when he'd held Ilya while she was not-crying about not-missing her father, but he suspected that technique might not be the most appropriate method under the circumstances, given what his relationship with Ilya had eventually turned into.

... well, maybe if whoever had sent the love-letter was cute.

He arrived at the classroom, took a deep breath, slid open the door and walked in. Within, sitting atop one of the desks, was a young woman with light brown hair in a girl's school uniform and hip high socks. She looked at Negi. Negi looked at her.

"Okay," she said after a moment. "I'm going to assume this is a mix-up, but I really don't know how a little kid managed to get all the way here from the elementary school division and into the building without someone stopping them. How'd you swing that, boya?"

"As it happens, members of the staff are issued skeleton keys for all the schools in their association, just in case," Negi explained, holding up his. "And I am actually a member of the staff."

Her eyes bulged. "Oh wow. Are you that kid teacher from Mahora Girls? Damn, it's always the quiet ones," she added in a murmur.

Unsure what that last remark might mean, he found that an unworthy part of himself considered telling her that he was actually a different recently hired child teacher. "Yes, my name is Negi Springfield. I realize that I'm probably not the person you were expecting, but the person to whom you sent the letter ... was otherwise engaged, unfortunately, and asked me to come deliver their apologies." He braced himself for anger and sorrow.

A grin was completely unexpected. "I have a most amusing coincidence to report," she announced, kicking her legs a bit. "But first, I'm Momioka Risa, first year, Mahora Integrated. And I didn't send any letters."

"Excuse me?" Negi said, then had a flash of intuition. "No, don't tell me."

"Well, it was less 'asked to come deliver their apologies' and more 'got told by Iinchou to go wait in the empty room when she saw the girl who sent the letter running for the hills and went to go chase her down'. Which is kind of an abuse of a class representative's authority, now that I think about it, but somehow I always end up doing what that girl tells me to do." She shrugged.

"Well, this is ridiculous," said Negi, with a shake of his head.

"One word for it," Risa said agreeably. "Was the other guy hot, at least? I mean, if he was hot, I could see why Nagato would choke."

Negi controlled his instinct to express surprise. Nagato?  Once again, he had no idea how common that name was, but given that they were discussing a female by that name who attended this school, it seemed fairly likely that they were the same person. So Nagato had sent a love letter to Kyonko. Interesting! Not pertinent, however. "I don't think that really matters. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. And more importantly, it's what's inside that counts." He nodded soberly.

Now she was staring at him. "Welllll," Risa said, smiling a little wickedly. "Getting lectured on vanity by a little kid. Definitely a new experience. Tell me, then, Negi-sensei, are you at all interested in what's inside this?" She pulled up her skirt to expose her panties.

A high school girl. As she'd said, definitely a new experience. "Yes," he answered honestly.

She blinked those lovely brown eyes, and for a moment it looked like she was about to slide her skirt back down even more quickly than she'd pulled it up. But her hand clenched, and she kept right on smiling as her legs spread apart. "Then what are you standing over there for?"

He approached, crouched, and began to rub at her mons through the fabric of the panties. He suspected that the jolt that ran through her body at his touch was at least two-thirds simple surprise that he hadn't backed down, with the rest being the pleasure of touch. He searched for the clitoris, found it, and pressed through the cloth with his thumb. Definitely getting a reaction, from the sounds of things, and the fingers of his other hand went down below to stroke against the lips. Now he could both see and feel her response, and Negi went down to lick against the panties.

"Oh fu-uck," Risa gasped. "Inside ... you said you cared about what's inside ..."

He pulled back just long enough to slide the panties to the left, and then resumed his attentions ... a bit more gently, yet far more directly. There hadn't been time to do this with Yuna, and he regretted that, as he thought she might not -- no, stop, don't think about someone when you're with someone else, it degrades the one you're with.

Blissfully unaware of her degradation, Risa rocked backward on the desk. "Oh, holy shit. This, this is the best head I've ever gotten, and I didn't have to give a blowjob to -- oh. Fuuuuck. Get up here."

"Uhm?" asked Negi, his tongue otherwise occupied.

"Get up here, I want your cock in my mouth," she said, licking her lips.

Negi considered. "No, sorry, not enough time. Also, not necessary." He stood up, undid his zipper, and fished his erection out of his boxers. Grabbing hold of Risa's hips, he pushed up and into her.

"Holy fuck, you can fuck," she gasped.

"Yes," he agreed, and did so quite forcefully, clinging to her as her body rolled back so that her head rested against the back of the desk's chair and her legs crisscrossed behind his hips. The posture seemed a bit uncomfortable, and he needed to hold her firmly so there could unfortunately be no breast play. He needed to get stronger so that he could hold with one hand while the other worked elsewhere, he decided ... but that was for later, as her orgasm came anyway, and then his own.

"Omigod, omigod, omigod," Risa babbled a bit, then let out another gasp. "Ohhh. I finally fuck a teacher and he's a ten year old boy. My parents are going to kill me if they find out."

The faintly gleeful tone of her words didn't quite register with Negi. "I won't let that happen. I'll protect you."

"No, I didn't mean --" She broke off as she took a look at his face. "But you did mean it, didn't you? Wow. Just wow." 

"Hey, what's going on in there?" came an adult male voice from the hallway.

Risa's eyes went wide, she looked at Negi, looked at the door, looked at the window, then back at the door. Then drew a deep breath. "I'm masturbating, go away!" she yelled.

Dead silence greeted her words. "Well, finish up and go home!" the voice yelled, and the sound of footsteps moving rapidly away could be heard.

"... I oughta get someone to buy me some lottery tickets, this has got to be my lucky day," Risa mused.

They quickly adjusted their clothing and went their separate ways, though not before Risa gave Negi a deep kiss and a verbal promise to introduce him to some of her friends. He found himself wondering whether he might have bit off more than he could chew when it came to her, but it certainly was the novel experience he'd been promised.

Fei was still humming when she got back to her dorm room, though she'd moved on to some of the lesser known parts of Jackie Chan's oeuvre. She reached down to unlock the door, only to have it flung open and her extended hand grabbed, pulling her off balance and into the room.

"It's about damn time you showed up," Haruna told her as her roommate slammed the door shut behind the pair of them.

Fei decided to ask the most pertinent question first. "How you out of jail so soon?"

"Politics," Haruna asked brusquely. "I need your help."

The martial artist sighed. "Paru, I tell you once already -- I will not beat up people so you study injuries for draw better."

"Not that. This," she added, pulling Fei towards the living room.

"你好," said the purple-haired girl on the couch, beside a redhead.

"Okay, why exactly did you keep us on the hook for all this time waiting for this girlfriend of yours?" asked said redhead.

Ku bristled a bit at the tone and content of that remark, but Haruna held up a quelling hand. "She's an impartial witness, who'll listen to your story without my prejudices," the artist explained.

"Those being that you think I'm full of it," the other girl said sourly.

"E-yep. Plus, she speaks Chinese, so your girfriend doesn't have to strain her abilities with Japanese."

Shanpu said something in Chinese that, again, didn't sound very flattering. Fei answered the remark in the same tongue, making Shanpu's eyes go wide, before making another comment.

"I just get my accent insulted by girl what sound like hickest hick in hickville," Fei complained. "But yes, we know same dialect. Actually ..." She asked Shanpu a question, then got an answer. Then stared at nothing in particular.

"I almost followed that," Ranma interjected. "Yeah, that village was still standing when we left."

"Nycheizu still exist?" Fei asked.

"So what's --" Haruna started to ask.

"She come from village that great-grandfather and his family leave," Fei said, looking more than a little stunned. "She ... she Joketsuzoku, tribe of warrior women."

Haruna swallowed before speaking again. "Fei, are you familiar with a legend of a cursed spring that serves as a training ground?"

"Eh? Uh ... yes. Only idiot train there, though."

"Can't argue with that," said Ranma.

"Nope," said Shanpu, shaking her head.

"Right," said Haruna, nodding with eyes closed, filing away the fact that she lived with one of the maybe ten people in all Japan who might know about this crap as yet another odd coincidence. She got up and walked over to the kitchen. "Time for the empirical portion of tonight's show."

"Empiriwhoosis?" Ranma asked.

Haruna answered the question by throwing the contents of a pitcher of hot water just out of the tap at her.

"... thank you for not using a kettle," said the young man with coal black hair that was now seated on the couch.

Fei made an exclamation. Shanpu replied in a way that suggested the words, 'yeah, tell me about it.'

"Okay. So your story is clearly not completely made up," Haruna said, studying his face. Noting points of similarity between the boy and her mother. Making a decision. "Between that and some other clues ... I am tentatively accepting you as my brother Ranma."

"Thank you," said Ranma. "It really does mean a lot to me that you --"

Haruna threw another pitcher of water, cold this time.

"Why?" asked the young woman, with what should surely count as remarkable patience under the circumstances.

"I'm breaking the rules enough by letting the two of you stay here overnight. No way am I letting a guy stay in a girl's dormitory. Unless you can turn into a ten year-old, too, that would probably make it all right."

"What?" asked Ranma.

Fei, annoyed yet not really surprised that she wasn't being consulted about the idea of these people staying in what was also her dorm room, answered before Haruna could. "Long story. You tell you long story first how about?"

Ranma shrugged. "Well, when I was about a year old, the old man decided to take me with him on a warrior's pilgrammage."

"Our Mom was pregnant with me when you left," Haruna supplied. "I wasn't born until after everything went to hell, though."

"I figured," the red-haired girl said with a nod. "About five years ago, dad decided that we'd learned everything we were going to learn here in Japan, so we headed off to China. We were actually in Shanghai when the invasion happened. It ... was pretty crazy."

Haruna shot a glance at Shanpu, whose expression while considering the invasion of her country could best be described as bored indifference.

"We got out of town and across the border into Chinese territory, then lit out for the wilder areas. That's where I got cursed, and that's where she and I met up," he concluded with a jerk of his thumb towards Shanpu.

"I fight in village tournament," Shanpu picked up the story. "Of course I win. Outsiders eat feast for victor's prize, so I challenge to a duel." She paused for a moment, and then said, with some difficulty. "I ... not win."

"Hoo boy," said Fei, hand over her face, as she guessed where this was going.

"By tribal law, I take man who beat me as my husband," Shanpu concluded.

"... so, you two are married?" Haruna asked, eyes wide.

"No," they chorused firmly.

"I challenge father. Him beat me. Him marry me," Shanpu added.

"Ooooookay. Little problem there, like the fact that he's still married to my mom," Haruna said, starting to stand up.

Shanpu, expression back to bored indifference after the momentary animation she'd shown while talking about the fight, rattled off something in Chinese. Ku made a face. "This why great-grandfather leave in first place," she muttered.


"Uh ... it very legal, but basically, Joketsuzoku not recognize outsider marriage when law of conquest is invoked." Fei looked very uncomfortable. "Or consent of husband."

Haruna stared at Fei, then looked at Ranma, who rubbed her face without saying anything. Haruna finally turned her frankly horrified attention to Shanpu. "So you're basically telling me that you jumped my dad's bones?"

"Him no complain, either," Shanpu replied evenly. "No brag."

"I ... really ... did not need to know that," quoth Haruna. "Well ... where is he? Why isn't he travelling with the two of you?"

Shanpu made a disgusted noise. "Prior claim," she said.

"Prior --" Haruna started to ask.

"Maybe I should tell this part," Ranma suggested, looking a bit uncomfortable. "Well, um, it's sort of like this. Basically, Komu, Shanpu's mother, was on her own warrior's pilgrammage about seventeen years ago and she visited Japan --"

"What," said Haruna.

"Oh, it worse than I think," Fei groaned.

"-- and she and dad met and, well, fought, and, well --"

"Him run off after him done and nine moons later I born," Shanpu finished. "Mother have prior claim on father, I no can beat mother -- yet -- so I leave him in village with her and travel with sister."

"Brother," Ranma corrected.

"You sister when I meet you, you sister forever. That why I say, find another sister, before," Shanpu told Haruna, helpfully.

"What," said Haruna. She shook her head, then repeated, "What?" a bit more forcefully.

"Ah, Haruna?" Fei spoke up, using her roommate's name to attract her attention. Usually, she just called her 'you' or 'Paru'. "Maybe I can explain?"

"Oh, I kinda doubt that," the artist told her.

"I try all the same. Traditional Joketsuzoku culture not really have concept of 'father'. Only of 'mother's husband'. If man no longer mother's husband, because mother die or move on, and he beat woman in battle, then she take him as husband even though he was mother's husband ... and even if he was mother's husband before woman born." She shot Shanpu a very disturbed glance. "Not really supposed to try to take mother's husband away from mother, though."

"My honor at stake," Shanpu said defensively. "Everyone in village see him beat me."

"And why the hell aren't you freaked out about this?" Haruna abruptly demanded of Ranma.

"Well, what can I say?" the redhead replied with a helpless-seeming shrug. "It all happened months ago, and I've had plenty of time to get used to it."

"Our father had sex with one of his daughters!" Haruna snapped. "That's not something you 'get used to'!"

"Oh-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho," laughed Shanpu, looking smugly in Haruna and Ranma's general direction.

"... well, you have to understand the circumstances," Ranma said, rather hesitantly, as Haruna slowly turned to look in Shanpu's direction, then snapped back to look at Ranma. "We were on the road for months, in territory where there weren't any, uh, places of negotiable affection, and well, once there was an available way to relieve certain tensions, it's completely understandable that dad would try to relieve them, so, you see --"

"He raped you," Haruna said. It wasn't a question.


"Once you were cursed to turn into a girl, he raped you," Haruna said. Again, not a question.

"... it's not rape if you enjoy it. Right?" Ranma said a bit defensively.

"And that why you a sister," Shanpu informed him. "It step up from 'husband's concubine', no?"

"Ohhhhhh, here come lunch again," Fei groaned as she got to her feet and tottered off in the general direction of the suite's toilet.

Haruna, who'd missed lunch owing to the whole Detention business, just stayed where she was sitting, staring at Ranma -- who had the grace to look embarrassed -- and Shanpu -- who was, surprise surprise, indifferent. "I think," she said at last, very quietly, "that I preferred it when I thought you were a pair of con artists. Mm-hm. Things were good back then. I could mourn the memory of my lost father -- when I did so, which, I have to admit, I didn't do very often, just the annual visit to our family shrine, really -- without ever considering the possibility that he might be an unfaithful incestuous rapist!" That last was delivered a bit more loudly than the rest.

"You have to understand the circumstances," Ranma started to say again.

"Seventeen years ago he was married to our mother and you were probably on the way!" she snapped at him. "What was his excuse then? Why are you even making excuses for him?"

"Well ..." the redhead started to say, then trailed off.

"Him that good at sex," Shanpu informed her.

Haruna spared Shanpu a glance that would have had most people regretting their word choice. It bounced off Shanpu's complete contempt for the opinions of outsiders, of course. "Why did you come back here? Why not stay in your village and ... or run around in China having adventures, or hide under a rock somewhere?" she asked Ranma.

"I still have an obligation," her brother-sister-whatever replied. "Apparently, Dad made some sort of deal with a guy named Tendo to marry his son to one of the guy's daughters. That ... can't happen, now, obviously, so I need to find him and offer apologies. The good news is that I was able to find out he's alive, and that he moved here with his family when Tokyo was abandoned."

She knew the name, for some reason, and with a bit of thought she realized that she knew the reason. "Okay. It figures." Haruna leaned back in her chair, and stared up at the ceiling for a moment before lowering it as she started to speak. "All right, here's how it's going to be. You can stay here tonight. Tomorrow is Saturday, so after morning classes I'm going to generously volunteer my time to go visit the Tendo dojo and ... I don't know, either get the whole thing worked out myself or at least set up a meeting so that you can. After that, you are on your own."

"Okay," Ranma said. "Um. Could you maybe also give our moth--"

"No," said Haruna, flatly.

"But --"

"She thinks her son died on a quest to become a man among men," she told him. "I am going to let her keep that fantasy."

Haruna could tell that, of the many things that had been said so far, this was the first that had genuinely hurt Ranma. She was, however, not particularly inclined to give a damn.

She stood up. "Okay. For some strange reason, I feel the need to have a bath. When Ku gets done puking her guts out, tell her that I went to the baths."

"We could use bath --" Shanpu started to say.

"Sorry, official residents only," Haruna said, since telling her that no amount of bathing was going to get her clean would have been a bit rude even under the circumstances.

Negi opened the door to the dorm room and stepped in, then looked up to see Yuna glaring down at him just a bit down the foyer.

"I'm home," he announced unnecessarily.

"Welcome back," she answered his formality. "Where were you? Makie got back from those supplementary lessons of yours an hour ago."

"I ran into some business on the way back," Negi answered honestly.

"Some business," Yuna repeated.

He nodded, since he didn't think the answer required anything in the form of elaboration or reiteration. Yuna apparently thought differently, as she stalked towards him, grabbed hold of his shoulders and bent down to take a deep, long whiff of him. Having done so, she stood in silent contemplation for a moment, before nodding to herself, and patting Negi's shoulders.

"Hey, Akira?" she called down the hallway. "Is dinner almost ready?"

"No, I'd say we have at least another half-hour to go. Why do you ask?" came the answer.

"Guess who really needs a bath now?" Yuna began pointing towards the door with one of her fingers.

"Ah. Have fun in the baths, Negi-kun."

"That doesn't seem very likely, but I appreciate the thought, Akira-san," Negi called back, reluctantly turning towards the door.

"Well," said Negi, taking his first look at the baths. "I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't this." A huge warmed pool, a genuine hot tub, an incredibly high ceiling, water that smelled like actual water ... it reminded him of a book he'd seen once.

"Yeah, yeah, pride of the dorms, only reason to live in the dorms, actually," Yuna told him as she finished stripping off the rest of her clothes. "Honestly, without this, I suspect everybody would move into one of the apartment complexes over on the other side of town. Hell, my dad told me once that they talk about tearing this place down about once a year so we'd have to do that."

"That's terrible. Why would they --" Negi turned to see that she was standing naked before him, and blinked. "Aren't you going to put on a swimsuit?"

"It is way way way past too late for you to be worrying about my modesty, kiddo," she told him, glowering.

"But what if someone comes in and --"

"Then we are going to learn how well you can hide and/or breathe water. Sit down and let me soap you up, we've got stuff to talk about."

Negi then endured having his hair and upper body scrubbed rather vigorously, sitting on a stool while Yuna knelt behind him and spoke into his ear. "You had sex with someone before you got home, didn't you? I could smell someone's perfume on you."

"Yes, I did," Negi admitted, eyes closed. "I would prefer not to go into details, since a gentleman doesn't talk about such matters --"

"Oh, what the hell, you little Don One!" interrupted Yuna.

"Don Juan," he corrected her.

"That's what I said."

"No, the numeral 'one' and the Spanish name 'Juan' sound the same, but they don't mean the same thing. Juan is a fairly common name, it's like John in English."

"That's your middle name," she asked.


"You were named after that Don guy, weren't you?" she accused.

"No, I was named after a friend of my parents who died shortly before I was born, and I believe he was named after --"

"Don't try and change the subject!" interrupted Yuna again. "You told me that you'd had sex with your mother, your father, your parents' squeeze and your sister!"

"Except for Ilya, I didn't actually have intercourse with them, and, well, I regret telling you abut Ilya. I was trying to answer your questions as completely as I could, and I went too far. I won't tell you about my other relationships, and I won't tell them about you, either." He noded, as one does when one reaches a conclusion.

"It was that Haruhi bitch, wasn't it?" Yuna asked.

"Didn't I just say ... no, I haven't had sex with Suzumiya-san. Yet."


"And please don't call her names," Negi continued. "While she has some unpleasant personality traits, she's a very remarkable young woman, and considering her interest in the mysterious, I'm sure that she'll be interested in working with me to help save the world. And, again, she is very beautiful, and so, yes, I would like to have sex with her."

"I can't believe that I'm having this conversation," Yuna groaned, somewhat collapsing against Negi's back. "I can't believe ... when they told us that the aliens lost, Akira hugged me, and even though it was Akira hugging me, I was wishing you were there to do it, and ... and oh my god you are getting turned on from listening to me talk like this, aren't you?" she asked, looking down over his shoulder.

"Would you prefer it if I said that my current erection was due to fantasies about Suzumiya-san?" he asked warily.

"Not really," Yuna told him wearily, then spun him around on the stool so she could kiss him hungrily, and one of her hands could go down to wrap around the hard-on and stroke it a few times. She broke from the kiss and, without further ado, went down to take him in her mouth.

"W-wait," Negi stammered, "I haven't washed there, and --"

"Oh wow, 'no it's dirty'?" asked a somewhat familiar voice.

Negi's head jerked to the side from which the voice had come. Yuna's head jerked backwards, and she let out a shriek of "GAGKH!" (Which was amusing, as this noise was normally caused by a penis entering the mouth -- well, the throat -- rather than leaving it.)

Standing in the pool not too far from them, naked and unafraid, Haruna looked at them with interest. "Sorry, that was just so cliche that I had to say something. Now, about this fucking to save the world business ... more details please?"

"Okay, so magic is real, the world could be ending, and Negi here wants to find people who can help him stop it and get a harem in the process," Haruna said, a few moments later, as she sat beside Negi on the side of the pool, feet dangling in the water, and delicately rubbed his member. Her other hand was down between her own legs. Yuna was sitting on the other side of Negi, watching this production with a certain amount of envy. Her hands were at her sides.

"Not a h-harem," Negi said, struggling to keep control over himself as he was wanked. "That implies -- uh -- slavery. I prefer the term collehhhctive, as the members would b-be free to havvvvve other lovers -- uh -- if they wanted."

"That's very enlightened of you, Negi-kun," Haruna told him, smiling broadly.


"You're taking the 'magic is real' part really well," said Yuna, just a bit suspiciously. "Why?"

Haruna shrugged. "As an artist, I am a sensitive soul, and have thus always been somewhat aware that there are powers in this world beyond those which are visible. Should the confirmation of this truth disturb me?"

"Bullshit," Yuna replied. "What's the real reason?"

"My older brother is cursed to turn into a girl when he gets spashed with water."

Yuna looked away. "All right, if you don't want to tell me, don't tell me. There's no need to make dumb shit up."


Haruna's hand stilled. "Okay, Negi-kun, I have two important questions that I need to ask you. And I know that you will not lie to me, because you are a gentleman. Question the first: These children that you're hoping to breed with us -- are you going to abandon them?"

"No, of course not," he told her. "I mean -- if I have to go somewhere for a mission, like I am right now, I will leave my companions and children in the care of those who love them, like my mothers are caring for my sister Ilya. But I will still do everything in my power to get back to them. Ilya will probably be close to her delivery by the time summer break begins, so I plan to go back to be with her --"

"Stop," said Haruna, very firmly. "That was not quite the right answer. Good intentions aren't good enough."


"Question the second," Haruna said, and then fell silent for a while. When she spoke again, she was speaking very quietly. "If you had daughters, would you fuck them, Negi-kun?"

"Of course not!" he answered, appalled. "I would never do anything to hurt a child!"

"Not when they were a child, I'm not talking about being a kiddy-diddler. I mean when they grow up to be sexy teenagers, and maybe their moms don't look so hot anymore. Would you take advantage, then?" Haruna's voice remained very quiet and very steady.

"No," Negi answered firmly. "That would be completely unethical."

"But what your mom did with you --" Haruna started to say.

"-- was not intercourse. If a child of mine needed practical sex education, I would allow them to find a partner of their own age, and help them to do so. I would not take her -- or him -- as a partner myself. That is not what my education was about."

"You're getting soft, so I guess you really mean it," Haruna said, after a moment. She then resumed stroking. "It's not the best answer, but I guess it's an okay one. Very well, I have two conditions."

"Conditions?" said Negi. "Uh."

"First of all, you're going to do it with all the girls in our class. All of them."

"Ahhhhhhhh," Negi said, as much paralyzed at the thought of doing anything with a certain Scottish member of the class, to say nothing of one of the eight or nine incarnate goddesses abroad in the world, as by what Haruna had started doing to him with her fingers.

"Hold it," interrupted Yuna, who'd been listening to all this with an unsatisfied expression. "He and I already agreed that Akira was off-limits." For him, added the treacherous part of her that kept wanting to ogle Haruna's breasts.

"Hm. Well, I suppose that condition does take priority over mine," Haruna said, nodding. "Of course, you do realize what would take priority over even that."

"... what would that be?" asked Yuna, a little bit thrown by how reasonable Haruna was being.

"Oh, you don't realize? Well, it's not important right now," the artist said airily. "Anyway, condition two -- all that bullshit about gentlemen don't discuss such matters? That stops right here, right now." She was no longer even remotely talking airily. "We have a right to know who is getting into a collective with us, who's going to be sharing the life we share with you. And I won't budge on this."

"Ah-all right," said Negi. "I ... have a chaaaallenge to the first con-dit-ion. IIII ... I won't do anything with anyone who doesn't want to be with me," he managed to gasp out.

"Hm," said Haruna, thoughtfully. "Well, in addition to the other girls with daddy complexes, we do probably have a few lesbians and maybe even an asexual or two in the class. So I guess actually that's a good point. Hm. Really that earns back a few of the points you lost with the weaselly answers to my questions, Negi-kun. Nicely done!"

"Other girls with daddy complexes?" Yuna asked.

"You thought you were the only one?"

"I'm not one."

Haruna coughed. "Well, yeah, not now, obviously."

"Ahhh," Negi interjected before Yuna could make the witty retort that would have left Haruna weeping in self-reproach. "Ha-ha-haruna-san, I think I am aboooouut ready to c-c-climax."

"Oh, well, you should do that, then," she told him, as one might remark on matters that nothing to do with oneself.

He made a face. Actually, he made several faces. "I -- think -- it -- would -- be -- bad -- to -- do -- that -- in -- a -- public -- pool!"

"Good point. So about those conditions?" Haruna said, using the hand that had been between her legs to reach up and take off her glasses and set them down beside her hip. Her eyes were surprisingly small without them.

"I agree!" Negi gasped.

"Then so do I," she said, then pulled her legs up out of the pool. Turning to face Negi, she sat down on his hips, bringing his member up into her, then fell backwards into the pool, pulling him down with her. He exploded within her the moment they hit the water's surface, and she clutched him tightly to her as they sank until her back pressed against the bottom of the pool. She kissed him deeply, and he stared at her as her long dark hair moved in three dimensions, surrounded by bubbles. Their lips were again pressed against each other as they rose again to the surface, and began to drift towards the far side of the pool, with splashes accompanying their motions.

"Okay, then," said Yuna, abandoned for the moment. "I'll ... go make sure no one else comes in while you two are ... yeah." And the worst part was that she wasn't sure who to envy the most.

"So how get chui back?"

"I don't think they're going to give the stuff they took away from us back."

"... know they no give. How get?"

Fei was making a rare genuine attempt to do some studying of her English text. It didn't make any more sense than it usually did, but it at least offered a distraction from the inanity of her two depraved roomguests. At a bare minimum, it was something to look at that wasn't the pair of them.

"Do you really wanna rob a bunch of cops? That's kinda criminal, even for us, y'know."

"Them bigger crook! Chui in family since --" Here the Joketsuzoku used a Chinese term that Fei mentally translated as 'White Moon Kingdom'. The term meant nothing to Fei; while she'd learned about her ancestors' customs, out of curiosity, she'd never had the time or opportunity to learn much of their mythology.

"We don't even know where they're keeping any of that stuff!"

Fei covered her face with her hands. The distraction was clearly not working. "I go to take walk," she announced. The two of them paid her no mind, neither as she said that nor as she walked out the front door. Of course, she didn't have anywhere to go right at the moment, but at least it got her out of earshot of those two.

"You okay there?"

She turned to see Haruna approaching, wearing a bathrobe and a blissful smile. "Oh, I fine, now, but they kind of hard to take," she told her roommate.

"Yeah," Haruna agreed. "Fei, I am sorry that I agreed to let these two stay here without asking you what you thought about it."

Ku stared. The temptation to cry 'who are you and what have you done with Haruna' was a strong one, because Haruna never apologized. "Uh ... thank you, Paru," she said instead. "I ... sorry about ongoing family tragedy."

Haruna nodded. "You might want to go spend the night in Satchan's room, rather than being here." Several times in the past, when Haruna had been burning the midnight oil on a manga project close to deadline, Fei had ended up sleeping in the room of her classmate and restaurant manager employer, Yotsuba Satsuki, who had no roommate.

"No, it okay, we actually work that out. You ... sibling ... sleep on couch, and Shanpu-san sleep on floor because she above comfort." That last was delivered pretty drily.

"Mm-hm. But you might want to go spend the night in Satchan's room, rather than being here," said Haruna, gazing steadily into Fei's eyes.

Fei found herself faintly flumoxed by the repetition. Why would Haruna insist on this? What did she think was going to happen -- and then a rather disturbing thought came to Fei's conscious attention. "No ... you no think they ... in our room? While we there?"

"Yes," Haruna answered firmly. "While you're there."

"I --" The martial artist paused and considered the implications of the slight difference in phrasing between what she'd said and what had been said in response to it. "Haruna?" she asked weakly.

"I don't want to talk about it. Not now. Not ever. You might want --"

Fei threw up her hands and waved them in front of Haruna's face. "I go spend night in Satchan's room. Maybe in morning I talk to dorm boss about moving there." She spun on her heel and started walking down the hallway, shaking her head as she went.

Haruna took a deep breath and walked into her room, closing the door and locking it behind her before heading into the living room area.

"And I'm telling you, this won't be nearly as easy as you're thinking," Ranma was saying to Shanpu as the two of them occupied opposite ends of the couch.

"I'm back," Haruna announced. "So are you two having sex with each other?"

Ranma started coughing. Shanpu spared him a glance, then answered the question. "When first met, I think she father's concubine. I sex her to get new husband happy. Afterwards ... nothing wrong if two warriors share their strength."

"Mm-hm, I kinda figured that would be your attitude. Very Spartan. But you only do it when they're in girl form, right? Not as a boy?"

Shanpu looked aghast. "That adultery!"

"Because adultery is ... yeah, okay. I think I'm starting to understand your worldview, Shampoo."

"Shanpu," she corrected.

"Uh, look, we don't want to make any problems," Ranma started to say.

"Way way way past that," said Haruna, as she started to undo the belt of her bathrobe. "But you know what? The world is ending. So who cares?" The belt came undone, and the robe pooled around her feet. "Show me what to do, oneesama," she said in a little girl's voice as she stood naked before two other daughters of her father.

"Ahhh!" he cried out as the climax ripped through him. Exhausted by the sensation, he collapsed onto her, his head lying on one of her full breasts as he gasped in release. It was so different from what he'd imagined it would be.

It came to him, after a moment, that she was being very quiet. He looked up at her face. "S-s-suzumiya-san?" Mitsuru stammered.

She blinked, and looked down at him. "Oh, are you done?" she asked.

"Ah ... yes?"

"Okay. You know where the door is. See yourself out." The eyes closed, and her head turned to the side as though sleeping.

He pulled back and out of her, then got up from the bed and slid off the condom. By the time he was dressed, he'd come to the conclusion that it was really all his fault for not waiting for Negi-sensei to make a move. Still unsure of what to do with the condom, he dropped it in the toilet of the room's ensuite on his way out the door.

Once the door was closed, Haruhi curled up in a ball and began rubbing herself between the legs in order to feel something.

"John," she whispered.

She was a devout believer in the Student Council Executive's mission to oppose the chaos and shameless behavior that lurked in the heart of every student in Academy City, but when assigned to the front desk of Detention, even Kotegawa Yui found herself counting the minutes until shift change, when she could go back to her apartment, take a shower, have some dinner and vegetate in front of the TV for a while. All that she wanted, right now, was for absolutely nothing to happen that would delay that.

Aw, nuts, she thought as the front doors slid open and two women in remarkably sexualized uniforms walked in. Both were brown-haired, one a little taller than the other, though ironically the taller one looked like a seventeen year old instead of the twenty-something who was leading her.

"Can I help you?" Yui asked, in the vague hope that they'd say, 'No, wait, we're in the wrong place after all.'

Instead, they flashed badges. "Special Agent In Charge Kurumi Imari, and Special Agent Kino Makoto," the shorter one declared. "We're with the Special Investigation Research Team, Tokken."

"... okay," said Yui, who'd never heard of this particular agency before. That meant nothing. Special agencies had proliferated in the years since Second Impact, and there was probably a special agency which was specifically tasked with keeping track of all the other ones.

"We receieved a report that you took an individual named Saotome Ranma into custody earlier today," said the one supposedly named Kino. She held up some paperwork. "We have a warrant to take him into our custody."

Awwwwwwww, nuts! Hoping that none of her inner turmoil was showing, Yui spoke in a calm, indifferent tone. "Unfortunately, we no longer have him in custody. He was only charged with trespassing on school grounds, so he was only held for a few hours, then released outside of them after nightfall." That's what Saotome was supposed to do, and I have no reason to believe that she didn't do just that. None at all. Nope.

"Excuse me?" said Kurumi, leaning closer. Her turquoise eyes seemed to turn a much darker shade of blue as she glared at Yui. "Do you have any idea just how big of an investigation you just scotched?"

"No, I don't. As far as I'm aware, we have not received any requests to assist in any such investigation from your agency -- or any requests from your agency whatsoever, before now," Yui replied stonily. "As it doesn't involve a student at one of the schools here --"

"Oh, do not get me started about the students at the schools here!" Kurumi snapped.

Kino laid a calming hand on her superior's shoulder. Kurumi let out a frustrated sigh. "Fine. We'll be canvassing the neighborhood surrounding the school perimeter. Have a very pleasant evening."

"Canvassing? Really?" asked Makoto once they were out of the building.

"I don't know," Imari answered, beyond irritated. "We have to find this guy, or the business with the Phoenix People is going to go all pear shaped, but ... ughhhh, I don't want to spend another minute here longer than I absolutely have to! You have no idea what kind of bad memories this place brings back."

"Let's head back to HQ, see what the boss thinks," her partner proposed. "I'll drive."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah."

"So then what happened?"

Lum rolled back on the bed in her chambers aboard the Urusei flagship. "We left, of course. That was the deal, and never let it be said that my esteemed father breaks a deal. I think he may have talked a few of the Earther factions into giving us 'gifts' in exchange for going away so easily, but ... no, this was a pretty big loss, especially when you consider how many of our ships got wrecked on the way sunward. We should have listened to Oyuki. This whole system is a death trap, especially the third planet."

"But the guy really proposed marriage to you?" asked the figure on her view screen.

"Yeah," Lum said, a bit distantly. "I couldn't believe it either. The sheer audacity. It almost made me want to ..." She shook her head. "But the nose knows. He's sterile. Funny, he didn't smell like that the day before. Maybe he took some sort of drug to boost himself for the match, and it had side effects. Doesn't matter. Dad says we might go back in a decade or so, after all the humans are dead, to see if there's anything left worth the looting. Start thinking of a present you'd like."

"The sterile champion of a dying world," her friend mused aloud. "That's almost poetic. And you're sure that it's dying?"

"Definitely. Why do you ask?" Lum asked.

A smile beyond price was her answer.

"Oh no. You wouldn't. It's a death trap!" repeated Lum.

"Who would think of looking for me inside of a death trap?" replied Lala Satalin Deviluke. "I'll see you again in a few years, dear one." The signal cut off.

To Be Continued



Fei found it a bit bewildering that she was sitting around the table eating breakfast with her roommate and two unwelcome houseguests, given how she'd fled this den of perversion and obscenity the previous night, but then she realized that she was in an omake and should really just relax.

As she did so, Haruna finally spoke up. "Okay, there's just one more thing I don't understand," she said, looking in Shanpu's direction.

"You understanding not my burden," Shanpu told her.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever, but if you people are so matriarchal that you don't even have the concept of 'father', why do you call the children of your mother's husband your sisters?" Haruna pressed.

Shanpu let out a sigh. "One, I not an idiot. Two, mother adopt Ranma before we leave, and she adopt you too if you ever meet."

"Oh, so that's what the business with the feather duster and the bowl full of groats was about," Ranma said in a tone of great revelation. "I wondered!"

"Ha?" said Fei, looking confused. "Thought Joketsuzoku tradition was to kill prior children of husband?"

Haruna and Ranma dropped their toast in unison.

"Gehh," Shanpu replied disgustedly. "Not even great-grandmother is that old school!"


"Mentor, great master, elder of clan," Shanpu answered with a nod.

Fei felt a horrible suspicion. "Her name ... it not chance to be Ko--" She broke off, shaking her head rapidly. "No. No. I no want to know. So glad this an omake, and I never actually have this suspicion."

"What?" chorused the other three people in the room as the omake ended.

Chapter Text

There was almost nothing positive to be said about the slums on the hills surrounding Academy City, with the possible exception of that item which formed the three most important factors in real estate -- location. It could be fairly said that they afforded a truly unique view of the area, with perhaps the clearest possible line of sight towards the gigantic World Tree at the heart of the region and the great hill on which the preeminent school in the area had been built.

A girl was currently enjoying that view, pausing for a moment before turning a corner in her path across the narrow streets of the slums, which would slowly but surely heading down towards Academy City proper. She was slightly shorter than the average with a slim and athletic build, and quite tomboyish in appearance, yet still undeniably feminine. Her hair was short and black, with a single thin streak of read falling over her forehead. She was clothed in a practical, even plain, fashion, in a pair of running pants and an old open jacket over a white shirt, and a very large backpack.

After pondering the horizon ahead in silence, the girl started walking again, eventually crossing paths with a scrawny old lady who walked slowly and stiffly, splashing water around with a ladle, apparently to wash her path. The young woman didn't know and didn't care, as she easily avoided being splashed by the seemingly oblivious lady, both women going their separate ways, probably to never meet again.

Around the next block, following the wet path the old lady had left behind, the girl found an angrily squealing tiny black piglet sitting on top of a pile of black and yellow clothes, with a bandana loosely hanging around its neck. Blinking, she crouched down to pick it up, all to better look at what it had been sitting on. Along with the blouse and trousers, someone had left a backpack, and not only that, but an umbrella. Seeing how she currently didn't own an umbrella and could use one -- the last few days producing a fair amount of rain -- and since what one found tossed on the street was anyone's to take, she reached over to pick it up as well, ignoring how the pig seemed to grow even more frantic at that, kicking madly.

Much to her surprise, the umbrella was incredibly heavy, although not enough so she couldn't lift it single-handed. As she did so, the piglet seemed to fall into stunned silence. "Well," she said to herself, smiling, "looks like this day is off to a good start."

"That's our line, oneechan," a chuckling, raspy but squeaky voice said, and four little boys, none older than eleven, walked out the corners around her, surrounding her from all angles. They had their hands into their pockets, and their poses were those of snot nosed punks trying to act gangsta.

The girl sighed to herself. What a bother.

"Hand everything out, okay? And no funny stuff. We're this street here's Yakuza, and everything here is ours, didn'tcha know?"

"Nope. I didn't know." She coolly looked at the smallest, yet also cockiest of the children, who was actually leering up at her. "And what will happen if I don't want to play along?"

"Play? Play! Oh, you bitch, you're on! Guys, get her!" the brat yelled, his voice cracking in a way that was far from being imposing, as his partners in delinquency sprang up towards the girl ...

... who quickly spun around, swinging the heavy umbrella, whacking each of them in quick succession, and sending them flying and crying in all the directions they had originally come from. It was over in the blink of an eye, and then she lowered the umbrella, held the piglet closer to her chest, and smirked cockily at the now trembling and wide-eyed lead wannabe punk, whose nose was leaking a thick line of snot. "Well, just look at that. Who's next to be this bitch's bitch?"

He immediately fell to his hands and knees before her, prostrated in submission. "That, that, that was just a joke, Ma'am! We'd never dream of threatenin' or hurtin' a lady! 'Tis but a harmless gag we poor orphans pull off to liven up our tragic lives, for the amusement of tourists! Please god don't kill me."

Before she could react to that in any way, a short but reasonably busty and perky girl, older than the boy but younger than herself, appeared as though from nowhere. "Poor orphan? Who's a poor orphan now, Mataro?"

"Yikes! O-Oneechan!" he cried, even more scared and frantic now. "That, that was just part of the joke, see, we here was, I mean where, I mean--"

All of a sudden, the newly arrived girl was pulling on both his ears at once, tugging on them like taffy, as he wailed and the dark haired girl and piglet looked on, stunned. "Instead of wasting your time here, you should be in school, so you can earn a scholarship as well! Just think of what you're doing, and right before the sexy outsider we'll probably never see again and who couldn't possibly be fated to be my soulmate!"

The black haired girl blinked. "Uhhhh ... sorry, what was that last part?"

"I'll change, I'll change!" the little boy whined.

His sister perked up, looking down the road. "Oh, there's the bus! I'm going to miss it!" she said, tossing the boy aside before sprinting downhill, her legs replaced by cartoon swirls.

"The bus? There's a bus?" the other girl asked, picking the backpack destiny had no doubt saved for her and following the weird girl, the piglet clutching onto her for dear life despite her attempts to shake it off.

"Yeah, the bus up to Honnoji!" the short girl said, jumping up to plunge into the comically overcrowded bus that had briefly stopped there. The other young lady made her way in as well, pushing several assorted extras aside with her feet, and finding herself awkwardly pressed against the girl's front, both of them squeezed by the sweaty crowd, and smashing the gasping, nose-bleeding pig between their bodies. "Oh, you're going there as well? That's great, that's great! How do you do! My name is Mankanshoku Mako! I'd shake your hand, but my hand is on someone's ass!"

"I think it's on mine, actually."

"Ah, that would explain why it feels like such a nice ass!" Mako smiled, very wide and cutely, nodding like a blissed out fool.

"Thanks?" the newcomer awkwardly replied. "Um, I'm Matoi Ryuko, and I'm starting at Honnoji today, and ... could you can take your hand off my ass, please?

"Nope, too crowded."

"... well, could you at least stop squeezing?"

Mako and Ryuko, on whose head now sat the black piglet, paused for a moment at the gates of the main Honnoji campus area, over which someone had hung a crucified short, chubby young man in nothing but white boxers and bruises. On his forehead, they had written 'SPY' in bold red characters. He stirred for a moment, smiled a loose-teeth smile, gave a weak thumbs up and gurgled "I'm alive!" before falling unconscious again.

Ryuko only blinked, staring up.

Mako shrugged. "He must have done something really bad. Hey, hey, do something funny!" she chirped, beginning to film the battered figure with her cellphone. "Maybe we can get you on 'World's Dumbest Videos'!"

"Okay," Ryuko said after a moment. "Then I guess my second question is, what's that all about?" She indicated the 'that' with a jerk of her thumb in the direction of the seared circle on the grounds just outside the gates, surrounded by a crowd of rubberneckers, who were staring at the two girls -- one short and dark-haired, one taller and with hair of orange -- who were lying on the ground in the middle of the circle.

As she spoke, the orange-haired girl apparently regained consciousness, rose up on her hips, and looked around. "No," she said. Abruptly she began pounding the pavement with one of her hands, head hanging in despair. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no!"

"Dunno," Mako admitted cheerfully. "But it's got nothing to do with us. See how the one with the rack is wearing a different uniform than I am? That's a Mahora High School uniform. It doesn't even rise to the level of a no-star. It's from one of those schools." She pointed down the hill.

"Riiight," replied Ryuko, filing away the term 'no-star' for later reference.

Mako grabbed Ryuko's wrist and started dragging her along behind her as she ran towards the school gate. "Now, hurry, we only have a little bit of time to get Ryuko to the office so that she can begin her first day here and cannot pause to get busy in a supply closet and oh that's right you should probably hide P-chan!" At this realization, she stopped dead in her tracks, almost throwing Ryuko off of her feet.

"P-chan?" Ryuko asked weakly.

"P-chan!" Mako confirmed, pointing at the black piglet on Ryuko's head.

"Bukii?" said the piglet, as though seeking to confirm this new-forged synonym.

"Oh," said Ryuko, who hadn't seen the point of naming the creature she was almost certainly going to end up eating. "Yeah, it'd be bad if this guy got confiscated, wouldn't it? Okay, in the bag you go, 'P-chan'. Don't mess things up in there, or ... hm. Kinda hard to come up with an effective threat under the circumstances." She shrugged as she closed the bag up, sealing the pig in stygian darkness.


Maybe fifteen minutes later, and, despite herself, faintly awed by how efficient Honnouji's transfer student process was, Ryuko found herself standing at the head of her new classroom, with her name written on the board. Beside her was a middle-aged teacher with messy blue hair and eyes that were covered by ray-bans that might have been fashionable twenty years ago, who was announcing her. And before her, in the sea of unfamiliar faces, was Mako, somehow managing to wave her hand in greeting and simultaneously point out the empty desk beside her.

After a moment or so of this, the teacher turned to look at Ryuko. "Are, uh, you and Mankanshoku already acquainted?"

"I guess you could say that," Ryuko admitted. This must be karma for how I treated Akko towards the end, she thought as she walked toward the empty desk, took off her bag and set it down on the floor -- which shook slightly under the weight -- and took her seat.

Beside her, Mako flashed a thumbs up, then set up her text in such a way as to block the teacher's view of the way that she was eating her lunch. Ryuko found herself vaguely wondering why the other girl was eating lunch this early, but as long as she was doing that, she wasn't flirting with Ryuko. So, good times all around.

"All right, let's resume Contemporary History," announced the teacher. "As we all know, no one is quite sure what year it is exactly. Our best guess is that it is the year 2015 of the common era, but we could be off by about five years in either direction. Hence the reason some people use the imaginary number 20XX to represent the year."

Right, this was nothing Ryuko hadn't heard a zillion times before. She could safely ignore it, and start working on her plans.

"It was roughly fifty years ago that the Historical Source Divergence was discovered, in which various media reported fundamentally similar versions of the same event as having happened on different official dates, each with physical evidence to confirm their data," he continued to lecture. "To this day, no one has proposed an explanation for the phenomenon."

Bringing this place to its knees was not going to be easy, but it was, Ryuko thought, going to be fun.

Suzushiro Haruka was not having a good day. Truth be told, she couldn't really point to something she considered a good day in the last three years of her life, and sometimes felt a bit of concern that she wouldn't recognize one if it actually happened to her. (Well, Yukino would probably be there when it happened, and be able to point it out to her, so that wasn't really a major concern.) But she could recognize a day that was the exact opposite of good, and weird and inexplicable phenomena headed the list of things that created such a day as this.

"Explain yourself," she demanded of the younger woman sitting before her desk.

"I'm sorry, sempai," said Tokiha Mai without looking up at her. "My memories of the last day or so are very muddled and confused, so I can't offer any explanations."

Somehow, Haruka knew the girl was lying. "You appeared on campus in the company of an unregistered individual. You vandalized school property. You presented yourself in a way as to inflame and pollute the innocent minds of the students here. On top of all that, you brought a weapon onto campus!" She pointed in the direction of the jet black greatsword that had been found in the circle with the two girls. To her annoyance, Tokiha didn't even bother to glance in the thing's direction. "And you can't explain any of this."

"My memories of the last day or so are very muddled and confused," Tokiha repeated.

On the one hand, Haruka was aware that she was probably overreacting to the presence of the sword, after yesterday's fun with Saotome. The way that she was treating Tokiha was thus not particularly fair. Fortunately, or something like fortunately, fairness was no longer part of the code of behavior she was sworn to uphold. On the other hand, she knew that the girl was lying, that she knew much more than she was saying about whatever had happened. Surely the truth, whatever it was, couldn't possibly be less in her interest than this feigned amnesia.

As Haruka momentarily lost herself in contemplation of this, Tokiha took a moment to look up and examine the Detention interrogation room where she and Haruka were presently ensconsced. "Um, given the horrific nature of my crimes, shouldn't the student council be supervising this ... interview?" she asked.

Haruka's eyebrows went up. Well, someone has a high opinion of themselves. "While your sins are indeed crimson, they are not yet enough to bring you to the attention of President Kiryuuin and her inner circle."

"... Kiryuuin?" the other girl repeated as though the name was unfamiliar.

"Yes, Kiryuuin Satsuki, president of the Academy City Joint Student Council. Did you do no research before coming here, or has that vanished into anesthesia as well?"

"I guess the latter. I think. Do you mean amnesia?" she asked, meeting Haruka's eyes for the first time.

Dammit dammit dammit dammit dammit! Haruka thought. "Yes, that is what I said. Perhaps you misheard," she said aloud.

"Maybe," Tokiha agreed vaguely.

The door to the room slid open behind Haruka, and she saw Tokiha's eyes dart in that direction, then look somewhat disappointed and confused. Haruka looked over her shoulder to see that it was one of her Executives, just as he announced, "Someone's here to visit the accused."

At that point, a young boy with reddish hair rushed past him, calling out "Oneechan!" as he did.

"Takumi!" Tokiha exclaimed as she got to her feet, embracing him as he ran to her, in the process showing the most genuine emotion Haruka had yet seen from the other girl.

Haruka was not heartless. Under the circumstances, she was willing to step back and let these two siblings have their reunion. She was, however, paying attention to what they said.

"You were scared, I understand. I'm sorry," Tokiha murmured.

"When we got separated after the train derailed, I was so worried that you might be --" the boy started to explain.

"Train?" Tokiha asked. "Not a ship?"

"Ship?" Takumi asked in turn. "Oneechan, we're miles away from the coast. Why would we be on a ship?"

"... I'm sorry, Takumi. My memories of the last day or so are very muddled and confused," she told him after a moment.

Okay, so much for the idea that she'd be more forthright with him, Haruka thought. She coughed to remind them of her presence. "All right, Tokiha Mai-san, under the circumstances, I cannot clear you to attend classes at this point. I am ordering you to be taken to the infirmary for a complete medical examination. I presume you have no objections?"

"No, sempai," the girl said, surprisingly meekly. "Um ... can Takumi come with me?"

"Your brother can go with you to the felicity, but then he has to get back to his own classes," Haruka dictated. "Bayushi --" she said to the Executive hovering at the door.

"It's Kobayashi, sir."

"Whatever. You're their escort."

Eventually, class let out, and Ryuko headed out into the hallways to start exploring, in particular hoping to find out where the bathrooms were. Before she could get very far in that, however --

"Ryuuuuuko-chan!" cried the very swiftly moving object that shot down the hallway toward her.

A moment later, Mako was lying on the floor a few feet ahead of Ryuko's position, and slowly turned to look up at her with a faintly reproachful look. "Why did you dodge?" she asked.

"Who wouldn't dodge?" Ryuko asked in turn.

"Someone who wanted a hug," Mako answered.

That threw Ryuko a little. "Ah ... well ... I ..." She paused, took a breath, then continued. "Look, I get that you want to be friends."

Mako nodded vigorously, since that was in fact a sequent of the relationship she actually desired.

"In that case, maybe you can help me out."

"I would be happy to help you pick out a uniform at the school store," Mako enthused, seeing enough change room opportunities as to make her head spin a little. "It will only be a no-star, of course."

"No, not that," Ryuko said disgustedly. "... well, actually, now that you mention it, could you explain this whole 'no-star' business?"

A few moments later, having learned more than she really wanted to know about the various grades of super-powered uniforms that were distributed to certain members of Honnouji's student body -- and apparently to a handful of students at those other schools who performed useful tasks -- and finding herself not sure how much of it she believed, considering the source, Ryuko sought to change the subject. "Okay, right. So I'm assuming that the person who hands out these three-star uniforms would pretty much be the top dog of this school?"

As they'd spoken, they'd peregrinated out through the front doors of the school building to the commons in front of it, where a large number of students were presently gathered in two long lines.

"Oh, yes, she's a terrible person, and YIKES! Bow, Ryuko-chan, bow!" Mako urged and simultaneously pushed Ryuko to assume a position of respect similar to that adopted by the two lines of students.

"Why am I bowing?" Ryuko asked after a moment.

Mako silently jerked her head towards the far end of the lines. Ryuko looked in that direction to see a remarkably tall, dark-skinned, blond young man walking briskly down the corridor formed by the lines of students. She noted that he had three black stars on the chest of his uniform, as well as spikes on his shoulders, gauntlets and boots. "Okay," she said after a moment, once he'd passed where the two of them were standing. "And this would be?"

"Gamagori Ira, the head of the disciplinary committee!" Mako hissed. "One of the personal adjutants of oh my god there she is."

Descending from cloud-enshrouded stairs was a woman in a white uniform that, interestingly, included leggings. Also interestingly, her eyes were closed, as though suggesting that she knew the route she was walking so well that she didn't need to see it.

"The student council president?" Ryuko guessed.

"Kiryuuin Satsuki-sama!" Mako confirmed.

"Thanks," said Ryuko, and stood up.

"What?" Mako said, looking up at her. "Ryuko-chan, what are you doing?"

"I'll think I'm gonna have a little chat with her."

"No. No, this is a terrible idea. This is the sort of idea that will either get you killed or result in you dating someone else. Ryuko-chan --"

"Oi, twinkle-toes!" Ryuko said as she stepped out into the middle of the corridor. "Got a few questions for you!"

Now the tall woman's eyes opened, and she looked down at the person who was addressing her. Yet she remained utterly silent.

A number of the students surrounding Ryuko took it on themselves to speak for her, however. "You wench, how dare you insult Satsuki-sama!" they chorused as they jumped Ryuko -- who, with a few kicks, elbow strikes, and backhands, sent them flying back. With that out of the way, she drew forth a red sword from her backpack.

No, not a sword -- half of a pair of scissors.

Satsuki blinked.

"I'm looking for the owner of the other half of this pair of scissors!" Ryuko declared. "You've seen them before, haven't you!"

What is this feeling, so sudden and new, that I felt the moment I laid eyes on her? thought Satsuki. Aloud, she simply said, "What of it?"

Ryuko's jaw clenched. My pulse is rushing. My head is reeling. My face is flushing. "It's you, isn't it. You're the one who owns the other half!"

In the picosecond before Ryuko charged, both women would have been surprised to realize that they were thinking the same thing. What is this feeling? Fervid as a flame, does it have a name? And that the same flash of realization illuminated both their minds. Yes!


At the distant sound of a what must be a loud boom, Mai lifted her head from her pillow and looked out the infirmary window in mild confusion. When no blast wave swept across her field of view, however, she settled down again. She still had no idea what that was all about, but it wasn't a direct threat. Probably.

Upon arriving at the infirmary, Dr. Sagisawa had given her a brief examination, paying particular attention to her eyes, and asked her a number of searching questions -- some of which she couldn't answer, as her memories of the last day or so were very muddled and confused. Mai suspected that this wasn't actually fooling the doctor, any more than it had fooled Suzushiro, but the doctor hadn't questioned it, only asking Mai to remain until evening for observation ... and possibly come back for a psychiatric evaluation later in the week. Mai found herself all right with the first part of that. The second part was not going to happen.

Despite all the time she'd spent visiting people in hospitals over the years, Mai had never really been in one herself, and was somewhat unprepared for how boring it could be. On the other hand, boring experiences were not without their own charm, under the circumstances. Still, her eyes kept being drawn to the curtained off area of the infirmary, where -- so the doctor had been kind enough to tell her -- the 'other girl' who'd 'arrived' with her was still unconscious. The temptation to go over there and --

The door to the infirmary slid open, and Mai quickly looked away from the curtains, gazing patiently upward at the ceiling instead. No, perhaps she should feign sleep. Drat, too late now, she realized as footsteps approached her bedside, and she turned to look.

Standing there were a tiny boy with red hair and glasses, in a suit that would have suited a grown man better, and a taller girl with dark brown hair held back by an orange ribbon and a disgusted look on her face. "Hello," said the boy. "Are you Tokiha Mai-san?"

"Yyyyyes," Mai replied hesitantly. What was this?

The boy smiled up at the girl, who let out a deep sigh, before speaking up. "I'm Suzumiya Haruhi, dic-- ahem, president of the SOS Brigade, a club which seeks out aliens, time travellers, espers and sliders. We're interested in discussing the possibility that you were abducted by aliens."

Mai blinked a few times. "Sliders?" she repeated.

"Sliders," Haruhi confirmed ... without providing anything in the way of the explanation and definition that Mai had been seeking.

"Okay," said Mai. "Um ... what makes you think I was abducted by aliens?"

"I don't," Haruhi answered briskly.

"Haruhi-san," the boy said sweetly.

"However," she continued, with obvious reluctance, "the fact that you mysteriously disappeared from last night's train derailment and then mysteriously reappeared here on campus, and supposedly in a circle of burnt ashes, could possibly suggest that something ... vaguely ... mysterious is going on. And that's the sort of thing we're supposed to seek out. So here I am. Would you be interested in joining the club?" Haruhi concluded.

From the way she phrased that last question, it was fairly clear (to Mai at least) that the other girl was hoping the answer would be no. And anyway, Mai wasn't going to have time for clubs, she had to work --

-- and work and work and work and work diligently and work endlessly and work unceasingly and work my fingers to the bone and the bone to dust and the dust to --

"I'd be happy to join," Mai heard herself saying. "But I'm afraid that my memories of the last day or so are very muddled and confused, so I'm not sure if I'll be able to answer any of your questions."

"That's all right," the boy told her. "That's fairly typical in cases of alien abduction, isn't it, Haruhi-san?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever," said Haruhi as she handed Mai a membership form.

"I do have one question, though," said Mai as she looked at the boy. "Who are you, exactly?"

"Oh, my apologies, I should have introduced myself sooner. I'm Negi Springfield, the club's faculty adviser," he told her, smiling warmly.

"... no, seriously, who are you?"

His smile got a little frayed. "Seriously, I teach English at Mahora Girls Middle School."

"... you're a dwarf, right? I'm mistaking you for a child."

"No, I don't have short stature. I'm ten years old."

Mai stared at him for a few moments, then looked up at Haruhi. Try though she might, though, Mai was unable to find anything to say. So instead she just waved the membership form and nodded politely in Haruhi's general direction.

"Yeah, I get that a lot," said Haruhi, rolling her eyes. "See you on Monday. Or not."

"Haruhi-san," Negi chided her as they turned to leave the infirmary.

"Well, she might still be sick," said the girl as the door slid closed behind them.

Yes, I might be, at that, Mai thought to herself, and looked at the curtained off area once more. She got up out of bed and walked over, slid the curtains to one side.

The girl in the bed looked so small there. Mai let out a long, shuddering breath. "Train derailment, huh?" she asked, very softly. "Then I probably didn't give you mouth-to-mouth. Then we probably haven't ... oh, Mikoto. My most important person." She leaned down to the bed and pressed her lips to the other girl's, holding the kiss for what felt like a long time.

When she drew back, the girl's cat-like, yellow eyes were open.

Mai's heart stopped.

No movement. No reaction. Just a stare.

Hoping against hope, Mai found the strength to ask, "Mikoto, do you know who I am? Do you remember me?"

"The girl from the train," Mikoto said after a moment.

Mai's heart sank. Before she could say anything else, Mikoto sat up in bed -- and then bolted out the window beside her bed.

"Oh no," Mai groaned. "Not this again."

"All right," Negi said abruptly, as he walked beside Haruhi down the path leading from the infirmary back to Mahora High School. "From the way you haven't said anything since we left Tokiha-san, I think you might be a bit upset. Would it be all right if I asked why?"

Haruhi, who had been marching at full steam, came to a sudden stop. So did Negi. She didn't turn to look at him, however, nor did she speak for a moment. "Sensei," she said at last, in a tone of great patience, "I think I might have given you the wrong idea about what the SOS Brigade is supposed to be about."

Negi frowned. "You told me that it was to search for aliens, espers, time travellers, and ... um."

"Sliders," she supplied, much less patiently. "Sliders. Persons who travel between various parallel realities as predicted by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics or other multiverse hypotheses. Swear to god, this is not that hard to remember!"

"All right, I'll remember next time," Negi attempted to reassure her.

"Thank you, I would appreciate that," Haruhi replied through clenched teeth. "But, sensei, I don't think you quite understand. The purpose of the club isn't to find people who've ... met aliens, espers, time travellers or sliders, like Tokiha supposedly did. It's to meet those strange phenomena. In person."

"I'm afraid I don't follow," Negi admitted.

Suzumiya Haruhi took a deep breath. "When I was in sixth grade, my whole family and I went to watch a baseball game. I didn't care about baseball ... but when we got to the stadium, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There were so many people. More people than I could count, more people than I could see. I found out later that the stadium could have seated up to 50,000 people, and that it was only about one fifth full, that day. And that however many people there had been, that was just a tiny portion of the fifty million people in Japan. Which is only a tiny portion of the four billion people on Earth. I realized just how small and insignificant and ... normal ... I actually was. If there was anything strange and wondrous happening in the world, it was not happening to me. That's why I want to find these things, sensei. Because if I find them, they've found me, and then I'll know that I'm special." She fell silent, then.

After a moment, however, she was moved to speak up. "Sensei, shouldn't you be chiming in with some platitude about how we're all special, right about now?"

When he still didn't reply, she looked down at the empty space where he'd been standing a moment ago with a perplexed expression. Her head lifted up, and whirled around to look in all directions as a maniacal grin grew on her face. "Aliens!" she cooed.

"Why was she ranting about population numbers, anyway?" asked Sawada Mio.

"It's probably better not to try to understand the very weird," Momioka Risa told her best friend. She smiled down at Negi as the she and Mio, holding the small boy in between them, quickly and silently sped away from where Haruhi was still standing in total self-absorption. "Aren't you glad we rescued you from that crazy person, Negi-kun?"

"Well," he said, a bit hesitantly, "I did want to see you again, Risa, so I guess this is a good thing, although --"

Risa's face went blissful as she interrupted. "I know, I haven't been able to think about anything other than those magic moments, either. So when Mio and I chanced upon you and Suzumiya, I knew we had to save you for our own twisted purposes."

"Indeed," said Negi, and turned to look at his other abductor. "And you would be Mio."

The girl with hair just a shade darker than Haruhi's, but done up in two pig tails, and wearing a pair of glasses, smiled and nodded. "Sawada Mio, best friend to Momioka Risa!"

"We share everything," Risa cooed in Negi's ear. "Every. Thing."

"Ah," Negi said.

Moments later he was flat on his back on the floor of an abandoned music room, with his pants around his ankles, his jacket under his rear end, and his shirt pulled up to his nipples. Said nipples were being enthusiastically thumbed by Risa, mounted on his mouth, while his erection was pulsing in and out of Mio's cleft.

"Holy shit!" cried Mio, as her hips rocked back and forth. "Ho-li-shi-to! I thought you were kidding!"

"I wasn't!" replied Risa. "And you know what? You know? I'm getting the better part of this!" As though to soothe whatever hurt feelings might possibly have been provoked by this statement, she darted forward to kiss her partner deeply, and apply some of the same treatment she'd been handing out to Negi's nipples to Mio's own.

Several orgasms later, with Negi lying a bit wearily between the two girls and his no-longer hot white cum dripping from them both, Mio brought a bit of said semen up to mouth and licked at it, a bit like a cat. "I don't normally let boys do this, you know? Next time you should really wear a condom, Negi-kun."

Risa's laughter cut off Negi's response to that suggestion. "Miooo. He's like twelve. At that age he's shooting blanks!"

Negi decided to correct the larger of Risa's misapprehensions first. "No, that's not right, I'm fecund."


"I'm capable of reproduction."

She looked a little startled. "Oh. Uh, well, no big, we're both on the pill."

Now Negi looked a little startled. "I thought birth control medication was illegal in Japan." There'd been a movement to change that before Second Impact, but the damage, the continuing decline of Japan's birth rate, and the hardline moral stance of the Yagami government had ensured that it never got any traction.

"Well, yeah, it is, but you know, it's sort of illegal to have sex with teachers, too," Risa explained. "Not terribly bothered by some kinds of illegality are we, is what I'm saying. Basically, we've got a source."

"I see. You know, Risa, I have some friends I'd like to introduce to you, and you to them, and I'm fairly sure that they'd like to have access to that source, too," Negi told her. "Do you think you could help arrange that?"

In a sane world, Sanageyama Uzu knew, this wouldn't be happening. In a sane world, they would be seated comfortably in their headquarters, bantering about the afternoon's events and delivering a tongue lashing to Fukuroda while making plans for what to do next. Instead, they were -- admittedly -- seated comfortably in a row of chairs behind the chair where Satsuki-sama was seated, in the principal's office, and listening to a tongue lashing being delivered to Fukuroda while studiously keeping their mouths shut.

Finally, the tongue lashing was delivered, and Fukuroda was permitted to walk -- well, actually crawl backwards -- out of the principal's office after having heard dire threats made to his manhood if he screwed up a second time. Sanageyama found himself clenching his chair's armrest. Had he been the one making those threats to his subordinate -- which Fukuroda was, as captain of the boxing team -- it would have been one thing. He would have later offered words of encouragement when it came time for Fukuroda to be actually put to the test. That was how things worked. Stick and carrot, not too much of one or the other.

In a sane world, the Elite Four and their Lady would not be answering to the principal of Honnoji Academy.

The principal of Honnoji Academy, Morimoto Reina, took a long sip of a cup of coffee from her desk, then set it down again. "So, I have a few questions that I hope you won't mind answering, Kiryuuin," the tall, bottle blonde began quite calmly, considering the torrent of abuse she'd just unleashed on Fukuroda. She leaned forward in a way that should probably have threatened to spill her full breasts out of the incredibly low-cut blouse she was wearing. "First of all, about this Matoi Ryuko girl, the one with the sword. Ah, no, the scissors. What exactly are those scissors?"

"Those are a special weapon designed to combat Goku uniforms, half of which is currently in my family's possession, and half of which, of course, is in the transfer student Matoi's possession," Satsuki-sama quietly and calmly replied. Her long black hair would have been a complete contrast to the golden locks of the principal ... except that Sanageyama had seen what his master's hair contrasted with, and there was no real comparison.

"Ah, I see. And how came a transfer student from Buttfuck Nowhere Academy to possess such a device?" The principal's charming tone had not changed.

To his side, Sanageyama heard Gamagoori cough uncomfortably.

"As yet, this remains something of a mystery," Satsuki-sama admitted. "One of several, in fact, that I hope to address once Matoi is captured and interrogated, and the scissor blade returned to its proper place."

"Right. Moving on then, tooooo --" Morimoto checked one of the pieces of paper presently decorating her desk. "Mankanshoku Mako, who was also involved in this episode. Hm. That's a name I've heard before. Yes, I think I may actually have discussed her with you in the past, Kiryuuin. Well! Isn't it a small world. Tell me, please, why isn't she decorating a crucifix?"

"Gamagori," Satsuki-sama said quietly.

"Madam Principal!" the Disciplinary Chair barked. "All witnesses to the affair agree that Mankanshoku took no part in Matoi's disgraceful insults and assault on Satsuki-sama! Many further attest that she attempted to dissuade Matoi from that course of action! Under the circumstances, it is reasonable to conclude that --"

"Ira-kun," interjected the principal, smiling warmly. "Could you remind me please -- are students here considered innocent until proven guilty? Or is it the other way around?"

"It is the other way around, Madam Principal! However, the evidence we have discovered -- "

"Did you look hard for that evidence?" asked the principal, still smiling. "If so, why?"

Gamagori didn't seem capable of answering the question for some reason.

Thus Satsuki-sama chose to speak for him. "It is my considered opinion, Principal Morimoto, that Mankanshoku will serve the interests of this school best as bait to draw Matoi back to the academy so that we can capture her sooner, as part of the plan that Captain Fukuroda already outlined. Specifically as live bait."

"I think you are overestimating this Matoi girl's cleverness," Morimoto replied, with more than a bit of a sniff in her words. "You could use any reasonably similarly proportioned girl in a disguise for that purpose, while nailing the actual Mankanshoku's hands to the boards and slitting her throat, for good measure."

"Your opinion is noted," Satsuki-sama said.

A long silence fell in the principal's office.

"You do remember why we discussed Mankanshoku in the past, Kiryuuin?" the principal asked eventually. "What she represents? How she's a stain on your perfect society and on my balance sheets?"

"I remember," Satsuki-sama replied. "And I remember that we agreed that, at an appropriate time, her presence at Honnoji would be re-evaluated. This is not the appropriate time."

"Then wh--"

"Perhaps, if you disagree, you should take it up with my mother," said Kiryuuin Satsuki.

Slowly, the principal leaned back into her chair. "Well, there's no need to go that far. I look forward to seeing how your plans work out, Kiryuuin."

"Yes. In that case, please excuse us, as there are a number of preparations to be made." Satsuki-sama rose, and, perhaps a second or so later, the Elite Four rose up behind her, bowed in unison, and then departed the principal's office, with Sanageyama the last one out of the room. As such, he was in the unique position to see a small smile on the principal's face.

He was familiar with all manner of sports, and thus knew that sometimes, to win, one had to seem to lose. Somehow, the principal had done just that.

In a sane world, this wouldn't be happening.

"Okay," Jakuzure Nonon finally spoke up when they were a few minutes out from the principal's office, their lady leading them down the hallways of the administrative building. "Could someone please explain to me what the bureaucrat's deal with the underachiever is?"

Without looking back, Satsuki-sama replied. "Inumuta. Explain the scholarship situation for Jakuzure's benefit."

Inumuta Houka adjusted the lenses of his glasses with one hand. "Yes, Satsuki-sama. Three years ago, when Honnoji Academy was established, a number of scholarships were offered to the children of local politicians, tradesmen, and physicians -- among the latter to be numbered one Mankanshoku Barazo, whose only daughter is Mankanshoku Mako. At the start of the current school year, however, when Principal Morimoto took office as Honnoji's principal, an effort has begun to ... persuade, and if not persuade then force, these scholarship students to explore other academic options. Mankanshoku is the only one remaining."

"... well, sucks to be her, then," commented Jakuzure after a moment.

"Indeed," said Satsuki-sama as they arrived at the Student Council President's office. "Thank you all, but now I require an interval of privacy," she said, once again, without looking back.

"Uh ... but we still have to go over --" Sanageyama started to say.

"I require an interval of privacy," their master said, now looking slightly over her shoulder ... not quite enough to fix one of those eyes on any of them, but enough to give the suggestion that she could do so at any moment.

"Of course, Satsuki-sama!" declared Gamagori.

She nodded, opened the door, stepped through, and closed it behind her. For the next few moments, the four of them stood there, listening to the sounds of several locking mechanisms being engaged.

"This is your fault," chorused Gamagori, Sanageyama and Jakuzure once that was done, as they stood glaring at each other.

"Rather than waste time finding fault, let us use the time Satsuki-sama has graciously granted us to demonstrate that we can in fact, work on our plans without needing her constant supervision," suggested Inumuta through clenched teeth.

Sanageyama and Gamagori looked unhappy about that, but, after another exchange of glares, they marched off together down the hall. Inumuta patiently gestured for Jakuzure to follow.

She chose instead to look at him angrily. "You know what she's doing in there, don't you?"

"No I don't," he answered her firmly. "And neither do you. Do not get above yourself."

"All right," said Mai to herself as she set out. "At least this time, I know where she's going to end up, so I don't have to chase her half way across campus."

It didn't take her very long to realize how horribly wrong she was. The bigger problem, which she had realized either of the times that she was marched across campus that morning, was that this wasn't the school she'd come to know. At all. But the implications of that hadn't really hit home until right this moment. Heading to the fountain where she'd finally found Mikoto quenching her thirst was not going to work, because it seemed pretty likely that said fountain didn't exist in their current reality. And, frankly, none of the fountains that did exist seemed like the sort of places Mikoto would drink from.

It was a Saturday afternoon, so the students she saw were those engaged in club activities. The overwhelming majority were unfamiliar to her, with a handful of faces who fit in her memories. She almost tripped and fell as she caught sight of a henna-haired girl in the Mahora middle school uniform, sitting on a bench and thoroughly engrossed in her cell phone, while an even younger girl was seated beside her eating a popsicle. Despite everything that the sight of Yuuki Nao implied, Mai found herself faintly relieved.

Takumi is here. Mikoto is here. Nao is here, she recited to herself as she walked, somehow managing to keep alert for Mikoto-sign while engaged in her internal tally. Suzushiro is here. Sagisawa-sensei is here. If Mikoto and I were in a fight last night, then Natsuki has to be here. Fujino ... Fujino isn't the president, but she has to be here. Doesn't she? Yes, of course, if Natsuki's here, then Fujino's here.

If Natsuki's here.

She decided to focus on the more immediate challenge confronting her as the paved path she was walking led her up over a small hill, which gave her an excellent vantage point of a disaster. Mai found herself looking at the putrefying remains of a vast flower garden, surrounding a semi-collapsed, graffiti-covered gazebo. The sight nearly knocked the air out of her lungs. Mere minutes earlier, she'd been thinking that she wouldn't find any familiar landmarks. Now she'd found one, and almost wished that she hadn't.

"What happened here?" she asked involuntarily.

"A few years ago, the Kazahana Financial Group endowed a park here in Academy City," a familiar voice spoke from behind her. Mai controlled her urge to jump and scream with some difficulty. "Unfortunately, the funds intended to maintain the park were ... used elsewhere." By this point, Mai was fairly sure that nothing of what she was feeling would show on her face, so she slowly turned to look at the petite, lavender-haired girl in the wheelchair who was addressing her, and the taller, pink-haired maid who stood behind the wheelchair in silence.

"I come here, now and again, to contemplate how fragile our best intentions can be," Kazahana Mashiro continued. "I suppose that's the best moral to take away from all this. Other than don't embezzle, of course." She smiled warmly, then. "Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon," Mai replied, awkwardly. "Sorry about your park." The words came out before she could retract them.

"... as we are both students here, it would be no less your park than mine, but thank you all the same," Mashiro replied with a nod. "I take it that my reputation proceeds me?"

"Uh, yeah. I mean, I know that you're the Kazahana heir. I didn't realize you were a student, though," Mai continued to engage in verbal diarrhea. "You're not ... in a uniform. I mean."

"Well, yes, I'm a student at St. Lulim, over in the next sector. They're a bit relaxed about dress codes," the young girl said, as though confiding a great secret.

All right. Whoever this was, it definitely wasn't the secretive and manipulative Director Kazahana Mai had come to know. Unless she was a much better actress, in the bargain. If it had been the Mashiro she'd known, Mai might have considered confiding her secret to her, in hopes that Mashiro -- who'd been one of the best-informed people Mai knew -- might have some sort of secret knowledge that could put things to rights, but there was no point in troubling this child with Mai's bizarre problem. "Um, I don't suppose you saw a cat running around?" she asked with a half-hearted smile.

"No, I can't say that I have. Fumi?"

"No, mistress," the maid answered. "Fumi did see a young woman running around on all fours in a way that was reminiscent of a cat, however. She was headed in that general direction." Fumi helpfully pointed.

"... seriously?" Mai asked, smile thoroughly collapsed.

"Excuse me?"

"No, sorry, never mind. Have a nice day, both of you," she said, then turned and started to jog in the direction indicated.

Mashiro and Fumi stood a moment watching her.

"Isn't she great?" asked a voice coming from atop the gazebo's rooftop.

Maid and mistress exchanged a rather frustrated look, before Mashiro turned her attention to the white-haired apparently young apparently boy sitting on said rooftop and looking at Mai's retreating rear with a gaze that could only be called salacious.

"The last of the HiME. And she's already halfway around the bend!" he cheered. "But oh, if you could see the way the way that she's dancing, even now -- this is going to be such a great Carnival."

"Nagi-san," said Mashiro, in the polite tones one used to address one's deadliest enemies. "Are you familiar with the English expression 'bitten off more than you can chew'?"

"I hope I didn't interrupt anything important by summoning either of you here this afternoon," said Principal Morimoto, with cloyingly false solicitude, to the two students seated before her desk.

"No, madam principal," replied Suzushiro, who'd been taking a briefing on a number of unusual incidents on campus, but promptly left it when the summons came in.

"Not at all," answered Joint Student Council Vice President Fujino Shizuru, in her two-star uniform which she'd somehow managed to arrange as something stunningly boring -- a brownish-grey jacket and skirt combo, with only the two black stars at her collar to identify it for what it was. For her part, she'd been enjoying a quiet cup of tea, and was much more inclined to resent this intrusion on her private time. Never, however, would she let the enemy know that.

"Good, good. Now, as you may have heard, we had some excitement here on Honnoji today," the principal started to explain.

"Student Council Executives attempted to intercept and capture the fleeing perpetrator after she left Honnoji's grounds, but were unable to do so, mostly because she was on a motor scooter and they were on foot. I believe we may need to reopen the discussion about adding a mobile unit to the Executive at this time." That last was said without a glance at Fujino, but was nevertheless clearly directed in her direction.

"Suzushiro-san has clearly forgotten that the expense of a mobile unit was deemed insupportable, despite the fact that there had already been a number of similar incidents," Fujino commented smoothly, likewise without looking at Suzushiro. "Another one, while clearly detrimental to the public order, does not change that cold calculus."

Suzushiro started to respond to that remark, but was cut off when the principal clapped her hands, smiling broadly. "All right, if you two bitches are under the impression that this meeting is an excuse to revisit old business from your little debating society, let's get that crap out of the way right now. This is a meeting where I tell you what's going to happen, and you tell me how you're going to help it happen. Are we clear on that?"

After a brief moment of silence, both Suzushiro and Fujino replied, "Yes, ma'am."

"Gooood. There's going to be an execution this evening. Yes, an actual execution. No, we will not be faking anything. If everything goes smoothly, the Matoi wench will be captured and a pain in the ass will be joining the ancestors. The good news for you is that it's not your job to make sure things go smoothly." She pointed at Fujino. "You should find your job pretty easy. All you have to do is stand with the rest of the student council and indicate that all this is taking place with the approval of said body. You could probably bring in some tea and crumpets."

"How appetizing," Fujino replied calmly.

Ignoring that, Morimoto pointed at Suzushiro. "Yours is a little harder. If things don't go smoothly, it's pretty likely that, once again, Matoi will attempt to escape from Honnoji. I want as many of your precious little Executives standing between her and the exit as possible, to slow her down so that someone actually competent might do something about her. Hopefully permanently. Can you do that? That was a rhetorical question, by the way."

"That will require pulling a large number of them off of their regular patrols," Suzushiro stated quietly.

"Is that an objection? Because I'm pretty sure that I --"

"No, just an obsecration," she answered quickly.

"I see," said Morimoto after a moment. "Okay. Your patrols can get fucked. Any other questions? Another rhetorical question. Dismissed." She punctuated that statement with a wave of her hand.

They were on the lower level of the Honnoji Administration building, walking together in stony silence without looking at each other, when Suzushiro came to a stop and looked ahead at Fujino's back. "You and I need to discuss certain matters. Primately."

Fujino paused, then turned back to look at her. "Do you mean, 'privately'?"

"That is what I said."

"Very well, then. This office appears to be empty. Let us go in, and I'll lock the door, pull down the blinds ..." Suiting the action to the words, Fujino then slowly turned to look in Suzushiro's direction.

She was holding a wand-like device in the air, moving it in a slow circle. "No bugs," she reported. "No hidden cameras. No observers. We are ... alone."

A second later, Fujino was upon her, the taller girl managing to push her back a few steps so that the rear of her hips came to rest against the office's desk. Her hand snaked up under Haruka's skirt, caressing through the panties for a moment before savagely yanking them aside to start rubbing frantically against her denuded womanhood. Haruka hissed at the sensation, her teeth snapping at Shizuru's ear for a moment before her own hands stopped rubbing at the surface of the other woman's rear and yanked up the hemline of her skirt to get access to what lay beneath.

It wasn't long before they were fucking each other with their fingers, eyes never meeting as they did, despite how their bodies pressed up against each other. The sounds of their schlicking seemed to echo above the noise of their breaths, even as those breaths turned into gasps and faint cries and ...

... and then Shizuru let out a hollow cry of orgasm. Immediately, as always, reality ran up their spines like a stream of liquid nitrogen, and they released their grips on each other and jerked away, trying to put as much space between themselves as they could and remain in the same room.

"Sane again?" Haruka found herself asking.

"Yes. And disgusted as always," Shizuru replied, pulling down her skirt.

"Why does this keep happening?" Haruka asked, trying to reorder her own appearance. "I hate you."

"I assure you, my contempt for you is no less."

Haruka ignored that. "It's got to be these uniforms," she said, staring down at the arms of her one-star. "Nothing like this happened until I started wearing this thing."

"I can't argue with that, but no one else who wears one is affected in this manner. I have quietly felt out a number of the other members of the student council --"

Now Haruka was paying attention. "You let Kiryuuin know about this?" she gasped, appalled.

"Quietly felt out, and no, not her, you probably interact with her more frequently than I do," Shizuru replied. "No one else reports any feelings of ... desire ... building up the way you and I experience. There's something else going on." Her reddish eyes closed in weary pain. "As though I didn't have enough to worry about!"

"Yes, your concerns about which brew of tea to drink today must be so overwhelming."

"Muzzle your envy, Suzushiro-han," Fujino replied, a bit of Kyoto slipping back into her tone. "And remember -- against Kiryuuin, you and I are on the same side, however little either of us likes that."

"Yes, we are," Suzushiro admitted, now sounding just as weary. "A genuine public execution. Shit. Do they honestly think that this is still the Dark Years?"

Tendo Dojo, read the sign on the antiquated looking residence in the slightly better part of the slums. It hadn't been hard to find the place, fortunately, even if the owner really needed to think about advertising if he wanted to have any students ... which Haruna was only guessing that he did, admittedly. But that was not really any of her concern. She took a deep breath and rapped on the door plate.

Moments later, a woman maybe half-a-decade or so older than Haruna, with brown hair tied back in a long pony tail, peered out curiously.

Let's start off right, Haruna told herself. "Good afternoon, my name is --"

"Haruna-chan!" the other woman said, clearly surprised, opening the door the rest of the way. "It's been ages!"

Well, there went her game plan. "Uh ... you know me?" asked Haruna.

"Why, yes! Your mother used to bring you with her when she came around to visit ... oh my, what am I saying, of course you don't remember any of that, you would have been five years old at most! But please, do come in!" The woman, who hadn't yet given her name, gave Haruna the warmest smile she'd gotten from anyone whose name wasn't Yotsuba, and beckoned Haruna to come in quickly.

Since even the slightly better part of the slums was not somewhere you wanted to just stand around with an open door, Haruna aceded to the suggestion and entered the Tendo home's foyer. "I'm sorry, not only do I not remember visiting, I don't remember --" she started to explain as she slid off her shoes.

"I'm Kasumi," the older woman interjected warmly. "Kasumi-san, if you want to be formal, but under the circumstances, that seems a bit silly. How is your mother?"

Being kept out of the loop of a horrible secret. Utterly unaware that both her children are perverts. "She seemed quite well when I spoke with her last time. Her work keeps her very busy, of course."

"Yes, I suppose that it would." Kasumi led Haruna into the small living room of the house -- really just a TV and a table, off from the kitchen -- and bade her set down. "Can I offer you some refreshment?"

"That would be nice, but I ... I really need to discuss some things with ... I should probably have asked if your father's in, first of all," Haruna concluded, awkwardly as she sat down at the table.

Kasumi nodded. "Then I could have told you that he's out playing shogi with some of the other gentlemen from the neighborhood. And he will probably not be back until very late, I'm afraid," she added, anticipating Haruna's next question.

"Aw dammit."


"Sorry. Let me start over," Haruna said at last, after thinking things through. "Do you know about an arrangement between your father and mine?"

"Yes, of course," Kasumi promptly answered. "When I was not that much older than you are, my father told me that he'd made a promise with his fellow student to marry the children of their two houses together. Of course, by that time it was fairly clear that your poor father and brother were both dead."

The treacherous words 'We should be so lucky' almost erupted out of her mouth, but Haruna managed to keep control over them. "Except that he's alive. They both are. My brother, Ranma, is alive and here in Japan. That's what I came to tell you. Part of it, anyway."

Kasumi's eyes widened in shock, and then she smiled even more broadly than she had earlier. "That's wonderful news, Haruna-chan! You must be so happy, to be reunited with your brother after so long!"

Happy. Well, she'd felt something like happy when Ranma's tongue encountered her clit for the first time, so she guessed that counted. "Yes, yes, I am. Very happy. Unfortunately, Ranma has acquired a ... condition ... during his travels that could make it a bit difficult to marry. In his view. At least. Do you think that, given the length of time that's passed, the years that he thought Ranma was dead, that your father would be willing to just let it go?"

"No," Kasumi answered, still smiling. "My father is very conscious of the honor of our family. We don't have very much else beyond that, I'm afraid. At a minimum, he'd want to know what sort of condition could do that."

"That's what I figured," Haruna admitted. "Okay, then, I will give you my number, if you could pass it on and have him give me an e-mail -- why are you laughing? Oh come on, don't tell me he doesn't have a phone."

"I'm fairly sure that my father has never even seen a cell phone, Haruna-chan," Kasumi admitted. "Nabiki, my younger sister, does have one, and she'll let father use it for this sort of thing."

So now she was going to be getting a cell phone call from the Joint Student Council's Deputy Treasurer. Greaaaaat. "Well, then we'll set up a meeting so that Ranma and his ... uh, condition can all be explained. I'm sure that your father will understand when he ... understands."

"... it's good to have sureties in life," Kasumi replied. "Are you sure you wouldn't like something refreshing to drink?"

"I'm sorry, you want me to do what?" asked Mikado Ryoko, seated in her private laboratory's office.

It had been a fairly typical Saturday. She'd gotten up, had a nice long shower, sent the high school boy she'd seduced the previous evening packing -- that being part of the reason that the shower took so long -- and then headed off to do her rounds, which took her to the Astraea Hill schools that day. After a boring morning -- no injuries or illnesses, no girls trying to use the infirmary to hook up -- she'd headed back to her home, where she conducted a few experiments that mildly pushed at the boundaries of human decency, before receiving guests in the form of two of the most frequent customers of her private pharmacy and a ten year old boy they claimed was a teacher. After a short conversation about, for the most part, nothing, the girls had departed and left her alone with the alleged teacher, who'd just made a very interesting request.

"I'd appreciate it if you'd you'd stop distributing birth control medication to the students," Negi repeated.

She stared at him, the tiny red-head in a blue suit. He stared back at her, the medium-sized red-head whose breasts seemed on the verge of falling out of her shirt.

"All right then," Ryoko said with a polite smile and a nod. "Consider it done."

Negi's eyes got very wide. "Just like that? My goodness, I was expecting to have to make some very good arguments."

"No, that won't be necessary," she assured him. "If a representative of the faculty is asking me to stop providing this service -- this admittedly illegal service -- to the students, then I really don't have any choice but to follow their instructions. Admittedly, I suspect that my customers, when I tell them the bad news, will be a bit unhappy with the faculty, and morale will probably suffer, but it can't be helped." She shrugged.

"Um," said Negi. "I, ah, think I should clarify that I'm not really asking officially. I'm not here as a representative of the faculty," he explained. "This is more in the line of a personal request."

"Oooohhhh," said Ryoko, who'd known that was what it was from the very beginning. "That puts a different complexion on matters, Negi-kun. Still, out of courtesy to your status as a visitor here, I'd be more than happy to shut down the pharmacy for the duration of your stay here at Academy City ... though I suspect that would be a very short stay, once word got back to the faculty about the problems you were causing." There. Let him take that however he likes.

From the look on his face, he wasn't taking 'that' very well. "I'm not trying to cause problems, really I'm not, it's just that, well, there are ... and ..."

"And I'm a little surprised," she continued, as though he hadn't said anything. "I didn't realize that people from the European Federation were so ... moralistic. I thought you left that to the Brittanians."

Interestingly, that helped the boy recover a little. "Stereotyping is very lazy thinking, doctor," he said, just a bit haughtily. "And I'm not acting on moral grounds, here."

"Really? Then why do you want to restrict the flow of birth control medication? Are you planning on knocking up a large number of girls who would normally be protected by it?" she asked, more to provoke than anything else.

Negi swallowed visibly.

Ryoko felt her stomachs drop. "What?" she asked after a moment.

"I mean, of course not, that would be ridiculous," Negi said in a terribly unconvincing manner. "I'm only ten years old."

"That ... that would explain why Momioka and Sawada had that 'just-fucked' look on their faces," she said, not even bothering to listen to him. "And Springfield ... I know that name." Her eyes narrowed. "You're a mage. This is mage business, isn't it?"

Negi's wand came out of his sleeve and was in his hand in less than a second. "I'm very sorry, doctor, but you now know too much. I'm not very good with memory erasure charms, so --"

"So let me offer you an alternative," she interrupted, and reached up to brush her hair away from her left ear. Her pointed left ear.

"... did you have an unfortunate accident as a child?" Negi asked, confused.

Mikado's face collapsed a bit. "No," she said when she recovered. "I'm an extraterrestrial. I'm originally from a planet orbiting the star your species knows as Epsilon Eridani. In addition, I lied on my resume when I claimed to be from Nagasaki. One of these facts would get me fired, one of them will result in my vivisection. I'm putting my life in your hands, Negi-kun. Can you trust me with your secrets, now?"

Before Negi could answer, a loud but muffled voice began to sound in the distance, likely coming from the streets outside.

"Oh, now what?" Ryoko asked, and reached over to turn on her radio, trusting that the announcement would also have taken over other media.

"-- to witness the infinite justice of Honnoji Academy! I repeat! Transfer student Matoi Ryuko! In one hour, we will execute your friend, Mankanshoku Mako, in shared responsibility for your heinous crimes of treason! For this special occasion, all students of the lesser schools of Academy City are welcome within our walls, to witness the infinite justice of Honnoji Academy!"

"Execute?" Negi gasped, coming to his feet.

"Relax," Ryoko snapped. "It's a farce. They do this a few times a year, subjecting students who've violated some rule or other to ridiculous punishments that ought to kill them. They end up hurt very badly, but nobody ever actually dies."

"Oh, well, that makes everything all right then," said Negi calmly ... then turned and ran out of the room anyway.

While Minagi Mikoto regarded a day as beginning when she regained consciousness and ending when she lost the battle to maintain it, she was nonetheless aware that some days were longer than others. The day on which she regained consciousness to discover that the strange girl who had interfered in her fight on the train was performing a lewd act on her person was the perfect example.

After escaping from that unusual situation, she had sought to fulfill her food requirements, only to suffer a horrific betrayal by the first food item she found. Food should not be that spicy, no matter how red and glowy it was. Then she had sought water to deal with the pain and thirst she was experiencing, while being chased by various people. When she had finally found a supply of potable water, she had drunk until she was almost ready to collapse. And then she realized that the strange girl had caught up with her. Before Mikoto could ascertain the strange girl's intent, the hunger she hadn't really been able to assuage also caught up with her, and the long day ended.

When she next regained consciousness, as a remarkably appealing scent entered her nostrils, she found herself reclining on a bed. She sat up quickly, turning to see that she was in a room filled with boxes whose only other resident was the strange girl ... who was standing near what looked to be a stovetop, cooking soup. "Ah, you're awake," said the strange girl, further demonstrating her strangeness. (If she hadn't been awake, why would there have been a need to say anything?) "This'll be ready in just a few."

Just a few later, a bowl full of appetizing looking soup was set down before Mikoto, on a box in the middle of the room's floor. She stared at it, hesitating despite herself.

"Are you worried that I'm trying to poison you?"

No, it would be ridiculous for the strange girl, no matter how strange she was, to kill her like that when she'd had plenty of opportunities to do so while Mikoto was passed out. It was simply that this all seemed a little too good to be true, after the business with the treacherous red food, and so she hesitated. But her hunger would not be denied, and so she started to delicately sip from the bowl, just to get a taste for things.


Delicious beyond her previous understanding of the term!

"Yeah, yeah, chalk up another thing that hasn't changed, no matter screwy everything else is," the strange girl observed as Mikoto began to frantically work at the bowl's contents with the provided chopsticks. Rather sooner than she would have liked, she found herself with an empty bowl, a full stomach and a very satisfied expression on her face.

"Okay, now for some introductions. My name's Mai," said the strange girl, whose name was apparently Mai. Despite how they'd met, the sheer goodness of the soup caused Mikoto to move Mai into the category of 'people whose names I should try to remember'. "And you are Mikoto," Mai continued, to which Mikoto could only nod in response, since that was in fact her name.

"So, Mikoto?"

"Yes, Mai?"

"Were we introduced before this?"

Mikoto shook her head in a negative.

"Then ... aren't you a bit curious as to how I know your name?"

This time she hesitated a bit before she shook her head no. It was somewhat confusing, but the best thing to do with confusing things was to try and forget about them.

Mai was rubbing her forehead with her hand now. "And when I'd like her to be catlike, she refuses to be catlike," she muttered.

Mikoto wondered briefly who Mai was talking about, but then the all-important purpose of her presence in this place. "And now I must go," she declared, standing up. "I must find my brother. That was great soup, Mai. You ... are a strange person, but probably a good one." And with that declaration, she lept atop a nearby desk, and tried to slide the room's only window open.

It wouldn't budge.

"I latched it shut," Mai told her.

Mikoto turned to look at the latch.

"And locked the latch," Mai told her.

Sure enough, there was a large padlock attached to the latch. Mikoto considered it for a moment, before turning to look at Mai ... who was holding a key on a chain, which she promptly slid around her neck and dropped down her blouse.

"Now, before you start considering dramatic stuff like breaking through the window," said Mai, "why don't you come back own here and we'll have a little chat about your brother? Besides, you really don't want to be out there tonight, some fairly crazy things are apparently going on."

Somewhat hesitantly, because the notion of breaking through the window honestly sounded much more her speed, Mikoto did in fact step down from the desk top and resume her seated position on the other side of the box from Mai. She didn't say anything, though.

"What you have to understand is, your brother's not out there, waiting for you to find him. In fact, it would be fair to say that he is pretty much actively hiding from you, and that going out to search for him will --"

"How does Mai know about my brother?" Mikoto asked in a very quiet voice.

"Would you believe that we were sort of married for a while?" asked the strange girl.

"No," Mikoto answered firmly.

"No, I wouldn't believe me either, if I put it that way," Mai admitted wearily, rubbing her head again. "Okay, Mikoto, what do you understand about what you are?"

Mikoto stared.

"You have a mark. On your right upper arm," said Mai, starting to sound very frustrated. "You wield the Element Miroku. That is also the name of your Child. What do all these things make you?"

"... me," Mikoto answered, honestly.

"Aggggh. All right. And if I told you that I had a mark on my breast, and wielded the Element Magatama, and that my Child's name is Kagutsuchi, what would all these things make me?"

"... Mai ... is a hime?" Mikoto said after some serious thought.

She wasn't sure what she was expecting the answer to do to this strange girl. She wasn't expecting to see something very, very dark cross her violet eyes. "No," said Mai. "I'm not a HiME. I am the motherfucking bitch queen, and as of right now, you and I are done playing the Obsidian Prince's little game."

"Oh," said Mikoto ... since that was what one said to crazy people.

"I'm so sorry, P-chan!" Mako cried out as she hung upside down from an x-shaped cross. "You shouldn't have been drawn into this pinch!"

"BWEEEEE!" the pig, presently attached to her head with some duct tape, agreed violently.

Apparently, the Disciplinary Committee had found the pig inside Ryuko's bag of stuff when they seized it, and (somewhat capriciously) decided to add it to the execution. Why no one had mentioned 'and your little pig, too' in the announcement was somewhat bewildering. Certainly that would have gotten Mako to come running that much sooner, if the situation were reversed.

On the whole, though, even as the boiling oil was rolled out and the boxing team's captain Fukuroda used a live shrimp to give a little demonstration of what was going to happen when Mako and the pig were plunged into it, Mako found it in her heart to be glad that the situation wasn't reversed. After all, it would have been completely impossible for Mako to get here in time to save Ryuko, instead of the only kinda-sorta impossible that it was going to be for Ryuko to save Mako. The kinda-sorta was why she was more or less resigned, at this point, to the idea that Ryuko wasn't actually coming.

Well, after all, she'd have to fight or sneak her way through a crowd of bloodthirsty maniacs (mixed in with some who appeared very calm about the whole situation, Mako noticed with some interest, like that one girl with reddish blonde hair in twin-tails in the front row who was studying the execution machinery and making sketches) and then attack someone who'd beaten her once already, and all for the sake of someone else whom she'd just met and probably didn't realize was her soulmate. It was okay. Ryuko might be brave, and strong, and tough, and beautiful, and sexy beyond the ability of the human imagination to conceive, but it wasn't like she was a superhero or something.

Although I'd be happy to be proven wrong on this one! Mako decided as she saw Fukuroda take a nice bite out of the no-longer live breaded shrimp.

And then there was a giant whooshing noise. In an eyeblink, something was in front of Mako, and, in her hands and feet, Mako start to felt the bindings holding her up give way. "Hold on tight," a familiar voice hissed.

She does want a hug! Mako thrilled, and obliged her. A group of boxing club members dove to intercept the pair of them, but the two girls were already moving upwards on a ballistic arc, resulting in the boxers diving face first into the oil and breading, from which they ran away in great pain a moment later.

Ryuko, covered in a heavy brown cloak and shawl, came to a landing in the middle of the boxing ring that had been set up beside the execution site, with Mako somewhat awkwardly hanging onto her back. Fukuroda was already there. "Right," said Ryuko. "Boxing, is last time I checked, one of those one-on-one sports, isn't it? You really wanna drag other people into this thing?"

"I'm not sure you got any room to talk," he told her.

"Oh, yeah. Mako, could you let go of me and maybe get to somewhere safe?"

"Don't really want to, don't really think there's anywhere like that nearby," Mako answered without letting go.

"You're undermining my moral point, here!" Ryuko hissed.

Mako very reluctantly released her hold on Ryuko and slid under the boxing ring's ropes to drop down to the ground ... where she promptly found herself taken back into custody by Student Council Executives. I knew it! she thought, in mixed triumph and annoyance.

Ryuko wasn't in any position to notice this, unfortunately, as she was a little too busy being assailed by Fukuroda, whose initial attack really more resembled something out of the later seasons of a giant robot anime than anything to actually do with the sport of boxing -- a constant barrage of tiny boxing gloves that flew through the air slammed into their target. Oddly, the fact that there was no muscle driving these boxing gloves didn't seem to reduce the force that they demonstrated as they slammed into Ryuko as she stood in the middle of the ring, taking it.

"And he moves into a right straight!" proclaimed Fukuroda, providing his own color commentary as his right arm began to pull back for the punch. "But it's really a corkscrew!" And sure enough, the reddish black material of his boxing glove sembled into the form of a drill as it steamrolled towards Ryuko.

Who blocked it on the back of her scissor blade, though she had to tear open her shawl in the process. "You don't quite get how feints are supposed to work, do you?" she asked.

Virtually everyone let out a gasp as they saw what Ryuko was wearing under the shawl. In concept, it vaguely resembled a sailor uniform, though not even the most decadent school in the nation would have approved of its students wearing one that showed off anywhere nearly this much skin. But it was jet black, with red piping, and a strange decoration above the left breast that looked like nothing so much as orange eye.

"Oh wow, Ryuko-chan is an exhibitionist!" Mako called out from where she was being held.

"No I'm not!"

"You're trying to distract me with your sexy abs!" Fukuroda protested angrily.

"No I'm definitely not!"

"You mock the proud institution of boxing!"

"Fucker you fucking came at me with a fucking drill!" Ryuko finally shrieked.

With a shove, she pushed Fukuroda back a handful of steps and, before he could recover his footing, she sliced upwards with the sharp edge of her scissors. And quite abruptly, Fukoroda's gloves, helmet, jacket, shorts and boots seemed to spontaneously disassemble into their constituent fabrics, leaving the stunned club captain clad only in a set of fundoshi. The very alert among the audience might have seen a handful of those constituent fabrics drawn towards and within Ryuko's suit. Most would probably have been slightly distracted by the way that Ryuko promptly kicked Fukuroda's denuded form up towards the spire of rock where Kiryuuin Satsuki had been watching over the entire affray.

Her Elite Four prevented the flung body from even touching their mistress. It wasn't clear whether she even noticed, however, for her attention was drawn, laser-like, to the girl in the boxing arena.

"Where," Kiryuuin Satsuki demanded, in a voice that could be heard throughout Honnoji, "did you obtain that outfit?"

Ryuko drew in a deep breath. "Who wants to know?" she yelled back at the top of her lungs.

Satsuki blinked.

"I can answer questions with questions, too, y'know! Anyway, we had this conversation already, today, and I don't think anything more productive is gonna come of this one. Later, biyatch!" Right, time to make an exit, she told herself, glancing to the side in the hopes that she'd see Mako in some hypothetical safe place. The sight of her surrounded by people in what she now recognized as Student Council Executive outfits, with her hands firmly pinned behind her back, really served as the ur-example of what she was not thinking of when it came to that sort of thing. "Dammit, Mako!" she hissed.

"I am not," said Satsuki from on high, "in the habit of repeating myself."

"Good for you," Ryuko snarked. The people holding Mako didn't look too tough. Honestly, they were the sort she could have taken before all of the zaniness had happened. The problem was two-fold -- she had no idea how much in the way of backup they had, and the voice she was trying to pretend was a figment of her imagination was telling her something about blood loss, and she felt like she was about to fall over. Wait, that was three things. Not a good sign.

Maybe she should consider abandoning Mako. After all, it wasn't like she was some sort of hero trying to save the day. Ryuko wasn't even sure what that would look like! Yes, that was the best call. She should really just run for her own life. Sucked to be Mako, but it couldn't be helped. Yep, she should run, all right.

Why the hell wasn't she running already?

"Very well, if you will not answer, I will engage in some speculation," Satsuki began to orate. "You found that outfit --"

And then, out of the crowd surrounding the area, a petite form in a hoody jogged up to the Executives holding Mako, held out a hand in the direction of the nearer of the two, and declared, in a muffled sounding voice, "Flans Saltatio Pulverea". A gust of wind kicked up from nowhere, knocking the executive off of his feet and back several steps. The small form turned on his heel, repeated the invocation, "Flans Saltatio Pulverea", this time in the direction of the second executive, sending her tumbling right into the edge of the boxing arena.

A bit of the wind drifted back at the hoody, pushing it back to reveal that the person beneath it was wearing a golden helm that completely covered the face, with no apparent openings to allow one's eyes to see through. Yet despite this, something about the way light reflected from two particular points on the surface of the helmet seemed to suggest a pair of eyes that were staring right at Ryuko, as the voice which had just made those two invocations now urged her, "Run!"

Ryuko found it a bit ridiculous that she could run now, when a masked weirdo told her to do so, yet run she did. Her course led her to slide under the bottom ropes of the boxing ring, and was not terribly surprised when she found herself running alongside the boy and Mako, who was bringing up the middle between them.

"I see. Run and hide, then, if that's what you want. Run and hide among the pigs," Satsuki declaimed behind them.

Ryuko heard a snapping sound at that moment, and looked around to see what it might be. Nothing leapt out at her, but what did become apparent was that as they were approaching the exit to Honnoji's walls, a rather large force of Executives were standing in their path, led by a woman with blonde hair in a uniform that identified itself as a one-star.

"Stop right there," demanded Suzushiro. "Whatever President Kiryuuin might declare, you three have some questions to answer --"

"Bwee-biikii-bee-bwee, bwee-buukii-brrrr!" announced P-chan, which could be roughly translated as, "That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more!" And with that, the tape holding him onto Mako's head, which had frayed over the last little while, finally broke completely with a surge of the tiny pig's muscles. He then shot at Suzushiro's head like a cannon shell.

"Wha--" she managed to get out before the tiny black pig slammed into her with far more impact than physics would have predicted, sending her to the ground and in a daze.

"Chief!" howled several of the high ranking members of the Executive, who promptly closed ranks to protect their fallen leader ... rather than continuing to pursue the objectives she'd assigned them, like keeping Mako, Ryuko and their mysterious ally from getting out through Honnoji's front gates. A few more announcements of 'Flans Salvatio Pulverea' took care of the rest of the problem, and the three of them were outside the barriers in almost less time than it takes to tell it.

To Mako's amazement, she saw the tiny black pig also emerge from the gateway almost on their heels. "P-chan!" she cried, snatching him up. "That was so brave! Thank you!" And she kissed him right on his piggy little snout.

P-chan visibly turned to mush.

"Wow, it's really gonna be hard to eat the little porker now," Ryuko said in a rather dazed, weary tone, sweat running off her body in sheets.

"Are you all right?" asked the boy in the helm, the flares on the surface of the golden helm now giving the impression that he was examining her.

"I -- no," Ryuko admitted. And with that admission, she collapsed completely.

The boy managed to catch her before she hit the ground completely. "Oh, feathers!" he swore. "Why is she so cold?!"

"Let me take her home!" Mako suggested.

"She needs a doctor!"

"My papa's a doctor!"

The boy hesitated -- which suggested that he might possibly be familiar with her father's reputation -- but finally handed her over to Mako. "It's probably for the best that we split up, anyway."

"Who are you, masked man?" she asked.

"... just call me Fate," he told her, and ran off, back towards Honnoji's gates, to draw pursuit in a direction away from whatever way the two of them were heading.

"You let them go."

Satsuki didn't bother to turn aside from her view of the courtyard. The sight she kept in view was not actually that much more interesting than the expression of petulant annoyance no doubt decorating the principal's face. Most of the students had departed, by now, with the exception of the members of the boxing club, dragooned into cleanup duties, and the one who'd been making sketches earlier, who was still examining the wreckage of the boiler with interest. Satsuki decided that this Enoshima Junko -- for the President had the names, faces and academic records of every student at her Honnoji memorized -- should probably be recruited to serve a role in her organization before the other girl got up to some mischief.

"Why?" the principal finally asked. Satsuki found herself triflingly grateful that the woman had not insisted on doing the 'asked a question'/'made a statement' conversational chain that might have led to this point. The fact that she was asking the question that the powerless asked of the mighty was also rather pleasant.

"Because the two of them that are students here will be back again tomorrow," Satsuki finally answered. "And because a number of interesting possibilities have now been created."

"How spiffy," said Morimoto. "What about the one who wasn't a student here?"

And now to give the woman something, a distraction to keep her out of Satsuki's hair for a while. If not for one of the interesting possibilities, she might have had to invent something. "Most likely, that was Negi J. Springfield, the most recently installed teacher at Mahora Girls' Middle School." It would now be somewhat embarrassing if the masked figure was actually a very young representative of one of the other covert factions of Academy City's kriegstanz, but the time and energy that it would take to discover the truth would not be expended by Satsuki or her followers.

"One of Konoemon's do-gooders?" the Principal asked.

As whatever conclusions the woman drew from her supposition were entirely her own affair, Satsuki didn't bother to react to that in one way or another. Besides, her attention was now focused on the way some of the members of the boxing club were attempting to console, in a typically manly way, their captain after his defeat. Despite the fact that he had lost his uniform and with it his captaincy, they persisted in viewing him as one of their own. She idly considered testing those bonds by insisting the new captain torment Fukuroda for his failure. No, that would be getting too involved in what was ultimately a club affair. She would pass the suggestion to Sanageyama, however.

"I can use this," Morimoto said eventually.

"Oh good," said Satsuki, since even she felt the urge to fill conversational space from time to time.

"If the two of you are done posturing at each other, then could the rest of us go home? It's been a long and, frankly, vulgar evening, and I want it to be over," stated a voice from behind the pair of them. There were a handful of people from across Academy City who could make Kiryuuin Satsuki pause in her contemplations, or command the attention of the principal of Honnoji. As it happened, one of them had just spoken.

The process by which Togami Byakuya had become Treasurer of the Joint Student Council for the current school year was somewhat unique in the history of that body. He had not sought election to the post, viewing public service with withering contempt and having no need, now that he had established himself as heir to the Togami family, to enhance his resume. Yet for some reason, roughly forty per cent of the popular vote had written his name in, in contrast to the thirty per cent that each of the actual candidates had received. Despite his vocal protests about the situation at the start, he had more or less settled into the role ... largely by passing onto his deputy all work save that which he utterly could not avoid, such as his presence here tonight.

"You and the rest of the Student Council are quite free to leave, Togami," Satsuki replied after a moment. "I appreciate how difficult your role in all this must have been."

"No you don't," he told her, but turned on his heel and marched down the slope muttering to himself the whole way. He was soon followed by the Council's Secretary, Shinonome Nanami, who paused to offer a sincere bow to Satsuki before she departed.

"What sort of possibilities?" Morimoto asked after a moment.

"The sort which would only distract you from your schemes against the other schools here," Satsuki answered.

"I see. And if I were to contact your mother and ask her to --"

"Then I would wonder how long of a conversation you could have while falling from a great height," the President interrupted.

Morimoto fell silent. "Right. I'm glad we understand each other," she concluded after a moment.

"We do not, and you never will."

Ask not the weasel how the eagle soars.

Matoi Ryuko never really gave the future a great deal of thought as she was moving through the present in hopes of avenging the past, and so there hadn't actually been a moment where she'd imagined the circumstances under which she was going to be sleeping when she woke up this morning. But lying down to bed beside a crazy girl who kept hitting on her, in said crazy girl's house, not far from the rest of the crazy girl's family -- all of whom seemed to be crazy themselves, except maybe the mother (and Ryuko had a hunch that she was actually the craziest) -- anyway, none of this had even remotely been part of any day she'd imagined for herself.

Then again, neither was wearing a vampiric school uniform that gave her super powers. She looked up to where said costume was presently hanging, its orange eye 'closed'. "Hey?" she said, speaking softly. "Are you awake?"

Apparently the answer was no. Truth be told, Ryuko was still not sure that she hadn't imagined Senketsu (as she'd named the voice in a bit of manic moment) talking to her in the first place. When they'd met, she'd been hurt, and confused, and frightened, and none of these things were helpful in thinking straight. But everything it -- no, he -- had said to her had turned out to be right, so far.

"Hey?" she said again, a little louder.

"Ryuko-chan?" came a voice in a just-awakened-from-sleep sort of tone.


"Are you talking to your uniform?" Mako asked.

"... it seems that way, doesn't it?" Ryuko equivocated.

"Wouldn't you rather talk to me instead? I talk back," she added in a way that was probably intended as an incentive.

Ryuko rolled over to face Mako, who was looking at her with what Ryuko had to admit was a rather cute smile on her face. They lay there on their sides, facing each other for a few moments, before either of them talked.

As it happened, Ryuko broke first. "Sooo ..." she said, then trailed off, not sure where to go from there. Attending slumber parties where you learned this sort of thing had been one of those experiences she'd missed out on.

"I would really like to have sex with Ryuko-chan," Mako informed her.

Ryuko flushed brilliantly. "Didn't we used to have a tradition of small talk?"

"But Ryuko-chan is still hurt, and probably tired, and shy despite being an exhibitionist," the other girl continued.

"I'm not! Not either of those last two things, I mean! But your parents and your little brat of a brother would be able to hear us --"

"Oh, that's not a problem," Mako reassured her. "When Mama and Papa are having sex, or when Papa is down in the clinic with the nice oneesan who helps out, or when Mama is working, or when Mataro and his friends are playing, or when Guts has one of his bitches over, I never mind when I can hear them, so why would they mind if they can hear me?"

Ryuko tried and failed to find an answer to that question.

"Just listen. Don't listen to me, just listen," Mako suggested, drawing a little closer.

It was hard to do over the sound of her own heartbeat, but Ryuko managed. She could hear all sorts of sounds coming from the jungle of urban blight around the Mankanshoku home ... and, somewhat inevitably, she recognized that some of those sounds were those of people enjoying themselves, or others.

"You just learn to tune it out," Mako told her, as she saw understanding dawn on Ryuko's face. "But maybe we shouldn't, maybe it's important to take it all in, embrace it all, all the loving and the not-so-loving and the just-because-you're-there-ing." She fell quiet for a moment. "Does Ryuko-chan not like girls?"

"No," Ryuko managed to say. "That's not it. I've just never ... um ..."

"Ohhhh," said Mako, in a tone of much enlightenment.

"You have, I guess?"

She nodded. "With the nice oneesan who helps out."

"Oh-kay," said Ryuko, eyes rather wide. That was ... actually no less weird than anything else that had happened.

"I think I'd like doing it with Ryuko-chan more."

"But ... aren't you scared?"

"Of Ryuko-chan?" Mako asked, incredulously.

"No. Well, maybe a little yes, but ... what if the sex messes everything up?"

"Won't happen."

"But what if --"

"Ryuko-chan. I'm going to kiss you now. And then we should probably go back to sleep. Okay?" Mako asked, and then sat there doing absolutely nothing.

It occurred to Ryuko that she could end this conversation by just rolling over and going to sleep, leaving herself unkissed and not at all bothered by the fact. Hers was the power to deny.

"Okay," she affirmed."

Mako leaned forward, and pressed her lips to Ryuko's. They lingered there a long time before she pulled back with a warm smile on her face. "Sex with Ryuko-chan is going to be awesome," she declared, then closed her eyes and began blowing a new snot bubble from her nose.

Ryuko kept staring at the face of the girl who'd given her first lying down kiss. (Sitting up kiss had been someone else.) Eventually, she rolled over --

-- Was it her imagination, or was the eye on the uniform open an instant before she did that? No, she had to be imagining things. --

-- and went to sleep.

"Saotome is alive? And coming here?" Tendo Soun asked his eldest daughter, eyes wide with disbelief and likely a bit of chemical stimulation as well.

"His son is coming here, at least," Kasumi confirmed as she helped her father off with his jacket. "You will need to borrow Nabiki's phone and set up the meeting with him. But that can wait until tomorrow, father. Tonight, you need your sleep."

"Yes, yes, of course," he agreed, since he was clearly in an agreeable state of drunkenness. "But this is so wonderful, so, so very wonderful, dear Kasumi," Soun told her as she guided him out of the foyer and down the hallway to his bedroom. "I dreamed of this day, but I thought it would never come. At last, one of you three girls can be married!"

"One of Nabiki or Akane can be married, father," she corrected as they reached the doorway to the bedroom. "I am not marrying a man younger than I am. We have discussed this before."

"Yes, but, dear, at least consider waiting to make up your mind until you have met Saotome's son," her father asked as she helped him out of his gi.

"That is impossible, father, as my mind is already made up," she told him while unfolding the futon so that he could lie down on it. "Besides, what would you do without me to take care of you?"

"Dear Kasumi," he said again, eyes watering. "So like your mother!"

"Indeed," she agreed, and kissed him, his mouth easily opening to accept her tongue within him. It wasn't a particularly pleasant kiss for Kasumi, as she'd never liked the taste of alcohol or cannabis that were so prevalent on her father's mouth after his celebrations with his friends. But her sense of duty kept her pressed up against him, until one of his hands came up to begin rubbing at her breast through her blouse. Then she pulled back, and shook her head. "No, father."

"No?" he asked, piteously.

"No," she repeated. "You need your rest." She glanced down at his loin cloth. "So I will take care of that, and then you go to sleep, all right, father?" Without waiting for his agreement, she moved down his torso and slid the cloth to one side, exposing his erection for a moment before she took it into her mouth, then all the way back into her throat. "Gagkh, gagkh, gagkh," she went as she slid it back and forth within her, playing with his balls with her fingers as she did.

"Kasuuuumiiiii," Soun groaned, his fingers starting to grasp at her hair.

Eventually, of course, he was going to start pulling at it, and that was something she could happily live without. And so, with the hand not engaged with her father's testicles, she reached down, and back and up -- with two fingers, held straight.

"Ahhhhhhhh!" he cried, and released his ejaculation. Some was still coming out as she slid him out of her mouth, and so she had to taste it -- musing, yet again, that she really needed to add more fruit to her father's diet -- before she gave his collapsing manhood a delicate kiss on the tip. With that done, she folded the top of the futon over him.

"Good night, father. Pleasant dreams," she told him, before leaving for her own room.

Alone with her thoughts, as she undressed for bed, Kasumi found herself wondering what sort of changes Saotome Ranma was going to bring to her home. The notion that he wouldn't be staying after the meeting was one she dismissed out of hand. Father would find a way to persuade him that it was in his interest to remain for the duration, regardless of his 'condition', whatever that might be. And, very likely, he would be marrying one of her sisters.

She wondered whether it would be the daughter of her mother by her affair with Saotome Genma, or the one by her mother's affair with Mendou Mugihito? The irony of the former appealed to her on some level, even though it would be very damaging in some ways. Then again, since the world was dying, it was difficult to really give much of a fuck.

Ah, but for all that, she couldn't stop thinking about it, no matter what she'd told her father. She still had no intention of marrying the boy, of course, but perhaps it would be good to see to it that he was a good bridegroom for whichever of her sisters he did marry. That was sort of her duty as the neighborhood's older sister, after all.

Well, there would be time to think about all of this tomorrow. Kasumi closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift off to sleep.

To Be Continued

Chapter Text

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."


"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?"


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


"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?"


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.


"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."


"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.


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 --"


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."


"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."


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."


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.


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 


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.

Chapter Text

In an essay he wrote in his first year of middle school, Ikari Shinji declared that he had no cherished dreams, aspirations, or connections with people, that he had no particular ambitions for any career or profession, and that he did not really mind if an accident claimed his life before he reached adulthood. His teacher gave him a C and did not bother to scold him for his bad attitude. After all, it was fairly universal.

Shinji had genuinely believed that everything that had happened in the first fourteen years of his life had happened as it had to happen, and that everything in the rest of that life, however brief or long, would continue to happen as it had to happen.

And then his father sent him a message telling him to come to Tokyo-3.

And then a mysterious young woman had arrived at the hotel room where he was staying the night before he had to take the train to Tokyo-3, and told him why his father was summoning him.

As he stood on the train platform and tried calling the number given to him to explain that the train carrying him had stopped two stations before reaching the station where he was supposed to meet the person who was supposed to pick him up, owing to a rather mysterious emergency declaration, Shinji was still uncertain how much he believed of what he'd been told. It was all so crazy. On the other hand, crazy was a good term to describe being ordered to attend a meeting with a man who'd abandoned him ten years ago. It would also, he had to admit, describe the notion of someone going out of their way to tell him weird lies.

The cell kept giving him an 'all networks are currently reserved for emergency communications only" message, so he closed it up and pocked it inside his shirt pocket. The station's loudspeakers again repeated the message that all civilians should make their way to their nearest emergency shelter. Shinji had no idea where that was, and, of course, remarkably little motivation to go there if he did. So, with a sigh that was more on the annoyed side than the depressed side, to be honest, he ambled out of the train station and sat down on the steps to wait for something to happen.

Seconds later, he was somewhat startled by the sight of a low-flying fighter jet. Interesting, he thought. Must be doing some sort of military exercises. As he reached this conclusion, he was again startled by the sight of a low-flying cruise missile.

Wait, he thought, what? His head whipped around to follow the path of the missile, and found himself looking up at a rather large, greenish, vaguely humanoid form, with a white mask in place of a face, which had just stepped out from behind a nearby mountain, and which was easily soaking up the impact of the cruise missile.

"Oh shit," Shinji said softly. "It's all true, isn't it?"

The monster, which probably wouldn't appreciate being called that,.proceeded to swat one of the jet planes presently firing ineffectually at it out of the sky with a blow from one its gangly arms. What was left of the jet swept down out of the sky directly into the train station where Shinji had been just a few moments before. Right then, he decided. Motivation discovered. And with that thought, he began running as fast as he could away from the giant creature, to use a more neutral term.

At the very next intersection that Shinji's headlong dash brought him to, a bright blue car which he was insufficiently a car geek to identify squealed to a halt right in front of him. The facing front door swept open, and a woman in a short black dress and a pair of goggles looked at him. "Get in," she said without preamble.

It took an eyeblink and a few seconds for him to recognize in her the face of the woman whose photo he'd been sent to help him identify the person who was supposed to meet him at the station. He considered asking for confirmation but decided that he'd probably wasted enough time, and ran over to the other side of the car in order to, as she'd said, get in.

"Buckle up," said the woman, who had long purple-black hair which had bangs which -- and Shinji realized it was an odd time to notice it -- vaguely resembled the top and sides of a heart. He promptly did so. "And we gone!"

The car took off, pushing Shinji back into the seat.

"Sorry I'm late," said Katsuragi Misato, for it clearly was she, even if she wasn't presently bent over to expose her cleavage to all and sundry.

"S'okay," said Shinji, glancing back towards the creature, which was thankfully receding from view. "So, by any chance do you happen to know what's going on?" he asked, trying to sound as helplessly confused as possible.

"You're very calm, under the circumstances," she replied in a way that didn't sound terribly complimentary.

He forced himself to let out what he hoped sounded like a faintly hysterical giggle.

Katsuragi shrugged. "That thing ... is an Angel."

"An ... angel," Shinji repeated. That's really what they call them?

"Stop thinking what you're thinking," she said. "It doesn't have anything to do with -- oh no!"

A missile, apparently unguided, had just bounced off one of the buildings lining the street down which their car was speeding, and in the blink of an eye it struck that very street and exploded, throwing the car back and overturning it.

Seat belts really do save lives. Incredibly, neither Katsuragi nor Shinji were at all hurt when they regained consciousness a few seconds later and found themselves upside down in the car, staring out an oddly uncracked windshield.

There they sat for a few moments, before she turned to look at him, and, rather warmly, asked, "So other than that, how's your day been?"

Shinji just stared.

Naegi Makoto didn't like to think of himself as a stalker. And yet he had to admit to himself that positioning himself where he could watch Maizono while she ate lunch with her friends, here in Academy City's recreation district, was pretty much the definition of being a stalker. He took what little comfort he could in the notion that, deep down, he wanted her to notice him and then call him over, because she had clear memories of their time together in middle school, so that they could have a nice friendly chat that would probably end up with them dating.

And stalkers surely never had such ideas.

If only his parents had been able to afford to send him to Hakudo Boy's High School! Then, when that school had effectively merged with Sichiyo Girl's High School earlier that year, he'd have once again been at the same school as Maizono. Maybe even the same class again, he thought hopefully. But that was not to be, and he'd been bundled off to Mahora High School, while his little sister was sent to Mahora Girls' Middle School, with both of them getting discounts on their tuition due thanks to their family connection. He supposed that was rather lucky.

And really, he was lucky to be able to watch Maizono like this. Even when they'd been in middle school together, he'd been too shy to even talk to the girl who was even then rising as an idol singer. Then she'd had her big break of being invited to join a new idol group established by 765 Production, and it had become all but impossible to approach her. He was fairly certain that at least one of the girls with whom she was cheerfully chatting at this very moment was actually an implanted bodyguard to make sure no one -- especially no boys -- got too close to the idol of idols.

She was so beautiful.

And he was so ordinary.

Well, no, he wasn't, he reminded himself. Ordinary people did not get scouted to attend Kibogamine Academy, starting at the start of the next school year. Even if he found it completely bewildering to be invited to attend that legendary school, he hadn't been fool enough to to refuse the invitation. He doubted that anyone in the entire history of Academy City had turned down that invitation when it was offered to them. Not only was it supposedly a surefire ticket to success in adult life, but also the academy itself covered the tuition costs, only charging for residence fees. That would make paying for his education so much simpler for his parents. Makoto could hardly wait to enter the doors of that academy.

"Naegi-kun, we need to talk," said a voice from behind him.

He flinched. And then there was the other way that he was anything but ordinary. Slowly he turned to look up at Kirigiri Kyoko, whose cold purple eyes were staring down at him. "Um, hello to you, too. What seems to be the matter, Kirigiri?" he asked, determined to be polite even to someone who never bothered to be polite to him. That determination faded when he saw that she was holding in her gloved hands a certain battered leather tote bag. "Did you break into my room? Again?" he asked through clenched teeth.

"Of course not," she answered firmly. "As with every previous occasion, I used a skeleton key, so there was no breakage involved. In any event, we can't talk here. We need privacy. Follow me," she concluded, and started to walk away.

It was very tempting to just stay seated there and find out how long it would take her to notice that he wasn't following and what she'd do once that happened. On the other hand, she still had the bag she'd taken from his room. So he got up from his chair, tossed what was left of his lunch in the nearest trash bin, and headed after her, unaware as he did so that another pair of eyes had been watching him just as intently as he watched Maizono Sayaka.

Makoto followed Kirigiri down the streets of the recreation district until she turned down an alleyway that brought them both to a concealed nook with a fire escape. She turned then to look at him.

"No," he promptly said.

"I haven't said anything yet," Kirigiri reminded him.

"It doesn't matter, my answer is no. I still have classes today. I cannot do whatever it is you want me to do. Period. End of discussion. Please give me back my bag."

To Makoto's mild astonishment, she actually held out the bag for him to take. Hesitantly, he reached out to put his hand on its handle beside hers ... and wasn't really surprised that she didn't let go.

She took a deep breath. "Please," she said. "Just listen to me."

It was clearly a day for astonishment, because she never said please. "All right, I'll listen, and then I'll tell you --" he started to say.

"There is a giant monster attacking Tokyo-3," she said. "The government has declared a state of emergency and is keeping the media out. Having failed to destroy the monster with an N2 weapon, they are planning on using a giant biomechanical robot that has never been tested. If the robot does not succeed in defeating the monster, the monster will do something that will apparently end the world."

He stared at her. "You can't be serious."

"In our time together, have I spent a lot of time making jokes?" she asked, a tiny bit of asperity showing in her tone. "I don't know how my grandfather found all of this out, just as he does not know anything I know about a certain individual he told me to contact." She breathed deeply, and let go of the bag's handle, though only to reach down and pull the zipper to the side, opening it up to expose what was within it -- a red bodysuit with a white circle on the chest, bearing a red symbol that vaguely resembled the Chinese character for 'center'.

"But this is beyond any doubt the one the suit was meant for," Kirigiri concluded.

"You always say that," Makoto reminded her.

Mankanshoku Mako was not having a good day.

It had started out nicely enough, as she'd been able to head to school with her new girlfriend, even if Ryuko-chan didn't really accept the obvious nature of their bond just yet, and hadn't been willing to hold her hand. But then they'd arrived at school and, before they could even pass through Honnoji's gates, they'd been challenged by the Tennis Club, who were upset that one of their members -- Mako -- had been taken hostage. without permission and thus missed practice the previous day. Mako had to admit that they probably had a point. Ryuko-chan on the other hand had disagreed and offered to fight them off while Mako hurried in to school.

Abandoning Ryuko-chan had been the hardest thing she'd ever had to do.

Worse, it had proved to be utterly pointless. At lunch time, the tennis club members, looking decidedly un-beaten-up, had seized hold of Mako and dragged her off to the courts where they were presently bombarding her with tennis balls while she was tied to a stake, under the supervision of the team captain and Athletics Committee Chair Sanagaeyama Uzu. To their credit, the other five members of the tennis club didn't look all that happy about what they were doing, and Mako was sure that the captain was only doing this because of Sanagaeyama's presence.

"I want to see you bleeeeeed, Mankanshoku," Date Wingfield Reiko announced over the sound of the tennis balls, in a way that might have convinced someone other than Mako that there was a certain amount of personal animus involved here. But Mako was not fooled. It was all the fault of the Elite Four, and the goku uniforms that they handed out. If not for that, the captain would be just as warm and friendly as she'd been when she'd welcomed Mako onto the club with the gentle words, 'Do not screw up or I swear to God I'll make you regret it.'

Therefore, Mako made no cry as the balls slammed against her face and her body. Not only was there no point in doing so, she knew, beyond any possible doubt, that soon, Ryuko-chan would arrive to rescue her. Not just soon, but very soon. Infinitesimally soon. Annnnnnnny minute now.

Abruptly, a guitar case swept down to deflect the latest barrage.

"Ahhh," Mako heard Sanagaeyama's voice purr. "The transfer student."

Once again, Mako had been vindicated by history.

"Come back for another beating, I see," declared Reiko.

"As if," Ryuko sneered, dropping down from the pole where Mako was tied up, and doing -- something -- that caused her school uniform to briefly swell up into a rather horrific shape, before it compressed down again into the exhibitionist battle suit that she'd worn the previous day. "The balls are going to be bouncing off your forehead by the time I'm done with you!"

Silence descended on the tennis court.

"How lewd," Reiko said with disgust. "As expected of an exhibitionist."

"What?" Ryuko asked, bewildered. Realization dawned quickly. "No! Not -- the balls!" she said, pointing frantically at the various small yellow spheres littering the court. "And I'm not an exhibitionist, dammit!"

Now that the attention of the captain and Sanagaeyama were firmly on Ryuko, one of the other members of the club darted quickly forward to untie Mako from the post. Mako opened her mouth to thank her senpai -- Saeki Ai, she abruptly remembered the name -- but the other girl quickly waved a hand to silence her, before quickly heading back into line.

While that brief moment of human decency transpired, the captain had launched her Ten Million Serve assault against Ryuko, who'd promptly cut all the -- um -- projectiles out of the sky with her scissor blade.

"Fault!!" declared Sanaegayama. "The transfer student is disqualified."

"... hah?" Ryuko demanded.

"That was, I suppose, an effective counter to Date's attack," the Committee Chair explained with a faint sniff. "However, you have failed to take into consideration that you are on a tennis court, and such moves would never be permitted in a game of tennis."

"And since when the fuck has it been legal in tennis to pitch a zillion balls at somebody?" Ryuko wanted to know. "What is this, I don't even --"

"You cannot claim victory if you did not win that victory according to the rules!" Sanagaeyama non-sequitured. "Also, you pitch a baseball, you serve a tennis ball."

"Are you all on drugs? Is that it?"

"It doesn't matter if they're on drugs!" Mako suddenly proclaimed, striding forward to stand before Ryuko, who fell into stunned silence at this development. "Because Ryuko-chan will win anyway! Even in tennis, she will win! Just as surely as the person who has won my heart forever has done so, Ryuko-chan will win as she wins at life and friendship!"

"... are you on drugs?" Sanagaeyama asked hesitantly.

"'the person who has won [your] heart,' hah?" Reiko snarled through teeth clenched in a way that made her look a bit shark-like, actually. "Okay. Okay then. We're gonna have another match!"

"Yeah!" Mako enthused.

"Yeah?" Ryuko ... sort-of vaguely enthused.

"Fault! Love-thirty," Sanagaeyama proclaimed as Ryuko's racket snapped again.

"This ... isn't really going as you thought it was going to go, is it?" asked a soft voice from beside Mako.

Mako snapped to look at Saeki-senpai, and blurted, "Ryuko will win!" She was morally certain that she sounded every bit as confident as she had at the start of all this, whatever her personal feelings might be.

"Okay," Ai replied. "But, you do realize that this is only happening because Taichou thinks that your pose of not being interested in Shuuichi-kun is just a way to get him interested in you, right?"

Mako stared blankly at her. "But ... I'm not interested in Shuuichi-senpai."

"That's what I mean."

"I don't get it," Mako told her, bewildered.

"Well, you can't really blame her for thinking that way, after all, we're all pretty much into him. Me, Taicho, Mio-chan --"

"His completely blood related sister?" Mako asked, a little appalled.

Ai shook her head. "No, she's actually his cousin. Anyway -- and Rika-sensei, and Maya-san, and just between you and me, I think he and Kei-kun have something going on, too. And then he's having threesomes with me and Mio-chan, and Taicho and Maya-san, and --"

"I didn't know any of this," said Mako, who really hadn't had any idea. "How have all of you managed to get so good at tennis if you spend so much time screwing around?"

"Well, partly the goku, and partly, we're not all that good, you just really suck," Ai told her kindly.

"Oh. Well, Ryuko will win -- ah, yes!" Mako answered Ryuko's call for her scissor blade, which she'd entrusted to Mako at the start of the match. "See, she's come up with a cunning plan!" she told Ai once that was done.

"If you say so," Ai replied, shrugging helplessly.

"Honestly, I'd be more interested in you or Mio-chan-senpai," Mako said with a confused shake of her head.

"Really?" said Ai, startled. "Well, you know, sometimes we don't just have threesomes with Shuuichi-kun, we sort of get together just the two of us, and you'd be more than welcome --"

"I'm over you, though."

Ai, a bit hurt to have someone declare themselves over her who'd never actually been under her, looked out at the tennis match, and noticed, in the distance, someone rising up, up and away into the sky from the southern sectors of Academy City. Despite the erratic movement of the unidentified flying person, she thought it most likely that someone had been punched into the stratosphere, and so dismissed it from her thoughts.

"Okay, it's definitely down here, that must be the door up here on the ... no, it's another closet. Man, why do we have so many closets in this place?" Katsuragi asked nobody in particular.

Well, Shinji was at least certain that she couldn't possibly be asking him that question, since he'd never been in this place which was apparently the headquarters of an organization known as NERV. Or possibly just Nerv, since she hadn't given any indication that the name of the organization, even if written in capital letters, was an acronym for anything. From the looks of things, though, that meant very little when it came to their relative understanding of its labyrinthine corridors.

"Um, Captain Katsuragi --" he started to ask.

"Call me Misato, please, and drop the rank," she said absently, puzzling over something that looked a bit like a map.

"Misato-san, then --" he started to ask again.

"And we are not lost," she said angrily, now looking at him. "I know exactly where we are, and I know exactly where we are supposed to go."

"Okay," he said. "Do you know the steps to get from the one to the other?"

The map crumpled in her hands. "Shinji-kun," Misato said sweetly. "I'm going to give you some very important advice that will serve you in good stead in the years to come, assuming there are years to come. Asking questions like that will make girls hate you." That last was delivered with considerable venom.

After a moment, Shinji nodded. "Thank you, Misato-san, I'll definitely remember that," he said, and began rummaging through his pants pocket.

"You're welcome," she answered. "Now what are you doing?"

He'd pulled out a pair of earbuds. "I," he answered calmly while putting them in, "am going to trust you to get us both to where we are supposed to go. While you do that, some music would be nice. If there's something that requires my participation, feel free to give me a tap on the shoulder." And with that, he tapped play on his SDAT, closed his eyes, and began making the occasional subtle nod.

Misato briefly considered tapping him on the shoulder to get him to pause the tape so that she could tell him that actions like this would also make girls hate him. However, it was probably more important to try and figure out the map. She stared at it, willing it to reveal its secrets to her.

"Heck with it," she said after a moment.

"Will the head of Project E, Technical Department Division 1, Doctor Akagi Ritsuko, that's Doctor Akagi Ritsuko, please contact Captain Katsuragi Misato of Operations Department Division 1, immediately?" said the voice over the intercom.

"She's lost again, isn't she?" mused the bottle-blonde individual thus addressed, as she began to strip off the dry suit she'd been using to swim in a large pool of red liquid. She shook her head, then raised her voice. "Mizuno! I've got to go rescue Misato and the Third Child. Can you handle things from here?"

"Yes, doctor," her chief assistant answered from her post, setting down her tablet and starting to walk over to where Ritsuko's scuba gear was waiting to be used. A more junior tech promptly took up the tablet, to act as the operation's oversight.

Ritsuko pulled on a lab coat over her swimsuit, and pulled on a pair of slippers, while contemplating Mizuno Ami. She'd been a child prodigy, apparently, but her genius had apparently subsided in adulthood, as that of many prodigies did. The young woman -- who, Ritsuko had to keep reminding herself, was not a 'girl' -- was an excellent technician, who had demonstrated, on occasion, surprising levels of insight into the technologies used at Project E. But she would never equal or exceed her mentor, and Ritsuko supposed that was probably a good thing, even in light of her personal connections to the project.

Still, she thought as she headed over to the elevator, it would have been nice if Mizuno was just a bit more ... needy, she finally chose as the right word. If Ritsuko had the sense that the other girl not only looked up to and respected her, but also admired her, and thought of her as --

"Senpai!" she heard someone call out to her as she looked over all those gathered here to celebrate her ascension.

Arisugawa Juri sighed, and turned to give the person who'd just called out to her a look of mingled amusement and annoyance. "I've lost track of how often I've asked you not to call me that, Maya," she said to her chief TA.

"I'm sorry," Ibuki Maya replied with a not-terribly-apologetic smile. "But you've got to try this cake, it's so delish!"

"Already have, don't need another, I'm watching my carbs," Juri replied. "I'm happy that you're enjoying the catering, though."

The younger woman had not, apparently, waited for a chance to try and persuade her mentor to eat the cake, and was presently noshing on it herself. Once it had gone down, she was able to speak. "Department head at under forty. How does it feel, boss?"

"I have a name," Juri mock-complained. But the sincerity of Maya's gaze made her smile, and she looked over the room again. There were people who were happy for her, and people who were miserable but faking happiness, and people who were just glad of the chance to celebrate. But they were all here because of her hard work and devotion to her discipline in an age that often preferred to believe that history was over. How did she feel?

"I feel amazing," she admitted. "I feel like I am finally, finally becoming the adult I was always meant to be, instead of just an older version of the teenaged girl I once was."

"Ohhh, you were an awesome teenager," Maya mock-complained right back. "I've seen the pictures."

"I was a miserable teenager," Juri replied, smile fading. "Locked in an unescapable and eternally unrequited --" And she broke off as she saw an impossible face across the faculty lounge.

Shiori? she thought.

Then someone interrupted her line of sight, chattering to a colleague as they passed before her, and when she could see where she'd seen a moment before, there was no one standing there, certainly no one looking at her with a look of desolation.

"Juri?" asked Maya, perceiving her confusion. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," she told her. "What could be wrong?"

Yet as sure as she stood in the faculty lounge of the University Division of Otori Academy, she was certain that she'd just lied to her TA, best friend, and lover ... and that something was horribly wrong.

Ding went the elevator, and it opened up in front of Misato to reveal Ritsuko's decidedly unimpressed face. Misato proceeded to give her theoretical best friend her usual "cute and helpless" smile. It was alas no match for Ritsuko's "annoyed and frustrated" frown, as well as the short 'back up' gesture that the scientist gave. Misato obliged, still smiling her "cute and mildly panicked" smile as she did.

Ritsuko stepped out of the elevator, speaking as she walked. "And this must be the Third -- what is he doing? Why are his eyes closed?"

"He's listening to music, apparently. It's kept him quiet instead of moaning and groaning, so I went along with it." Ritsuko was now giving her a full-force glare. "But I guess now would be a good time to tell him to stop," the soldier added quickly, and reached out to tap on Shinji's shoulder.

Shinji's eyes blinked open, then blinked again as he took in the new arrival. He reached down to shut off the SDAT player. "Ah ... hi. Who are you?" he asked, since that was the sort of thing that people might ask if they didn't know the exact name and conspiratorial role of the person confronting them.

"Shinji, this is Dr. Akagi Ritsuko, who's come to help us get to point D," Misato introduced. Then frowned, "Point D?" she muttered. "Why didn't I say Point B? Why did the words 'D Point' come to mind?"

Neither Shinji nor Ritsuko were paying her much attention at that moment. "And this must be the Third Child," Ritsuko said, as she'd been planning to say for quite some time.

"... uh, as far as I know, I'm my parents' only child, actually," Shinji replied.

Ritsuko raised an eyebrow as her blood froze in her veins. Why is he making a joke about that? she asked herself. After Misato's 'cool though clumsy big sister' routine, engineered to make the boy feel safe though confused, everything about her own appearance and manner had been designed to evoke a more fearful response from him, drawing up memories of the parts of his mother's identity that he had been too young to understand and so could only regard with fear. He should be remaining uncomfortably silent in her presence, especially when she used jargon like that.

This was not going according to plan ... which suggested certain intriguing possibilities.

"It's a technical term," she said. "There are two other children associated with Project E, in addition to yourself."

"Wow!" said the boy, who'd been shown the names and photographs of the twenty-seven children associated with Project E. "I'd really like to meet them."

"That may be possible," replied Ritsuko, who had until a few moments ago been almost certain that he would be meeting the Commander's whore today. She was starting to wonder whether that ploy would be necessary. To distract herself from such thoughts, she looked over at Misato, who was still muttering confusedly to herself. "It was the name of a location in Antarctica," she said irritably.

"Oh. Yeah. Hm. I can see why I'd remember something like that," Misato agreed.

Shinji stared at Misato, then slowly rotated to look questioningly in Ritsuko's direction. Ritsuko ignored the look, and turned on her heel. "This way," she said without a backward glance.

After a somewhat lengthy trip that included a discussion about the extremely low probability that something called 'B-Type Equipment' would actually work -- which Shinji knew to be an absurdity -- and a boat ride along a sea of red liquid -- which Shinji knew to be a coolant -- that ended up with the three of them in utter darkness, the lights were turned on and he found himself in front of something that looked like a helmet. His gasp of surprise was entirely unfeigned, for once. Nothing he had been shown, nothing he had been told had prepared him for the first sight of --

"This is the Ultimate All-Purpose Humanoid Decisive Battle Weapon developed by humanity," declaimed Ritsuko. "The android, Evangelion. EVA-01."

"A giant robot?" Shinji asked. "My father ... built a giant robot?" Given the last half-century of pop culture, he felt it was reasonable that he'd be developing suspicions about why he was here at this point.

"Correct," lied a voice from above.

Reflexively, Shinji looked up. And there he was, opening his mouth to say something else.

"Hi, dad, how's it going?" Shinji interrupted cheerfully, waving up at the man on the gantry.

Ikari Gendo blinked. "What?"

"What?" Shinji said back to him. "That's what you say to someone you haven't seen in a while, isn't it?"

"I --"

"Listen, about that whole thing where I ran away from you, last time we talked?" Shinji continued. "I've had a lot of time to think it over, and I was really being immature. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have lost my temper like that. I'll try to do better." He offered a bow, but not a particularly deep one. He could feel Ritsuko and Misato staring at him, but decided that didn't really matter at the moment.

"Shinji," Gendo said after a moment of consideration. "I want you to listen to me very carefully. You --"

"I'm listening," Shinji interrupted.

"Then do not interrupt. You --"

"Sorry, that was rude of me."

"... You," the bearded man continued, pausing as though expecting to be interrupted yet again. When that didn't transpire, he pressed on. "Are going to sortie in the Evangelion, and battle the angel."

Shinji heard Misato gasp beside him, and spoke very quickly to cut off whatever she had to say. "You want me to ride this giant robot into battle?" he asked, quite calmly.

"Yes," said Gendo. "That is why you were brought here."

"Hm. That's an interesting idea," said Shinji. "I think we should discuss it a little more, though." He turned to look at Misato. "Sorry, did I cut you off just now?"

"Yes!" she replied, irritably, before focusing her attention back on the figure high above. "Director, this is impossible! It took Ayanami seven months to synchronize with the Eva! You can't possibly expect a boy who just arrived here to accomplish it."

"I don't expect anything of him," Gendo answered calmly.

"That's sort of a hurtful thing to say, but you're probably still upset about the whole running away business, so I understand where it comes from," Shinji interjected. "But on the other hand, I think Misato-san is making some points that you might want to acknowledge --"

"There will not be any discussion," his father interrupted for once. "The fate of the entire human race rests on your shoulders."

"... really?" asked Shinji, face betraying a certain skepticism.

"Yes. Really."

"And you don't have a backup plan?" he asked. "That's really sort of irresponsible of you. At least, that's how it seems to me. Maybe I don't have the full picture, though," he admitted off-handedly.

"You are the backup plan," Gendou informed him.

"... no backup to the backup, then? I think that would really have been the smarter move, dad."

"Stop --" His father's outburst lasted almost exactly one second. The man spent a few moments in silence. "If you are going to get in the Evangelion, do it quickly. Otherwise -- leave."

"But I just got here," Shinji protested. "Don't you want to talk about the good old days?" Noting that Misato was still staring at him in horrified disbelief, he turned to smile and nod at her. "Yes, there really were some good old days."

"Y'don't say," she said faintly.

"There is no time for this nonsense," said the man on the gantry. "Akagi, have the medical staff bring Rei."

"Yessir," Ritsuko replied, glad of a chance to get a word in edgewise. "After all, she isn't dead yet."

"... indeed."

"Begin reconfiguring Unit 1 for Rei," the doctor began to direct the workers who had been quietly listening in on all this drama. Professionals one and all, they immediately got to work. Ritsuko herself turned to march away. After a moment, Misato did the same.

Shinji quietly noted the way that the lights on the unit's "helmet" shut off. Zazie's description of it hadn't mentioned that it did that, and he wondered what exactly the lights signified. They weren't eyes, he knew that much. Maybe night vision goggles for the thing's actual eyes?

He was abruptly jolted away from such considerations as he heard the doors on the right side of the cage opening up, and the sound of casters being wheeled in his direction. Confused, he turned to see a hospital bed being guided by a trio of nurses, with --

His heart skipped a beat as he realized the identity of the occupant of the bed. When Zazie had shown him the photos of the other children, his eyes had immediately been drawn to the picture of the girl named Ayanami Rei, at the very start of the list. He wasn't sure why he'd felt such an inexplicable sense of recognition when he looked at her picture, but he was feeling it again now as he gazed at her actual face ... and a decidedly explicable sense of horror as he considered how much of her body, wrapped in a skin tight uniform with a pair of zeros marked just above her breasts, was covered in bandages.

She was staring dully up at the ceiling, and did not seem to realize that someone was staring at her. The bed rolled to a stop at the left side of the bridge, and, with great difficulty, the young woman with the pale blue hair began to sit up. Her face twisted in obvious pain as she did so, and yet she did not stop moving as she began to get out of the bed.

This ... wasn't in the notes, Zazie, Shinji thought faintly.

The worst part about flying, thought Naegi Makoto, was how easy the movies made it look. According to them, all you had to do was stretch one or both of your arms out in front of you, and you turned into a jet, with your legs firmly locked together. This wasn't even close to how he experienced it. He found himself buffeted by the winds, which grew faster and faster as he went higher and higher, and his legs refused to lock, but dangled and waved as they might if he were falling, rather than moving horizontally -- or diagonally, really, though ascending rather than descending -- through the air.

He had the feeling that he could probably fly much faster than he actually did, but he had yet to figure out how to speed that up in the same way that he'd occasionally managed to speed up his ordinary movements. Maybe he was wrong, maybe he couldn't combine the two powers. If only he had been able to hold on to the suit's 'instruction manual'! (If he was being honest, he thought it was a bit ridiculous that the documentation hadn't come included in the suit, rather than as a separate object.)

Regardless of his discomfort, however, he'd arrived at the mountains surrounding Tokyo-3 around sunset, while there was still just enough light for him to make out the monster. It really was as huge as Kirigiri had suggested, and while vaguely humanoid, Makoto didn't get even the slightest sense that there was a human being inside the 'rubber suit'. He swallowed a bit, very conscious of how small he was in comparison.

Then he clenched his fists. He'd managed to figure out that was the gesture that activated the suit's strength augmentation. Again, he wasn't sure just how strong he could get. To tell the truth, he didn't really want to know -- the thought of accidentally killing someone with a single punch was a terrifying one. But right now, to deal with this thing, he was going to need every ounce of imaginary muscle.

He was getting closer and closer to the thing. Hovering was not a skill he'd mastered either, and he'd learned that his flight definitely had a 'stall speed'. Really, the one good thing about his ability to fly was the way he always walked away from his inevitable crashes ... and frankly, crashing into something was exactly what he needed to do at the moment.

So he clenched his fists as hard as he could, willed himself to fly at top speed, and directed his trajectory right into the small of the creature's back. Makoto reflexively closed his eyes the instant before he hit.

There was a sound vaguely like a bell ringing, and a bright, orange light that pierced through his eyelids ... and then Makoto realized that he was flying backwards. His eyes jerked open a moment before he crashed into a mountainside, hung there for a moment, and then began to slide down.

"Ow," he said. There wasn't any pain, exactly, but a sense of discomfort nonetheless. In the distance, he could see the monster, utterly unaffected by anything he'd done. Was he imagining it, or was there the fading afterimage of orange hexagons hanging in the air behind the creature?

It didn't matter, he told himself. "All right," he said aloud. "Round two."

Before he could once more take to the air, however, the monster ... did something, causing a bright light to emit from its front. In the distance, in the urban center it was observing, a tall pillar of light sprang into existence.

In the great cavern, or Geofront, below the cityscape just targeted, an upside down cross of light erupted from the ceiling, knocking a number of buildings free from thei moorings on the ceiling, sending them down towards Nerv headquarters on the floor below.

Within Nerv headquarters, the cage of Unit One shook violently, overturning the bed from which Ayanami Rei was attempting to rise. Shinji was also knocked to his feet by the tremors. Above him, almost recapitulating the fall of the buildings above the headquarters, light fixtures detached from the ceiling and began to fall. Shinji helplessly lifted an arm to shield himself from them, knowing it would do no good.

Mirroring his movements exactly, a gigantic purple arm lifted up from the purple coolant and swept over to interpose itself between Shinji and the lights, which deflected off the limbs surfaces and crashed into the coolant. Shinji stared up at the arm in confusion. "So," he said aloud. "Why does this thing need a pilot again?" 

It had actually been a more-or-less rhetorical question, but from the look he was getting from Gendo at the moment, he had the distinct feeling it was about to get answered in some form or another. Before that could happen, though, Shinji heard another voice from up there. It was too faint to make out any of the words, leaving him hearing only his father's half of the conversation.

"Not now, Fuyutsuki. What? Those idiots at the ANEx sent up another drone after turning the situation over to us? What? Male or female? Never mind what difference it makes, just tell me whether the flying person is male or female! Fine, fine."

"Oh, wow," said Shinji, somewhat dazedly. "You think maybe it's a real angel, upset at you guys for using the term for these things?"

"If you will not get in the Evangelion, I have no further use for you. Leave," snapped Gendo.

Shinji wasn't really listening. As soon as his father's voice had yanked him out of his dazed state, he'd turned his attention over to the collapsed bed and the just-as-collapsed girl beside it. Quickly, he hurried over to her, uncertain of what he could possibly do to help but conscious that the actual medical personnel present were crouching on the far side of the room like ... well, he had no real room to talk about anyone else's cowardice, but nevertheless.

She was, he realized as he knelt by her side, still trying to get up. "Hey," he said, softly, reaching out to her with his hands as he spoke. "It's, it's okay. You don't have to -- just hold on, will you? Things are different, now."

Her eyes, clenched tightly closed until this moment, met his. "No," she said, just as quietly as him. Her eyes were filled with pain, but there was something else there, too, something he didn't quite understand. She reached out to press a hand against his shirt, and he realized that she was pushing him away. There was no real force behind it, though, and her arm collapsed after a moment. It wasn't until he looked down that he saw a bloody hand print on his formerly immaculate shirt.

Shinji swallowed. "Okay," he said, pitching to carry even if he wasn't looking at his father. (Couldn't look at him, the dark voice inside him said.) "So this flying person or whatever, that changes everything, right?"

"No," said Gendo, echoing Rei. "Nothing has changed. Rei, you will need to get in it again. Your backup is useless."

"Yes," the girl replied.

This wasn't in the notes, Shinji thought desperately. I didn't know this was going to happen. She told me about you, but not that you were so -- I can't do this. What if I'm wrong? What if he's really going to go through with this? How am I supposed to live with it if -- no. I mustn't back down. I mustn't back down. I mustn't back down. "Mustn't back down," he whispered.

"Shinji," said Misato, who'd drawn closer in the last moment. "Don't you --"

"I'm really sorry, Rei, was it?" he said, clear enough for everyone to hear him. "But if that's how it's got to be, then that's how it's got to be." And unsteadily he stood up, and looked at Misato. "Okay, that side is more of this lake, and you're probably all too busy to give me another boat ride over to the other side. But this other side, where she came from, is that a hospital? Can I get out of here and back to the surface that way?"

"You. Utter. Jerk," replied Misato.

"I understand where that comes from, so I'm just going to let it pass," Shinji replied. "Misato-san, it was interesting meeting you." He looked over to where Ritsuko had paused in her work to watch this. "Ritsuko-san ... you were there too. Um, well, goodbye, father, I hope we can meet again under better circumstances."

"Run away, little boy," said his father.

That just about killed him. He painted on a smile, and replied, "I'll walk thanks. Nice steady pace." And so he did, turning his back on Misato and Rei, and walking serenely towards the door.

At least on the surface.

What if I'm wrong?

What if I'm wrong?

What if I'm wrong?

What if Zazie lied?

What if --

"Get back here, you shit," roared the voice from above as Shinji reached the doorway. And no matter how much anger there was in the tone, it struck Shinji like the most soothing shower he could imagine.

He turned to look up at his father, who was staring down at him. "Was there something else?" he asked mildly, then glanced in the direction of Rei, who, oblivious to all this byplay, had managed to rise to a standing position and taken a number of hesitant steps along the bridge, looking like a mermaid walking on broken glass.

To give the man his due, Gendo was clearly able to pick up on the subtext. Whatever else he wanted to say, what he did say was, "Rei. I am countermanding those orders. Your new orders are to return to your bed and rest there for the duration."

"Yes," replied Rei, who promptly collapsed. Now, apparently, the medical staff were willing to come help her out.

"Well?" Gendo proceeded to snarl in Shinji's direction.

"Well what?" Shinji parried.

"How? How did you know that I was bluffing?"

Answering that he hadn't might be entertaining. The full truth, that he'd been told to remember that he had the power in this situation as the one who could say yes or no, would put Zazie's mission in jeopardy. Nevertheless, Shinji decided that the man deserved a version of the truth for admitting that he'd been bluffing. "Father," he said, using the formal words rather than the informal one he'd been using until then. "I know what you think of me. You wouldn't have brought me here if you had any other viable options."

There wasn't silence, thanks to the ambient noise of the destruction above, but there was a strange stillness.

"Are you going to get in?" Gendo finally asked.

"What's the magic word?" asked Shinji in turn.

After a brief interval of visible struggle, Ikari Gendo sighed. "Please pilot the Evangelion." He sounded weary, if not necessarily defeated. It was a good start, though.

And Shinji smiled. "Sure thing, dad."

A few moments later, Shinji found himself inside a capsule dubbed "the entry plug", waiting to be inserted into the Eva -- specifically, he thought a bit queasily, into the creature's spine. If anything, his knowledge of what was actually going on here was something of a hindrance at the moment; believing that he was just being connected to an actual robot, instead of a mechanically-augmented living being, would have been much easier to handle.

The process was apparently completed rather quickly, judging by the faint thumps he could distantly hear through the plug's metal. Then a voice announced, "Filling the entry plug."

With great difficulty, Shinji was able to resist the urge to hold his breath. He wasn't supposed to know what was going on, when the orange liquid began to fill his compartment, starting from the bottom. "Hey! Hey, what's going on here?" he asked, finding it easy to sound a bit concerned. Zazie's notes hadn't been able to tell him much about this so-called LCL, especially not what those English letters represented. 'Link Connected Liquid?' had been added as an annotation to the official-looking document that mentioned it.

Whatever it was, the LCL was up around his neck when Ritsuko's voice echoed through the plug. "Please remain calm, Shinji-kun. Once your lungs are filled with LCL, you'll be supplied with oxygen directly." She sounded like someone trying to sound soothing despite not having much experience at it. He supposed that was sort of endearing, in a way.

Despite the terror of drowning that he felt, Shinji opened his mouth to let the liquid in so that it could fill his lungs, as the doctor had just said. It tasted absolutely horrible, and felt even more disgusting going down his tubes than it did on his skin. He kept his mouth open, however, since he doubted that anyone in the control room would be interested in listening to his complaints.

"Entering second level contact," declared the unfamiliar voice, and abruptly, the LCL became transparent. For a moment, he could see the walls of a smooth shaft around him, then it shifted into a rainbow, a star-spangled rainbow, the same stars against a black space, against a red space, characters and cubes ... and finally a view of the exterior of the cage, now drained of its pink coolant.

"Okay," said Shinji. "That was kind of trippy."

"Oh no," said Misato's voicee. "Don't tell me you're on drugs."

"What? No! Not unless this stuff I'm breathing counts!" he replied, feeling a bit dizzy as he watched air bubbles rise from his mouth as he spoke.

"Technically, yes," said the unfamiliar voice. "Synchronization rate is ... 39.7 per cent."

"Remarkably high for a first attempt," mused Ritsuko's voice.

"All harmonics values are normal. Everything is condition green."

He felt his jaw clench as Misato's voice declared, "Prepare for launch!" The view outside began to change and shift, as the bridge where he'd been standing not so long ago was pulled away, as were the plates restraining the Evangelion's arms and legs. Then the android itself was rolled backwards, towards something that the third voice he'd been hearing -- it was a nicer voice than Misato's or Ritsuko's, he realized abruptly -- referred to as the launch pad.

The implications occurred to him just as abruptly. "Oh boy," Shinji muttered, scrunching down in his seat.

"Launch preparations are complete," declared Ritsuko's voice.

"Roger," replied Misato. "Everything is good to go. Sir?"

"Unless we defeat the angels," said his father's voice, only faintly audible through the communications link, "humanity has no future."

A brief pause, then Misato snapped, "Launch!"

Sure enough, G-forces almost as intense as those he'd experienced when he'd been in Misato's car slammed into Shinji. That had been good training for this! He should really thank her if she ever deigned to speak to him again!

After what could have been seconds or hours, the Evangelion came to a sudden stop, almost jerking him out of his seat. He let out a long sigh of relief that the ordeal was over, and stared dazedly at the 'angel' that was staring at him from a few tens of meters away.

"Oh, yeah," Shinji said after a moment. "There's still you."

Flying in a circular orbit high above the monster's head, Makoto blinked as the robot Kirigiri had mentioned shot up out of the ground, attached to some sort of mechanism. Just like the monster, it resembled something out of a really expensive rubber suit show ... but with this, there was a sense that there was a human being under all the special effects, even though that was completely impossible, of course.

Did it see him? Was there a way that they could communicate, to coordinate their efforts? He knew that he was probably being ridiculously optimistic, even considering that possibility, but that was probably his only attractive quality.

With a loud bang, the robot was released from the frame, and seemed to slump forward, like a puppet being released from its strings. It straightened a bit, then took a single slow step forward, exerting an immense amount of pressure on the ground where it strode. Then a second step, just as hesitant as the first. The third step was the one where disaster occurred -- it looked as though the foot came up, then hesitated as though it was tripping on something that Makoto couldn't make out, and its other leg wasn't strong enough to keep it standing upright. The robot pitched forward like a comedian slipping on a banana peel, right in front of the monster.

"No," Makoto groaned. Even as he began to angle his flight towards the ground with the half-formed plan of helping the robot to right itself, the monster reached down with one of its dangly arms and grabbed the robot's helmet, pulling it up and -- amazingly -- lifting it into the air so that the robot's feet dangled a few meters off the ground. Makoto felt himself going white as he considered how much power was being exerted at the moment.

And then the monster reached out with its other arm, and both arms seemed to swell with muscle or something like it as it grabbed the robot's arm and began yanking it to the side, as though trying to tear it off. He watched helplessly as it twisted the held arm until it dangled helplessly in the monster's grip.

Knowing that the same thing would happen again, Makoto broke his orbit and made another divebomb dash towards the monster's left shoulder, hoping against hope that it couldn't keep up whatever force field had stopped him every time before this while it was attacking. Before he'd even come close to his target, a blade of light streaked out from behind the monster's left elbow, sending him off course and then seeming to surge up the length of its forearm and crashed against the head of the robot. Repeatedly.

Makoto slammed into the ground. Once again, he felt no pain from the impact, but as he looked up and saw that the robot had been knocked back into the mechanism that brought it to the surface, he found himself feeling no small amount of despair. "What good is being invulnerable when I can't do anything?" he asked, knowing that there was no one who was going to answer his question.

"We have damage to the head, exact extent unknown," declared one of the technicians.

"Control nerves are disconnecting one after the other."

"No readings from the pilot!"

Misato stared, aghast. But it was, oddly, Ritsuko who called out, "Shinji-kun!"

And then everything changed.

The creature dubbed 'Sachiel' by Nerv did not know that was their name. While probably at least as intelligent as a typical human being, they lacked what could be called the social awareness needed to give themself an identifier to distinguish themself from others of their kind -- largely because there were no others of their kind, and their social interactions with other kinds of entities were more or less non-existent, aside from receiving the will of the One whose will must be. 'Sachiel' will therefore be used to refer to them.

Sachiel possessed a variety of senses beyond the classical five (and the actual greater number) possessed by humanity. Their primary senses did not rely on electromagnetic waves of the visible spectrum, for example, though it did possess senses which could interpret such waves. Those senses were presently telling Sachiel that a great fog had quite suddenly rose up in the area where they were active, even as their other senses gave them the somewhat inexplicable message that they were being interrupted. As this had never happened before, Sachiel found themselves somewhat confused.

Another of Sachiel's senses informed them that the temperature of the area had abruptly dropped quite a bit. This was of significantly less interest than their sudden lack of primary sensory input. Due to their use of what human scientists called the AT Field, Sachiel was fully capable of walking on the surface of a star or enduring the depths of space. A relatively minute temperature change was of no moment.

After their relatively brief interval of confusion, a plan emerged from Sachiel's more rational thoughts. They had not moved from their position when the fog had arisen. Based on the injuries inflicted to their target at that point, there was reason to believe that said target could not move from its position. They would therefore target that position with one of their weapons, most likely ending the opposition of that target in a very final matter. If by chance their estimation of that position was incorrect, there was still an excellent chance that the target would be within the blast radius.

Sachiel began to charge that particular weapon.

The fog had an interesting secondary effect on those creatures not protected by an AT Field. It engulfed Unit One and moved through it to reach the theoretically sealed entry plug. For many terrestrial life forms, including humans, injury is experienced in the form of a burning sensation, and lowering the temperature of an injury can therefore soothe that pain.

"Okay," said a somewhat soothed Shinji, who still couldn't open his right eye and was trying very hard to avoid thinking about his left arm. "Android. Evangelion. Shogoki," he said, using the Japanese term for 'Unit 1' instead of the English one that had been used up until this point. "You don't like me, I don't like you, but neither of us wants to die today, right? That damn monster is right in front of us. You were made to fight -- so fight!"

He felt his jaw loosen, and something rising out of his chest -- a howl that shook the entire structure of himself and that which surrounded him. There was a sensation where he was crouching down, and then turning the potential energy of that crouch into a great leap forward, his head rising above the fog for a second before he slammed into the Angel, right hand grabbing hold of its central mass and feet pressed against its lower torso.

"Got you!" Shinji snapped.

The Angel seemed bewildered by this development, and seemed to very slowly reach out with its right arm to grapple with the weaker, broken side of its assailant.

"No! No!" he swore, and forced that broken arm to move, remembering that his own arm was not broken. For a wonder, it worked, and came up to take hold of the other side of the Angel's mass, strengthening his hold. Even when the Angel's arm bulked up again, it wasn't able to throw him off, though the pressure against him was not exactly pleasant.

"Okay," Shinji gasped. "Now what?"

The fog was slowly lowering, and now the upper body of the Angel and all of Unit One were above it. To Shinji's horror, he realized that there was a glowing light in front of the angel, suggesting that it was about to launch some sort of attack on him. He needed to dodge.

But that would mean backing down.

When he heard the crunching noise, Makoto knew that the battle between the robot and the monster had to have been rejoined. He crouched down, tilted his head up and jumped into flight. He was shocked to realize that he was rising upward much faster than he normally flew. Maybe taking off from a leap, instead of a standing start, was the key. But such thoughts vanished when his high jump took him up above the fog line, and he saw what was going on.

The robot, having somehow repaired its damaged arm, had grabbed hold of the monster -- but from the glow from the latter's chest told him that that the robot was about to be targeted with that blast! And there was nothing he could --

Wait, no, Makoto told himself. Think! See the thing that doesn't fit!

How was the robot even in contact with the monster? Whenever he'd tried to hit it, he'd bounced off the thing's force field. He squinted, the key to his vision enhancement, and looked closely. Where the robot touched the creature, he could dimly see the force field manifesting but being held back by a distortion around the robot's structure. Two force fields, interacting with each other to cancel each other out.

He took a deep breath and shaped himself into a missile, both fists clenched tightly before him. The odds of hitting the right spot were terrible. The odds of this working were even worse. But he had to try. He angled his flight towards where the robot was gripping the monster, and threw himself like a stone in that direction.

He hit --

The weapon was no longer functional. Sachiel was rather startled by the number of things that were no longer functional. The mission was clearly a failure, and they were not entirely sure what had happened. However, it didn't really matter. They could still accomplish something, and promptly altered their form so as to wrap around their opponent and, when destruction came, share it with them.

They burned --

"What. The heck. Just happened?" Misato asked as she stared blankly at the whited out screen before her.

"The Angel self-destructed. Are we getting any signals from the Eva?" Ritsuko asked her assistant.

"Nothing yet," Mizuno replied, quietly.

"But what was that thing with the fog, just then?" Misato demanded.

"I have no idea whatsoever," Ritsuko answered.

When she was absolutely certain that no one was looking in her direction, Mizuno Ami gave a small smile, and privately offered a prayer to the God of thieves and conspirators.

"We have visual!" announced one of the techs. "It's --"

And then every voice in the control room fell silent as they gazed at the unshielded form of that which they had called on to defend themselves.

Ikari Gendo smiled like a proud father might.

"I guess angels are sore losers," said Shinji, blinking his eyes to clear them of the spots from the brilliant light of the enemy's self-destruction. "Uhhh. Well, I think we won. Yay us. And --" He turned from one side to another to examine the destruction that the fight had caused, and then fell silent as he caught sight of the Evangelion's unhelmed face in a mirror-sheathed building beside him.

"Huh," he said.

The huge green eye that had just re-opened stared back at him; the four nostrils below it expanded and contracted as it breathed.

"I can see why they make you wear a helmet," said Shinji, rather dazedly. "'Scuse me, this is all a bit much, I think I'm gonna fai--"

"Ow," said Makoto as he dug himself out of the small impact crater he'd made in the ground. "Ow." He was experiencing actual pain this time, whether from smashing through the monster, crashing on the ground, or the explosion that had followed. Apparently the suit only made him nigh-invulnerable. He supposed that was good to know.

With some difficulty, he forced himself into the air once more, flying away from the robot without a backward glance. There would be recovery teams showing up, and he had the distinct feeling that he didn't want to be here when they showed up.

"I really don't want to do that again," he mused as he reached his cruising altitude. Then he flinched. "I just jinxed it, didn't I?" he asked plaintively.

A new day dawned.

"I don't believe this, I don't believe this, I don't believe this," Tendo Akane muttered to herself as she walked along the dilapidated street between her father's home and the bus to Academy City.

"It's a little bewildering on this end, too," agreed Saotome Ranma as he walked slightly ahead of her, looking out for any opportunity to demonstrate his balance but unhappily not discovering any. "Kinda cool going to school for the first time, though."

"Then perhaps you should be in kindergarten instead of my school," his fiance groused.

"Hey! I've got my characters and numbers down, all right?" Ranma said, turning to walk backwards so that he could face Akane while he spoke. "My dad made sure I got that, on top of teaching me our style. We just never settled down anywhere long enough to --"

"Were you under the impression that I cared?" Akane asked.

Ranma let out a disgusted sigh, swiveled on his heel in mid-step so that he was facing forward -- just in time to barely dodge out of the way of a gout of water being flung onto the street by an old lady trying to clean it.

"Are you crazy? Who does this, anymore?" he shouted at her while clinging to the top of a street sign. She smiled warmly at him, then kept right on washing the street. He was left with the suspicion that she was deaf, senile, or both.

To her credit, Akane didn't keep right on walking and leave Ranma behind, though the fact that she knew he could easily catch up to him made that credit somewhat dubious. "So the plan is that you start going to my school so that you get access to Library Island and try to find a cure for your curse there?" she asked once they started walking again.

"That is the plan that the good and decent man who is your dear old dad came up with, yes," Ranma replied, faintly mocking her rant from the last time the two of them had spoken.

"It's probably a good plan, then," she replied, ignoring the tone. "The sooner it works out, the sooner that you can move out of my dad's house and into one of the dorms like a normal person. Or go somewhere else. Somewhere else sounds -- wait, who's paying for all this?" Akane asked abruptly.

Ranma blinked rapidly. "Paying? It's not a public school?"

"This is Japan," she told him, glaring. "There is no such thing as a publicly supported high school here. Are you telling me that my father, who has no income, is paying your way through school?"

"I don't know, maybe?" he answered her, bewildered. "Isn't he paying your way --"

"I'm his daughter," Akane interrupted. "He set money aside for that before any of us were born. Nabiki," she muttered to herself. "This must be Nabiki's idea. I'm going to -- crap, there's the bus. Hurry!" she demanded, and started running down the hill.

Ranma outpaced her without really trying and actually pulled her up onto the nearly full bus as it started moving before she got aboard. For some reason, this demonstration of his manliness and generosity of spirit did not win her immediate gratitude.

"Ah!" cried a girl in a different uniform with a pig on her head who was also fairly close to the bus' door. "It's Akane-chan! Hi Akane-chan!"

"Hello, Mankanshoku," Akane replied in a way that wasn't particularly warmer than the tones with which she normally addressed Ranma.

"This is Akane, the younger sister of the girl who helps Dad out sometimes," Mankanshoku said to her oddly dressed friend with a red streak in her hair. "This is Ryuko-chan!" she continued her introductions. "And this is P-chan!" she concluded, gesturing towards the pig. "Who's that?" she asked then, looking at Ranma quizzically.

"My fiance," Akane explained, as though making such a statement wouldn't normally call out for further explanations.

"Yo," supplied Ranma. Was it his imagination or was that pig glaring at him?

"Ah, what a coincidence!" Mankanshoku continued. "Ryuko-chan is my --" Abruptly, there was a hand over the other girl's mouth.

"Ah-heh-heh, nice to meet you," said Ryuko-chan, whose hand it was.

... and was it his imagination again, or had that chick just assessed and dismissed him?

"Okay, what's the deal here?" asked Ranma as they approached the gates and saw a rather large number of young men in athletic garb loitering just past them.

"Let me handle it, all right?" Akane said through clenched teeth.

"Let you handle what?"

"She's here!" cried one of the boys in a karate gi as Akane came into view, and quite suddenly the entire group was racing towards the two of them --

-- until Akane held up a hand and cried out, "Stop!"

They halted in mid-charge.

"Gentlemen," Akane said after a moment of silence. "I regret to inform you that my situation has changed. As you are all aware, my father is a very traditional man ... and as such, he has chosen to engage me to marry a man not of my choosing." She glanced at Ranma, standing to her right. "This man, as it happens."

Ranma could almost hear the sound of every eye in the horde of boys turning to glare furiously in his direction. "Uh," he said cleverly.

"And as it happens, my fiance is also a very traditional man," Akane continued.

"Whachutalkinbout?" he hissed at her.

She ignored him. "Under no circumstances will he allow me to date other men, even if they should defeat me in battle. Perhaps he can be persuaded otherwise, but you must take it up with him. Good day, gentlemen," she finished, with a warm smile in their direction.

"What the f--" Ranma started to say before he was engulfed.

Casually walking around the violent melee while whistling an old mah-jong song, Akane headed for the steps up to the main entrance, where she was not all that surprised to see Nabiki and some of her sister's friends standing and watching.

"You know, sometimes I have my doubts that you and I are really related," Nabiki mused, not taking her eyes off the fight. "Never gonna happen again though."

"Your approval is neither sought, nor needed," Akane replied as she laid her hand on the doorknob. "We need to talk about --"

"He just finished beating up the horde in less time than it ever takes you, by the way."

Akane's hand tightened until her knuckles went white.

"What was that in aid of?" Ranma demanded in a very traditional manner as he climbed down from the small hill of unconscious bodies.

Shinji first realized that he was conscious when the question of how long he'd been staring up at the unfamiliar ceiling of his hospital room occurred to him. That naturally led to his awareness that he could have awareness of such matters. So he sat up in bed, and took a look around the no less unfamiliar walls and windows of the hospital room. No less unfamiliar, but sadly no more interesting.

He hadn't actually ever spent much time in hospitals before this. The various people who'd theoretically taken care of him over the last decade had never been cruel or hurtful to him, and he had to admit that he'd been rather fortunate in avoiding injuries or diseases. He therefore had no particular basis for comparison between the rather depressing environs in which he currently found himself and any other hospital setting. Well, there were the ones on TV, which seemed much more active and noisy than this, and he supposed that might be influencing his opinion of the place.

Shinji considered lying back down again and waiting to see what would happen next. Then he shook his head and swiveled out of the bed. Somewhat to his surprise, there were a pair of hospital slippers on the side of the bed nearest the door, and he proceeded to put them on his feet -- less out of any concern for getting his feet dirty than because he found the floor rather cold. Having already determined that he wasn't attached to any machinery, he proceeded to head out the doorway.

The hallway beyond afforded him a sight of the floor of the geofront, possibly explaining why things seemed so cold even if it was well-lit. In the distance, he could see recovery efforts underway.

Which of course brought it all back to him. Shinji let out a long, slow breath, and lowered his head to rest his brow against the window. "I'm supposed to do that fifteen more times?" he quietly asked nobody in particular, now that he was away from any listening devices in his room.

'Nobody in particular' really meant 'nobody present', or at least 'nobody likely to be present for some time to come.' Zazie had warned him that it would be difficult, he told himself. That she hadn't made it clear just how difficult probably just meant that she hadn't had the words to do so. Or maybe she really hadn't known just what it meant to work with an Evangelion. How could she, after all?

That, at least, was what the part of him that trusted Zazie kept telling himself. There was another part of him, though, the part that had been carefully, carefully taught to never trust or rely on anyone, that was telling him that he was being used as a pawn in a game that someone was playing. Possibly that someone wasn't even Zazie herself, but rather whoever or whatever was behind the 'consortium of interests' she claimed to represent.

If so, then the vague thought that pawns could be promoted was no real comfort. What he wanted was to get off the gameboard entirely. Which was easily accomplished, he thought bitterly, except for someone who was terrified of death.

He shook his head, rubbing it against the glass or perspex or whatever substance. Thinking like that was no help, not to him, not to anyone else, either. Besides, it didn't matter if he was afraid of death or indifferent to it. If he failed, either as a pilot or as someone infiltrating this organization, death would come to him regardless of his feelings on the matter.

The familiar sound of casters made him look up, and down the hallway. It couldn't be, could it? Apparently, it could. The same group of nurses, guiding the same bed, on which was lying the same girl, all passing by without a glance in his direction.

"Excuse me?" Shinji asked.

They kept right on going.

Okay. "Excuse me," he said, a little louder, and not making it a question this time.

This time one of the trailing nurses paused, and turned to regard him with an expression he chose to view as quizzical.

"I'd like to have a word with your patient, if that's --" He broke off, then repeated himself. "I'd like a word with her. Please," he added with a sense of irony. The worst they could do was say no, right?

The nurse stared at him, then made a vague shrug, before turning to walk up to one of the other nurses, lay a hand on her shoulder, and then lead her and the other two nurses away from the bed. All without saying a word.

Honestly, a straightforward refusal would have been much less creepy than what had just happened. But Shinji was not about to argue with results. He quickly went forward to stand at the side of the bed and look down on Ayanami. "Hi," he said.

She looked at him without apparent expression.

"We weren't introduced. I'm Ikari Shinji, and you're Ayanami Rei. I'd like to say that it's nice to meet you, but, well, any place and any other circumstances would probably be better than this, wouldn't they?" he asked, making an attempt at a smile.

She looked at him without apparent expression.

"Right. Let me just ... I'm sorry I used you like that. But ... I'm going to do my best, my very best, to do this thing so that you don't ever have to, em, 'pilot' Eva ever again. Not just you, but all of you. You, and Shikinami, and Asagiri, and Yuugiri and all of them. And if there's ever anything I can do for you, personally, just ask. I can't promise I'll do it, but I'll hear you out and see what I can do. That's all I wanted to say. And I'm sorry."

She looked at him without apparent expression ... and slowly, her lips moved. "You are a fool," she said.

"Probably," he agreed, nodding. He stepped back, and the nurses came back to take charge of the bed and rolled it away, casters squeaking until it turned out of sight.

"No, definitely," Shinji added a moment later. "Could have said something about the moon being beautiful, but noooo ..."

Unlike some of the schools in Academy City, the gates of Furinkan did not open again once they'd been closed in the morning, so students had no opportunity to head into the city at lunch time. Instead, lunches were typically eaten in the building's cafeteria, or in classrooms, or on the lawn of the school's grounds inside the walls. On his first day at Furinkan, Ranma found himself eating lunch -- the lunch Shanpu had nicely packed for him that morning, as practice for when she really was his step-mother -- on the grounds.

He was a bit surprised that he wasn't alone. After the business this morning, he'd expected other guys to give him something of a wide berth. But two from his class had shown up to offer to show him around campus. Their names were Hiroshi and Daisuke. Being Ranma, he'd forgotten their family names as soon as they'd been mentioned, and, to be honest, he wasn't entirely sure which of them was Hiroshi and which was Daisuke. But they seemed likable enough fellows, and they'd listened with interest to his sanitized stories about China and answered his minor questions about the school and the city.

Time for a more significant question, though. "So what exactly was the deal with all those guys who jumped me when I got here this morning?"

Hiroshi (or was it -- nah, forget it) coughed. "Well, they were actually jumping Akane until she convinced them to go after you. It all goes back to the start of the school year. Back then ... well, she was a lot cuter than she is now."

Ranma, who'd found Akane to be quite cute before she started talking, found that hard to believe. "Okay?"

"And a bunch of guys wanted to ask her out, but then Kuno-sempai, while he was trying to get elected to the Joint Student Council, declared that he wouldn't allow anyone to date Akane unless they defeated her in battle. So --"

"Wait," interjected Ranma. "What the hell is a joint student whatever ... and what does making some declaration like that have to do with trying to get elected -- you know, suddenly I'm not even sure I want to know."

"The Joint Student Council is sort of the combined student government of all the schools in the city," Daisuke-or-not tried to explain anyway. "Kuno-senpai got a lot of votes from the boys at our school, but pretty much all the girls voted for Fujino Shizuru, so even though the candidate from Honnoji won the field, of course, Kuno-senpai didn't even make vice president."

Ranma noted a conspicuous lack of an attempt to explain the link between declaration and election, but decided to let it go. "So what happened?"

"For month after month, Akane fought the boys off. After a while, she tried to make herself less cute so that they'd leave her alone." Hiroshi shrugged. "It didn't work. So finally, one day she lost."

"To one of those losers?" Ranma asked, glancing over to where he could see Akane sitting with two girls from their class, eating lunch and ... huh, not chattering away, but quietly listening to the girls doing so. He looked away before she turned to see him looking at her.

"Yep, some guy actually got lucky. Well, sort of," Daisuke clarified. "She agreed to date him, and he was crowing with excitement about how great it was going to be ... but when he actually showed up at the date, he got stood up. Apparently something had come up, and she didn't have time to call and tell him. And it kept happening every time she got beaten."

Ranma considered this. "So ... you do realize what was going on here, right?"

They nodded as one. "But the horde of hentai never figured it out, for some reason," Hiroshi said a bit smugly.

"And they kept right on challenging her every morning," Ranma guessed, disgustedly.

"And that's where you came in," Daisuke added.

"Well, just great," said Ranma. Then he shrugged. "Eh, well, it'll make for a nice morning workout, anyway. So who's this Kuno-senpai asshole and how does he fit into it? Is he just the biggest pervert in the school, or the pervert with the biggest mouth, or something? Did I kick his ass this morning and not realize it? Or was he sick today in addition to being a sicko? Is he standing right behind me?" he asked the rather terrified faces who were now regarding him.

"Verily," said a deep voice from above.

Slowly Ranma turned to look up at the rather curly haired gentleman in a kendo suit, minus the mask, who was presently regarding him with an expression of maybe seven parts contempt to one part dull curiosity. "Yo," said Ranma.

"You are the one whom I have heard is engaged to the beauteous Tendo Akane," the kendoka declared. "I would have your name, yet it is the custom to give one's own first. Therefore -- I am Kuno Tatewaki, high school sophomore. Captain of the Furinakan Kendo Club. I am known to my peers as the Blue Thunder of Furinkan High School!"

Ranma waited for a moment, then quietly asked, "Is there gonna be any weather effects?"

"No. There will not."

"Good to know. Um, well, yeah, I'm Akane's fiance. Saotome Ranma. How ya doin'? Are we gonna fight now?"

"No," said Kuno, with what was probably intended to come off as great patience. "It would be beneath my station to assail one who has merely spoken in an ill-considered manner. Nor, if the matter was decided by the father of Tendo Akane, would it be proper for me to object in a physical manner. In any event, it has been some time since I realized that ny affections belonged to another, a true embodiment of all that is fair in Japanese womanhood. I speak, of course, of the radiant and unsurpassed Kiryuuin Satsuki!"

"Who?" asked Ranma.

Kuno's eyes audibly narrowed. "Perhaps I misheard. Can it be that you have just demeaned the radiant and unsurpassed Kiryuuin Satsuki by implying that her name is not universally known?"

"No implication about it, I really have no idea who this chick you're talking about is," Ranma told him. "So ... are we gonna fight now?"

"... if your valor is the equal of your temerity, you will face me at dawn on the morrow, beneath the boughs of the World Tree," Kuno replied through clenched teeth. Before Ranma could answer, his date raised his voice, pitching it to carry throughout the school yard. "Tendo Akane-san! In memory of what once was between you and I, I shall do you the courtesy of ending this unwanted engagement of yours." And with that announcment out of the way, the Blue Thunder turned and stormed away.

"... it's been nice knowing you, Ranma," said Daisuke.

"Oh, come on," Ranma replied with a laugh. "He's just gonna try to hit me with a stick a few times. It's not a problem!"

"Ranma ... have you ever heard the term 'goku' before?" asked Hiroshi.

He blinked. What does Dragon Ball have to do with anything? "Well, yeah, of course."

"And that doesn't intimidate you?" Daisuke asked.

"What's intimidating about it?" Ranma asked, increasingly bewildered. Why be scared of a fictional character from a kid's manga?

They exchanged a look. "Bravest man we've ever met, Daisuke," said the one Ranma had thought was Daisuke.

"So what do you think about him, anyway?" asked Yuka, staring at Akane quizzically.

There was no real point in trying to pretend that she didn't know which 'him' the other girl was talking about. "Do I have to?" she asked. "Think about him, I mean?

"Seriously," said Sayuri.

"Seriously, I don't see how it matters what I think about him," Akane insisted. "This is the situation, and I have to live with it, no matter what I think. It cannot be helped."

Her only friends exchanged a look, and then turned it on her.

"All right, all right," Akane said wearily. "The truth is --" The truth is, I'm more jealous than anything else, of the way he seems to move so easily through a world that only hinders and entraps me. The truth is, I think I would really like to be him ... and that maybe just being at his side wouldn't necessarily be so bad. The truth is, I've shot that possibility dead and taxidermized its corpse, and I'm not all that happy about having done so. The truth is ... god, how can someone be so damn handsome?

And then Kuno-senpai showed up, had a short conversation with Ranma, and then announced, "Tendo Akane-san! In memory of what once was between you and I, I shall do you the courtesy of ending this unwanted engagement of yours."

Akane quietly contemplated this. If Ranma should defeat Kuno, who had always stretched her to her limits even before he started wearing one of those uniforms, then it would be further evidence that he was so far beyond her as to be something she could never reach in a hundred years of training. If Kuno should defeat Ranma ... she would owe her freedom to Kuno. And that would be Ranma's fault, too.

"Akane?" said Yuka. Or was it Sayuri?

"The truth is that I hate him so much I could kill him," said Akane.

"So hey," said Misato, yanking Shinji out of his quiet contemplation of things he could and should have said to Ayanami when he had the chance.

He looked up from his chair in the hospital's lounge to see her standing not far from him, in the combination of little black dress and red jacket that she'd worn part of yesterday. "Oh. Hello, Misato-san. Listen, I really do want to apologize for the way that I --"

"Save it," she said flatly. "You cannot expect people to like it when you play mind games at a time when humanity is in jeopardy."

"Well, I agree, but ... aren't you angry at my father for doing the same thing?" Shinji asked her.

"I am angry at him, but -- no," she said, cutting herself off in mid-sentence. "I refuse to have this argument. I am just going to do my job, and take you to the people who will be giving you your housing assignment. That's it. That's all. Maybe I'll be in a better mood the next time we have to interact."

"I hope so," said the boy dubiously as he got up from the chair. "Um ... am I really going there in this?" he asked, looking down at his hospital gown.

Misato handed him a package of clothing that included a familiar pair of pants and shirt. "They've even been laundered," she told him.

After ducking into one of the hospital rooms so that Shinji could get changed, the pair of them made their way to the elevator. Moments after Misato pushed the button, the doors swung open to reveal Gendo glaring down from behind them.

"Hi, dad," Shinji said, smiling broadly.

"Shinji," the director of Nerv replied.

"Going up or down?"

"Up," he answered shortly.

"Ah, too bad, we're going down. I was really hoping we could spend some time together, talk about the good old --" Shinji spoke without paying any attention to the way Gendo's right arm came up to start rapidly pressing a certain button on the out-of-sight control panel in the elevator, perhaps causing the door to close in Mid-sentence.

"I think he's warming up to me a little," the boy mused after a moment.

Misato considered replying to that, but chose to say nothing and just stare at the boy who kept on playing games.

Somewhat later, the two of them found themselves standing in the midst of a gigantic holographic map of Tokyo-3, while an Operations Division lieutenant went over the details of Shinji's new residence. "And it will be in the 6th block, just beyond this one," he said. "Satisfactory?"

"Okay," replied Shinji. "I don't really have any preferences on the subject."

"Excuse me," Misato spoke for the first time in quite a while. "Who'll be supervising his living arrangements?"

"Well, I will, I suppose," replied the lieutenant.

"So you'll be keeping an eye on him?" she asked sharply.

"Well, no, not really. But he'll have my phone number if there's any problems, and --"

"I can add you to my contacts list right now, if you like," Shinji offered, producing his phone.

"But will there be any adults watching for signs of trouble, is what I'm asking?" Misato pressed.

"It's all right, Misato-san," Shinji said, trying to be soothing ... again. "I usually haven't had a lot of adult supervision in my living circumstances before now, and it's never been a problem." And if by chance Zazie tried to contact him again, this would help facilitate that.

"That? That right there, what you're talking about? That is a problem!" she told him. She turned to the lieutenant. "Change of plans, he's living with me."

"Wait what?" said Shinji.

"Wait what?" unwittingly repeated Ritsuko.

"I'm not leaving this kid without any adult supervision," Misato told her over the phone. "Have you noticed that he's kind of crazy?"

"... I'm standing right here," Shinji pointed out quietly as he stood behind Misato on the phone.

She turned to glare at him, ignoring what Ritsuko was saying about Misato's lack of qualification to diagnose mental illness, and made a 'back up' gesture with the hand that wasn't holding the phone. Shinji folded his arms across his chest and stared levelly back at her.

"Then don't complain about hearing bad things about yourself!" Misato hissed while covering the phone's receiver.

"Sorry, what was that?" asked Ritsuko.

"Nothing, nothing," the soldier said hurriedly. "Look, I worked it all out with the brass, I'm just informing you as a courtesy."

"Then I guess it's settled," Ritsuko said wearily. "Just don't seduce him or anything, all right?"

"Excuse me?" yelped Misato. "Which one of us had that affair in college with the guy she kept insisting was way too young to be married with two kids? Hmm? Who was it?"

"Yes, yes, fine. Let me speak to the boy, though."

"Why, are you gonna tell him lies about me?"

"The truth would be scary enough, but he'll find that out regardless. There's still something I want to tell him. Him," Ritsuko repeated, cutting off Misato's demand for details.

Shaking her head, Misato extended the handset in Shinji's direction. "Yours," she said.

Shinji took the phone, looking confused. "Hello, Ritsuko-san? Was there something you wanted to --"

"Two important things to tell you," Ritsuko said, remembering another old boyfriend. "One, Misato's bark is a lot worse than her bite. She's going to warm up to you again, eventually. Never tell her I said that though. And two ... nobody else is likely to say this to you, Shinji, so I will. You did a very praiseworthy thing, today, and you should be proud of yourself. That's all. I'm sure that I'll see you very soon." Click.

It shouldn't have been all that surprising to hear music coming from the rehearsal room that Juri was walking towards. But when she heard the particular piece that began as she reached it, she found herself stopping in her tracks, eyes gone wide. After a moment, she resumed her stride and reached out to push the door open.

"Stop. Stop!" said a familiar voice in an unfamiliar, angry tone. As Juri entered the rehearsal room, the source of the voice, a man with blue-black hair, was facing away from her, standing over the shoulder of a teen-aged girl who was looking up at him in confusion. The only other person in the room, a blond man, did momentarily glance in Juri's direction and offer her a slightly embarrassed smile, before returning his gaze to the other two.

"Is something the matter, maestro?" asked the girl, using the Italian term instead of a Japanese one. She sounded every bit as genuinely bewildered as she looked.

"Are you seriously playing that piece? Do you really think that's going to impress me?"

"... I don't know what you mean," the girl protested. "I just like this piece."

"You're going to stick to that? You're really going to claim that you don't know about my history with this piece?" the maestro demanded.

The girl could only shake her head, but the blond man spoke up. "Miki ... it's been a quarter of a century since then."

The blue-haired man was silent in response, then let out a long, aggravated sigh. "Okay," Miki said. "I don't normally give second chances, so treasure this one. Mitsuru is going to book you another appointment --"

"Next week, same time, same place," said the blond.

"-- and you're going to spend the time until then preparing another piece. Any other piece. Clair de lune may be cliche as hell, but it has the benefit of not being The Sunny Garden. If it's done brilliantly, I may forget about all of this and accept you as a pupil. If not .. then not. Got it?"

"Yes, maestro. Thank you, maestro," she said, getting up from the piano bench, clumsily gathering up her sheet music, and dashing off past Juri without even a glance.

Miki followed her with his gaze, which led to him meeting Juri's gaze. He let out a snort when he saw her. "Kids these days," he said gruffly, then broke into a smile.

"Hello to you too, Miki," she said, returning the smile. "Tsuwabuki," she added with a polite nod in the direction of her friend's partner.

"Arisugawa-sensei," he replied, answering her nod with one of his own.

The smile was gone when she looked next at Miki. "Listen, I am so sorry that I couldn't make my schedule work so that we could attend your party," he told her.

"It's all right," she said, coming forward to reach out and rest a hand of reassurance on Miki's shoulder. "All that your being there would have meant was that I was able to talk to you about what happened sooner --"

"Well, I should hope we'd have talked at the -- wait, about what happened?"

"-- and I wasn't in any fit state to talk about what happened at the time anyway, as poor Maya will certainly attest," Juri concluded, rubbing her face with one of her hands.

"Did something unfortunate happen?" Mitsuru asked, frowning as he approached the two of them.

"Not ... unfortunate, just very confusing. Not just confusing, either. Impossible. I saw something impossible, and now atheistic, materialistic me can't get it out of her head. If you'd been there, I could have asked whether you saw it, too, or if you saw something that can explain it, or ..." She trailed off. "I sound crazy, don't I?" she asked, abruptly.

Miki and Mitsuru exchanged a glance. "You sound ... stressed, definitely," Miki said at length.

"How long has it been since you last saw your sister?" Juri asked.

Miki blinked at the out-of-nowhereness of the question, but answered calmly. "I think it's been nine years since she uninvited us to her wedding, and maybe another four since I was in the same room as her."

Juri blinked in her turn. "You never told me about that. Uninvited? Really?"

"It was a bit more complicated than that," Mitsuru said before Miki could say anything.

"No it wasn't," his partner said firmly.

"He got an invitation that didn't specify a plus one, so he called Kozue-san to remind her that I exist, and she said that she'd send another one. Which never materialized."

Juri flinched. There had been plenty of times when she'd found herself cut out of family gatherings because of her orientation, but it was somehow worse to imagine it happening to Miki.

"Until you asked, I hadn't thought about her since then," Miki said. "As far as I'm concerned, Kozue might as well be dead."

"Right, a poor choice of parallel, then," she said with a shake of her head.

"Forget it, forget it," Miki insisted, waving his hand. "Look, let's go get some coffee, and we'll sit down and talk about this thing you saw."

"Yes, let's do that," Juri agreed.

The three walked out into the hallway, discussing their respective classes, current events, anything but the subject that they were going to be talking about in a few minutes. When they reached the foyer of the performance hall, however, Miki froze in place. "Did I lock the rehearsal room?" he asked uncertainly.

"Oh, feathers," said Mitsuru. "I don't remember either."

"I'll go check, just wait here," the maestro told them, then dashed off.

When he was almost within reach of the doors to the room, he too began to hear a certain piece playing, and stopped in his tracks. Then he got angry. Had that stupid child come back here to keep playing for some reason? He grabbed the door knob and opened it quickly.

"Listen you --" he began to shout, and felt his voice die in his throat. Sitting at the piano was a girl in an old-fashioned school uniform with hair only a bit darker than his own, silently playing The Sunny Garden as only two people had ever played it. The girl's hands stilled, music faded, and she stood up and turned to face him.

Kaoru Miki screamed.

Clustered around the western gate of Academy City were a number of apartment buildings largely rented out to teachers at the city's schools, as well as a handful of properties owned or leased by business owners in the recreation district. This was also the region of the home of the Yuuki family, as the paterfamilias, nominally a member of the faculty at Mahora University, had obtained permission for his three children (two biological, one technically adopted) to reside there with him. Even though said faculty member basically taught one hour a year to a chosen master class, plus the occasional surprise visit, and spent the rest of his time dodging TAs while working on multiple manga series.

Yuuki Mikan frowned as she considered these facts of her life while reading one of those series, about a group of serious space explorers who kept running into a bunch of not-at-all-serious space wizards. She had the strangest sense of deja vu while doing so. Well, maybe not deja vu so much as deja pense. It was probably nothing, this couldn't possibly be the first time that she'd thought about how her father couldn't possibly do the work he was hired to do by the University and his various artistic endeavors, there not being nearly enough hours in the day.

(There it was again! Weird.)

Well, whatever. All that it meant was that, instead of heading to one of the dorms in order to kick off her shoes, lie down somewhere and read manga while her heels kicked behind her and she sucked on a popsicle, she came back to the home she shared with her crazy family and did the exact same thing. She was content in her situation, and wished that her siblings could say the same.

Think of the devil, and he shows up. Mikan heard the front door open, then close, and a set of footsteps moved through the foyer and into the living room. She kicked up her heels all the way, and felt the change in the sofa's texture that told her that someone had sat down on the space behind her. A deep, melancholy sigh from back there confirmed it.

"Soooo?" asked Mikan without looking up from her manga.

"Soooo?" replied her only biological sibling.

"Soooo why are we so depressed today?"

"Well, in addition to all the usual crap that I go through pretty much every day, today Sairenji asked me to come with her to the library to do some independent research."

Mikan's eyes bulged, and she wiggled around so that she was seated upright. "What? That's wonderful! That's a great opportunity to spend time with this girl? Why are you so bummed out about something so -- oh, no, what did you do?" she groaned in anticipation.

"It wasn't me this time! She went off to get the books, and when I realized that she was taking a while I went to see what the matter was ... and I saw that she was talking with a guy." Yuuki Riko brought up her hands to her face, and moaned in a manner befitting the restless dead as she bent over, full breasts crushed against her knees.

"Maybe they were just talk--" Mikan started to suggest.

"And when she finally came back to our table, she told all about him, how much he reminded her of me, how much she wanted me to meet him, what a fascinating person he was and I would be if I were a guy," Riko concluded without looking up.

"Did she really say that last part?" her sister asked, skeptically.

"Well, no," Riko admitted, peeking out at Mikan from between her hands. "But she could not have put up more 'I like boys' flags if she was trying. Maybe she was trying," she added in an even more miserable tone. "Maybe all the little hints finally added up, and she wants to subtly tell me to back off without actually saying that."

"Hey," Mikan interjected. "Remember who you're talking about here, okay? This is the girl who stood up for you in front of the whole class in middle school, when everybody thought you'd wrecked those flowers. Sairenji-san doesn't do things by half-measures. If she wanted you to stop spending time with her, she'd just say that. And wouldn't ask you to go to the library with her, either."

Riko sighed. "I know, I know, I just ... it's so frustrating."

"That's why you ought to put an end to the frustrating," Mikan pressed on. "You need to confess, straight up now tell her how you feel."

"It's just not that simple. I can't just go to her and say, 'Sairenji, I like you. And not just as a friend, but as a woman. I llllllllllllllllllll--" Eventually, the strain of holding this note became too much for Rito's throat, and her voice dissolved into coughs.

"Well, that's further than you've ever managed to get before. On the other hand, she's not even here, either," Mikan sighed, then reached out to give her older sister a hug around the shoulders. "Oh, Riko, you useless lesbian."

"Wahhhhh," Riko replied.

After a few moments, the older sister had calmed down to ask a few questions. "So is Nao out doing Nao things again?"

"'Fraid so," Mikan confirmed.

Riko sighed and shook her head. "Ohhhh, that girl. I think I've got to go out looking for her this time, after supper. I'd better go have a bath now, then."

"Good way to relax, too," Mikan said with a nod.

Her sister got up from the couch, favored Mikan with a weary smile, and went to go up the stairs. Mikan picked up her book again and started reading it, secure in her knowledge that Riko would be in the tub for a while, and that nothing strange was going to --

"YEEEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAA!" came a shriek from upstairs.

Mikan's head jerked up. "Riko?!" she called out.

"It's fine!" came the panicked sounding voice of her sister. "It's just fine. Noooooothing to worry about!"

For some odd reason, Mikan regarded this statement as questionable in veracity, and got up from the couch to walk slowly over to the staircase. Looking up, she briefly saw Riko, wrapped in a towel, running down the hallway at the top of the stairs ... and caught just the faintest glimpse of another person, with bright pink hair, being pushed forward by her sister.

Mikan considered this for a long moment. "Ah," she said eventually. "Visual hallucinations. Interesting."

She turned and walked a bit mechanically back to the couch, where she curled up in a ball and waited for some indication that sanity had returned to the world. When after a few moments she could hear the sounds of a struggle coming from the floor above, she nodded. "Auditory hallucinations, too. Hmmmm."

Eventually the noise subsided, and a while after that Mikan fell asleep.

Kuga Natsuki finished changing her biker leathers for her high school uniform, and unzipped the door of the small portable tent she used for such changes of clothes. She'd have prefered to have a more natural shelter, perhaps a deep woods that no one walked through willingly, but it wasn't to be. The forests of Academy City had all be chopped down for lumber, and anyways, Natsuki had learned through terribly painful experience that she was never going to have everything that she would have preferred.

Even this evening was proof of that, she mused while collapsing the tent's frame and starting to pack it up. She preferred, on those occasions when her journeys led her back to the campus where she was nominally a student, to arrive early in the morning so that she could make an appearance in classes. Yet here she was, in the early evening, preparing to head for the dormitory where she was nominally a resident. Ah well, she thought as she put the tent's bag in her cycle's baggage compartment, it can't be helped.

And then the orange-haired girl she'd run into on the train job the last week came walking briskly into sight, stopping just a short distance from her.

"Oh," said Natsuki. "So you didn't blow up after all."

"Very funny," the girl with purple eyes replied. "Big time yucks. Where the hell have you been, these past few days? I've been looking all over for you!"

Natsuki blinked in confusion. "Why would you even think I was a student here?" she asked, then shook her head. "Right, not important. Look, if you're looking for some sort of apology for what happened, you can just forget it."

"Oh, no," the girl said with a shake of her head. "I wouldn't dream of expecting that from you, Natsuki."

Immediately, Natsuki went on the alert and took a step back away from the cycle. "How do you know my name?" she asked sharply.

"Also not important," the girl answered with a sharp cutting motion of her right hand. "Though ironically, I think I'd probably have an easier time explaining it to you than I would to Mikoto, even if you'd probably never believe it any more than she'd understand it. But the reason I sought you out, Natsuki, didn't have anything to do with explanations or apologies. It was because, when you and I end up meeting, he shows up." Abruptly, her hand snapped up to point at the phone pole just behind Natsuki's back.

Natsuki snorted. "I'm not falling for th--"

"Hah?" said an obnoxiously familiar voice from behind her.

Just as abruptly, flaming magatama burst into being around the girl's hands and feet, and she herself burst into motion, flying up past Natsuki, who whirled to see that she had flown up to and into the face of the obnoxious Homura Nagi, who was perched atop the phone pole.

"You," she said. "You did this to me!"

"H-how did you manage to unlock your powers without my knowing about it?" Nagi asked her, sounding and seeming genuinely startled to Natsuki's eyes.

"I'm going to burn you to ashes. Then, maybe, I think I will beat you to death with my bare hands, a few times," the girl told him though clenched teeth.

"Okay, let's all take a deep breath --" said Nagi.

And then, in the blink of one of Natsuki's eyes, neither he nor the girl were atop the pole anymore. Instead, they were on the ground, Nagi flat on his back and the girl with one of her shoes on top of his neck. "Nope," said the girl.

"I stopped time!" Nagi gasped. "How did you --"

"Well, I was thinking, and I said to myself, 'gosh it would be really convenient if I could keep moving when someone stopped time'. And then it happened, and here we are. Have you ever been flayed, Nagi?" she asked, rather conversationally.

"Seriously, please calm down, Mai-hime!" the white-haired boy asked, sounding almost like someone who was begging.

"Don't fucking call me that!" the girl -- Mai? -- roared.

"Okay!" he nearly shrieked. "I won't! No more calling you that, Tokiha Mai. I swear. And I swear, I haven't done anything to you!"

"I. Don't. Believe you," Mai growled. "I think maybe I should start by seeing whether I can set your blood on fire."

"Stop," said Natsuki. She couldn't quite believe she'd just said that once she did.

"Did you just tell me to stop?" said Mai, slowly turning so that she could gaze in Natsuki's direction. Natsuki flinched at the fury in those eyes. "You? Miss quest of eternal vengeance?"

"How --" Natsuki nearly squawked. "No, not important. If you know anything about me, you know that I want to take vengeance on the people who killed my mother ... but I don't want to take that vengeance on someone who wasn't involved!"

"There's a train that would argue that point," the other girl said.

But the fact that she was talking at all was a sign that she was getting through to her. "That was different, that was ... look, I didn't go out of my way to hurt anybody that night, all right? If Nagi says that he didn't do whatever it is you think he did -- he's an annoying bastard, but he's never lied to me that I know about, all right?"

"So sweet," gasped Nagi from beneath the shoe.

Mai's eyes closed, and she breathed deeply for a few moments. "Such a messed up world," she half-whispered. Then turned to glare down at Nagi. "Okay," she said. "Tell me one more time that you didn't bring me here."

"You're from another world?" Nagi asked, staring up at her in horror.

"That's not what I wanted to hear."

"Tokiha Mai," said Homura Nagi, in a tone more solemn than Natsuki had ever heard him use. "I will now swear on the only thing I hold sacred that I did not bring you here from another world." He then produced a series of sounds that sounded, to Natsuki, like a series of musical tones from a movie about contacting aliens that she'd seen once.

Mai blinked. "I ... understood that," she said, in an uncertain tone. "What are you?"

"That's not important," replied Nagi. "But you understand, now? You understand that I can't break faith with that?"

Slowly, Mai pulled her foot away from his throat, and stood back to let him stand up.

"Come," Nagi said once he'd done so. "Let us reason together."

While she was no more eager to return to the violence that had led to this moment of calm, Natsuki still found Nagi's willingness to negotiate a bit suspicious. "Just so we're clear on this," she said aloud, "I might not think you're lying, but I still don't trust you a bit beyond that."

"And there is no reason that you should, Kuga Natsuki," the white-haired boy said, very formally. "I have my goals, and you have yours -- and they are, as you guess correctly, incompatible." A bit of his old smugness came back for a moment. "I'm not so nice as to tell you how, though."

"Of course not," Natsuki grumbled.

The smug went away as Nagi turned to look at Mai. "But your goal, on the other hand ... forgive me, but I assume that you want to return to your original world. From your familiarity with me and with Natsuki-hime, I gather we have counterparts there."

"Yes," Mai said. "I knew you both there, and everyone else involved in this, this psychopathic Carnival of yours. It's in the past there. It's over, there."

"And you won," said Nagi, nodding slowly.

"No. I fought, we won. We destroyed the Obsidian Prince, and the Hime Star. There would be no more Carnivals, no more HiME, no more ... and everything was good," she concluded, eyes closed. "Okay, it wasn't perfect, especially after Yuuichi and I -- but that's not important. We were all happy --"

"When you say 'all'," Nagi interrupted, looking a bit sick, "are you talking about all the HiME? You all survived?"

"Implying that we're not all going to survive here?" Natsuki asked sharply.

"You already knew the stakes, Natsuki-hime."

"And who the hell is the Obsidian Prince?" demanded the tall, dark bishojo.

"Yes, nobody died." Mai finally seized the chance to get a word in edgewise. "We all made it home. Everyone was there when it happened ..." Her eyes were far away.

Natsuki and Nagi both fell silent at this, exchanging a glance. The boy gestured towards Mai with his head. Natsuki rolled her eyes, but took the hint anyway. "What exactly did happen?" she asked.

"It was a beautiful day on the beach," she said, not really looking at anything present. "There was no reason for it to ... a storm. A terrible, sudden, out-of-nowhere storm. Before we even knew what was happening, it was impossible to see anything. I felt someone's hand in mine. I don't know whose it was. I could hear Mikoto calling out to me ... and then I was being pulled up, and I felt the hand in mine slip out of my grip as I rose up, and ..."

Mai drew in a deep, shuddering breath. When she spoke again, she seemed no calmer, but was at least back to being the hard-edged girl who'd started this explanation. "There was a moment of absolute darkness, and I heard a voice saying 'this world is already over'. And then I woke up and I had Mikoto in my arms again, in a circle of ashes again, but in front of that walled fortress they call Honnoji this time, and beneath that bloody mess you call a sky. And somehow I knew it was starting all over again."

"You have my deepest condolences, Tokiha Mai," Nagi said, sounding solemn once again.

"Oh really," Natsuki said, glaring at him.

"Natsuki-hime, whatever you might think about me, rest assured that I am not so heartless as to wish life in this world on anyone not born to it," the boy told her with a mild glare of his own.

Natsuki subsided, tacitly acknowledging the point.

"If you didn't bring me here, who did?" Mai asked Nagi.

"I don't know that either," he admitted. "I've heard of beings who can exchange minds, but they can't do so ... easily, and not under the circumstances you describe. I assure you, though, I'm going to do everything in my power to help you get back to where you belong."

"That's ... oddly helpful of you," she said dubiously.

"It comes back to goals," Nagi reminded. "My goals are going to be a lot harder to achieve if a HiME of your power and foreknowledge is interfering with them, so it's definitely in my interest to get you back to your own world."

"Or kill her," Natsuki interjected, to break up the love-fest.

Nagi smiled faintly and shook his head. "I wouldn't even if I could, I think."

"Because of the dance in four dimensions," Mai said quietly.

He blinked and gazed at her. "Did the version of me in your world tell you about that?" he asked, genuinely surprised.

She blinked. "You ... must've done," she said, oddly evasively.

Nagi made another sound of surprise. "Well, I will talk to some people I know, see what they can tell me," he said.

"Nagi-san," Mai said, using his name for the first time. "I hope you understand that, until you can actually help me, I'm going to keep using that power and foreknowledge you talked about to help the HiME." There was no real anger in her tone, now, but no warmth, either.

The boy sighed. "That is really going to mess up my life, but, yes, I understand why you'd do that. I hope you'll be a little bit moderate in your approach. Consider this a gift to encourage you to do so."

"Neechan?" asked a voice from behind Mai.

She rapidly turned as a young boy in a gakuran ran up to her. "Takumi!" she called.

"I saw you running off somewhere, and I followed you, but then I lost you, and now I found you again, and my chest --" the boy nearly screeched as he was crushed against the taller girl.

"Hey kid," said Nagi. "Might wanna take better care of this." With that, he tossed a pillbox towards the boy called Takumi.

"I remember this," Mai said softly as she held her brother while he gulped down pills. "I'm not sure you can call fixing a situation you caused a gift." She directed that in Nagi's direction.

He shrugged. "Best I've got. I'll see you when I see you, Tokiha Mai."

"One more question before you go," Mai said quickly. "Where are Yuuichi and Shiho? I've seen everybody else somewhere in this ... place ... but not those two. Where are they?"

"I don't even know who you're talking about," Nagi answered with a shake of his head, and sauntered off muttering to himself.

"Who was that?" Takumi asked a bit feebly.

"A jerk."


"Natsuki, I've got to go take care of my brother," Mai started to say.

"Your brother?" Natsuki replied archly.

Mai paused, then nodded to concede the point.

"What does she mean by that?" asked Takumi, still feebly.

"I'll explain later," said the person wearing his sister's face, then turned back to Natsuki. "I do want to talk to you again, but I'm not sure where you live, this time."

"There's this wrecked gazebo --" Natsuki started to say.

"You use it as a meeting place, even though it's wrecked?" Mai asked, eyes wide.

"Yes, you clearly know what I'm talking about. Be there tomorrow after class," she said.

"Right. First bit of counsel -- could you try to be a little nicer to Fujino? She's crazy in love with you, y'know?"

Natsuki stared blankly as Mai and her brother started to walk off. "Now, listen, Takumi, there's something I should probably tell you about your roommate before we meet them."

"Neesan, how would you know anything about my roommate?" the boy asked bewildered.

"Well ..." said Mai, before she moved out of Natsuki's hearing range.

"What?" Natsuki finally said, just as she was drowned out by a much louder cry of "What?!" from Takumi.

As big on the outside as Mikado's house was, it was even bigger in the inside. as someone had already observed. Even with all the hidden rooms meant to stash illegal alien cargo, patients in recovery best hidden from local or cosmic authorities, and simple adult recreation chambers, there was still more than enough room for three high school students, three middle school students, a child teacher and Mikado herself to gather together.

There actually wasn't much gathering going on, though, or much in the way of conversation. The high schoolers -- Risa, Mio and Sakura -- were sitting together on one side of the room in use, with Yuna, Haruna and Misora on the other. While Risa and Mio had been happy to accept the invitation to come meet the other friends Negi had told them about, they had perhaps been under the impression that such friends would be their own age or older. Meanwhile, Misora was occasionally giving fearful looks in the direction of Sakura, who feigned not to notice them.

"Well, it seems that I'm going to need to get things started," Negi murmured, just loud enough for Mikado to hear as she stood just outside the room's doorway with him.

"Are you going to tell them everything?" the alien doctor asked. "Even about, well, you know?"

Negi tilted his head to look up at her. "There's a lot that could be covered under that 'you know'," he pointed out, just a bit snarkily. "Which part exactly --"

"Them," Mikado replied. "My other houseguests."

"Oh. Nnnno, I don't think ... well, I think I might tell Sakura to see if she can help them, but Risa and Mio don't need to know about them."

"Your call," said Mikado. "Well, go knock 'em up, sensei."

He smiled at that, and walked into the room, taking up a position in the center of the room. "All right, I suppose you're wondering why I've summoned you all here," he began. "Well, you all have something in common, and I'm about to explain what it is."

"Huh," said Risa a few minutes later. "So lemme see if I've got this right -- magic is real, you use it, so does --" Here she nodded in Sakura's direction. "-- and magic is telling you that humanity needs new heroes, and you want to father them with us."

"That's a simplification, but essentially correct," Negi nodded.

"Oh god, we fucked a crazy dude," Mio said, staring blankly. "We let crazy dip its dick in us, Risa-chan."

"Well, that's what I thought at first, too, but then those aliens showed up, and the whole thing started to seem a lot more plausible," Yuna interjected.

"And some other stuff happened to me, and knowing this helped me make sense of it all," Haruna supplied.

"Okay, yeah, I get it," said Risa, holding up a hand before Misora and/or Sakura could confirm that Negi was not actually crazy about the whole magic thing. "I don't think you're lying, Negi-kun, and I don't think Mio does either. I mean, that thing you did with making fire on your finger was clearly not a trick. It's just ... look, I got into this because I thought it would piss off my parents," she confessed. "And while having a baby when I'm still in high school would really really piss off my parents, it'd also make them kick me out of the house when they found out, and then I don't know how I'd take care of the kid!"

"Risa, that's a completely valid concern," Negi reassured her. "And I would definitely do everything I could to support you and our child."

She made a face. "On a teacher's salary? For all of us?" she reminded him.

"Well, in this case, everything I could do would include drawing on my mother's financial resources, and she's probably the wealthiest woman in the world who isn't a member of the Brittanian royal family or the head of the house of Saud." He paused, looked around with a concerned expression, then turned to stare at Mikado who was still in the doorway. "Do you have an old-fashioned cash register in this complex? Because I could swear I just heard --"

"Must be your imagination," she told him, deciding not to mention the way she'd just seen the sclera of Mio's eyes turn into yen signs for a moment.

"I like this plan!" declared Mio, resting a hand on Risa's hip. "I think this is the coolest plan I've ever heard! Let's do it -- for the future of humanity!" She punched the air with her free hand.

Risa looked at Mio for a moment, before sighing. "It's hard being a girlfriend," she murmured, then spoke up a bit louder. "I'm in too. Um. So, if we stop taking birth control pills now, how long will it take before we get pregnant?" The question was directed at Mikado.

"There are too many variables to give you a precise answer, but the pills should wash out of your system within about a week," the doctor answered. "While I could prescribe some treatments to increase your fertility, I think those are probably best reserved for people who've had demonstrated problems, rather than someone on their first time."

"Heh. It's funny because I haven't had something that could be called my first time since I was eleven, and -- nnnnnever mind," said Risa, realizing that every eye in the room was suddenly on her. "I still have a few questions, Negi-kun, but they can wait."

"All right then. Because the reason I called all of you together was not just to explain this to all of you, but also so we could, you know, have some good times together, and get used to each other's presence, and, you know, enjoy ourselves." Negi smiled warmly.

"I knew it," murmured Sakura, shaking her head.

"Well, you said you wanted to try exhibitionism," Risa said to Mio.

"Didn't I!" Mio agreed energetically, and pounced on her girlfriend, kissing her madly as they rolled off the padded chair and on to the floor together, their clothes starting to come off quickly.

Sakura gave them a brief glance before she got up from where she was sitting and walking over to where Misora was hunched up in a ball. "Misora, are you frightened?" she asked gently.

"Nowhatcouldpossiblygiveyouthatidea?" Misora replied through chattering teeth.

"It's all right to be frightened," her partner told her. "And I'm a bit scared myself. But when I think about that, I think about how lucky I am that my partner is going to be going through this with me, all the way." She crouched down before Misora. "So maybe you could try that, and try to be happy, too? Because I can't be happy when the people I love aren't happy."

"I-I-I-I," Misora repeated, then swallowed, breathed deeply for a few moments. "I love you, Sakura."

"I know," she replied, smiling. And she leaned forward to press her lips against Misora's, and felt Misora pressing up against her as their lips, teeth and tongues brushed against each other, and Sakura's school uniform began to get unbuttoned one by one.

"Well," said Haruna, watching this. "I guess the only thing for me to do is to join with someone who has been asking for it for quite a while, who's been really wanting it, and --" She turned then to see that Negi and Yuna were frantically making out and that one of his hands was already in his roommate's panties.

"Okay, then," Haruna continued, then looked over at Mikado. "Are you in or out?" she asked.

Mikado unbuttoned her lab coat to reveal that she'd left off the underwear this time. "Very much in," she replied, and sauntered over to rock Haruna's world.

"Ngahhhh," said Haruna a few moments later, lying flat on her face on the couch with one foot touching the floor and the other hooked over the end cushions, her bra and panties both pulled out of shape and the eyes behind her glasses dazed. Her world had indeed been rocked.

"You're quite good, for a beginner," Mikado assured her from where she was leaning nudely against the other end cushions, just above Haruna's head. "Much better than a certain annoying, clumsy but oh-so-cute blonde I could tell you about." She sighed then, drifting off into bittersweet memories for a moment.

Displaying the recovery time which was the pride of the Saotome family (that and the speed with which to execute the Saotome secret technique) Haruna managed to roll over onto her back and even lift her head a little. From where she was lying, she could see that Risa and Mio had moved into the sixty-nine position, licking and fingering at each other in well-trained unison. She could hear sounds that told her that Misora was clearly enjoying what was being done to her by Sakura, even if they weren't in her line of sight.

She frowned then, turning her head to look up at the top of the couch, where she'd just had the sensation that she herself was being watched as she watched others. Nobody was there, though, and Haruna shook her head to clear it of such delusions as she turned her head the other way, to watch Yuna and Negi.

It was funny, in a way, how those two always ended up the same way, with Yuna astride him, sometimes bending down as she rocked and rolled on Negi so that she could claim his lips. Haruna knew from experience that Negi could take a much more active role in love-making than he did when he was with Yuna. But he nearly always followed the basketball girl's lead ... and in a way, that wasn't funny at all to Haruna.

"Uhhh. Uhhh. Coming, coming, coming!" gasped Yuna then.

Negi let out a loud, sharp grunt as he pressed up against Yuna's spasming hips, and then they both seemed to lock in place for a moment ... before they collapsed together, Yuna once more falling forward to rest her breasts against Negi's mouth.

"Ah," said Mikado, emerging from her fugue. "My turn now, I think."

"M-maybe I could have --" Haruna stammered.

"Don't be silly, you can't even move your legs yet," the doctor reminded her cheerfully as she stood up and walked over to where Negi and Yuna were coupled. "Upsy-daisy," she said to Yuna, gently pulling her off of Negi and rolling her up into a seated position not far away, without any real resistance from the rather blissed-out Yuna. "My my, still hard!" the doctor said once she'd turned back to regard Negi.

"Um, doctor, I think we --" Negi began to say.

"Ryoko," she said as she knelt down and began rubbing the fluid-covered phallus with one hand while the other came up to tease at one of her own nipples. "Call me that, please. It's close enough to my real name, where Mikado is a complete fabrication."

"All right, Ryoko," he pressed on. "I thought we had an agreement that we wouldn't, until you produced findings --"

"I've had some preliminary successes. I could show them to you, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun as this, wouldn't you agree?" And without further ado, she bent forward and took the top of Negi's erection into her mouth, and then the rest of it as well.

"Ahhh," Negi replied, not offering agreement or disagreement, since both were beyond him at the moment.

"Uch muh mau," the doctor muttered commandingly.

Negi blinked, then figured out what she was saying. Well, if that was she wanted. He reached out to take hold of either side of her head and began pulling and pushing it back and forth ... not too forcefully, for this was a bit new to him, but with the understanding that it probably wasn't all that new to his partner.

"Ummmmmm," she hummed in pleasure, working his cock with her extraordinarily flexible tongue.

Yuna watched this until she realized that she was just watching people having sex instead of having it herself. Shaking her head to clear what few cobwebs remained there, she turned to look at helpless Haruna, intending to finally have her wicked way with her. She was rather annoyed to see that someone else had had the exact same idea a few minutes before her.

"Holy fuck, what are they feeding you middle school girls these days?" Risa asked as she rubbed up against Haruna's supine form and cruelly teased the breasts of Yuna's classmate with her hands. "I never had knockers like this when I was your age."

"Ah!" Haruna cried out. "Rewards of a life of virtue. Fucking kiss me, you high school bitch!"

That she did. Meanwhile, Mio had gotten mixed up in Misora and Sakura's scene, which now involved Sakura lying on the floor while Misora hesitantly kissed one of her breasts and rubbed in the vague vicinity of her partner's crotch, while Mio did the same on the other breast and was much more enthusiastic and less vague about the way that she kissed and rubbed. The few times Mio came close to touching Misora's fingers, the young acolyte pulled back quickly, until a few tongue kisses from Sakura pulled her back in.

"Shit," muttered Yuna, who didn't see a place for herself in either situation. Was she going to be reduced to masturbating again? Then she turned to look at Negi, and got a lot more depressed.

Because he was atop Mikado, or whatever she wanted to be called now, holding her legs back with his elbows as he pumped away between them, her head rolled back and voice almost lost in rapid exhalation. "Yeah, yeah!" she shouted, then something in a language no one there spoke.

Yuna let out a sigh. Masturbation it was, then.


She looked around rapidly. Who'd said that? Nobody in sight ...

And on it went, through the evening. Finally, every girl there had to admit to being satisfied, even those who'd taken pride in their insatiability to that point.

"So who exactly is next, anyway?" Mikado asked, as she lay on one side of Negi, playing with one of his nipples. "Your respective roommates?"

"No," Yuna answered from Negi's other side, very firmly.

"Not as against as some people, but I don't think she'd go for this," Haruna mused from where she was being lightly gamahuched by Mio.

"I live alone," Sakura replied quietly, with Misora cradled up beside her.

"Communal dorm," murmured Misora in her turn.

"She's here already," Risa revealed cheerfully, then her face took on a mischievous streak. "But I think we could avoid a lot of trouble, if we brought in a certain Student Executive member in our class who's always on our asses."

"Come to that, I can think of about five people who might benefit from this," Haruna said, the mischief rising on her own face.

"I thought there were more people in your library club than that," Misora said with a raised eyebrow.

"Not them," Haruna said, now with her full evil maniac smile in evidence. "Different bunch of crazy people."

"Okay," said Riko, as she walked homewards, praying to gods she'd never really believed in to keep the Student Council Executive's curfew patrols far away. "I get that you want to stay here. Under the circumstances, I even get why. But there's something you should probably keep in mind."

"What might that be?" asked Lala Satalin Deviluke, following close behind the rather brave young woman who'd protected her from her pursuers.

"You should definitely do something to make yourself not stand out so much," Riko told her. "I don't know whether you have any idea, but just a few days ago, another bunch of alien jerks tried to invade Earth and --"

"I'm well aware of that," Lala interjected.

"Of course you do," Riko sighed. "It was on the Intergalactic News Network or something."

"There's no such thing, Riko," Lala replied with a shake of her pink-haired head.

"This is a truly dull specimen, Lala-sama," declared the tiny voice of the tiny face of the robot that Lala was presently wearing as clothes.

"Whatever," said Riko, really annoyed, stopping in her tracks and turning to face Lala as she continued speaking. "The point that I was trying to make is that everybody's kind of on edge, and if they got the idea that you were an alien, they might do something really really bad to you. So if you could hide the tail and maybe do something about your hair, that might be the smart thing to do."

Lala regarded Riko curiously. "You really think that I should hide who I truly am from all those I meet?"

Riko opened her mouth to give a firm affirmative ... and found herself thinking about how much it hurt every time she had to pretend to be something she wasn't, and how good it had felt when she finally told her family the truth. Her voice, when she finally did answer, was not nearly as certain or stern as she would have liked. "Maybe," she said, weakly. "It sucks, but maybe that would be best."

Unexpectedly, Lala smiled. "You're really worried about the idea that I could be at risk of harm because of these prejudices, aren't you, Riko?"

"Well, I mean --" Riko stammered.

"Shall we demonstrate to the dull specimen the truly terrible vengeance that would be taken on any primitive who dared to harm you, Lala-sama?" asked the robot.

"Not necessary, Peke," Lala answered calmly. "Let us rather use this current encounter as an example of how I shall do things."

"Current encounter?" Riko muttered, then felt her eyes go wide. "Oh, no," she almost whined, before turning quickly on her heel to try and talk her way out of the situation which doubtless involved a patrol.

Oh, no, it's so much worse than that, she thought as she saw the blue-black haired girl who was regarding her with curiosity verging on stupefaction. "S-s-sairenji?" Riko stammered.

"Good evening, Yuuki," Sairenji Haruna said, with remarkable politeness under the circumstances. "I happened to be out letting my dog care of his business, when I happened to see you running around on rooftops in the company of ... well, this person, here, who seems rather unusual, and so I came looking for you, and found you, and ... well ... um ... what's going on here?" she concluded.

"Oh, you must be one of Riko's friends!" said Lala as Riko struggled to piece together some plausible story. She stepped forward and grabbed hold of one of Sairenji's hands, shaking it forcefully. "I am Lala Satalin Deviluke, First Princess of Planet Deviluke, and Riko's fiancee. It is so nice to meet someone who is surely every bit as appreciative of Riko's character as I am!"

"... fiancee?" Sairenji squeaked.

"I'm in hell," Riko said in quiet tones of revelation. "I died sometime, and now I am in hell. Everything makes so much sense if that's the case!"

It had been a long day, and so Shinji was glad of the opportunity to soak in the tub and let some of the tension he was feeling flow out of him. Of course, being alone with his thoughts was also a bad thing, as it gave him time to dwell on them. His current circumstances weren't exactly enviable. Misato's bark might be worse than her bite, as Ritsuko had told him, but he had the feeling that, if she learned that he was infiltrating Nerv on Zazie's behalf, she wouldn't bite him, but rather just shoot him dead on the spot.

Well, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it, he told himself, then got up, toweled himself off and opened the door to the laundry room so he could put on the clothes he'd set out earlier.

Sitting in the laundry room was a duck. Despite the fact that his eyes were pointing out the fact that the creature had arms instead of wings and was just about the same size as Shinji himself, the bill, the webbed feet, and the white feathers all sang duck at him. Shinji stared at the duck. The duck stared back.

"Ah, Misato?" he said, raising his voice. "Do you own a duck, by any chance?"

"Oh, yeah," she called back at him. "Should've mentioned my other roommate. Shinji, meet Howard. Howard, Shinji."

"Nicetameetcha," the duck said in perfectly understandable if American-accented Japanese.

Shinji nodded politely in response. Okay, the world is completely insane, he decided, and went to put on his underwear.

"Very interesting," said Gendo as he oversaw the repairs to Unit One while listening to Ritsuko's report on the phenomena observed during its brief activation. "However, I do have a question."

"Yes, Director?"

He didn't look back at her. "When you revealed the existence of the other Children to the Third, did you mention the names Shikinami, Asagiri, and so forth?"

Ritsuko had a half-second to wonder why he was asking that, and less than that to decide what her answer was. "Yes," she lied. "I thought there was no harm in doing so."

"It was unnecessary," Gendo said, still not looking at her. "Lie face down on the desk, and lift your skirt."

"Yes, sir," she whispered. For Shinji, she thought.

Half an hour later, he began making use of her.

"I didn't mean it," Miki sobbed. "You'll tell her I didn't mean it, won't you? I don't really think of her as dead. I don't think of her as a rotting corpse that will --" He broke down completely then.

"I promise that I will," Juri assured him. "If I meet her, I will tell your sister that." She stepped back to let the EMTs bundle her friend into the back of their ambulance, closing the doors behind them, and then watched them drive off.

"Shouldn't you be with him?" she asked Mitsuru without glancing at him.

"I will be shortly. It's more important that I tell you some things I found out while they were examining him."

Now she turned to regard him levelly.

"The former Kaoru Kozue moved with her husband to Area 11, where his company does a great deal of work with the Brittanic government, four years ago." he told her. "She has not returned to this country since. Takatsuki Shiori moved to America shortly before Second Impact. She has not returned through any legitimate means either."

"I see," she said, though the truth was she was more bewildered than ever. "You're good at finding people, Mitsuru-san. I need you to find Nanami --"

"I've already placed a call to the social secretary for the wife of Tenjoin-sama," he told her without smiling. "She'll be in touch with you shortly. Please excuse me." He offered the minimal bow, and then headed off toward the faculty parking lot.

Kuroido Takiji was fit to be tied.

Once again, the young lady of the Kiryuuin house had defied her mother and, against all logic, gotten away with it. Even now she was walking away with the precious artifact, Junketsu, which had been secured here, under his watch. And she had not even had the decency to be ashamed when she stripped herself of all clothing to take Junketsu onto herself. (Not that Takiji hadn't seen what she had before, having been vouchsafed a few glimpses of the Kiryuuin family's purification rituals in the past.)

If only that idiot Mitsuzo hadn't died all those years ago, saving her life! Takiji was sure that she would have grown up more submissive under the old fool's guidance. Well, that was beyond help at this point; all that he could take comfort in was the likelihood that this would attract her mother's unwelcome attention. He remembered with disgust her proclamation that there was no one on Earth who could surpass her. Like so many would-be gods in the past, she would learn her place beneath the one true Goddess of this ruined world. Whatever she might delude herself to be, he at least knew her as just a spoiled child.

But that reminded him, and as she prepared to leave the manor behind, he spoke up. "Young mistress, there is one other matter."

She paused, but didn't bother to look back at him.

"Your 'servant', Kuno Tatewaki, has sent you a message inviting you to witness a duel he intends to fight tomorrow, at dawn, beneath Academy City's World Tree. Shall I send your regrets?" And now she would of course agree, and he would be able to draw some satisfaction from reminding her of the Kuno family's long history of support for the Kiryuuin family, and play on her guilt and --

"No, I will go and see what may be seen." And with that, she departed, walking into the night without ever once looking at him.

He hated her so very much.

Nagi stared up at the telescope with vague interest, even though the things of man's creation really held no interest to him. He honestly found their appeal to the one whom he'd come to address to be incomprehensible.

"Just a moment, please, the repairs are almost complete," said that individual, working at the telescope's base.

"Sorry, but I'm not interested in waiting. Just let me know if this distracts you. Here's the thing -- someone has been pulled from another world to interfere in my Carnival. And I know that I can't do that, and neither can my opposite number. But I was thinking about it, and the fact that her body is the same as it should be but her mind is different, that made me think of you. So I was wondering, did you do this, Samyaza? Or do you prefer the name Otori Akio these days?"

The tall, tanned man with light hair paused in his labors, and turned to regard his interrogator. "I don't know what you're talking about ... but ... I have an idea who might have done something like that, possibly to bring us into conflict. Would you be interested in learning about that, Homura Nagi? Or should I go back to calling you Tabris?"

"... let us reason together," the pale boy answered.

To Be Continued

Chapter Text

The sun had probably risen, but the gray clouds were covering enough of the reddened sky to completely obscure it, and a fall of red rain had also begun. Over the last decade, there had been a handful of cases each year of someone developing an allergic reaction -- usually non-fatal -- after exposure to the rain, but it was never possible to prove that the true cause wasn't some pollutant spewed into the damaged atmosphere. Despite the rarity of cases, almost non-existent compared to the cases of illness resulting from exposure to ocean waters, most people stayed indoors when it rained.

Saionji Kyoichi did not view himself as most people. Neither, he supposed, did the young woman standing just a few feet away from him on the hill of the World Tree, though unlike Saionji, she stayed beneath an umbrella held up for her by her blond gorilla-like associate. The third person on the hillside, standing in the distance from both of them, was getting even wetter than either of them.

"An unpleasant day for a duel," Saionji said, keeping his eyes on his best student.

"And yet an appropriate one, as well," replied Kiryuuin Satsuki.

"... have we satisfied the requirements of civil discourse?" asked Saionji.

"I believe so," the wretched girl answered.

"Good," Saionji said, and spoke no more. He did not, however, cease to quietly observe her. He was aware that he had something of a reputation for rigid thinking, and would perhaps not deny the charge. Yet he was not without some ability to observe, and his present observations told him that the Kiryuuin girl was wearing something slightly different than her normal school uniform. There were those among his associates who would find that noteworthy. He would have to pass on the message when this farcical duel was --

"Excuse me," said a girl's voice. Every eye on the hill promptly turned in the newcomer's direction, to see a rain-soaked, red-haired girl of perhaps fifteen or sixteen years, dressed in a red shirt and black Chinese pants, approaching. "Ah, I have a message for Kuno Tatewaki-senpai from Saotome Ranma. Is he here?" She looked around as one bewildered ... or perhaps as one seeking to seembewildered.

"I am he," declared Saionji's student. "Kuno Tatewaki am I. Fair maid, speak your message, if you would."

She muttered something that Saionji couldn't quite make out, then spoke to carry. "Kuno-senpai, Saotome Ranma bids me to ask whether you are familiar with the tradition that one cannot challenge a master of the Chinese martial arts without first defeating some of his disciples?"

"I am passingly familiar with that custom," the boy answered. "What of it?"

"He then bids me say, you haven't challenged any of his disciples yet. Sorry, I just carry the messages," she said into the silence that followed.

"The arrogance!" roared Kuno. "For a beardless boy to declare himself a master, even of a false and inadequate tradition such as Chinese martial arts, and then send an innocent girl to deliver such a message! This Ranma is no man! No man, I say!"

"Well, I can't really argue with that," said the girl, looking down and rubbing one foot against the other.

"Why did you accept such a charge from such as him, sweet summer child?" Kuno demanded of her.

She sighed. "I really have no choice in the matter. I must do as Saotome Ranma bids me do." With that declaration, she looked away, then again muttered something that Saionji couldn't quite make out. Perhaps the word, 'technically' was uttered.

Kuno let out a horrified gasp. "Can it be? Can it truly be that Saotome Ranma is some manner of tyrant, binding women to his will through the use of -- dear girl, has he assaulted you?"

The girl looked startled for a moment, then brought her hands up to her face. "Woe is me!" she cried. "My shame is known to all!"

"This shall not stand!" Kuno declared, a battle aura blazing into sight around himself and his goku. "No duel shall I fight with Saotome Ranma. He shall simply receive a thrashing when next we meet, the caitiff rogue and varlet! Fear not, oh pigtailed girl! Never again shall he dare to touch you!"

"Oh, Kuno-senpai," the girl cried out, starry eyed, as she rushed forward to press herself against him. "You must please permit me to speak to you of my former master's weaknesses, that you might more efficiently thrash him when you meet. Come, let us move to a more private environs to speak of such matters, one to the other."

"Verily!" he pronounced, and took her in his arms as they began walking down towards the plaza below, leaving their watchers behind them.

"... well, that was extraordinarily anti-climactic," said Satsuki, sounding rather disgusted.

Saionji had closed his eyes when the pigtailed girl had started in with the 'you must please permit me' business. "I suspect that your choice of words is about to become very ironic," he said.

"What do you --" she began to ask.

"Ah, ah, ah, pigtailed girl --" came a breathless sounding voice from further down the hill.

"Ku-kuno-samaaaaaaa," replied another breathless voice.

"Oh," said Satsuki. "I see." Saionji was rather startled to detect a fair amount of prudish disgust in her tone. Without saying anything further, however, the master of Honnoji turned and walked away from the sounds, followed unhesitatingly by Gamagori.

"Ahhhh!" Kuno's voice cried out.

"... you've got to be kidding me," came the girl's voice.

Saionji frowned. Before he could do anything, though, there came a noise he vaguely recognized as that typical of a bokken hitting someone's head, repeatedly, followed by someone whistling for a moment, before that faded from hearing.

By the time he reached the plaza, Saionji was no longer surprised to find his best student collapsed in a heap and his bokken in pieces beside him. The words 'this jerk is a quick shooter', written in Kuno's blood on the wall behind him, were a bit surprising, though.

Later that day -- quite a bit later, in fact -- Negi was quietly reviewing his lesson plan at his desk in the teacher's office, when he sensed a presence behind him a moment before Shanna spoke his name.

"Yes, Shanna?" he asked, turning to face her.

"Didn't jump," she said, in a faintly approving tone. "But I was there for a while and you didn't know. Here," she concluded, handing him a folded paper that Negi recognized as stationery from the Headmaster.

He unfolded it and read it silently. "I see," he said, after a moment. He turned to Shanna and smiled at her. "Please tell Konoemon-sensei that I have complete confidence that my class will be able to accomplish what he requests."

She stared at him. "You want me to lie." Her voice, when she finally spoke, was very flat.

He sighed, and nodded to acknowledge the point. "You're right. I apologize. Just tell him that I got the message."

"Good," she said, then turned to go, yet paused after her first silent step. "I am also watching you," she told him with a brief backwards glance.

Shortly afterwards, while he was supposed to be teaching 2-A, Negi sat consumed by troubling thoughts, as his favorite batch of students loudly played something called Baseball Janken, which apparently had little to do with baseball and everything to do with answering random questions and losing articles of clothing when failing to answer correctly.

The six Baka Rangers had, of course, already been reduced to their underwear, revealing that Chizuru wore some rather scandalous negligee beneath her school uniform. Meanwhile, Chisame was sitting at the back of the class after refusing to take part in any of this, her face all but buried into a laptop she wasn't supposed to bring along to classes. Evangeline napped on her seat, arms folded, Karin sat beside her with her eyes firmly shut, and Zazie sat on the window's frame silently feeding some birds. (Rei was participating but had answered every question posed to her her correctly.)

In the middle of the noisy havoc Yuna came to the realization that Negi wasn't taking discreet leering glances at the female flesh on display. Granted, after the previous night, he'd seen more than his fair share of such matters, but Yuna'd long since realized that the little perv was more or less insatiable. Therefore, she slid to his side while Ayaka tried in vain to stop the circus. "Hey," she asked him, in a low, concerned tone. "You feeling okay there?"

"No," Negi sighed, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. "No, I'm not." He gestured for her to come closer, which she did, and then he whispered into her ear, telling her what had been in the note.

She grimaced as she listened. The whole class had to pass these end-of-term exams or he was out of a job? "Ohhhh boy," she said. "That's bad."

Negi only nodded. He couldn't fail and leave Mahora now, not when he had only just begun. He couldn't go back to his family a walking shame, a failure of a mage, not while the world around them crumbled with no saviors, no one to map the future and pick up the pieces. He couldn't turn away from the promise Zazie had made to him, and everything that would come after it. And most of all, he refused to even consider leaving the members of the collective, who couldn't possibly just abandon their lives to follow after him, and the children of his they would bear. No matter what, no matter how much it took from him, he couldn't fail. They couldn't fail.

Yuna looked back at where the Narutaki twins were trying to pull a struggling and kicking Asuna's bra off after the redhead had failed yet another question. "It ain't gonna be easy at all," the basketball player opined.

"Well," her teacher and sorta-boyfriend sighed. "It wouldn't be much of a worthy test if it was easy, would it?"

At least he could take small comfort in the notion that this had always been on the agenda, and he wasn't being targeted by the Headmaster for his mistakes. Konoemon would hardly do that after he'd agreed to become one of the campus guardians. This was something he had always been going to have to face, and he and they would just have to overcome this challenge. Somehow.

Yuuna hummed, supporting her weight on her elbows and her elbows on Negi's desk. "Let me talk with the Baka Rangers. If they pass, we should be able to do it. The rest of us don't fare that badly. Hell, Hakase, Iincho and Hino are some of the top scorers in the whole school. I'll take care of it, maybe get Haruna involved, too."

Negi looked up at her, starry eyed. "Would you do that for me, really?"

"Well, I kinda have to, don't I?" she grumbled, subtly putting a hand to her stomach.

Rei chose that moment to turn away from the sight of Asuna wearing a handbra and being asked to spell Mississippi, giving the two of them a glance. They promptly stepped away from each other and did their best to look innocent.

Interesting, the Guardian thought. 

He was genuinely happy that Yuna was going to try to persuade the Baka Rangers to give it their all in the upcoming exams. And yet there was still a sense of dissatisfaction underneath that happiness. After all, this was an elevator school, and the girls' tests would just determine which classes they were put in when they went on to high school, not whether they were accepted or not. The test for him, on the other hand, meant something concrete, and he wasn't sure that he'd given his efforts in the area all that he could.

"Well," Negi mused to himself as he stood outside the classroom, considering all this, "I could use that one spell I read about, the one that gives those on whom it is cast a boost in intelligence for three days, in exchange for being knocked unconscious for three weeks after the spell wears off. Admittedly, I'm not sure how it goes, but if I remember how to cast it correctly --"

"Hold it," shouted Asuna from behind him.

"Oh, you're dressed," he said, turning to look at her.

"'Oh, you're dressed'," she repeated, shaking a fist at him. "That's your reaction to someone catching you contemplating using magic to help us cheat on tests?"

"It wouldn't be cheating," Negi said, affronted. "You wouldn't be given the answers, you'd just be better able to remember them."

"Oh, so it'd be doping, instead," Asuna growled. "Much better. Did you use that spell on yourself to take your tests at college?" she asked pointedly.

"Well, no, I didn't have to," he replied. "But father said that I definitely should, if it became necessary."

"Dammit, Nagi-san, what're you teaching this kid!" she almost wailed at the ceiling. "Look, we are all going to try our best at these tests, and the best thing you can do as our teacher is have faith in our ability to do that. Using magic to help us doesn't do that. Okay?"

"Okay," he said faintly.

"And incidentally, Em-Eye-Ess-Ess-Eye-Ess-Ess-Eye-Pee-Pee-Eye," Asuna said rather proudly.

"Very good. And how long is it?"

"... oh get bent."

Considering that, it was with some surprise that Negi found himself, later that evening (and well-past curfew) marching next to Yuna at the back of a small group composed of the Baka Rangers, Nodoka, Haruna, Konoka, and a trembling, eerily shy and silent sempai named Shiomiya Shiori, moving through passages beneath Library Island.

"So how did this happen again?" he whispered to Yuna.

"Well, I went to the girls while they were in the bath, and just as I was about to make my pitch, Haruna came in with this rumor that people who failed this exam would be sent back to kindergarten to start over. And then Ayase started talking about these rumors she'd heard about this book that could magically enhance your intelligence in the basement of the library ... and it sort of blossomed from there." She shrugged, helplessly.

"How did they manage to talk Asuna into this?" he wondered.

"... it was actually her idea."

Negi's eyes grew wide and he almost missed a step. Raising his voice, he coughed politely. "Oh, Asuna? Dear sister? Greatest of all sisters? Without whom I'd never survive? Could I please, oh please, have a word in private?" He watched her flinch repeatedly without much in the way of pity for her.

"Wow, I'm so jelly," Makie said. "My little brother never talks about me like that."

"Okay, okay, okay," Asuna said once she'd broken out of the march and came back to talk with him and Yuna. "I know what I said, but this is different. If it's about getting sent back to the kindergarten --"

"Do you actually think a private school like this could function if they tried to tell parents who have paid for nine years of education that they'd have to pay for another nine?" Negi whispered furiously. "Can you imagine our parents' reaction to that?"

"I don't want to imagine that, that's why I'm doing this!" she told him. "Look, I don't know whether any of this is crazy or not, but if someone as hard-headed as Yue is willing to give it a try, then why not? Just tell me you didn't seal away your magic or something because of what I said."

"Who'd hamstring themselves like that?" Negi asked, genuinely bewildered. "Oh, fine, let's catch up."

"Well, here we are," Yue dryly said, stopping before the large closed door at the end of the half flooded underground passage. "This is the forbidden entrance to the taboo depths of Library Island. You still can head back if you act right now; otherwise, consider your souls as offerings to the Great Quest for Forbidden Lore."

"Yue," Haruna said. "I'm the Large Ham here, remember?"

"I have no idea what you are talking about," Yue kept hamming it up with full deadpan gusto. "Negi-sensei, we have brought you to witness our hunt for a tome of legend that is said to exist under this island, in chambers long untouched by human hands. A book that will greatly increase the intelligence of anyone who touches it!"

Negi nodded politely. "I see. I have to ask, though, wouldn't it be far easier to just study for the test?"

"No," Ku Fei said.

"No," Kaede said.

"No," Yue said.

"No," Chizuru said.

"Hell, no!" Asuna cringed.

"This water's too cold!" Makie whined, pulling a foot up and out of the clear waters they had been treading through.

Yue produced a key out of a breast pocket, using it to open the door. "When the Library Exploration Club found this passageway, we never found the key to this lock. But we were able to make a copy by studying the lock."

"All done by Shiomiya-sempai with nothing but a book on locksmithing and a box of scraps! In this cave!" Haruna proudly said, patting the older yet smaller girl's back. "Isn't that right, Sempai?"

"Ah-ah, ah-hah," she weakly said, blushing and avoiding eye contact with Negi.

"Well, that's very impressive," the boy said, following the girls into the first dusty chamber of the secret area, as each Library Girl pulled a small but powerful lantern out to light their way. "But, won't we get into trouble if we're caught here?"

"Not even the Student Executive ever come down here," Haruna shrugged, leading the way fearlessly. "I'm not sure if they know this place exists, but even if they do, odds are they'll be afraid of the traps."

"Traps?!" Makie and Asuna cried.

"Relax, the first three chambers are as trap-free as the public areas above us," Haruna assured them.

"Only because we have taken our time defusing them all," Yue pointed out. "From the fourth chamber and beyond, we'll have to watch our steps very carefully. Down there, anything can happen. That's why Haruna, Nodoka, and Shiomiya-sempai will stay at the third chamber, acting as mission control. Should --"

"Actually, I'm coming down too," Haruna interjected.

Yue paused, then coughed politely. "According to the regulations of the Library Exploration Club, two members of the Club must remain at base camp at all times. Shiomiya-sempai, while an associate of the Club, is not a member. Someone has to stay."

"But --" Haruna started to object, casting a discreet look in Negi's direction.

He quickly shook his head. He wasn't about to take more than one member of his collective into danger like this, under the circumstances.

Haruna visibly pouted. "Oh, fine," she said.

Yue looked a bit surprised that she hadn't gotten more of an argument on the subject. "Very well, then. If our communications with them are broken, they'll call for help."

"Y-Y-Y-Yes, y-y-y-yes, w-w-w-w-we wi-wi-wi-will!" Shiori managed to stutter.

"... well, Nodo-chan and I will call for help, that is," Haruna amended before Yue elbowed her in the stomach.

Negi nodded once again. "Very well then. But I feel obligated to point out that studying together in a warm and safe session with tea and pleasant music in the room of our choice would be a generally safer and dare I say saner course of action."

"'Twould, but for that cursed word 'studying'," Kaede said, with a shrug and a smile.

"I think I'll take my chances with the traps," Makie said, with a nod.

"Ditto!" Asuna agreed.

Makie honestly wasn't sure what kind of person thought it would be a good idea to put traps in a library. It wasn't like libraries needed traps to keep people away. Later, she would be told about how valuable and dangerous certain books could be, and how they needed to be kept under strict security. She would regard these claims with unexpected skepticism, particularly after she’d spent some time in palaces and found that they didn’t have nearly as many traps as this.

So far, they had encountered pit traps, traps that shot spears out the walls, traps triggered when an awestruck Negi pulled a book out of its shelf and an arrow was shot towards his head only to be caught by badass Kaede at the last moment, traps that made spikes fall from the ceiling, traps that sent rolling boulders after them, traps of quicksand, traps that almost caught them in coffins, traps that consisted of green devil mouths that supposedly contained tiny black holes, traps that were made of slicing ribbons, traps that flooded the room they were in, and traps that sent the walls against each other. And they only were at the ninth level of this horrible, horrible book-filled hell.

Makie shuddered as her friends pulled her out of the pit into which she might have fallen had she not been fast enough to latch onto Kaede's arm with her gymnastic ribbon. (Never leave home without it!) She had used the same ribbon at the start of their ordeal to pull Negi out of the spikes' way, so it was a safe bet she would treasure it for the rest of her life. Which wouldn't be terribly long, if the building kept getting worse.

"That, that was seriously scary!" the petite pink haired gymnast whined. "I th-thought I'd die!"

"Ah ha ha, that nothing!" Fei laughed. "This good training course! Never thought library could be fun! I join Exploration Club soon, yes?"

"YOU AREN'T HUMAN!" Makie and Asuna screamed at her in synch.

“Well, let’s look at the bright side,” Chizuru suggested. “There are at least no guardian or wandering monsters.”

In the distance could be heard a faint roaring noise.

“Oh, perhaps I should not have said that,” Chizuru mused as everyone else (with the exception of Fei, who began laughing still more gleefully) stared balefully at her.

And then, after too many travails down their peril-filled path into the endless abyss of forbidden, hidden culture, the weathered Virgils and Dantes of this sordid tale arrived at a gigantic Twister board sculpted in rock, guarded by two humongous armored statues, one holding a massive spear and the other a vast warhammer.

"Well, this is certainly unexpected," Chizuru said.

"I think I just wet myself," Makie shared, standing well behind the unfazed Kaede and grinning Ku.

"GREETINGS, HUNTERS FOR FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE," one of the statues spoke, with a voice that boomed through the whole chamber. "COME FORTH, IF YOU DARE, AND FACE THE CHALLENGE TO OBTAIN ULTIMATE WISDOM ... OR GO BACK THE WAY YOU CAME, NEVER TO RETURN!" It was, Negi noted, holding a book with Greek characters on its cover … characters that he recognized, and that made his heart race a bit.

Konoka blinked, then narrowed her eyes. "Grandpa? Is that you?" she asked.

The statue fell silent for a moment before answering, "NO. WHAT MOVES YOU TO ASK SUCH A RIDICULOUS QUESTION?"

"You kinda sound like my grandpa, talking through some heavy voice filter," Konoka observed.

"Really?" Asuna asked. "They don't sound alike at all to me."


"Then how are you answering our questions?" asked Yue. "Audioanimatronics can only follow previous programming. And why did you hesitate while making that statement?"


Asuna smiled and brought her fists together. "Okay, big guy, do your worst, then. We can take anything you send our way!"

"You of all people being confident about an intellectual match? Really?" said Yuna with a side-glance at her.

"If we could do that, we wouldn't need to be here to begin with!" Makie cried.


There was silence.

Makie scratched her head. "Gee, that's a tough one."

"Are you freakin' kidding us?!" Asuna yelled. "Even I know that one! It's all over all TV shows, cartoons and movies, like, since forever! I can't believe it! What a fraud! What a joke! The answer is 'A man'! Everyone knows that, except Makie!"

"Well, I don't like my cartoons too deep," Makie said in an unapologetic tone.

There was more silence.

"SORRY," the golem said. "BUT YOU HAD TO ANSWER USING THE TWISTER BOARD WITHIN AN UNDEFINED TIME LIMIT. YOU HAVE FAILED," it said, and swung its hammer down, shattering the section of stone floor the group had been standing on, sending them all plummeting into the cold darkness below.

"That isn't faaaaaaaaaaaaaaairrrrrrrrrr!" Negi complained as he fell.

"Waaaaaaa!" shrieked Makie.

"You only wanted to see us twisting and showing our panties, you jerrrrrrrrrrrrk!" Asuna howled, shaking a fist at the creature as she dropped into oblivion.

"Asuna, this is all your fauuuuuuuuult!" Yuna cried.

"Oh myyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!" exclaimed Chizuru as she plunged to certain doom.

"Grandpa, how could youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!" was Konoka's parting shot.

"I TOLD YOU, I AM NOT YOUR GRANDPA," said the statue as it leaned over the pit, surely to direct its voice so as to be clearly heard, and definitely not so as to get a better view of the girls as they plummeted. “I AM A –” It paused then, to hear the faint noise of the floor on which it stood continuing to crumble a bit. "OH, FEATHERS," it said, and then pitched into the darkness after them.

"What do you mean, we lost the signal?" Haruna demanded.

"We lost the signal," Nodoka told her, in a slightly higher and more panicked tone than she'd used before.

"Okay, that's repetition, not explanation," the mangaka reminded her teammate.

"We lost the signal!" Nodoka repeated ... again ... now on the verge of hysterics.

"Hoboy," Haruna sighed, then turned to look at Shiori, expecting her to be in the same panicked state.

To her surprise, now that there were no disturbingly attractive members of the opposite sex present, the older girl seemed to have come somewhat out of her shell, and was busily paging through journals of previous incarnations of the Library Exploration Club. "Okay ... okay ... ah, if they went d-down that way and avoided all the traps, wh-which we know they did, then they would end up ... ohhhhhh dearrrrrr."

"What, what?" Haruna and Nodoka chorused.

Shiori swallowed. "Th-th-they'd end up in the ch-challenge room, one of the rooms with b-b-breakaway flooring above a v-v-vertical shaft to level twelve ... and if th-they're at that level, r-radio signals w-w-won't r-r-reach!"

"Level twelve?" Haruna squawked. "I thought it only went down to eleven!"

"No, no, it goes to thirteen, one for every two letters of the English alphabet, but thirteen is flooded," Nodoka recited in a dream-like state.

"Okay, okay," Haruna said, holding back panic somehow. "So what's on level twelve? What did the team that found this challenge room discover?"

"Th-th-thhhhhey didn't!" Shiori stammered. "Th-they w-won th-their ch-challenge, c-c-came b-back to the surface with the b-b-book, and only found out about the b-b-b-breakaway flooring when th-th-they r-r-r-reflected on observations about the sound of th-their footsteps!"

"So, basically we have no idea what they might find down there," Haruna said, still managing to hold it together.

"Yue-yue!" Nodoka babbled. "Asuna-san! Negi-sensei!"

Shiori had set down the journals and begun desperately flipping through book after book. "I'm sure, I'm sure th-there must be something on rescues from the forbidden unknown areas somewhere around here!" she cried out, then slammed the last book shut and ran for the door. "I'll go get the rest of the manuals from the public area!" Shiori called behind her as she passed from view.

"What're we going to do?" Nodoka wimpered. "Even if we find the right procedure, everyone else is asleep. What're we going to do? They'll be down there until morning at least! What're we going to do do? Paruuuuu?"

Haruna slammed her hands down on Nodoka's shoulders. "We're gonna not panic," she told Nodoka firmly. "Because Negi's down there, and two of the most capable people we know are down there with him, and Asuna's there too, and Yuna's there. So it's going to be okay."

Nodoka blinked. "Why do you trust Yuna so much? And why are you being so informal about sensei? And why --"

And Haruna told her everything. (Well, everything about Negi, not the parts about Haruna's recently extended family.) Nodoka's eyes went through a number of changes, from tiny black dots, to large circles, to bright red blanks that matched the rest of her face, and eventually back to what passed for normal, once the full account had been given.

"And that's why," Haruna concluded, with a firm nod of her head. "Heck, I bet he'll come out of this with a bunch of new Negettes."

"Negettes?" Nodoka said in a voice almost too high to hear.

"That’s the name I'm using for members of his 'collective'," she said, with air quotes in the appropriate location.

"Hah," the girl with bangs replied, nodding.

"You don't understand at all, do you?" Haruna asked.

"Hah," the girl with bangs replied, shaking her head side to side.

"Okay, telling hasn't worked, so I'm gonna show you," said Haruna, resting both of her hands on both of Nodoka's hips. "Just say so if you don't like what I'm doing."

"Wha--" Nodoka said, then found it hard to talk on account of being kissed.

Several moments later, Shiori returned, walking much more slowly than she'd departed, mostly because she was carrying a rather large stack of books with her, comparable to that which Nodoka had been carrying on a rather windy day recently. "Okay, I th-think I found them all this time," she announced.

Then she stared at the sight of Haruna, her blazer undone, shirt pulled up and bra hanging around her waist, rocking back and forth against Nodoka's body as the smaller girl lay flat on her back, blazer also undone, shirt also pulled up, bra nowhere to be seen. Their crotches were plainly grinding against each other, and Nodoka seemed to be muttering gibberish as her eyes rolled back in her head. They did pause to turn and look in Shiori's direction as she arrived.

"But, you know, I could be wrong about that, I think I will go back and check," Shiori announced as she set the books down, turned on her heel, and ran as fast as she could out of the library and this story.

After a moment, Haruna shrugged and resumed tribbing.

"Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod," the more-or-less agnostic Nodoka panted as she lay in a soggy heap a little while later.

"Okay, that actually helped me really calm down," Haruna mused as she sat basically naked beside Nodoka. She felt a vague urge to smoke, but, lacking any cigarettes, was unable to do so. "I know what I've got to do now, and who can help us out the most. Fret not, dear Nodochin," she declared grandly. "Negi-sensei will indeed be in class tomorrow!"

"But wha'bout ever'body else?" Nodoka managed to mumble.

"You can't expect me to think of everything, you know."

Makie kept yelling all the way down, clinging to Yuna and closing her eyes, until she heard Negi's voice, loud and clear, rising above her cries with a few strange but strong words. "Ras Tel Ma Skel Magister!" She had no idea what that was supposed to mean, and might have thought it was a really weird choice for some last words. However, moments afterwards, they did not strike the ground with great force, and instead floated down gently the rest of the freefall, until they safely reached a large, crystal clear water of quiet waters, into which they fell with barely as much as a splash.

The girls, except Yuna, who had hidden her face between her hands, looked as one at the bashful-looking Negi, who held that long bandaged wooden staff he was always carrying around between his hands, looking guilty as all hell.

At last, Chizuru spoke for all of them. "Excuse me, Negi-sensei, but I hope I will not offend you in any way if I chance to inquire as to whether or not you are some manner of wizard."

"... we don't use that word," Negi said very quietly.

The silence which fell was broken by the sound of Asuna making a disgusted noise.

Oh dear, now you've done it, you're screwing this over past any repair, aren't you? Yuna thought, overwrought with quiet, trembling despair.

All right, I can work with this, they'd learn sooner or later anyway, maybe I can even turn this to our favor, Negi thought at the same time. Aloud, he said "It's a very long story, and I'm not sure this is the time or place to address it. However, you should probably be aware that if it becomes known that a large number of people are aware of my situation, or if it becomes any more public, my superiors will --" He broke off, glanced in Makie's direction, and coughed uncomfortably. "-- turn me into an ermine." Lies to children were part of a healthy education, after all.

"... what's an ermine?" Makie squeaked, her mind still rather fractured.

"I can't believe you are seriously just going to go on --" Asuna started to say. Well, more accurately rant.

"Asuna!" Konoka interrupted sharply. "You realize your little brother just saved our lives, don't you? And besides, we can't possibly harm someone with such a COOL secret!" she added, clasping her hands together and squealing her pure delight. "This is the best! First I learn that magic is real, and even better, my best friend's brother, who is also our cute teacher, knows how to do magic! I don't think I've been this happy since I left Kyoto! Hey, hey, Negi-kun, where did you learn magic? Can I learn, too?"

"Well, I suppose I could teach you a few things," Negi said, with obviously feigned reluctance.

"Ah-ah-hem," Asuna said, and gave him a death glare.

"This ... makes sense. Actually, this makes a lot of sense," Yue said, voice growing louder as she continued to speak. "All the strangeness that I've observed over the last two years, about this academy and the others, these things can all be explained if one thing is taken into account -- that magic is real, and there are those who can use it. And maybe it explains so many other mysteries of our world -- sensei, did magic really have something to do with the assassination of U.S. President Sheridan, under the so-called 'magic bullet theory'?" she demanded.

"That was well before my time, Yue-san, so I really couldn't say," he told her, a bit frightened by her intensity.

"Oh-ho. Truly, one surprise development after another," Kaede said, seeming quite calm as she rubbed her chin. "Even for one who lives in the shadow, born from the shadow, and cannot experience shock in life or death."

Ku looked sideways at Yuna. "You no look shocked at all. I expect that from Baka Blue, but you?"

"I already knew," Yuna grumbled.

The other girls were staring at her now.

"What? He lives with me!" she snapped.

"But you didn't tell me anything?! And I'm your best friend!" cried Makie.

"Maki-chan, you mean the world to me, but Akira is my best friend."

"Well, I know you didn't tell her, either, because Akira would have told me what you told her, since she is really my best friend," Makie said, sounding hurt.

"Ummm, well," Yuna replied uncomfortably. To get out of the situation, she pointed at a certain girl who had not been staring at her. "Asuna knew, too, y'know!"

The eyes of the crowd now focused on Asuna.

Who sighed, and said, "Yeah, yeah, he's my step-brother, I knew about all this crap."

Konoka broke the silence that had just fallen, speaking rather icily. "I think you and I may need to have a little chat about the responsibilities of being someone's best friend, Asuna-san. Yuna-san can listen in."

"Aw, Konoka, don't be like that," Asuna groaned.

"Like Benjamin Franklin said, 'Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead'," Yue observed. "Our numbers are well past that level. However, I don't think it matters that much, anyway," she said, looking all around herself. "It seems we have fallen into some sort of strange underworld where we'll probably perish unless Negi-sensei has some sort of teleporting magic."

"I don't," Negi quickly replied. "But I could fly us all out of here, one at a time, using my staff as a broomstick --"

"Except me," Asuna noted quietly.

"Huh?" asked Makie.

Negi made a face. "Yes, unfortunately, that's true, I've never been able to fly with Asuna as a passenger, owing to certain ... talents that she possesses."

"Well, I guess you will just have to live here, Asuna-san," Chizuru said, not nearly as sadly as you'd think.

"It completely okay with me," Fei nodded.

"This one sees no reasons to argue," Kaede said as she relaxed, back against a tree.

"Your bravery shall never be forgotten, Asuna-san," Konoka solemnly promised.

"Every year, we'll drink with Iinchou to your memory!" Makie sniffed.

"And let's not forget whose fault all this is in the first place," Yuna observed pointedly.

Asuna's right eyebrow twitched. "Swell."

In the end, after Negi took Kaede up with him, they found the entrance to the upper chambers had been completely blocked by wreckage -- too much rubble for any of them to move.

"So we're screwed, right?" Asuna, all somber and moody now, asked as they all sat around a small campfire on one of the bizarre underground's tiny islands. Yuna, Makie, Chizuru, Konoka, Kaede and Fei all nodded in silence. Yue was far too busy reading to care.

"Come on, girls!" Negi said, standing up with a clenched fist. "Let's trust our comrades! Right now, I'm sure they are mounting a daring rescue effort to retrieve us! Until they arrive here, we will take advantage of the surrounding collection of books to prepare for the test and show the world you have no need for magic to let your natural talents shine!"

Asuna threw a book at him. "We're actually going to end up studying, after all this crap?"

And, indeed, study they did. Negi was not cruel enough to force them to study at all hours, but, during the time when they would have been in classes, he made sure that they still had classes. And he also spent time discussing the problems that each of them had encountered on the mock tests in private, offering encouragement and praise when appropriate. He also searched the shelves for books that might offer better insight into the material than the current texts did.

It was while doing so that he found something interesting -- a rather thick tome, with covers made of black leather, that was surrounded by a set of chains connected to a padlock. There was no title on the cover, so he wasn't sure what to make of it, but Negi found himself strangely fascinated nonetheless. He popped it into the same magical pocket he used to store his staff at times when he shouldn't have such things with him, for future reference, then resumed his search ...

... only to be distracted by the sounds of nearby splashing.

Yue and Konoka were a few miniature islands away, relaxing while reading to their hearts' content, and Asuna had excused herself away to go use the girls' nature restroom, so Yuna, Chizuru, Kaede, Fei and Makie now sat alone in a small lagoon, bathing in the nude after hours of review and revision.

"So, Yuna," Makie asked out of the blue, although everyone had been expecting it anyway. "What is it like to live with Negi-kun?"

Yuna shrugged. "It's okay, I guess. He washes and presses his own clothes, and he's better at keeping his things neat and organized than Dad. Doesn't snore much, either. Yeah, I'd say it's a cool experience, for the most part."

"Uwaaaaaaa!" Makie said, small fists tightened under her own chin. "I'm so envious! Can't you lend him to Ako and me for a week, at least?"

"That depends, are we best friends again?" Yuna asked just a bit snidely.

"Ohhh, yes, of course we are," Makie replied in a frustrated tone.

"And you like me better than Akira?"

Dead silence ensued as Makie looked away uncomfortably.

"Yeahhhh, that's what I thought," Yuna said with a sly smirk. "Anyway. Negi's not a toy, Makie. I don't think you're ready to look after him."

"But have you not proclaimed to all of us that he, in fact, is one who sees to his own welfare, Yuna-dono?" asked Kaede.

"That's how it sounded to me, too," Chizuru pointed out.

"It's more complex than that, sheesh!" Yuna said. "He's very mature for a boy, yeah, but he's still got special needs not anyone can-- why are all y'all looking at me like that now?"

"Ho-ho-ho!" Fei chuckled, stroking beneath her nose as though she had a moustache. "Negi-bozu has complex manly needs, yes?"

Makie giggled, playfully splashing the water. "Yuuu-na! I'd have expected that from Iinchou, but you?"

Yuna flushed. "That is not what I meant!"

"This one assumes, from one's limited understanding of such matters, that Yuna-domo referred to the need for support and relief a user of magic needs in this mundane world," Kaede said.

"Uh ... yeah, that's the ticket, of course!" Yuna said.

Ku and Makie descended into more giggling, supporting themselves on each other. "Relief!" they chorused. Chizuru permitted herself a mild chuckle as well.

Yuna grew upset. "Hey, seriously, cut it out already."

"Yuna-dono, who is well-known as one who dissembles not at all, has offered no particular rebuttal to their points," the tallest of the girls said with a small smile.

"Um ... bwah? What are you implying there?" asked Yuna.

"She said you're not a liar, so why aren't you just saying that they're wrong," Chizuru explained, regarding Yuna a bit curiously.

"Verily." Kaede folded her arms behind her own neck, in a way that would have emphasized her boobage to anyone who happened to be viewing them. "At this juncture, 'tis obvious to even the feeblest of minds that Negi-bozu has been forced to grow swiftly, far more swiftly than one of his age should. This one, who knew a similar situation in one's own youth, recognizes another such, and recalls well that such pressures give rise to the need to vent them. A need which as ill-matches the expectations of society as do the challenges Negi-bozu shall surely face."

Ku and Makie now stared at her with stupefied expressions.

"... aru?" the Chinese girl said.

"You lost me," Makie confessed.

They both looked at Chizuru, who only shrugged. "I didn't follow that one either," she admitted.

Kaede rose from the water in all of her wet, leggy glory. "In simpler terms, one declares that Yuna-dono or Negi-bozu should not fear to ask for guidance or support if they are going through troubling experiences that confuse or upset them. That's why we are here, as their friends and comrades."

"I thought we were here because of a book?" asked Makie.

Kaede patted Makie's head and continued. "This one won't rush to judge Negi-bozu's needs or curiosity --" And then she spun around and tossed a pebble towards the shore. "-- so there's no need to keep them secret!"

"Ow!" Negi yelled, falling from his hiding and peeping place between some large rocks at the coastline, dropping on his face into the water, as naked as the girls and with a hand still gripping his negi.

Once more, Yuna facepalmed. She was starting to understand why Chisame resorted to it so often. It was a good coping mechanism.

Kaede calmly treaded water towards the sputtering, coughing, blushing Negi, who was settling himself on his knees into the shallow water. With her hands on her wide hips and no attempt to cover herself, she said, "Enjoying the sights of paradise, Negi-bozu?"

"Aaaaaahhhhhhh," Negi babbled, as his current position meant his face was almost directly on the same level as Kaede's vagina.

Makie and Fei gasped, stopping shortly behind Kaede. "Negi-kuuuun!" Makie said, with a fist on her own mouth and her other hand on her crotch. "You ecchi!"

"Oh my, do the people of Albion grow so swiftly?" Chizuru inquired mischievously as she too drew near. "Or is it that users of magic go through puberty much earlier?"

"N-No, I swear I'm only ten! Ten!" he made clear, since they might be less prone to kill him that way. "As for this, um, well, you see--"

"Negi-bozu," Kaede said, smiling to try and set him at ease, and failing. "This one was quite serious when talking about one's willingness to help you through difficult stages of your development. Your sister might, okay, certainly would just punch you did she know what you were doing, so it is well that she is not here."

"He doesn't need your help!" Yuna protested, finally catching up to the others. "He already has me for that!"

It was her turn, again, to have the girls' stares turned on her.

Yuna's head grew several drops of sweat, before they abruptly burst from the heat of her frustration. "Fine, fine, you were all right, all right? Yes, we're having sex, wild monkey sex, all the time, and not just me but Haruna and Misora and a bunch of high school girls and a screwy doctor and the idea is to have his kids and ah, hell, this whole situation was only ever going to end one way, wasn't it?"

And it was Negi's turn to slam the palm of his hand on his face.

Finally, Fei spoke up, rubbing her head and looking as though she was in great pain. "Oh, would be so nice to be surprise that Haruna involve somehow. Alas. Alack."

"I really, really, really can't believe it!" Makie said, sounding strangled. You were doing, actually have been doing, probably plan to be doing, ecchi things with Negi-kun! I thought I was your best friend, Yuna!"

"Shhhhhh!" Yuna clamped her hands on Makie's mouth.

"Yes, it would be very bad if Asuna-san learned of this," Chizuru spoke quietly, hand over her mouth.

"Actually, my sister is aware of it. She doesn't approve, exactly, but has said she won't denounce me, either," Negi supplied.

"I'm more freaked out about Konoka learning about it, and going to her grandfather with the news!" Yuna agreed, nodding vigorously and in the process making Makie nod vigorously as well.

"Negi-bozu would be expelled from the school, which would be quite the inconvenience, for him as well as for ourselves," Kaede grimly pondered.

"We get Death Glasses back!" Ku gasped.

"Who?" asked Yuna, and so did Makie even if her voice came out too muffled.

Kaede looked at Ku. "I thought you liked Takahata-sensei."

"Is that what people call the poor man?" asked Chizuru, a bit appalled.

"I do like him," Baka Yellow said. "But as sparring partner, no as teacher!"

The five of them then looked back at Negi, who sat on the water, with his legs spread and his hands supported on the rocky bottom. "I have my reasons. Good, valid reasons that I have been explaining a lot recently," Negi explained, sounding a bit weary. "As I said not too long ago, you could have me fired, but what would you get out of it? I won't ever make anyone do anything they don't want to, and--"

"Like you didn't make us study today?" Makie asked skeptically.

"That's what teachers are supposed to do!" Negi had to remind her.

"Yes," Kaede nodded. "What teachers aren't supposed to do is have sexual relationships with their students."

"Have you noticed that you're not using an old-fashioned dialect at the moment?" Chizuru asked her abruptly.

"Have you noticed that you are no longer acting like a daffy aristocrat?" Kaede replied with a sideways glance in her direction.

"Fair enough," Chizuru said with a shrug.

"So, what are you going to do, then?" Yuna, faintly dreading the answer.

Kaede smirked slyly. She was about to say something, but then Makie walked past her, stomping and splashing water as she went straight to Negi. "Ohhhhhh, never mind that! If Yuna does it, I want it too! Teachers shouldn't play favorites!"

"... bwaahhh?!" asked Yuna.

Makie looked back over her shoulder and stuck her tongue out at her. "Nyah! You should remember, out of all four of us, I'm the most likely to do things on a whim! You won't take that away from me, and even if you're Golden Medal here, I'll get my Silver Medal!"

"That would be Haruna, actually," Yuna said, faintly amazed by what Makie's assertiveness.

"Don't be silly, Yuna, Haruna-san doesn't compete in sports!" the pink-haired girl said without a backward glance at Yuna, as she crouched over Negi's hips.

"When Baka Pink right, she right," Fei said a bit dazedly.

Negi blinked, although his hands already were on Makie's slim and smooth flanks, feeling the slight yet firm muscle under her skin. "Makie-san, are you fully sure you want to do --"

"No, of course not! That's why I said I act on a whim, isn't it! Geez, Negi-kun, you're starting to make me wonder whether you pay any attention to the words that are coming out of my mouth!" Makie said, lowering herself down on Negi's small stiff penis, just like she had seen when spying on her parents and various other people, carefully maneuvering until he was in, and he gave a small grunt.

Makie blinked.

Fei, Kaede and Yuna approached the two of them, Chizuru hanging back. "It no hurt?" a bewildered Fei asked.

"Uhhhhh ... no?" asked Makie with a nervous giggle. "It feels like sticking a finger in, but harder!"

Yuna sighed. "You broke your hymen doing splits three years ago, remember, Maki-chan?"

"Ohh, is that what that was?" Makie said, as Negi began guiding her hips up and down to show her how to bounce on his lap, as he kissed and licked her tiny teats, paying special attention to her pink nipples. "What, what does that have to do with -- tee heee heeee, that tickles. It feels funny, but the right kind of funny... naaanhhhh..." she moaned as Negi increased his pace just a little.

Ku ran a hand down her own face, the other placed on her own hip. "I no can believe this. Too many things in one week to take in."

"She seems to be taking it in well," Yuna mildly joked, keeping her sight on Makie's back and small perky butt as she finally learned something quick and began bouncing like a playful ball on the boy fucking her. Her fantasies about other girls had never included Makie, for some reason, but having this in front of her was doing a great deal to put them there. Of course, with the way things had been going, Makie would be utterly completely straight, and whap her with her baton if she ever dared to --

And then Kaede's arms were wrapped around her from behind, her hands fondling Yuna's breasts. "And does Yuna-dono like what she's seeing?" Kaede's words breezed into Yuna's ear. "Because now she seems even more interested in looking at Makie-dono than at Negi-bozu."

Yuna closed her eyes. "Nagase, if this is just teasing, you ought to know that if I keep getting teased like this, I think I'm gonna kill mumph," she said as Kaede whirled her around and began kissing her mouth, having received as much of a confirmation as she had expected.

Ku looked back and forth between all of them, including Chizuru, who had started unashamedly masturbating, and let out a low whistle. "Haruna, you sure miss out," she said. It should be understood that Fei was a virgin, and almost never entertained any thoughts of a sexual nature, except when depraved perverts told dirty stories in front of her, or she was forced from her home and found herself reflecting on what was probably going on there. 

So it wasn't exactly due to curiosity that she hung around at that point, sitting against a semi-submerged boulder as she watched the goings on. There was more of a sense that if she retreated now, as she'd retreated before, she would be suffering a defeat, as she hadn't then.

Kaede had leaned Yuna back onto the pebble beach, ignoring Yuna's vague protests of physical discomfort, as the much taller young woman held the basketball player's legs open and dove her head in between them, to lick and nibble at her core, which made Yuna arch her back and scream Kaede's name. Meanwhile, Negi had also placed himself on top of Makie, on the edge of the water, so Makie's face was safely above the drowning level. Her pink hair, however, mostly remained underwater, as he ran a hand through it, the other steadily gripping the girl's hip.

The young teacher kept ramming into his student, repeating her name under his breath constantly, and Makie responded with whimpers of eager pleasure and folding her strong legs around his hips. She had never imagined that ecchi could feel so good. No wonder the other girls of her team talked about it so much. Of course, the temptation to brag about how much she had liked it with Negi-kun and how she was a big girl too was nearly overpowering.

Negi-kun was saying something strange now, something that sounded like a funny foreign language. And then his hips were slamming harder on hers, and he held himself still for a moment, and then she felt like he was peeing into her, only not as much as you'd expect someone to pee, not even a little boy. Then he caught one of her nipples in his mouth and toyed with it, and that final push was all Makie's sensitive body needed to reach at last her sheer, raw explosion of a pleasure that felt like eating a bucketful of chocolate pudding all at once.

"Negi-kun," she hissed, clumsily kissing his cute face, which was salty with his ... tears? No, it couldn't be, no. "I, I liked that a lot, Negi-kun."

"Me too," he sighed hoarsely, hugging her tightly before finally letting her tired form go. "And I'm sure to like this as well."

For now Kaede was approaching them again, a statuesque naked beauty of pure lean muscle and a classic kitsune smile. Behind her, Yuna had curled up in a ball, shaken by the aftereffects of a few orgasms. Kaede had said something about her just experiencing the barest basics of the Miroku Clan's teachings, so what were the higher levels like? The mind, and Yuna's privates, boggled.

"Only if this one permits it, Negi-bozu," the girl told him, with a touch of warning in her voice. "And why should that be the case?"

"You promised you'd help me," he reminded her, rising to her challenge.

"So I did. But I remain unconvinced this is the kind of help you need, even if you want it."

"It is, and I do," he said. "Of course, if it's you who doesn't want it --"

"This one never dreamed of saying such a thing as that," she said, reaching down with a hand to boldly massage his genitals. An eyebrow was raised, and an eye was finally opened. "Great recovery times, I see."

"This one was trained to enhance his stamina and endurance as much as he could," Negi smiled.

Kaede smiled back, just a little menacingly. "Good thing, then, because so was this one. And please do not imitate." And with that she knelt down, opened her mouth, and sucked his member into it.

Yuna pushed herself back up, witnessing how Kaede knelt before Negi, fellating him with what, even for a novice like Yuna, looked like considerable, noteworthy skill, lightly playing with his ballsack in a hand as the other caressed his tight buttocks. Negi had his hands on her hair, whispering her name while pumping his hips onto her mouth. However, she was soon distracted by the now familiar sensation of a warm tongue on her own privates.

She looked down, blinking in shock. "Makie? What are you doing?"

Makie lifted her head from Yuna's crotch. "Um ... pleasuring you? Am I not doing it right?" she asked, sounding uncertain.

"Uh, well, I mean -- I -- I thought you'd hit me over the head with your baton first," Yuna half-stammered.

Makie regarded her, curiously. "Would you like me to hit you over the head with my baton? I could go it if you really want."

"No, no, I mean -- you said you liked Akira better than me!" she finally managed to protest.

"Well, yeah, but Akira isn't here right now," Makie reminded her, since her best friend had clearly lost track of that fact. "Really, you say very strange things sometimes, Yuna-chan." She shook her head in abject confusion, smiled broadly, and reached up to give Yuna a kiss on the belly button, before resuming her kisses on Yuna's petals.

At that point Yuna more or less gave up.

Kaede pulled back, wiping her mouth with the back of a hand, and smiled, settling herself on the shore, arms and legs open. "Negi-bozu," she said. "Before you rush towards any course of action, heed these words. This one is a shinobi, a relic of eras long gone in a changing world. One of the last shinobi my village has raised. Once, one would have easily found service with, or be pushed into servitude by, a worthy master, but those times are naught but gray memories now, and yet my family's traditions state one must find a lord or lady before one is--"

"Sure, I'll do it," Negi agreed.

Kaede frowned slightly, which marked the very first time Negi (or anyone else present) had ever seen her actually upset (even if not that much). "What part of 'before you rush' was not clear, pray tell?"

"When we don't have a lot of time, that's the only thing we can do," argued Negi. "But if you don't mind, I think I'd prefer not being called 'Master'. I came here to find partners, not subordinates. I -- oh," he said in a moment of realization, then spoke more or less to himself. "Is that what she was trying to teach me, then?"

Wondering what he was talking about, Kaede nonetheless continued to speak. "It remains to be seen how you shall prove yourself, through our union, and become this one's lesser, master or equal."

"I want to prove myself as Negi Springfield, that's all," he told her. "Help me at it, please."

Kaede paused. "Very well," she finally said, "This one does want to believe in you. Or else, this one wouldn't even be doing this."

"And I greatly appreciate your trust," Negi sincerely said. "It means a lot to me."

Kaede nodded. "This one is not truly aware yet of her own worth either, which is why --"

"Uuffffff!" Yuuna grunted as Makie continued to eat her out. "Are you two gonna fuck or not?"

They both looked at her, flatly said, "Yes," and then Negi began moving over Kaede, lowering himself on her body, stretching his arms up to take hold of her hands.

"Ready?" he asked, with a gulp.

She nodded. "One who is born to die at any moment, flowing from the shadows, is always ready."

"I'll take your word on that," he said, aligning himself with her vaginal entrance and pushing in. She voiced no pain or anything else for that matter, save a little grunt.

Their lovemaking was long-drawn but not excessively spectacular, comprised of precise, constant thrusts and pulls, accompanied by short, soft moans and sighs from both. Kaede's large round breasts bounced again and again on her chest, but his scarce height (and her considerably greater height) meant he couldn't reach them with his mouth in that position, so he didn't even try. Instead, he kissed her taut stomach and bellybutton, while their hands tightened on each other.

Kaede was obviously a skilled, experienced lover, Negi reflected as they moved in tandem. Her skill seemed comparable to that of his mothers, which was impressive for someone so young. Still, while he could say she could have given him a mindblowing session going all out, he also knew she was holding back, unwilling to overwhelm him. For all of his recent experiences, he was still a novice, far beneath her level. Well. He would have to catch up quickly, then. No doubt he wouldn't tap that meaty, firm, juicy ass for all it was worth before the year was over.

"Give it to me," she suddenly told him, reading his body language. "Never be afraid. Give me all of you that you can give."

He turned his eyes up towards her face. "Are you sure?"

"Would it stop you if this one told you 'No'?" she asked.

"Yes, I would!" he protested, yet never stopped ramming.

"How convenient, then, that no one ever has told you that," Kaede held him closer. "You said you wanted to be tested as a man, even if it was before your time. So do it! Give it to me!" she commanded.

He panted, then began pounding her as hard as he could, with all the force that he could summon up from strengthening magic, all the passion he possessed, before exploding into her, spraying his whiteness into her squeezing passages, which moved hungrily, as if to milk him for all his worth. It was fucking incredible.

Finally, her vaginal muscles relaxed enough to let him go, and he fell back, rasping for air. He tried to speak, and found no words. So Kaede spoke for him, slowly sitting up and looking towards the waters. "I believe that it is someone else's turn, now," she said gently.

Fei pulled her eyes away from Kaede's vagina and the sticky liquid it seeped out, and waved her arms around with a full body blush. "What? Oh, no no no! You may declare allegiance that way, but good Chinese girl only can take husband if he defeat her in combat first!" Oh no, she thought, am I turning into a Joketsuzoku after all?

"I meant Chizuru-dono, actually."


Chizuru, who had brought herself to several quiet orgasms watching all this, took a deep breath as she walked -- no, sauntered, really -- over to where Negi was gasping in the sand. "Sensei," she asked quietly. "Do you want me?"

"Yes," he said, managing to rise above his exhaustion.

"Hm," she said. "That's very flattering. I think I would enjoy that ... except for one small problem." She shook her head. "No, a rather large one, actually."

"What ... might that be?" Negi asked.

"Ayaka," she said, making the word a little prayer. "She loves you, very much, even though you've just met. She will be very upset at all of these girls you've claimed as your own, but I think as long as you give her some of your time and love, she will forgive them. But I -- I am, as much as anyone can be, her friend. If she learned that I had been with you before she could, she would never really forgive me. And I think she would be right to do so, for it would be a betrayal. So I must deny myself this joy, for now."

Before another word could be spoken, she reached out, stroked Negi's hard member once, gathering up the secretions on it in the process, and brought them to her mouth. She shuddered a little as she tasted them.

"Which one's Ayaka again?" he asked in a tiny voice.

"Iinchou," every girl on the beach told him, with varying levels of annoyance.

"Well, if all of you keep calling her that, it's somewhat hard to remember the dear girl's name," he told them, a bit affronted.

"In any event," said Chizuru, giving Negi a look that was less fond than those she'd given him to this point, "I believe that it is Ku's turn now." She turned to look in the Chinese girl's direction. "Were you serious about him fighting you for the privilege?" she asked, a bit hopefully.

"Oh, um, no, no, that was, ah, that thing, you know, where you say thing you not really thinking but on mind for some strange reason?" Fei replied, blushing a bit. Since no one around her was any more informed than she was -- even Negi had managed to avoid any psychology classes, somehow -- the words 'Freudian slip' were never uttered.

"Well, good." Kaede nodded, undaunted. "Then don't take him as your master and husband, since he is already mine. Take him as your student instead."

"Eh??" Yuna blinked. "Husband?! I don't think you ever mentioned that!"

"Say what again?" Fei was even more bewildered.

Kaede wagged a finger. "A shinobi's master must be well versed in the arts of war himself. Since it would be counter-productive for this one to teach him whom one would call lord, Ku-dono is the ideal, honest, brave, and cute person to do so instead."

Negi sighed, still flat on his back. "I told you, I don't want to be treated as a lord or master. I'm only proving myself, what right do I have to place myself above others?"

"But for that, you'll need to become a master, not only of academics and magic, but of battle," Kaede reasoned.

"Well, yes," Negi admitted.

Fei interrupted, quietly. "So, you asking me to not take Negi-bozu as man to be won by, but as man to form?"

Kaede nodded. "That's pretty much the idea."

The deeply tanned blonde hummed. "And once that done, and he at end of road, he man enough to take Ku as his woman instead. So this only investment so in long term pride is properly reached."

"Ummmm... sure thing," Kaede said, believing she had gotten the basics of that strange justification.

"About this husband thing, though --" Yuna started to interject once for.

"Fret not, Yuna-dono. My great-grandfather reputedly had dozens of wives. One of them, according to many of the tales, was his own mother. Such is the way of the ninja harem lead, dattebane," Kaede assured her.

"That's ... cool if a little sick and wrong," the basketball player replied, eyes gone all circly. "What the heck does that last word mean?"

Ku rubbed her legs together and chewed on her lower lip. She knew she shouldn't be doing it this way, it wasn't the correct path, this the sort of thing Haruna would do, indeed had done, and yet, and yet ... quickly moving to stand over him, looking down at the boy, she declared, "You better no fail me later."

He stared back up at her athletic, wet nudity, and then beckoned her to go down, to get closer.

She did as requested. Ku Fei sat slowly on Negi's lap, seeing his unit's tip lightly brushing against the entrance to her most private part. "Ah," she awkwardly said, "Keep in mind, this big, big sacrifice I make for you. So you repay by become good student for me."

"I will," he replied without hesitation.

"You sure?" she asked. "You bookworm mage! You no look athletic enough," she pondered, running a hand over his chest, which to be fair was far better toned than those of most boys his age.

He flexed his arms, which also had somewhat more muscle than those of the average. "You should know good muscle is spread without ostentation. I have trained to be a combat mage. And lover. You have to be in good shape for that," he explained, grabbing her hips and slowly pulling her towards his pulsing dick.

"Wait, wait, I change my mind," she suddenly panicked, "Heart no ready yet, and you still too-- gggrrhhhh!" Her shoulders rattled as he penetrated her. It wasn't that it hurt, but the mere awareness of what they were doing was enough in itself to shake her. And then it grew even worse or better, as Negi wasted no time in starting to pump into her. After two sexual encounters in a row, his dick felt somewhat funny and spent, but he was determined to give Fei as good as he could.

"Excuse me," Negi asked, shifting one of his hands to one of her legs, lifting it to get a better leverage. "Were you saying something?"

"Keep, keep it going," Ku said, her hands clawing at the dirt as she rode him, and then Kaede and Yuna slid behind her after Kaede whispered something to the basketball player. After some hesitation, Yuna took one of Fei's dark nipples into her mouth, and then Kaede did the same with the other one. Nagase's right hand then traveled down to tease Ku's asscrack, pulling a finger in just enough to caress the anal ring without penetrating it. That made Ku break into a high pitched squeal, and Negi to hasten his efforts, his small testicles quickly slapping Fei's flesh.

Makie, meanwhile, was practicing her cunnilingus technique on Chizuru, who was actually offering the pink-haired girl some feedback between the gasps and moans that were being provoked.

"I'm coming, Fei-san. I'm coming!" he shouted after a few minutes of that, and she shook as he impregnated her.

"Ah, ah. Ah, ah, ah," Ku Fei panted, hands on his abdomen, green eyes fully open, still crouching on top of her like a tigress, tongue hanging out.

All of them slowly collapsed together, lying on the beach and resting for a while ... which while was promptly interrupted by a shrill scream in Asuna's voice. "AAAAIIIIIEEEEEE! THIS THING'S GOT ME!"

"Asuna!" Negi gasped. then reached around, recalling the discarded towel he had left behind the rocks to his hand, and the staff to the other one.

"Asuna-dono, indeed," Kaede grimly nodded.

"What the--" Yuna babbled, as they saw the titanic figure of one of the armored golems rising from between the trees, firmly gripping a nude, kicking and screaming Asuna in one of its oversized hands.

Negi huffed, stomping a foot down. "I can't believe this. Hasn't it done enough?!"

Ku readied her fists. "Let Asuna-san go, you!!"

Yue and Konoka were approaching as well, clad in nothing but their skirts and bras, and rejoining the main group. "Asuna!" Konoka cried. "Grandpa, what are you doing! Let Asuna-chan go! This isn't funny!"


"Then there is a way out!" Negi exclaimed.


"And, look, there on the statue's neck!" Yue said in a slightly louder version of her usual monotone, pointing as she did so. She was pointing at a certain book.

Those of the Baka Rangers who were not presently being held by the monster exchanged a glance, then nodded as one. They would escape, all of them, and they would get that damned book. Without further ado, Fei let out a roar of "Mati Bung Chuen!" and slammed a punch into the statue's legs, knocking it off balance.

"Fastball Special!" cried Makie, and was immediately tossed into the air above the statue's head with a jolt of Kaede's arms. Makie's ribbon lashed out as she began her descent on the other side, wrapping around the book and yanking it away from the statue. Before it could react to that, however, Ku Fei had spun up into a kick to its arm, jolting it into letting Asuna free. The twin-tailed girl proceeded to deliver a neck-high kick of her own to the statue's hip as soon as her feet graced the cavern floor, accompanied by a sharp kiai, that further knocked it back a step.

"Everybody, run!" Negi shouted. He was tempted to use his magic directly, since there was no longer any secret to be kept, here, but now that Asuna was free and moving, the statue wasn't actually directly endangering the lives of his students. And besides, it might actually be Konoka's grandfather, after all.

They turned to start fleeing further into the cavern, towards the source of its strange light, but Makie lagged behind thanks to the way her tumble had taken her to the rear of the statue. With a roar of purest fury, it lunged toward her, intent on taking at least one of the trespassers captive.

"Oh, no, you don't!" yelled Chizuru, who'd waited for Makie. She reached up, stretching to her full height, grabbed hold of the statue's arm ... and pulled it forward, using its own mass against it, so that it lifted off its feet, and went flying deeper into the water.

Makie's eyes bulged.

"Yukihiro-style Aikijujutsu," Chizuru explained, grabbed Makie up and pulled her along with her as they ran to catch up to the others. For some reason, Makie's mind was filled with a drum sequence, a throbbing guitar rhythm, and someone shouting 'Woohoo' over and over again.

Yue's knowledge of the library's structure soon saved them once again when she pointed out a door hidden behind one of the waterfalls. In the distance they could hear the statue forcing itself back to its feet and beginning to lumber back to them. Konoka quickly answered the question on the door, rather than waiting for one of the Baka Rangers to puzzle it out, magic book or no magic book.

The door opened up onto a vast spiral staircase, interrupted by a series of doors enscribed with basic tests of English, history and mathematics. Whether due to all the studying they'd been doing, the influence of the magic book, or being not quite as dumb as they'd always thought they were, the girls made their way past the doors, having crossed the second before they heard the statue crash into the spiral staircase, and start climbing it far behind them.

"Ah!" cried Yue. "We're close enough to the surface that I'm getting cell phone reception! I'm calling Nodoka now!"

Before she could even do so, however, the racing Rangers came to the end of the staircase. "An elevator?" Asuna exclaimed. "Who the hell puts an elevator at the top of a staircase?! For pity's sake!"

"Don't argue with the insanity, just get in already!" Negi shouted.

They proceeded to pile in, and Kaede reached for the button marked "G" for ground floor ... only to hesitate as the elevator's buzzer began to sound.

"Elevator is. Over. Loaded," said a tinny-sounding voice.

"... you've got to be kidding me," said Makie.

"Okay! Okay!" Asuna shrieked. "This is not a problem! Everybody, get naked and that should --"

"Asuna, this isn't a fan-service scene in a manga!" Konoka shrieked right back. "And most of us aren't even wearing that much in the first place!"

Chizuru sighed, stood up from where she had been crouching at the back of the elevator. "I will remain behind," she said, very calmly. "I weigh the most, and after all, the Green Ranger is the one who acts alone, aren't they?" Before anyone could stop her, she walked out the elevator doors.

The buzzing stopped ... but just for a moment, and then it resumed. "Elevator is," it began to say again.

"Nin nin," said Kaede, and walked out to stand beside Chizuru.

"I CAN SEE YOU!" called the statue from below.

Again the buzzing stopped. Again it started ... again.

"All right," Negi said. "I won't abandon any of my students. Send help when you can!" And he darted out to accompany Chizuru and Kaede.

This time, when the buzzing stopped, there was a ding, and the elevator doors began to close.

"Negi!" Asuna shouted at the top of her lungs, and flung the book to him just before the doors sealed between them.

He caught it, and opened it quickly. His eyes went wide as he scanned the pages that lay open to him.

"Does it contain powerful magic that can resolve this situation, oh master?" Kaede asked. "Or will it enhance your own magic to godlike levels?"

"... I have no idea," he answered. "It's in Greek."

"What?" the girls chorused.

"Most of the oldest grimoires are in Greek," Negi explained as the sounds of the statue's climb drew even closer. "I've been taught enough to recognize titles, but not nearly enough to understand a book in that language. Even if this is the --"

"βιβλίο μελχισμένο," said Chizuru, looking at the cover.

"Yes, the Book of Melchizedek, I wouldn't what what what?" he asked, staring at her.

"I ... can read this," she said, looking haunted. "Why can I read this, and not my own name in the only language I can speak?"

"A question for another day, assuming we have one," Kaede declared, producing a rather large throwing star from nowhere in particular. "Fight bravely, my master. Fight bravely, daffy aristocrat."

"THERE YOU ARE!" called the statue as it came into view on the stairs below them.

From behind them, a ding.

"Turns out this is a really fast elevator," Asuna said conversationally, standing alone in the car. Then shrieked, "Get in, idiots!" at the top of her lungs.

Shinji's second day at his new school was also the first where he was assigned clean-up duty, and thus the first that he had an excuse to remain in the school building after hours. He helped out a bit, then begged off the rest by claiming that he had to visit the washroom. Rather than do so, of course, he headed to the public telephone on the building's shadowy first floor, and dialed the number he'd memorized.

"This line is not secure," said a scrambled sounding voice on the other end, followed by a click of disconnection and the hum of a dead line.

Dammit! he thought.

"But I can spoof the surveillance at this location for up to twenty minutes," said a quiet, familiar voice behind him.

Shinji whirled. "Zazie," he almost gasped, dropping the phone's handset.

"No hugs," she said warningly. "We discussed this. No hugs. And remember that we have twenty minutes, and that's an estimate, not a guarantee. So give me a report, and maybe we can have a chat if there's enough time."

He made a face, but nodded. "Okay. It all worked out pretty much like you said it would, except for the way some flying person showed up. I barely noticed him -- I think it was a him -- when I was in the field, but he was a help, I think."

Zazie nodded. "Right. That factor surprised my backers as well. Assuming it's the same individual, they haven't been seen in close to thirty years."

"So that was an actual superhero?" Shinji asked, amazed. "I almost didn't think they were real."

"They were, and are, and I'm going to try to get in touch with those who might help us coordinate our efforts. You don't need to worry about that, just yet."

"Okay," he said. "Um ..." Images of Ayanami in her bandages flashed before his eyes. "There was one other thing you didn't tell me about," he started to say. Then paused, and shook his head. "No, never mind, it's not important." If she had known about that, she would have told him, surely. Surely.

Her golden eyes gazed at him for a moment, then blinked. "All right then. Shinji, I have one important question that I need to ask you -- did you tell anyone, anyone, the names of the other pilot candidates that I showed you?"

He froze. "Uhhh. Ohhhh ... I did tell Ayanami that. Was that bad?" Are you going to abandon me for that?

Zazie took a deep breath. "No. It could have been, if you'd passed that information to anyone else, but the situation is manageable." Ayanami would tell the elder Ikari, and he would look for leaks and close those that he found ... but some of those leaks were designed to be found, as they lead back to spies for third parties. "You did very well, Shinji. For someone with no experience, you did exceptionally well."

He let out a deep sigh of relief.

She looked away from him, both to give him a moment to compose himself and out of genuine curiosity about the environs. "So this is your school, then. It's very ... basic," she said.

This was chatting. They were chatting. It was wonderful. "Basic is a good word for it," Shinji agreed. "The teacher just rattles on about his experience of Second Impact, but from what you've told me about the real purposes of this place --"

"He is a caretaker, not an educator," Zazie confirmed. "If properly approached, he might be a genuinely useful source of intelligence about the outer workings of the plot against you, but it would take more time than you actually have to cultivate him as a resource. I may be able to look into arranging actual education for you and your class, but it will also take some doing."

He swallowed. "How much time do I have?" he asked. "Before the next one, I mean?

"A month at the outside," she told him flatly.

"That's ... honestly better than I was expecting," Shinji admitted. "I'll try to be ready."

"Just remember the basics of basics," Zazie said. "You are the unit's partner, not its master. But you are not part of the unit. If you ever find yourself thinking that you are, let me know and we will get you out of here. That's a sign that they're about to absorb you."

"They?" he asked.

"The unit doesn't have a gender as we understand the term." She shook her head. "I promised you chatting, and yet here we are discussing weighty matters. What do you think of your roommate?"

"I think she hates me and that she's the biggest slob in the world," he told her frankly. "And it's roommates, she lives with a talking duck."

Her eyes widened. "Really. So this is where he's been hiding. I wondered. Ah. As for Katsuragi-san hating you, I think her hatred is reserved for the Heralds. She will gradually warm up to you."

"Ritsuko-san said the same thing," Shinji agreed.

"Patience, one of the more difficult virtues, is recommended. And please remember --"

"Ikari-kun?" asked a voice from offside.

His head jerked in that direction, eyes going wide as he turned to see the class representative standing at the building's stairwell, looking at him oddly. "What are you doing down here?" Horaki asked, sounding more confused than suspicious.

"Ahhhh," Shinji said, turning to look at Zazie for support, and not receiving it, for she was nowhere to be seen at the moment. Okay, then, a stronger version of himself thought, and he turned back to Horaki. "I got lost," he said.

She stared at him. "You got lost?" she repeated.

He nodded.

"... well, it's only your second day, so I guess that could happen," she said, in a way that suggested that she really didn't think it could. "Come on, let's go finish up in our classroom."

"Yes, absolutely," he agreed. As he approached her, a thought occurred to him. "Iinchou, does the name Asagiri mean anything to you?" he asked.

"Hm, I think that was my mom's maiden name," she said. "Why?"

"You just remind me of someone I knew by that name," he lied easily to the girl whose photograph had been so identified.

When the elevator doors opened to release its second set of passengers onto the surface, just behind the main building of Library Island, the four of them found those who had preceded them talking animatedly with two of those who had remained at base camp. Well, Haruna was talking animatedly with everyone; Nodoka was standing like a statue, eyes covered by her bangs and yet somehow indicating that she was staring right at Yue. When Negi and the others emerged, she turned her head to stare at him instead for a moment, before looking at Yue once more. Back and forth she went, in eerie silence.

"Did grandpa hurt any of you?!" Konoka asked a bit frantically.

"No, the statue didn't get up to where we were standing until the elevator doors closed right in front of it," Negi explained. "We could hear it banging on them for a moment or so on the way up, though."

"There really was a statue that sounded like the Headmaster?" Haruna asked, eyes wide. "Some kind of audioanimatronic?"

"It can't have been an audioanimatronic," Yue replied, a bit irritatedly. "Audioanimatronics are by definition electronic, and would probably explode if they were as immersed in water as that thing was. It must have been --" She broke off, clearly biting her tongue to stop herself from declaring that it was part of the new world of magic she'd just discovered.

Nodoka kept staring.

"Where the book?" asked Fei. "After all that, book had better be pretty awesome."

Negi exchanged a glance with Kaede and Chizuru. "We decided to leave it behind," he said. The two tall girls looked off in different directions, artful innocence on their faces. Asuna was watching this with a decidedly skeptical expression.

"Say what?" Makie gasped. "Why --?"

"If we've learned anything from this experience, I hope it's that looking for quick and easy solutions to our problems just ends up creating more of them," Negi began to orate. "We didn't get out of this through magic books, but through our own talents and courage. That's more important than any magical book could possibly be." He smiled warmly at them.

They stared. Well, Nodoka was already staring, so they joined her in staring.

"What?" Negi asked.

"So ... the real treasure was our friendship?" asked Yue, somehow managing to sound even more monotone than she usually did.

"That's a good way of putting it -- what?" Negi asked, genuinely bewildered as nearly all of them turned away and made retching noises.

"It's kind of a cliche, Negi," Asuna said, taking pity on him ... and coming close enough to whisper. "So why aren't we telling them that Chizuru has the book?" she asked quietly.

"Because that would mean telling them that she can read it, and until we know why, I won't do that. Any more than I'd go into detail about a certain person's Magic Cancel," he added.

"Good point," she said, backing away.

"Um, Nodoka-san?" Negi asked, then, having noticed that Nodoka had continued to divide her staring sessions between him and Yue. "Is something the matter?"

She shook her head in complete silence.

"Ahem, okay, uh, just so you know, some of you supposedly went to visit Chizuru-sama's mansion today, so you may get asked questions about that," said Haruna. She briefly looked at Makie. "Annnnd some of you may get asked other questions, instead. Uh, but, sensei, I should probably tell you something ... privately."

Mystified, Negi walked with Haruna a short distance away, and spoke quietly with her for a few moments. Then he shouted, "You did what?"

Haruna made quelling gestures. "It was the best idea I could come up with to calm her down!" she hissed. "And it worked, too! That should count for something! Um ... but there is a little itty bitty problem, still."

"Do tell," Negi drawled quietly, Welsh accent on full display.

"I might possibly have given her the impression that you were going to be doing it with everybody down there," Haruna admitted, in the manner of one having a tooth pulled. "Especially Yuetchi."

"Oh, wonderful," the boy teacher said with a shake of his head. "All right, I will clarify matters with Nodoka right now, and since everyone here already knows about magic, that will actually make things a little -- where is she?" he asked suddenly, looking back at the rest of the girls.

"And where's Yuetchi?" asked Haruna, sounding strangled.

"Did it hurt?" Nodoka asked her dearest friend, having quickly led her around the perimeter of the Library building, in through the front door, and into a cloak room off the main entrance.

"Um ... no, the fall down the pit was surprisingly -- there was this giant spider-web, you see, and it slowed us down so that no one was --" Yue started to invent.

"Not that," Nodoka interjected. "That."

"You're going to need to be a little more specific," said the tiny philosopher after a moment of bewilderment.

Nodoka took a deep breath. "Haruna told me everything," she said."

Now Yue blinked. "She knew?" Then she shook her head. "What am I saying, of course she knew. It's just a surprise that, if she knows, the whole school doesn't already know." What would possess Negi-sensei to trust her with the secret of magic? she wondered.

"Yes. Now did it hurt?" Nodoka pressed.

Yue considered the question carefully. "Yes," she finally said. Having her previously skeptical worldview upended that way hadn't been painless, even if she'd been easily able to incorporate the new knowledge into a coherent understanding. Truthfully, it was an ongoing process, and --

"Oh, Yue-yue, I'm so sorry!" Nodoka cried, and hugged Yue tightly, pressing her lips to her roommates.

"Huh?" said Yue, since -- as has been repeatedly observed -- it's hard to talk in an understandable way when someone else's tongue is in your mouth.

"I can't make it hurt any less, Yue," Nodoka told her tearfully when she pulled back. "But I can show you how Haruna made me feel good, so that maybe the pain will fade a little." She pulled aside Yue's skirt and slid the dazed girl's panties down her short legs. "I love you so much, Yue," she added, before starting to lick at the other girl's hairless mound.


A few moments later, Konoka opened the door to the cloak room and peered in. "Nodoka? Are you in he--" The answer to her question was soon given to her as she stared at her two friends kissing frantically as they fingered each other on the floor.

"Ah," said Konoka. She then reached behind the door, found the placard, closed the door and hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign on its exterior face. That done, she stood a while in uffish thought, and then quietly collapsed to a crouched position, hands over her eyes in a desperate attempt to hold back the tears that were falling furiously from them.

She drew a deep breath. "Kaguya-chan," Konoka moaned.

Eventually, though, everyone made their way back to the dorms for some well-needed rest, followed by yet another day of intense study (and Makie wondering why people kept looking at her as though they expected an outburst of terrible violence), followed in turn by the test. Negi watched his students march into the examination room, where the test was being proctored by Seruhiko-sensei, one of the magical teachers Negi had met during his tour of the Cathedral. All that was left for Negi to do, now, was to pray for his students' success -- and, alas, he was an atheist.

A prayer could not have hurt, but it wouldn't have helped that much either. Not only did the entire class pass the test, they scored the second highest combined score of their entire year, earning a remarkable amount of meal tickets for Shiina Sakurako in the academy's betting pool. (As this was the second time this had happened, the organizers decided to ban her from participation in the next year's event.)

"Congratulations, Negi-kun," the Headmaster told the young teacher when they met in his office at the end of that day. "You have more than validated my faith in you, and I look forward to having you as a teacher again in the coming year."

"Thank you, sir," Negi said, beaming. "But, just out of curiosity, where did you get that golem suit?"

"I am sure that I have no idea what you are talking about, Negi-kun. That is all," he said, just a bit warningly, and Negi got the message and made his way out of the office.

"So you did it," said Asuna as she met him outside the administration building.

"Well, I've made a start on it, and I'll be allowed to continue it, at least," Negi agreed as they walked down the steps together. "But the job isn't even close to being done, yet. None of the jobs are."

"Yeah, that would be how you'd look at it, wouldn't you?" his sister said, smiling just a bit sadly. Then her face grew even more serious. "Actually, Negi, I've been thinking about it, and, well, maybe it wouldn't be so --"

"Excuse me," interrupted Shanna from right behind Asuna.

Asuna, who was now half-way up the statue in front of the administration building, looked down at her and peeped, "Yes?"

"I need to have a talk with Negi-sensei," she said, not bothering to look up at Asuna, eyes fixed on Negi.

"Of course!" Negi said quickly. While she hadn't said the matter was urgent, the way that she'd spoken clearly conveyed just that message. "Asuna, I'll see you later, all right?" he added with a wave to his sister.

"Right," said Asuna, watching them walk away, a little annoyed. But more with herself than anything else. "Why does my timing suck so badly?" she wondered aloud.

"So ... what is the matter?" Negi asked Shanna when they were far enough away from Asuna that he was fairly sure she wouldn't overhear. He knew, or was at least reasonably sure, that Shanna was aware of what he was doing, and wondered what she was going to do about the situation.

"When I asked you if you wanted to mate with me, and you said yes, what did I tell you?" she answered without glancing at him.

"You said 'not yet'," Negi reminded her.

Now she looked at him, like a wild lioness eying a particularly succulent zebra. "It's yet," she said.

"Oh," he said. "Um. There are some things I should probably tell you first."

"Don't care."

"Or you could not care, and, um, where are we going to do this?"

"My room."

"Of course we are."

Chizuru felt bad about hiding this from Natsumi and (especially) Ayaka, but both of them knew of her learning disability and would have been very confused at the sight of her pouring over a book, particularly one in a foreign language. So she reserved her studies of the Book for her times on the toilet. This was causing her roommates to wonder whether she might have some sort of indigestion, but that was acceptable.

Most of the book was on the subject of magic, and this was completely beyond Chizuru. It wasn't a guide to casting spells, but a tome on their theoretical underpinnings, and how those could be used for the Great Purpose. The book began with the assumption that the reader already knew what that Great Purpose was. Chizuru, of course, did not know, and the tone of those sections of the book did not actually fire her interest in the subject.

But there was more to it than that. It also consisted of an encyclopedia about various types of magical beings known to the author, and how they could be of use to a magus, either as an assistant or as -- Chizuru flipped the page in mild horror as she realized that she was reading a page on how various elven organs could be used as ingredients for potions of longevity. When he'd given her the book, Negi had warned her that many mages were not very nice people. She was increasingly suspicious that he'd soft pedaled that statement.

And then her eyes lit on a passage about people with reading difficulties, and she zoomed in. 'They may be taken as fools or sages, depending on how well the Greek language is known among those who rear them. So too is it with their other instincts, which are those of one bred for battle. The talents they might possess are too manifold for this page to convey, and depend greatly upon which God begat the young demigod.'


Now she knew what she was.

"So whose child am I?" whispered Chizuru Naba, only daughter of the founder of Naba Heavy Industries.

"I'll get it," Yuna told Akira, in response to the frantic knocking on the door. She ambled over to the door, checked through the peephole, and then opened it without undoing the latch. "Yyyyyyyes?" she said cheerfully.

"Where's Negi?" Haruna whispered.

"Don't know," Yuna answered just as quietly. "Maybe he's off with that club he supervises. Or the older girls. Why?"

"You've got to help me!" Haruna's whisper grew into a near squeal. "I've got Yue, Nodoka and Fei in my room wanting to go at it, right the hell now, and I can't do it on my own! If Negi's not here, then you've got to --"

"Sorry, you're not my type," Yuna whispered cheerfully, and shut the door in Haruna's face. The sensation of victory put a spring in her step all the way back to the living room, where Akira regarded her curiously.

"So what was that about?" her room-mate asked.

"Uh, it was Haruna," Yuna answered, then fished for a reason that Haruna would come to her. "She wanted me to give her some descriptions of what Chizuru-san's house was like, so she can draw a big mansion in one of her mangas. I told her I'd help her out later, I don't really want to revisit that just now."

Akira stared. "Okay," she said.

"Um ... Akira ..." Yuna started to say.


Coward, coward, coward, coward! roared her mind, as Yuna coughed. "Never mind," she said.

"All right," said Akira, who knew that her friend would say what she wanted to say when she wanted to say it.

"YES!" shrieked Shanna as her legs spasmed around Negi's hips and her hands clenched at his back, adding more red marks to those already there, as he spent into her yet again. "Ah. Ah. More."

"But, but we've already done it five times," Negi gasped up at her.


Mother had never told him there'd be days like this ...


To Be Continued


Chapter Text

"Saotome Ranma!" Kuno Tatewaki's loud, strong voice rose above the gathered crowds of battle-ready students and random food purveyors who'd sensed an opportunity and set up shop to sell snacks to the audience surrounding an annoyed Ranma and a stonefaced Tendo Akane, who just glared back over her shoulder at the boy she stood back to back with. So he'd taken good care of him, huh? Of course he had.

"Did you believe, even fleetingly, that vile stratagem of yours would suffice to stray me away from my rightful path of retribution? Now you shall have it twicefold enforced upon you! So swears the Blue Lightning of Furinkan!"

The amateur martial artists, assorted violent club members, and Furinkan male (and occassional sapphic) riff-raff moved aside to let the recovering, shuffling Kuno march forward, battered but never defeated, at least in his own mind. Still sporting a Goku uniform that seemed to radiate under the morning sun, even if its grace did not match the stiff nature of his motions. Still, he struggled to keep a magnificent drawl to his words as he spoke, "In her infinite benevolence, the fair Lady Kiryuuin and other higher powers who justly govern us have dictated that I am worthy of another chance, as only through treachery and dirty scheming was I felled! Now, face to face, you shall be cut down like the --"

Then he was slammed down on his face against the dirt as something landed violently on the back of his head, feet first, crushing him down much to the awe of the gathered students, Akane and Ranma included. The small caped figure who had just landed on Kuno rose as much as he could, twirling a cape around himself, the sunlight glinting off his shiny golden helmet. A few in the audience recognized him from rumors brought from Honnoji, and gulped in apprehension, even as more like him, in bizarre disguises hiding their bodies and faces, quickly dropped in succession around him, standing in battle ready stances around the boy in the helmet, who shouted defiantly, "Good people of Furinkan! Your time of need is at its end! No longer will you be oppressed by the mindless tyranny of a few! Freedom is your Fate!"

"Got it? Because he's Fate!" a masked young woman in red added lamely but loudly, holding an impressively huge sword she wielded as if it weighed nothing at all. "And I'm his loyal partner! The awesome Twilight Red!"

"Locked Heart!" hissed the masked young man with a few orange spiked locks peeking out of his hood, and hefting a massive key of sorts around, threateningly.

"Nite Owl!" said a tiny young woman in black, her eyes covered on thick goggles, a dark cape shielding her slim figure.

"And White Death, at your service," hissed the final member of the group, a delicate apparition clad in the purest of whites, like a ghost with glasses firmly attached to and around her head, taking a moment to obscenely lick the edges of the dual blades she was holding expertly, as Ranma noted with growing interest. "Please do come and get it. Make my day, pretty please, ladies and gentlemen."

Finally, from under Fate's heel, Kuno could lift his head enough as to growl, through a mouth full of dirt, "What are you waiting for, fools?! Attack them!"

And so, with loud shouts of primal anger, the gathered masses under his command did as they were told. Only to be mostly thrown back through the air, en masse, just another moment later, by a counter onslaught that repelled them as soon as they had just struck.

For once, something had just caught Akane and Ranma's fancies at the same time.

It must be said that Ranma had little time or patience for accusations that he was a cheap fighter willing to take advantage of any distraction, any shortcut, to win as easily as possible. He knew well he worked hard -- his hardest, to the exclusion of almost everything else -- for his growth and victories as a martial artist. Shortcuts were only one part of that, but in his opinion a martial artist had to be a completest, able to master both the easiest and most difficult ways around a triumph.

At this particular time, Saotome Ranma found himself very glad that he had taken the easiest way to deal with Kuno Tatewaki a few days ago.

Back then, through subterfuge, he had disposed of him brutal and efficiently, and he had not expected to hear of him again for at least a month or even more. But here was the idiot, back on his feet already, and even though clearly spent and still hurt, he remained a match for the quintet of weirdos in masks who had just dropped by to punish him and the losers gathered under his command. Those guys had been easy pickings for the five of them, and now lay scattered before the gates of Furinkan high, occasionally twitching and letting out high pitched squeals of pain, clutching onto their bruises and rolling across the dirt. But Kuno himself fought on, using a single arm and his sword to keep the five strangers at bay, even as they struck down on him relentlessly, leaving no opening in front of him, no room to run now they had basically backed him against a wall.

Not that Kuno looked willing to escape. After activating what Akane had said was his Goku uniform, a sleek yet flamboyant combination of futuristic bodysuit and ancient samurai garb, he had gained both a manic glint to his eyes and a renewed vigor that seemed to match that of a fully healthy man, but for the occasional flinch of ache whenever he was struck, and the random shaky step he took while moving from a side to the other. Ranma was fascinated, actually. While he understood the need for finishing most matches as quickly as possible, now the born fighter in him sort of wished being able to have an actual battle against this guy, just to prove to himself how good he actually was.

Or against those guys instead, should they win. Either way would be fine with him, actually.

He was shaken out of his distraction when Nabiki slipped in right behind Akane, who was just as transfixed by the fight as he was, and grabbed her by the arm. "What are you doing, standing here like an idiot?!" she hissed. "Get in already, the School Council will be here any moment now! Do you want to be caught in the middle of this?!"

"Ah?" Akane blinked, the spell broken. "Nabiki -- don't tell me you called them!"

"Of course I did, you idiot!" Nabiki hissed again, frustrated. "Come on, that guy with the golden mask is wanted, didn't you know that? Bad enough he was seen targeting the people who make you their daily goal, but if you're found at the scene as well, I don't think I could get you out even if I--!"

"Ah ha ha ha!" cackled the white clad lithe girl with the dual swords, taking the vanguard of the fight against Kuno, large holes already open in her tights as she and Kuno collided time after time, each clash causing loud explosions for some reason, much to Ranma's ever growing awe. "Not bad, not bad at all, Sempai, you really excite me!" she panted, her own eyes betraying obvious arousal and cruel thrill through the eye holes of her mask. "But, numbers don't lie! Never bet on five-on-one odds! Ready now, Fate-kun?"

"Yes!" said the boy in the golden mask, as the red-clad girl pulled back along the hooded boy and the short girl in black, the latter two having played the least active roles during the fight. Through most of the battle they had stayed back and only helped occasionally, with a well placed swing of... key... or thrown flash grenade to further stall and confuse Kuno. Now the one they called Fate raised his arms and shouted, in a loud yet slightly distorted voice, "Come from the void, oh thunder, and cut down my enemy! DIOS TUKOS!!"

The arms were brought down decisively, and White Death moved out of the way gracefully, like a dancer, right in time for a preposterously huge discharge of electricity to barrel down towards Kuno, making him scream hideously as the whole area around him exploded under his feet. Ranma reached around, instinctively holding Akane and Nabiki and protecting them with his body, closing his eyes under the intense light that resulted. He opened them a moment later, and saw a bleeding Kuno, wounds reopened, twitching on his face on the ground, White Death standing over him and ready to cut him down with the larger sword. However, in another moment Fate was on her, pulling her back and telling her something she replied to with a few colorful interjections Ranma could not understand in words, but certainly in spirit. 

Ignoring her outburst, Fate briefly crouched down by Kuno, carefully took his pulse, and respectfully whispered something as he placed a hand on his head. Ranma and the Tendos frowned at this, unsure what to make about it, before Nabiki noticed the girl in the owl costume was looking at him strangely, as if recognizing her from some place but refusing to do so. Akane, on the other hand, was more preoccupied by the sight of the golden masked boy, who took a moment to gallantly bow at her, before turning back to his subordinates and barking a few quick orders at them. Twilight Red nodded, grabbed the small Nite Owl under an arm, and they all leaped away, the hooded boy making a visible effort and still just hopping in the back almost hopelessly, before they all were gone, heading towards the World Tree in the distance.

Finally, the silent witnesses peeking from the windows and hiding behind walls and trees began nervously chattering among themselves, ranging from fear to sheer admiration and respect. Nabiki only heaved a sign of relief. "Well, it's a good thing they left before the cleanup crew could arrive, but even so, Akane, let's go inside already. You already know the gig, you saw nothing, you barely heard anything, and you were with me the whole time."

Akane was not paying these instructions any particular mind. "He, he was such a gentleman," she said to herself. "And so strong, as well!"

"Eh?" Ranma snorted.

Akane gave a small snort of her own. "You wouldn't understand, of course."

"I guess I wouldn't," Ranma admitted with a shrug. There was a pause. "Was it just me, or that girl all in black was looking at us really weird?"

"It was just you," Nabiki bluntly told him.

That very afternoon, the day after the exam results were announced, Negi John Springfield was called over to the Headmaster's office once again. It was mildly surprising to see the dean at his office so late, after Shanna had told him he normally would take his leave early because of his age, but he supposed the current circumstances did demand an exception.

Konoemon did indeed sound slightly tired as he addressed him. "Negi-kun," he told him, "I was actually reluctant to summon you here at first. After all, perhaps this subject doesn't involve you at all. I mean, logically, there is no way it could. Even so, I would like it if I could have your opinion on a particular subject that has been vexing me all day long."

Negi nodded. "Of course, Sir. You know I'll be glad to help you any way you want me to."

"Yes, I do know. Very early this day, there were reports from Furinkan, about a certain masked figure attacking Goku-empowered students officially sanctioned by Kiryuuin Satsuki and Morimoto Reina to protect students of a lesser academic rank, and not protected by the statutes of the latest regulations. This marks the second time this has happened since the start of the prior term, the first such incident taking place at Honnoji itself."

"Hmmm," Negi pondered. "I understand, that certainly would give cause to the Student Council to grow alarmed."

"While during the first incident your whereabouts were unaccounted for, Negi-kun," the old man said, "during this particular conflict you were teaching lessons in your classroom. We have complete recordings of your presence there the whole time, and it was clearly you, in a way no paper duplicate created through, oh, Eastern magic you could not possibly know, might perform, much less for that long a span. That has served to quell a few rampant, idle speculations a certain colleague of mine might have harbored, much to her frustration. But even so ..."

"Goodness, Sensei," Negi said. "I hope no one was under the impression I might be--?"

"I know, right?" the man chuckled rather falsely. "That would be as insane as arguing I could have manipulated a stone golem in an underground location I would have no way of knowing about, but I'm afraid a few of my colleagues might have quite the active imagination."

Negi nodded, keeping on his poker face. "And you wish for my opinion on the subject. Well, obviously, we can't figure out the motives of a masked attacker unless they declared them openly. Is there a link between those this person attacked, or...?"

"They all are enforcers of Kiryuuin-kun, their names don't matter for the purposes of this meeting," Konoemon said. "In both cases, the masked interloper used magic and seemed to act as a protector of the weak and powerless against the punishment from the status quo. Noble intentions, perhaps, but probably more disastrously disruptive in the long term than these characters would believe."

"There were more than one?"

Konoemon nodded. "In his first raid, this individual acted alone, but today he acted with a hooded male and three masked females, all of them apt for combat. We haven't identified any of them yet, even though one of the females clearly displayed the Shinmei-ryuu style of swordmanship. That made my eager colleague to jump on conclusions concerning a certain student of ours who is an adept of that school, but it turns out she was present in classes all day long as well."

"Outsiders," Negi offered his opinion.

"Yes. Outsiders. That is what I have come to believe after these latest developments, too," the adult agreed. "I know you are rather busy with your duties at the time, Negi-kun, so I will assign another of my employees to investigate this situation further. However, I would ask that, should you ever learn about individuals you suspect of belonging to these ... subversives ... you will report them to me or Minamoto-kun immediately. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Sir," he honestly replied. The Headmaster had not said anything about reporting those he knew for sure were behind this strike, so technically his conscience was at peace on the subject.

"Good boy. You are dismissed for now, then. Have a good night, Negi-kun."

And so he went and did.

A week passed, and many things happened.

The Mahora Academies held their closing ceremonies, and it was revealed that Negi Springfield would officially be joining the faculty in the coming school year. This caused considerable frustration for one Hasegawa Chisame, who'd entertained the somewhat delusional hope that things would go back to normal in that coming school year. To be kind, she didn't expect the world to completely revert to the blue-skied paradise she'd only ever seen in the movies, but it would have been nice if she'd been free of one of the stranger elements in her life.

To cope with her frustrations, Chisame immersed herself in her secret life as the online idol Chiu-chan. But disaster struck, for Negi discovered this secret life! Fortunately for Chisame, however, he was still recovering from the previous day's marathon sex session with Shanna, and so was not moved to physically express his attraction to her e-girl persona. She was publicly humiliated when he attempted to get her more involved with her fellow classmates, though, and swore to take a bloody vengeance one day on her young teacher.

Elsewhere in Academy City, Kuno Tatewaki presented himself to offer his sincere apologies to Tendo Akane for having been unable to overcome her horrid fiance, who now stood revealed as an evil sorcerer who seized control of the minds of innocent young girls and forced them to commit acts of violence on his betters. Kuno also reported that he had discovered that he was of that type of man who could, indeed, love more than one woman at once, and resolved to pursue Kiryuuin Satsuki, a nameless pig-tailed girl, and Akane herself equally in the days to come. Akane beat him senseless as he was pursuing this theme, but the violence gave her no comfort.

Meanwhile, Ranma and Shanpu paid a visit to Library Island, only to be told that they would have to return in about a week, after the library staff was ready to assist them in their search. Unsatisfied with that, the two martial artists snuck in, and were introduced to the startling variety of traps that protected the shelves of Library Island from just what they were trying to do. They left, somewhat humbled in Ranma's case. (Shanpu would accept death before she would admit humiliation, and vowed to have a rematch.)

Back at Mahora, Negi learned that Nodoka had shared her version of his secrets with Yue, who had in turn shared her version of his secrets with Nodoka, leaving them both more or less completely informed about what was going on. There was clearly only one thing he could do about this.

So he fucked them.

"Ah, Negi-sensei!" cried Nodoka as he pounded into her no-longer-maiden cleft, spread across Yuna's bunk as they were. "Sennnnnnseiiiiiii!" she shrieked as she reached orgasm and he unleashed into her.

"This isn't happening," Yue said, quite calmly, as she watched Nodoka having sex while Yuna, sitting behind the scholarly baka, played with the smaller girl's tiny teats on the floor below. Yue was certain that this all had to be a strange dream brought on by her delayed adolescence. She kept thinking that even when Negi creamed inside of her, a few minutes later, while Nodoka rode her face.

Yuna found herself obscurely grateful that Akira had been called off to yet another emergency swim team meeting. Negi, for his part, had noted the way that Akira was often nursing small injuries when she came home after these meetings, and found himself somewhat concerned about the situation. He resolved to investigate further when he had the opportunity to do so.

He was not able to so the next day, however, as he spent that day with Yuna, Akira, Asuna and Konoka at Ayaka's palatial dreamhouse, located in the sector of Academy City normally reserved for the homes of Three Star students at Honnoji. Somewhat weary from his exploits of the previous day, Negi missed Ayaka's not-really-all-that-subtle attempts to seduce him, with her holding back a little out of something like respect for the fact that he was the younger brother of a classmate. Asuna quietly did her part to distract Negi from such matters; she had no real hope that Negi and the class representative wouldn't end up going at it like rabbits, but she wanted to delay it as long as possible for reasons she didn't choose to examine too closely.

Over this period of time, Mai was busily working with many of the HiME, scattered all across Academy City. She'd been unable to contact with Sister Yukariko, having been warned by this world's Sugiura Midori about the presence of the magic academy beneath the city's cathedral. She chose not to contact Fujino Shizuru, preferring to let Natsuki do it instead. For her part, Natsuki was hesitating to do just that. Midori and Mai were also trying to determine whether this world's Munakata Shiho, a student at a middle school in Nagano after her family's shrine had been abandoned, was still a HiME.

Ryuko, following her confrontation with a Junketsu-equipped Satsuki, found herself targeted by numerous clubs at Honnoji, as well as a sniper associated with the secret organization who was moving against the Elite Four, the name of which organization, she was horrified to learn, was Nudist Beach. Resisting the impulse to pack it in then and there, Ryuko continued her struggle, aided always by Mako and P-chan -- who wanted to move on, both to regain his honor and to confront Ranma Saotome, his nemesis, but found it impossible to sneak out of the Mankanshoku house due to his poor sense of direction.

When Mahora High School's new term at last began, Yuuki Riko endured the introduction to her class of Lala Satalin Deviluke, her self-proclaimed fiancee. Fortunately, after her introduction to Sairenji, she'd been able to get it through Lala's pink head that girls did not normally marry each other in Japan, and that it would not be a good idea to advertise their (in Riko's mind) imaginary relationship. She needn't have worried. Roughly half the class was terrified of this alien in their midst, while the other half believed that Suzumiya Haruhi was probably right in claiming that Lala was just a phony looking for attention. Sairenji, for her part, wasn't sure what she believed, as she was presently re-examining her own memories of her friendship with Riko in light of current events. And Risa and Mio were grinning as they decided that they had three classmates who had to be added to their collective.

A week passed.

And then everything changed.

"Sir." Shanna, who had been about to leave minutes ago, walked back into the Headmaster's office, looking a bit angry. "Turn on your TV. Something has happened."

The fact that she'd just used the term 'sir' was all the reason Konoemon needed to do exactly as she said.

Shinonome Nanami, dark haired, bespectacled Secretary of Academy City's Joint Student Council, left her meeting with Satsuki-sama and her inner circle fairly late that evening, taking her usual shortcut through the old, cold Cherry Lane. The skies were cloudly, but for once this week, it was not raining. Even so, she hurried down the wide pathway flanked by sakura trees, more out of fear of another rainstorm breaking out quickly again, rather than out of any concern for her personal safety. She knew no one, not here even in Mahora, was crazy enough to attack one of the members of the Student Council.

Her long smooth hair trailed behind her with her moderate sprint, and she kept her bag firmly pressed against herself, a custom acquired early in life.

At midway, she stopped, believing she had just heard something strange. It had sounded like huge wings flapping in the wind that grew stronger by the moment.

The lovely looking face framed by carefully combed pink locks smiled, its green eyes sparkling with refined contentment, all across the TV screens of the whole of Japan.

"I, Mina Tepes, am here to inform you, as is my right and duty as ruler of the vampire race, that I now claim ownership over this island off the coast of Honshu, as the capital of my species from this night until the ending of the world."

The strange noise subsided momentarily, but when Nanami started rushing down the path again, her pace was not only faster, but spurred by an added element.


"But fear not," the tiny pink-haired girl in elegant black promised, with a hand on her flat chest. "Our species has learned well from past mistakes, which nearly led to our extinction. We mean you no harm. We come into the light, not to threaten you, but to extend offerings of peace. We are not here to conquer, but to coexist, in harmony and mutual respect."

The shadow passed right above Nanami's face, bearing the vague shape of a monstrous black bat. By that point, the girl's heart was beating madly, and her face was covered in sweat despite the chill of the night. She reached for her cellphone, but then the shadow landed right before her, and out of it, a long arm shot out. A strong hand with long fingernails painted black grabbed her wrist and twisted, making her scream and drop the phone.

"It has to be some sort of elaborate scam," Hakase Satomi said, for Chisame's benefit, as both sat before the TV of their shared room, sitting closer than ever before. "There's no way creatures such as vampires can possibly exist."

"Y-Yeah, it's surely just some kind of sick joke," Chisame agreed, taking mental notes on that magnificent black dress for her next cosplay session. One way or another, it was due to be all the rage immediately. "What kind of weird supernatural group would place a kid as their leader, anyway?"

The tall woman in skimpy black leather and a cape as long and dark as the night itself trapped Nanami between her arms.


"Heh heh heh. No one is coming to help you, not here, and certainly not now," the stranger said perversely, closing her mouth on Nanami's pale neck.

Akira, Yuna and Negi also watched in the temporary safety of their own room, flabbergasted.

"Um ... so there really is a pink-haired girl claiming to be a vampire on TV, right?" Yuna asked.

"Yes, that would seem to be the case," Akira agreed, nodding, as serene as ever.

Yuna gulped. Was this another one of the signs of the end of the times Negi had talked about?

Finally, she has made her move. Sooner than we expected, too, Negi grimly considered. And so, now I will have to act quickly... also, gosh, she's so cute!

Sharp fangs pierced through Nanami's skin, and then the painful sensation of being drained began, as the thick red elixir of life was strongly pulled out through twin holes that were too small. The girl shrieked powerlessly, and tears flooded her eyes, her whole body and mind assaulted by panic and despair.

At least, until she began feeling woozy and silent, which happened fairly soon, and yet it felt like it had taken an eternity.

The numbness and the darkness slowly pushed her down into a blissful, serene relief without dreams. So she couldn't hear the triumphant laugh of her attacker.

"To my dear children of the night, I command and compel you to join me here, on this island set aside for us as a bund, a land within a land, just for us," the tiny girl said. "Join me here ... and let us begin our pavane."

"What's a pavane?" Yuna asked dazedly.

"It's a kind of dance," Negi replied.

"A dance in the vampire bund," Akira softly said.

There was a vigorous knock on the door. "I'll get it," said Negi, half-expecting it to be one of the other girls looking for answers, half-expecting it to be Shanna come to summon him to a meeting with the Headmaster.

He blinked in surprise when he opened the door and found himself closer than he'd ever been before to the fiery aura surrounding Hino Rei. At this range, he could almost feel the heat. "Y-yes, Hino-san?" he asked.

"Sensei, there'll be an official notice on your desk in the morning," she said brusquely. "But I thought I should tell you in person. I won't be in class tomorrow."

"Oh," he said. "Ah ... it's physical measurement day."

Rei nodded sharply. "Please tell them to just use my numbers from last year, they will not have changed. I have to get going now, sensei."

"Very well then," Negi said. "... I won't say good hunting, but may I say, good luck?"

She hadn't really been looking at him, he realized then. She'd been sort of looking through him. Now he had her full and undivided attention, and he, who had conversed with mazoku and spirits and his mother, knew genuine fear for the first time in a very long while. "That's a very interesting thing to say, Negi-sensei," the Guardian told him. "We are going to have words about this, later. Good night."

And then she stopped looking at him, and he nearly sagged in relief as she turned and walked down the hallway, out of sight.

Early the next morning, a young woman who could never possibly be taken for a fourteen year-old girl (a seventeen year-old, on the other hand) stepped off a bullet train that had just arrived in Tokyo-3 and walked purposefully towards a hotel just outside the station. An elevator quickly took her to the correct floor, and she knocked on the correct door ... which opened to reveal a blonde in a bathrobe.

"First one here, too," said Aino Minako, genuinely surprised. "Considering the other two work out of here, that's sort of incredible, Rei-chan."

Hino Rei, for it was indeed she, opened her mouth to either reply or make some other comment.

"Not until the others are here, please," Minako interjected, as she pulled Rei into the room and shut the door behind them.

Rei closed her mouth, and stared with barely hidden fury at one of her best friends in the world. "Is she here?" she asked through clenched teeth.

"In the bathroom," Minako replied with a gesture towards the closed door.

"Good," Rei bit out, then marched over to look out through the room's picture window. "I hate this city," she added, almost conversationally.

Minako felt like pointing out that, in the last fifteen years of meetings, Rei had yet to make a positive comment about any place where they met, rendering her low opinion of Tokyo-3 somewhat redundant. But that would have led to discussions that she'd indicated were going to wait until the others arrived, so instead she shrugged off her bathrobe and began to pull on jeans and a sweater.

Moments later, another knock on the door. Mizuno Ami entered briskly once it was opened. "Okay, I've got two hours before my shift starts, so we need to make this quick," she said. "Rei-chan. Minako-chan. She's in the bathroom, right?"

Minako nodded. Rei didn't bother turning away from the window. Ami looked at Minako with a raised eyebrow, and Minako slowly shook her head.

"I can see you in the reflection, you know," said Rei.

Another knock. As Kino Makoto entered, she was part way through a yawn as big as she was tall.

"Just coming off shift, right?" Ami guessed.

Makoto nodded as she walked over to pick Ami up in a hug that took the much smaller woman off her feet. "I'd tell you about it, but it can wait for the report," she said, nuzzling a bit in Ami's hair.

"Put me down," said Ami.

"You're out of fashion."

Ami shook her head and hugged Makoto back.

There was a click from the bathroom door, and, radiant in white, the Moon Princess walked out to observe her Guardians, pink hair tied up in two cat's ear buns on either side of her head, their tails reaching to her ankles. She smiled at the sight of Ami and Makoto hugging each other, then turned to look at Rei looking out the window. "All right," said Usagi Small Lady Serenity. "Let's start with Ami's report, and go around that way."

Ami's feet were on the floor once more as she spoke. "I was able to get Academy City's superhero involved in the first Herald's arrival, by contacting Kirigiri Fuhito, whose granddaughter apparently has a line to them. I'm sure that it altered the outcome of the situation. Howver, I'm still stymied in penetrating Nerv's security to find out exactly why the Herald supposedly targeted them. The operation remains open. Rei-chan?"

Now Rei turned from the window, and looked calmly at her Princess. "Morimoto is clearly building to something, but I haven't been able to get any leads as to what. I think it's probably going to be aimed at Negi Springfield ... whom I should note somehow knows more than he should about me."

"In what way?" pressed the Princess.

"In that he offered me wishes of 'good hunting' when I talked to him right after --" She broke off, as her voice had been rising. "Ahem. When I talked to him. I don't know how he could know about us. The Kiryuuin girl has started wearing a power suit, for the first time, mostly to fight the other girl in the power suit. I'd ask whether I should approach Girl B, but we have other problems, right? Over to you, Makoto."

"Okay. First thing -- I spent the night going over the site of a rally for a new cult that calls themselves the Light of the Divine. We're -- Tokken is not exactly clear on their doctrine, but there was definitely some occult nastiness involved in the organization of this thing. It may be more your department than mine, though," she added to Ami.

"Haven't heard of them, yet. I'll keep an ear open," Ami said, frowning.

"Right. Onto the bigger problem. The 'Kitami' entity has been a lot more active recently. It doesn't seem to be pressing against the limits of the Geas I put on Imari, so there hasn't been any serious problems, but that thing makes me seriously nervous. I'm gonna suggest exorcism, again."

"And again, I'm going to hold off on that," said the Princess. "We're not yet at the point where I'm comfortable just purifying people who haven't actually done anything dangerous in their current incarnation." She glanced at Rei. "Well, since Rei is going to explode if we don't get to it soon --"

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Rei promptly shouted at Minako. "I thought you might mess up from time to time, but I never dreamed you'd overlook vampires cutting a deal with the government you're supposed to be watching. It's bad enough we have to tolerate a bloody-handed mass murderer who's in league with the soul reapers in the Prime Minister's chair, but vampires?"

"There were various circumstances --" Minako began to calmly explain.

"Circumstances where allowing a nation of life-destroying monsters inside Japan was the lesser of some other evil?" Rei interrupted, aghast. "What was the worse one? Is Rl'yeh rising? Are we facing another alien invasion this month? Has Sailor Galaxia gone all evil again?"

"That's not funny, Rei-chan," said the Princess, reprovingly.

"I'm not the funny one, that's her!" Rei snapped, pointing at Minako. "What were you thinking?"

"Mostly I was thinking that I do what our Princess tells me to do," Minako said, just as calmly as she'd spoken about various circumstances.

Rei stared. "What? What does that even --" And then she broke off, and stared at the Princess.

"I met with Princess Mina four months ago, and we reached ... an understanding," said said Princess.

"No," said Rei.

"We discussed a number of conditions which would make this situation workable for both sides," she continued, without appearing to notice Rei's objection.

"You reached an understanding with a bunch of monsters." Rei's voice was right on the edge of a shout, and her hands were clenched at her sides.

"Rei-chan, once the artificial blood product was developed, the vampire community as a whole moved from the category of supernatural predators to the category of people with an odd medical problem," the Princess said with great patience. "Were you aware that there's an entire subculture of vampires who pull out their own fangs to prevent themselves from preying on humans?"

"Really?" asked Ami, quite startled. "I would have assumed that their regenerative properties would just restore the tooth if it was removed."

"Either it doesn't, or there's more to the treatment than simple dentistry," said the Princess. "In any event, the idea is that the vampires will stay on their island. No humans will visit it without the express invitation of Princess Mina, making them her guests and thus sacrosanct. No vampires will leave it without becoming outcasts ... who can be dealt with by Japan's supernatural protectors."

"I.e. us," said Makoto, with a somewhat savage grin.

"Among others," Minako reminded her.

"Does this relieve your concerns, Rei-chan?" the Princess asked.

"No, of course not," the Guardian of Flame snapped. "I can't believe you're asking me to just accept this!"

And the Princess of the Moon stared at her for a moment, before quietly saying, "Where did you get the idea that I was asking you?"

Rei's knees became unsteady, and she pushed back against the window pane to hold herself upright. "Hah," she eventually said, very quietly. "You've spent the last fifteen years waiting for an excuse to say that to me, haven't you?"

"No," said Usagi Small Lady Serenity, just as quietly. "I've spent the last fifteen years praying that you would never give me cause. But you did, Rei-chan." Then more loudly. "I didn't ask for any of this. You, all of you, installed me as your new Princess because you couldn't imagine living without one. Well, then, your chosen ruler is going to act in what she considers the best interests of her dominion, whether you like it or not."

"Usagi-chan --" Minako started to say.

"No," interrupted the small girl in the perfect white dress. "Never call me that. That was my mother. I'm not her."

She took a deep breath, then spoke quickly yet firmly. "Ami-chan, please arrange it so that you give Kurumi a check-up in your 'Doctor Mizuko' identity, and inspect Mako-chan's working. If you confirm her suspicions, I'll reconsider purifying her. Minako, ready Operation Other Shoe." She blinked, and a starry field appeared on the ground beneath her feet. "I'm withdrawing to the Palace. Until next time ... my friends." And with that, she dropped into the field, vanishing from sight.

Makoto glanced at Rei, who was still barely standing, and then deliberately turned to look at Ami instead. "Breakfast?" she asked.

"I'm starving," Ami admitted, and the two quickly headed out of the hotel room.

"She could have said no, you know," Minako observed a moment later from the bed where she was sitting. "Whether you were asking or not, she could have just said no."

"And done what, gone forward in time to a world that no longer exists?" Rei asked, bitterly. "No. We gave her no options, and now we're paying for it." She shook her head. "The whole world may be -- what's Operation Other Shoe?" she asked abruptly."

"The other shoe that's going to drop after Princess Mina's announcement, in about thirty-six hours from now," Minako answered. "I think you'll find it somewhat diverting."

"Oh, wonderful."

Later that same morning, towards the start of the school day, the girls of the newly promoted Class 3-A were reduced to their underwear. Much to his chagrin, Negi was not with them at the time. He instead stood outside of the nurse's office where they were being examined in their health checkups for the start of the new school term. And he knew better than to try and peek.

"So, what do you think about last night's announcement? The one with the vampire girl?" asked Asuna as the blond, blue-eyed nurse's assistant Shiraki Rika carefully took her measurements, with cold and silent efficiency.

"What's there to think about it?" asked Misa, standing slightly behind as the next in line. "It's obviously some sort of publicity stunt."

"Yeah, maybe they're going to set some sort of amusement park at that Bund island," agreed her partner in cheerleading Kugimiya Madoka. "I think I'll be going as soon as they open it for the public. Sounds like a wicked cool place."

"Eeeehhh!? Aren't you afraid in the slightest that it might be true?" whined Makie. Given how she'd gained awareness of the world of magic under rather dangerous circumstances, she'd grown just the tiniest bit timid when it came to the non-Negi supernatural.

"Nah, what kind of dangerous vampire queen would be a cute lolita who shows up on TV giving press conferences? I mean, seriously." Misa shook her head, stepping ahead and lifting her arms now that it was her turn. "Besides, it that crap was real, don't you think someone would have figured it out and publicized it a long time ago?"

"Perhaps someone tried to do that exact thing, and it was suppressed," the adult commented, calmly taking measures of Misa's decent bustline. "The truth can die frighteningly easily, while lies are much harder to kill."

"Sensei?" Shiina Sakurako gasped. "Don't tell us you believe in the supernatural!"

"Yes, actually. I've seen things that convinced me that there's more to the world than meets the eye," Shiraki nodded, now listening to Misa's heart rate. "... terrible things," she added after a moment.

"Such as?" asked Haruna in a suspicious tone, with her arms folded. If mages and sex-changing lagoons and golems all existed, the existence of vampires was not such a huge logical leap. But Shiraki's name hadn't been on the list of people who were in on the secret of magic that Sakura, after some convincing, had provided to the rest of the collective, so Haruna found her supposed knowledge to be a bit concerning.

"Maybe I'll tell you about them, someday." The blonde smiled, in a rather chilly sort of way. "Patience is a virtue even the mightiest have to possess, if they would be wise."

"In that case, Haruna is clearly doomed," commented Yue.

"Who can say?" asked Shiraki with a shrug as she moved on to Madoka's measurements.

Okay, Haruna was sure of it now; there were some seriously, seriously bad vibes coming from this nurse. She'd have to tell Negi about it as soon as possible.

Standing right outside, in the otherwise empty hall, Negi rubbed his nose. The images from last night just wouldn't leave his mind no matter what. These developments could be a boon or a bane for his own plans – and even more so for his students' safety. Exactly how much did Mina Tepes know? Was she gathering her forces at a single place to better survive the coming challenges? If so, should he oppose her, or throw in with her? Was he even ready to take either option?

His thoughts were interrupted when he felt a hand descend on his shoulder. Startled, he turned to see who it was, and looked up into the face of a red-haired, green-eyed woman in a blue jacket over a low-cut red blouse. Her face was clearly more suited to smiles than the frown she was currently wearing. "You're Negi-sensei, right?" she asked quickly. "I need your help?"

"Well, I'm always happy to help a student, but who --" he started to ask.

Her frown sublimed into the biggest grin and she crushed him against her chest. "He called me a student!" she announced blissfully. "I mean I'm just seventeen, of course, but yay!"

Now, normally Negi would have just taken advantage of this, but he was somewhat perplexed at the moment, so he only enjoyed being pressed to the girl's impressive breasts rather than copping a feel. "Who are you?" he asked.

"Sugiura Midori, recently installed homeroom teacher at Mahora Integrated, very, very pleased to make your acquaintance," she explained.

"You're a teacher?" Negi asked. "Really?"

"Okay, thinking I'm a student was initially cute, but doubting my word is much less," she informed him. "And, like I said, I need your help. Well, Yohko-chan needs someone's help, and you're the person I found to give it to her."

Negi decided to ignore that probably unintentional double-entendre. "What's the matter, what does Sagisawa-sensei need?"

"Well, short version is that there's been an attack on one of the students --" Midori started to explain.

The doors of the office were tossed open, and out stepped Asuna, Yuna, Haruna, Asakura and Ayaka, all still in their undergarments, with the rest of the disrobed class 3-A shortly behind them. "What was that?" they chorused.

"Yeeeee," said Negi, grinning broadly despite his best efforts.

Standing at the very back of the group with Yuuki Karin at her side, Evangeline McDowell watched all this with cold, unblinking eyes.

"The somewhat longer version," said Midori as she walked briskly with Negi down the hallway, "is that the student who was attacked is the Secretary of the Joint Student Council, and the President's goons are stopping Yohko-chan from getting in to examine her. She sent me to go find someone who could make them back down, and you were the only one who was here." Midori bit down on her lower lip. "Maybe I should have ranged further --"

"I don't blame you for thinking that, but I have certain advantages when it comes to dealing with students from Honnoji," he told her.

"Yeah? Like what?"

He smiled coldly. "I was raised to view people like them as pikers."

Midori almost missed a step when he said that, but a moment later they were in the medical bay, quietly greeting Chief Nurse Sagisawa Yohko, and turning to regard a room that was being guarded by a young man Negi had seen at a fairly close distance not too long ago, though Sanagaeyama was now wearing a green bandanna with eye marks over his actual eyes. After a moment of consideration, Negi started walking towards the blocked doorway, beckoning for Sagisawa to follow him. She and Midori exchanged a look, and then did so.

"Like I told the nurse," Sanagaeyama announced as Negi approached within a certain radius, "nobody gets in --"

"Let me just stop you right there," Negi interrupted.

Sanagaeyama frowned. "Where do I know that voice from?" he muttered to himself.

The Helmet disguises my voice, he can't possibly recognize it, Negi told himself. "The President of the Student Council employs you, and, owing to Academy City's regulations, you have a great deal of authority here, almost as much as you have in Honnoji," he continued. "But you are still a student ... and I am still a teacher. The teachers at Honnoji might be inclined to let you people do whatever you like, but my job, unlike theirs, is not dependent on the goodwill of Kiryuuin Satsuki. So. I'm going to ask you to step aside so that I, and these two members of the faculty, can enter this room. Now."

Sanagaeyama leaned down so that his masked face was right in front of Negi's eyes. "And what are you going to do if I say 'no', little man?" he asked.

"I really hope it won't come to that," Negi answered. He thought that sounded much more impressive than 'go and get the Headmaster, a few more magic teachers, and possibly Shanna.'

Abruptly, a savage looking smile crossed Sanagaeyama's face. "Go right in," he said, standing up and stepping to the side.

Negi blinked in confusion at the way things had worked out, but pressed on to slide the door open and walk into the dimly lit room with Midori and Yohko on his heels. And just as abruptly, all confusion was banished when he saw, sitting in a chair, facing away from him, a tall figure with long, straight black hair, who was resting a hand on the hand of the similar looking young woman in the bed before her.

She must've said to let us in, and Sanaegayama heard her and -- Negi broke off this line of thought, and spoke up. "President Kiryuuin. I would appreciate it if you would allow Nurse Sagisawa to do her job. And let me assure you, as a member of the faculty, that we will do everything in our power to identify and deal with those responsible for the attack on the Secretary."

The hand on Shinonome's hand was withdrawn. And a quiet voice that somehow filled the room replied, "No."

"Uhhh ..." said Negi, who had much less of a plan for dealing with this particular no.

She had still not turned around to look at them, nor moved from where she sat. "That is to say that no, I will not stop your nurse from doing her job. However, no, I will not be assured by your words. And that, no, you will not do everything in your power. It is much, much more likely that you will hem, and haw, and conduct auguries to gods who, if they existed as anything other than the stories told by long-dead grifters, are surely dead themselves, and that nothing will be done." Now she stood up, but still did not turn. "And that once more, it falls to Kiryuuin Satsuki to do what must be done to defend and avenge one of the handful of the idiot pigs of these schools who has demonstrated some small signs of ability during her term under my watch. You may rest assured of that."

"Ghk," said Negi, Midori, and even Yohko, more or less in chorus.

No. I can't let her have the last word, Negi thought. "I am sorry that you have such a poor opinion of my colleagues, but I can offer you my personal assurance that I won't allow 'nothing' to be done," he managed to say.

And now she turned around, and he was genuinely surprised. He'd thought that someone as intimidating as this young woman would have to have some facial feature that made her stand out as unattractive. But no, there was nothing. She was rather lovely, actually. And, ultimately, much less terrifying than having the direct attention of a wizard.

Or perhaps she was holding back, for she regarded him in silence for a moment, before speaking. "Perhaps you can do something of worth."

"I will certainly --"

"Inform Evangeline McDowell that she is no longer welcome in my Academy City." And with that, the President turned and walked out of the room without another glance at any of them.

Midori shuddered. "Well ... that's not terrifying."

"That's a good word for it," Yohko agreed, as she assumed a cold efficiency as she took the chair beside the girl's bed, checking on her pulse and other life signs. After humming analytically to herself, she pulled off the bandages around the victim's neck and exposed the twin small marks on her skin. "Well," she said. "This doesn't look good, now does it?"

Negi sighed. "Just as I feared. At the worst possible moment, too. If this isn't an isolated incident, and the truth about this gets out, the students might even riot --"

"Yeah," Midori agreed, nodding grimly. "Especially with the new student joining the Girl's Middle School."

Negi looked at her. "What was that, Sugiura-sensei?"

"Midori-chan, please. And the Old Man didn't tell you?

Negi's brain began blaring signals of alarm. "No. No, he hasn't told me anything. What's going on?"

The tiny pink-haired girl in the long black dress quietly wrote her name in both delicate Roman cursive and blocky kanji on the black board. Mina Tepes, it read one way, Mina Tepeshi in another. And then she turned, and smiled, so that her tiny fangs showed. "Good morning, everyone."

Classroom 3-A regarded her in utter silence. Even Zazie, while not exactly open-mouthed, was expressing some emotion, in the form of a stop to her usual ball juggling and a quiet, long, fixed stare. Zazie. Evangeline's mouth twitched slightly at one of its corners. Chisame's expression displayed a confusing mixture of dread, annoyance and disgust. Yue's eyes had become two tiny black dots. The always empty first seat at the front of the class seemed to shift slightly, as if trembling, but everyone was too distracted to notice or care.

Kakizaki of all people was the first one to react, lifting a quaking finger and slowly pointing it at the newcomer. "Y-y-you are really that one ... the Mina Tepes on TV last night?"

"Yes, and I do hope that you were watching television in a well-lit room and from a comfortable distance," said the vampire princess.

"Here in our class?" Misa asked again.

"Of course not; in your respective dormitories." She laughed lightly then, sounding a bit like a bell. "My apologies, I often find it hard to resist the urge to make jokes. Yes, I will be in your classroom for the duration of this term at the very least! I look forward to a very enriching learning experience with each and every one of you!"

There was once again a blunt, general silence.

"I have a question, if you don't mind." The silence had been broken by, of all people, Yotsuba Satsuki, who'd been regarding the transfer student with at best mild curiosity all this while.

"Of course I don't. Ask away," Mina-sama allowed, with a smile.

"I never would have expected someone in your position to spend any of your time pursuing a position as a student among us," Satsuki stated. "As a matter of fact, I would never expect a powerful vampire to spend any time at this academy unless they were forced against their will to do so." There came a snapping noise from the back row of the class, and Evangeline dropped the pieces of a pencil on her desk. Satsuki continued without looking back. "So, may I ask if you have been placed here against your will? Because that is a terrible thing to do to someone." Negi coughed uncomfortably.

"Tell that to my father," Chisame muttered.

Mina-sama smiled again. "No, I have entered here freely and of my own will. As a matter of fact, some of my advisers spoke against it, but I sincerely believe that it was necessary. For various reasons, I have never been able to engage in any formal education. As well, this is an opportunity to better show the human race that my people are willing to coexist peacefully. So please, try to forget all this nonsense about my royalty, and just think of me as another student. Call me Mina-san. Or Mina-chan if you feel particularly warm towards me?"

More extremely awkward, and even terrified, silence, ensued, broken only by Fuuka and Fumika's panicked sobs as they clung to each other.

"It's so moving to see people made so happy by my presence," Mina said, bashfully.

Makie raised a hand. "I have another question!"

"I'll be pleased to answer the question of such a charming and lovely young lady," said Mina-san.

"Awww! She thinks I'm cute! Ahem! Serious face, serious face. Are you related to Eva-chan?" she asked, pointing at said classmate, whose exasperated expression only grew even more tense. "Because you look so alike!"

Mina-san looked over at Eva, changed from a smile to a little smug smirk, and then laughed softly. "Oh, do you think so? I don't see any resemblance at all, cute as she is!"

"I'm not cute," Evangeline mumbled dangerously under her breath.

"Regardless, no, regrettably, the whole of my family died long ago," Mina-san informed them, growing more serious.

"Uh ... qu-qu-question?" asked Misora, raising a hand. "Are you going to be living here on campus? With us? And so many other people? Whose immortal souls are in danger?"

"Regrettably, no," said the princess, clearly ignoring that last bit. "My treaty with your government requires me to be housed on our island, so I will be returning there at the end of each school day." She paused, and seemed to think. "But now that I say that, I suppose that it might actually be a good idea to have somewhere I can reside if weather or other circumstances prevent me from doing so. I wonder if there are any cabins to be purchased."

"No. There are not," Evangeline growled.

"Aw, well, you'll forgive me if I check the real estate section rather than taking your word for it," said Mina-chan, very gently.

"Um." A certain pineapple-haired redhead swallowed hard, extending a microphone ahead. "Asakura Kazumi, ma'am, of the school newspaper. Pleased to meet you, I hope you won't mind granting us an exclusive interview, quite probably the most important one we'll ever publish."

"I'd love to," Mina-san said.

Kazumi squealed in ecstatic glee inside. Whether this whole thing was a fraud or not, they had just been handed a gigantic scoop. Thanks a million, Lady Fortune! "Oh, um, thanks a lot! Ohhhh ... forgive me if you think I'm starting with the wrong foot, but I think it's necessary question ... are you an actual, ah, vampire?"

She nodded. "I am indeed of that ancient and noble race."

"Um." Kazumi looked out the window to reveal that, yes, the sun was shining in the red sky. "But it's day."

"So it is!" Mina said, gasping in fright. "I should really hurry to my coffin!"


And Mina laughed. "A joke, of course! I do not sleep in a coffin. And the sun, and measures to protect myself from the sun, do limit certain of my abilities, but I am in no danger." She looked at Evangeline. "Nooooo danger at all," she repeated.

Kazumi gulped. "Okay. Ahhh, I don't mean to offend with this either, but our readers would surely want to read about your age."

There was another delicate laugh from her. "Oh, I'm so very sorry, but a lady never talks about that, Asakura-san! I sincerely hope you understand."

So far so good, a nervous Negi thought. No one has killed anyone yet, maybe we can make it through this, maybe we actually can.

"I will say that I'm much younger than certain people who have accomplished much less with their lives," Mina-chan added.

We're all dead.

And then Kazumi asked that question.

"Of course, we are, ah, all honored to have you here, but exactly why have you chosen this particular class in this particular school? I assume one as important and powerful as you wouldn't have left it to chance."

"Very perceptive," Mina said, nodding and becoming very serious. "Indeed, that was a calculated decision. Mahora, as the oldest of Academy City's schools, gifted with so much prestige and tradition, was always my most logical and treasured choice, of course. As for my selection of this class specifically... it has everything to do with one of you. One who is fated for great things from birth. One who is destined to be my loyal servant!"

Twenty-seven bodies and one spectral form, for one reason or another, backed away on their seats with varying degrees of alarm, from the nearly nonexistent to the overwhelming. As for Negi, he just repressed the ice-cold chill running up his spine lest it make him squirm and yelp in an extremely awkward manner. It was not an easy task at all.

Then Mina-san smiled angelically and chirped, "That, of course, was another joke!"

"Ah-ha, ha ha, haaaa," Negi feigned a laugh. "Well, what with one thing and another, I don't think we're going to get much English practice done today, so, for the remainder of the period, it's free study. Ahem. But if I could please speak to McDowell-san in the hallway, right now."

The tiny blonde regarded him with obvious annoyance, but nonetheless stood up and turned towards the room's back door. Karin started to stand up so as to accompany her. A gesture from Evangeline had the taller girl sitting back down with an unhappy look on her face, which grew even more unhappy when Mina-san slid into the desk that Hino Rei usually occupied, right across the aisle from Karin.

There wasn't time to worry about that, though, and Negi headed out into the hallway through the room's front door. Standing in the hallway, he stared at Evangeline, who met his stare evenly. They began walking towards each other, meeting in the middle of the classroom's wall.

"Yes, dear teacher?" the Queen of Puppets said, the first words she'd ever spoken to him. The sarcasm of her tone dripped from her words.

Negi chanted his verses and then quietly cast a spell that created a cone of silence around the two of them.

"What is this?" she asked, feigning bewilderment. "Can it be that you are a worker of magic, and that magic is indeed real?" Feigning bewilderment poorly.

"Don't," Negi said sharply.

Now she was glaring at him. It seemed to be his day to get glared at by powerful women. "Don't do what?" Evangeline replied just as sharply.

"First and foremost, don't provoke an international incident by taking whatever revenge you plan on taking against Princess Mina," he told her. "The consequences of that action could be beyond anything we can imagine, and --"

Now she laughed, and her laughter was not like a bell at all. It was like a comb of razor blades being run down someone's back. "Oh," she said when her laughter was spent. "Oh, you must have a very low opinion of me, dear teacher, if you think that I'd take some sort of hideous vengeance for the petty words of an inbred aristocrat raised up by other inbred aristocrats as some sort of figurehead royalty for them to scheme over. She can say whatever she likes; I give not a single whoopy-doo."

"All right, then," Negi said, choosing to focus on the positive aspects of that declaration. "Then just treat her with the same polite indifference you exhibit towards the rest of your classmates, and everything will be fine on that score. Unfortunately, there are other scores to be considered. I've been asked to give you a message by Kiryuuin Satsuki."

"Then you should do so," she said in a rather haughty manner, covering her mouth with a hand as she yawned.

"She said that you were no longer welcome in Academy City. Well, she said her Academy City, but I didn’t see any reason to indulge her megalomania more than I absolutely must."

She said nothing for a moment, and, for that moment, Negi thought he might have actually impressed her. Then she laughed again, for an even longer interval. "And she asked you to tell me this. Oh, the bitter, bitter irony. I wonder if she realizes how ironic that is. She might, actually. She's come a long way since she was a kindergarten student here at Mahora." Amazingly, Evangeline sounded almost fond when she spoke just then.

Controlling his shock at that, Negi pressed on. "I think you should consider --"

"Consider what?" Evangeline sneered. "Lying low, somewhere out of town? Do you know what will happen to me, dear teacher, if I try to leave Academy City. If I am even pushed or carried across the city's limits?"

He opened his mouth to answer.

"Trick question!" she snapped. "Nothing will happen to me. But it is physically impossible for me to leave the region, no matter how much I'd have liked to do so, or how much someone else would want me to do so. It's like an invisible wall of Jericho. So much for that clever plan. Have you any other suggestions?"

"For the record, I was aware of that aspect of your curse," said Negi. "So, no, I was not going to suggest that you try to leave for a time until the President calms down and forgets about you. I was going to suggest that you apologize."

She stared at him for what felt like a very long time. "Indeed," she said at last, very quietly. "That is a thought I had not thought. Let me consider the notion. Hm. No." The sheer volume of her refusal made Negi very glad that he'd cast the silencing spell at the start of all this. "And I'm done calling you 'dear teacher', by the way. I think a more appropriate title is in order. Perhaps 'boy'. Yesss, I think I shall call you 'boy' from now on, boy. Congratulations, boy. I was wondering how long it would take you to make me stop pretending to be a student like any other student."

"This is serious!" Negi yelled at her. "Do you not understand the implications of her saying that? It's fairly obvious that she's going to order you killed!"

"Better men and women have tried, and so have many worse," Evangeline replied, with sublime indifference. "I am still here. Now if you'll excuse me, boy, I should probably go prepare my home to receive visitors. I'll be taking Karin with me, if that's all right with you. Or if it's not all right with you." She turned to walk away from him.

"Why?" he asked suddenly. "Why did you do it? Why drag an innocent like Shinonome-san into your fight with me?"

"My fight," she said, without looking back at him, "with you."

"Yes! That's the only way that I can make sense of all this. You must have attacked her as a warm up from when you go after me, to drain my blood and end the curse. But why --"

"You know," Evangeline said, "your father, whom I hate, at least never operated under the delusion that it was all about him." And with those words, she walked out of the cone of silence, opened the door to the classroom, declared, "Karin, we're leaving," and then walked away down the hallway, followed by Karin in complete silence.

There had to be some way to stop this, or at least slow it down. So Negi believed when his steps took him to the Headmaster's office that morning, and from there to the Headmaster's residence, accompanied by Shanna, who recognized that now was not the time for amorous hijinx. After arriving and exchanging greetings, he gave Konoemon a complete report of everything that had happened, from his encounter with Kiryuuin all the way to the 'conversation' with Evangeline.

(Conspicuous by its absence was any complaint about the way the Headmaster had assigned him to the class that they both knew contained his family nemesis. The recriminations wouldn't have done either of them any good, and the situation would not really have changed that much if Evangeline had been a student elsewhere at Mahora Girls. So Negi saved any such complaint for the letter he was going to send to his mother when all of this was over. It would be a rather lengthy one.)

And when he'd finished briefing the leader of Mahora Academy and the Mahora Mage Order, he awaited his commander's orders.

"Thank you, Negi-kun," Konoemon said. "I will take it from here."

No hints of what strategies were going to be pursued. No acknowledgment that the situation was extremely dire. Not even a specific congratulation for standing up to a bully from Honnoji. Just a generic thanks, and a not all that subtle reminder that Negi was still at the bottom of Mahora's faculty hierarchy.

He accepted it all, with a polite bow, and exited the residence alone, as Shanna was remaining to listen to the Headmaster's instructions. (Any unhappiness with his dismissal was saved for that letter. It was going to be an extremely lengthy one.)

The Old Man, Midori had called him. There was respect in her tone when she said it, but not reverence. Perhaps he should adopt an attitude more in line with Midori's viewpoint than the one he'd always taken towards his teachers. After all, Konoemon wasn't technically his teacher, but his employer. Negi had never had an employer before this, and he was still learning how to deal with someone in that position.

Of course that meant that Konoemon actually was one of his teachers. He almost missed a step as he considered this, and found himself very uncomfortable all the way over to Mahora Integrated. Well, at least whatever else might transpire, he could count on Haruhi to disbelieve it.

"You seriously thought that was a vampire?" the dictator of the SOS Brigade declared once Kyonko brought up the subject early in the meeting. "This is why you are just Kyonko, Kyonko."

"I'm Kyonko because you refuse to let anyone use my real name," said Kyonko.

They were seated around the table, with Haruhi seated at the head, behind a newly-acquired computer. (Negi wondered where that had come from, and suspected that he wouldn't really like the answer.) On one side, Kyonko, Mitsuru, and Mai; on the other, Itsuhime and Yuki. Negi himself was seated in the corner of the room, ostensibly so that he could observe everything without actually being a part of it. He'd begun to suspect that this was a tactic to get him to leave the Brigade to its own devices almost immediately.

"I'm not saying that there are no such things as vampires," Haruhi continued, paying Kyonko no more mind than she ever did. She spread her hands and smiled, looking oddly like Giorgios A. Tsukalos as she did. "But if they do exist, they sure wouldn't look like that. They'd have evolved to drink blood, and everything about them would be directed towards that end, instead of looking like a bunch of really pale European people. No, more specifically, they look just like vampires do in the movies. What's next? Werewolves? Lamia, perhaps? Harpies? Sexy centaurs? Cute li'l slimes? Mermaids who really wear scale bikinis? It's all ridiculous."

"What if they had some sort of power, though?" asked Mai. "A power to make themselves look like a bunch of pale European people, instead of what they actually look like."

Negi sat up a little straighter. The last meeting he'd attended, Tokiha Mai had stayed seated quietly, not volunteering anything and, since Haruhi did her best to pretend that Mai wasn't there, not answering any questions anyone else asked.

"Well that would be very convenient, wouldn't it?" Haruhi asked, dripping sarcasm from every word.

"It doesn't matter if it would be convenient or not," Mai said, not backing down. "You just said that they'd evolve to drink blood, and it's easier to drink someone's blood if you look like an ordinary person instead of ... whatever weird thing you're imagining," she concluded.

"But they don't like an ordinary person, they look like a bunch of pale Europeans!" Haruhi replied, clearly intending this to be checkmate.

Mai stared at her club's leader, and slowly turned to look at Negi in a way that suggested that she blamed him for this. He flinched a bit under her regard, for some reason. Did she actually have some strange powers that weren't apparent, since she was glaring at him like powerful women were doing all day today?

Regardless, Mai shook her head and turned back to Haruhi. "Anyway, Brigadier, I have had an idea of somewhere that we could go to search for strange phenomena that seems likely to be hiding some, and wish to propose it as the destination for an expedition."

"Very cheeky for the most recently installed member of the Brigade," said Haruhi in a disapproving tone. Then, abruptly, she became magnanimous. "However, let's hear your idea all the same."

"It's pretty basic. I think we should investigate that big church."

Now Negi really sat up and took interest.

Haruhi hummed. "Look for hints of enlightenment among the dying embers of a religion, eh?" she speculated. "An interesting notion. What do you think about it, sensei?" she asked, abruptly turning to look at Negi.

"I can't say that I think it's a good idea, Haruhi-san," he said, choosing his words very carefully. "It's important to remember that even if the cathedral doesn't get a lot of visitors, it's a place where people do actually work, every bit as much as they do in a hospital, or a firehouse, or -- well -- a school. I suppose that they'd be willing to give you a guided tour, but from what I understand, your expeditions are a bit more free-roaming than that."

Now the dictator nodded. "Yes, that's how we do things. I should really remember to invite you on one of them, Negi-sensei," she added, in a way that subtly suggested that hell would freeze over before she did so. Before he could respond, though, she turned to look back at Mai. "Rejected," she said shortly. "I've already come up with a location for our next expedition, and I was going to announce it before Mai-chan interrupted."

Negi noted that Mai didn't look terribly surprised or disappointed by this response. If anything, she looked ... satisfied, in a way.

It was Itsuhime who spoke up. "How very mysterious, Suzumiya-san. Whither are we bound this weekend?"

Haruhi grinned broadly. "Why, the Tatsumiya Shine and environs, of course! Where better to find distinctively Japanese strangeness!"

"Are you sure that you are up to this?" Juri asked Miki, regarding him with concern and uncertainty.

"I already told you that I was," the blue-haired man replied. "The doctor said that I was fine, didn't he?"

It was late afternoon, and the two of them were waiting just outside Otori's main gate, watching the students passing by on their way too and from their clubs. It occurred to Juri, gazing at the student uniforms, that although she and Miki no longer wore the outfits of their own school days, twenty years ago, they both still favored the colors they'd come in -- her slacks were the same shade of orange, and he wore a jacket and shoes of a blue that almost matched his hair. It was more evidence to support a suspicion that she'd been growing over the last week.

"Well, didn't he?" Miki pressed, sounding just the tiniest bit desperate.

"Yes, that's what Mitsuru-san told me that the doctor said," she admitted. "But this could be a very tense conversation, and if you have to bow out --"

"That will not happen."

Juri wanted to say something more, even if it was only the sort of vague warning she'd used to give so frequently, but there was no time for that. Approaching the gates was a long beige limousine that slowed to a stop near them. The driver exited the car, walked around it, and opened the passenger door on their side.

Out stepped a blonde woman in a very elaborate yellow dress, carrying a parasol, of all things. Her purple eyes found them, and she approached them at a calm pace. "Arisugawa-san. Kaoru-san," said Nanami. "You both look well."

"Nanami," said Juri by way of greeting. (She'd noted the color of the other woman's dress and added it to her list of suspicions.)

"Tenjoin-san," added Miki.

"Now, he's polite," Nanami said, gesturing in Miki's general direction. "I don't often look back on those days, but from when I do, I'm fairly sure that you usually managed to be more polite than this, Juri. What happened to you?" she asked rhetorically.

"I saw something impossible," replied Juri. "It's somewhat thrown me off my step. Have you seen your brother recently?"

"Ah," Nanami said. She nodded in understanding -- or perhaps something else, given what she said next. "Yes, practically every time that I dream. It's very annoying, the way he keeps insisting that he's not dead, when I know perfectly well that he is very definitely dead. We were one of the few who were able to recover a body from the unfortunate events of fifteen years past." Her tone stayed calm throughout.

"Oh," said Juri. "I ... didn't know."

"Of course, that's not quite the same thing as what you recently experienced, is it?" the other girl asked. "Either of you."

"Not unless we've been having dreams while still very much awake," Miki answered tightly.

"You can't help us, can you," Juri said, lowering her eyes. "I thought you would still ... after I saw your dress, I thought ... but no, you've gotten away, haven't you?"

Nanami regarded her in silence for a moment, before speaking. "Again, I don't engage in much reminiscence ... but I'm completely certain you used to be much smarter than that. No one gets away, Juri. Even if we leave for a while, we always coming back. Why else am I on the board of directors, here, and why else do I send my daughter here? This place is exactly what you think it is."

Miki's momentary anger was gone, and he looked between the two women with complete confusion. "What are you talking about?"

"Where do you and Mitsuru live, Miki?" Juri asked without looking at him.

"Oh, heavens, they're still together?" asked Nanami.

"At the teacher's residence, why?" he asked.

"So in elementary school, middle school, high school, university and your professional life, you've always lived here in Otori," Juri summarized. "And you don't even see anything wrong with that. Do you?"

"It's just worked out that way," Miki insisted. "I ... I mean, I've left here, plenty of times, for concerts, and --"

"-- you always came back," she finished.

"What?" he asked dazedly.

There was no time to comfort or console him, either. Juri turned back to Nanami. "Who rules this place? Who makes it like this? Your brother knew, didn't he? And it's passed to you, hasn't it?"

Nanami gave a golf clap.

Ignoring how infuriating that was, Juri pressed on. "I want --"

"Twenty years ago, you gave me some good advice, Juri," Nanami interrupted. "I didn't appreciate it until I was a little older and wiser. So I'm going to repay you with some good advice that you, who are already older and wiser than I am, should appreciate immediately.

"Drop this," she said flatly. "Forget about all of it. Dismiss it as a waking dream. Say, 'things like this just happen'. Whatever you have to do, just do it. You will be much happier if you follow this course of action than the one you're about to take. I speak as one who knows."

"No," said Juri. "I want to talk to the man in charge."

Nanami let out a sigh. "Of course you do," she muttered. "I've already set up the meeting. Midnight tonight. Just you, though. Not Miki-kun, here."

"Why not me?" Miki demanded, angry once more.

Nanami shrugged. "Ask your friend here, if and when she comes out again." She turned to leave, then.

"Wait, where am I supposed to go for this meeting?" Juri asked.

"You already know," Nanami said without looking back.

"No I --" And abruptly she realized that she did. "How --"

"Things like this just happen," said Nanami. Then she stepped into the car door, held open by the driver. Just a moment later, the car made a three point turn and headed back the way it came.

Deep breaths, don't panic.

Natsuki had lost track of the number of times she'd come here, to the Joint Student Council's office in Mahora Integrated (as opposed to their offices at some of the other schools, which she'd never visited.) So this ought, by rights, to be as simple as all of those other trips had been. All she was going to do was ask Shizuru something, which is exactly what she'd always done before.

So why did she feel like she ought to ride her bike to this meeting? She kept having dizzying visions of riding through through the halls and up the staircases and right into the classroom -- no, focus, focus!

Deep breaths, don't panic.

She reached the door and slid it open, just as Shizuru was doing the same thing on the other side. "Oh!" the tall, pale girl said.

"Shizuru," Natsuki said, then took a deep breath and did not panic. "Do you have a moment?"

"Ah, well, no, not really," Shizuru answered. "There's a special meeting of the Council starting at Honnoji in just a bit, and I have to be there for this one, since I'm standing in for the secretary while she's in the hospital. So, unless it's really important --"

"It is," Natsuki said, then took a deep breath and did not panic. "It's just a quick question and you don't even have to give me an answer right away."

Shizuru's eyes went up at this, doubtless wondering how a question could be important and not need an immediate answer. But what she said was, "All right, then. Let's hear it."

"Well. You see what happened is ... um, basically, I met someone who gave me an interesting piece of news," Natsuki began. "And I've run into them a few times, since then, and nothing I've seen leads me to think that person is lying, so, well ..."

"You're usually not nearly this hesitant, you know," Shizuru observed.

"Right." Deep breath. Panic. "Shizuru, are you in love with me?" she asked in a rush.

"... yes," said Shizuru after a moment.

"Of course you're not, I don't even know what I thinnnnnn," Natsuki said as the actual answer she'd been given got through to her.

"Out of simple curiosity and with no intention whatsoever to do violence to this person, who told you that I was?" she asked mildly.

"I'll, I'll maybe introduce you, later," stammered Natsuki. "Shizuru -- you're seriously --"

"I believe that I found you attractive when we first met, and that I have not grown any less attracted to you in the ensuing years. Rather the contrary, in fact. Your undeniable beauty, the strength of your spirit, the vulnerability you let almost no one see ... all these things are quite irresistible to me." Shizuru took a deep breath, and Natsuki found herself wondering if the other girl was telling herself not to panic. "I suppose you find me quite disgusting."

"Uhhhh?" Natsuki replied suavely.

"Considering your very conservative tendencies, it's understandable," Shizuru continued.

"I have conservative tendencies?" Natsuki whimpered.

"You're on a quest of vengeance, Natsuki, I don't think that's consistent with more liberal attitudes."

"I don't find you disgusting!" Natsuki managed to burst out.

Now Shizuru froze. "Eh?" was all that she managed to say.

"I don't ... I couldn't ever find Shizuru disgusting. But, but there's only ever been the, the quest," she stammered some more. "I never thought, never dreamed ... that there could be anything else."

Shizuru had slightly defrosted over the last moment or so. "Natsuki, are you saying that there's a possibility that you might love me back?"

Natsuki opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out for a while. "I wish that I could," she finally said. "In a better world than this, where I didn't have an enemy that I know nothing about, where there weren't any monsters ... I think that I would love you more than anything."

"I see," said Shizuru, nodding. "I ... I have to go. Meeting. Meeting at Honnoji. Have to go." She kept right on nodding as she walked swiftly past Natsuki out into the hallway, before the other girl could say or do anything. If anything, she sped up once she exited the room, for by the time Natsuki reached the doorway, Shizuru was already heading down the stairs.

"Holy shit," Natsuki said to herself. "I think I already do."

Sadly, Shizuru didn't hear that part as she made her escape. Perhaps it would have influenced what emerged from the chaos of her mind as she made her way towards Honnoji. Better world than this. Enemy she knows nothing about. Monsters. Remove these obstacles, and Natsuki is mine. Mine.

Her mood was not quite as gleeful or as maniacal a few hours later, when Shizuru found herself walking through the early evening chill towards Sakura Lane beside her second-least favorite person in the world. (Well, perhaps that was unfair to Suzushiro; depending on what she eventually found out about Natsuki's informant, the other girl might actually drop to the position of third-least favorite person.) "Please just explain your logic to me again, so that I'm clear about what we're doing here," Shizuru grumbled.

"All right, one more time. Kiryuuin is in a fit about Shionome-san, for some reason. And she has, for some other reason, fixated on that foreign student from Mahora Girls, MacDougal-san, as the culprit. With me so far?"

"Except for it being Shinonome-san and McDowell-san, yes."

Haruka relented in her relentless forward march just long enough to turn and glare hatefully at Shizuru. "You knew who I was talking about, so why complain, complainer?" With that, she started forward again. "However, that fixation betrays her clear psysoccopathy, as there is no way that a third year middle schooler could possibly have done that to Shi-- the secretary. So we are going to go back to the scene of the crime and investigate further, discover the real identity of the attacker, and demonstrate that Kiryuuin is an unfit leader and should be deposed. Ideally before she and her hoodlums hurt that little girl."

"That's ... almost noble of you," said Shizuru.

"Then, once that's done, you'll replace her as President, appoint me as new Vice President, then step down yourself due to, oh, let's say health reasons, and then I'll be President like providence always intended."

"Muuuch more in character."

Haruka ignored that. They'd arrived at the boundaries of Sakura Lane, which remained sealed with yellow and black police tape. "All right, here we are." She lifted up the tape and beckoned for Shizuru to proceed her in ducking under it. The which, with an exasperated sigh, her reluctant partner did. Haruka joined her on the other side, and they proceeded further towards the actual crime scene.

"All right, accepting all that ... why are we doing this in person, instead of sending some of your Executives to do it?" Shizuru asked, lowering her voice a bit,

"Because if you want it done right, do it yourself. And I don't believe in taking the credit for something my followers did!"

They halted as the sound of something flapping in the wind came from above them, reflexively moving into a back to back position. Together, each of them could scan half of a full circle, and as it was, Shizuru saw her first. "2 o'clock, up high!" she snapped.

Haruka wheeled to see what Shizuru was pointing out, and gazed in mild stupefaction at the figure of a cloaked figure in a witch's hat and black heels, with golden blonde hair streaming from beneath the hat, perched on top of a streetlamp with smashed-out lights.

When the figure spoke, it was in a sing-song that turned into a harsh growl towards the end. "Lit-tle girls with more dollars than sense should. Not. Be. Here." And with that, she lunged at them.

A year ago, Shizuru would have started running around this point. But she'd been through a number of changes in the last year, and the fact that she also knew that Suzushiro would die before backing down might just possibly have influenced her choices as well. She reached to the side, as well as to a direction she couldn't put words to, and grasped the long shaft of her weapon, preparing to pull it into reality. Had she spared even a moment to glance at Haruka, she would have noticed that the other was doing the exact same thing on the other side.

Before either weapon could materialize, though, the still of the night was broken by a fourth voice. "Undecim spiritus aeriales, vincula facti inimicum captent. Sagitta Magica, Aer Capturae!" In the distance, the two high schoolers could see almost a dozen tiny tendrils streaking towards the girl who had just begun to attack them.

"Heh. Reflexio," the figure said, and moments before the tendrils struck home, they rammed into an invisible shield before her, sending them back towards their source -- whom Haruka's keen eyes could now see was a small boy. He managed to somehow dodge them, and they seemed to dissipate.

"This isn't --" Haruka hissed to Shizuru.

"No, whatever they are, they aren't like you or I," Shizuru confirmed.

"Not very good at taking the hint, are you?" the figure said, facing the boy and holding up a hand in his direction. That said, it wasn't actually clear who she was addressing.

"Neither are you," the boy said, taking it for granted that she meant him. "Now!" he called.

"Cherry cheri sherry slurry!" cried a voice from the bush to one side of the lane. "Undecim spiritus aeriales, vincula facti inimicum captent. Sagitta Magica, Aer Capturae!"

The figure jolted at the sound, and reflexively turned so that her shield was facing the new threat. But apparently she didn't have the ability to put up a second shield, and even as the second set of tendrils was ricocheting away from her, the boy was flying forward, grabbing hold of her other arm and bending it behind her back in what looked like a rather painful way.

"Urk!" the figure said as the boy's hand came up to cover her mouth.

"Got you!" he snapped triumphantly.

Then, faster than Shizuru's eye could follow, he had been flipped over the figure's back and was lying flat on his back in front of her, with one of her heels resting on his throat. "Who's got me?" she sneered, her hat having gone flying in the interim.

"Let him go!" cried the source of the fifth voice, coming into view as she bounded over the short wall separating the lane from the cherry trees. It was a girl that Shizuru vaguely recognized, but that didn't matter right then. She had no idea who the good guys or the bad guys were here, but the girl in black had started to attack her and Haruka, and the boy had stopped that from happening.

At the moment, there was no real question whose side she was on. She pulled her Element out of whatever nonplace it resided in, and charged at the girl in black, foregoing any warcries. Her naginata's blade swept down towards the girl's back.

And was blocked by an enormous silvery sword that swung down out of nowhere, held by yet another girl with red hair done up in twin tails, decorated by bells.

On the ground, the boy's eyes went wide. "Asuna?" he gasped.

The first girl let out an incredibly frustrated sigh that was at least half snarl. "Handle this!" she snapped back at the bell-haired girl, then leaped up into the sky and ... yes ... took flight, looking very much like a bat in the process.

"Yes, master," said the girl with bells. "Anything you say, master. Get stuffed, master." That last was said very quietly. "Look," she said to Shizuru, across their crossed blades. "Are you willing to consider the possibility that this is all just a huge misunderstanding?"

Something inside of Shizuru urged her to press harder against the blade holding her in check, to continue this fight ... but there were other voices, calmer ones, that urged her against that. "All right," she said. "Step back, and I will too."

The girl did just that, and so Shizuru kept her word.

"What the jumping fishticks?" asked Haruka, who'd seen all this happen in the space of about two minutes.

"Some explanations are clearly in order," agreed the girl with bells, as she looked down at the boy who was starting to come to his feet, helped by the other girl. "You've really, really messed this one up, little brother."

You said you'd help me," he said.

"Yes, I said that if you needed my help, it was yours for the asking. All you had to do was ask, and I would have helpfully steered you away from a confrontation with my boss!" she said back.

"I can't believe you," said Negi as Ryoko applied disinfectant to the cuts and scrapes on his back. He was glaring furiously at Asuna, seated across the room from him. "We give you a home, a name, and what do you do? You join forces with our family's worst enemy!"

"And I keep telling you, it's not that simple," Asuna insisted, then glanced to the side. "Do you really want to discuss this in front of all these people?"

"I kind of want to hear this," said Yuna, to the general nods of Haruna, Sakura, Misora, Nodoka, Yue, Makie, Kaede and Fei, all of whom (except for Nodoka) were regarding Asuna with profound suspicion. (Nodoka just looked like she wanted to cry.)

"Well, okay, I get why he'd want you lot here, but what about those two?" asked Asuna.

"Believe me, we're as sorry to be involved in this as you are," Shizuru apologized. Her tone made it a bit unclear whether that should be taken as an apology or an accusation.

"I'll tell you my opinions and the punishment you'll be dealt as soon as I figurize what's been going on," Haruka said, in a strangely spaced out tone, born from sheer confusion rather than any hypnosis.

"All right, then, tell me how complicated this situation is," Negi said as Ryoko finished her work and stepped away, receiving a polite nod by way of thanks. "Explain to me why you're working for the person going around and attacking people for no good reason."

Asuna opened her mouth, closed it, then started talking again. "Okay, so this all started about two years ago, just after I started middle school, and entered a class where having the name 'Asuna Springfield' put a giant target on my face. Eva went after me thinking I had to be related to Nagi-san and that it would be just swell if she drank my blood and freed herself from her curse. It worked out about how you'd expect."

"Magic Cancel?" Negi asked.

"Magic Cancel?" Asuna confirmed.

"What the heck is Magic Cancel?" asked Haruna, eyes wide.

"It's this thing I can do, where magic doesn't work too well on me and I can pretty much ignore other people's magic protections and beat them up. So I beat up Eva-chan, and then she called in Karin and she beat me up a little. Before she could do the blood sucking thing --"

"Okay!" interjected Yue. "Let's step back a bit and discuss why Evangeline-san is under a curse like that, and possibly why a dangerous magical creature was put in our classroom." She paused to consider. "The first time, I mean," Yue added.

"Evangeline A.K. McDowell was a very powerful and capricious mage. Fifteen years ago, my father defeated her. To protect the world from the danger she represented -- is there something you wanted to say?" Negi asked Asuna, who'd descended into a coughing fit at that last remark.

She shook her head no, keeping her mouth shut.

Negi glared some more, but continued after a moment. "My father placed her under the Infernus Scholasticum curse, which deprives her of her magical powers and keeps her bound to Academy City. At least, the curse should deprive her of her magic," he added.

"Full moon disrupts it a little, and she really is very seriously powerful to begin with," Asuna explained. "But you're not telling the whole thing."

Negi looked affronted. "I believe that I've recounted all the pertinent details."

"When was this curse supposed to be removed, Negi?" Asuna asked.

"When she'd demonstrated that she could be trusted to no longer do evil," he answered. "I'm not sure --"

"The Infernus Scholasticum cruse is supposed to be lifted when the subject graduates," she corrected. "And Eva-chan went through middle school and high school, and graduated with honors ... but Nagi-san never showed up. So she was sent back to middle school, and she's been there ever since."

Makie appeared to be doing some counting on her fingers. She looked up with a horrified expression on her face. "Eva-chan's been in middle school for the last nine years?! Oh, Negi-kun, this isn't right!"

"That make anybody do bad things," agreed Fei.

"I'm sure that my father has every intention of undoing the curse as soon as he's sure that Evangeline isn't going to go do evil things and why are you shaking your head like that?" he asked Asuna.

"Once I reached an accord with Eva-chan, I promised her I'd talk to Nagi-san about the curse. And I did when I went home for summer vacation that year." She fixed Negi with a glare of her own. "Guess what he said. Go on, guess."

"I'm sure that my father gave you a well-thought out reason --"

"'Oh yeah, I forgot about that,'" Asuna quoted.

There was a massive facefault from the 3-A students present, and Sakura's face took on a rather pained expression.

"What an irresponsible-sounding person," said Shizuru with a sad shake of her head.

Haruka turned to stare at her. "Can you really say that with a straight face? Can you?"

"I'm sure that my father was just making a joke," said Negi in a rather unconvincing tone.

"Well, whatever, I've been telling him that he needs to come talk with Eva-chan for two years now, and he keeps putting it off. Now he's out of contact searching for that Amulet of Whoozis, and I don't know what's going to happen."

Negi let out a sigh. "I understand she must be very frustrated, but that doesn't excuse her attack on Shinonome-san --"

"Except that she didn't do it," Asuna interrupted, angrily. "She was with me, all last night, training in the basement of her cabin. I'm not just her partner, Negi, I'm her alibi."

He rocked on his heels. "Then why was she at the scene of the crime tonight?" he asked, confused.

"To try and figure out who actually did do it!" she said. "Same as these two doofs!" she added with a thumb over the shoulder at the high schoolers.

"I feel I should object to that mischieffation," Haruka said rather stuffily.

"Sorry, Asuna-chan is just that kind of a girl," Makie said quickly. "But could you please keep Negi's secret? If anyone finds out that people know about his magic, he'll get turned into an ermine!"

"Bro, what the heck are you telling these babes?" asked a tiny voice from the floor.

By this point, all the girls were staring down at the source of the voice, perplexed.

"Chamo, this is not the time!" Negi huffed. "It would be unfortunate if -- wait, Chamo?" The other shoe finally fell as he, too, looked at the floor and the small white furry animal standing there. "Chamo! It's you!"

"Well, I sure ain't no domestic elf!" the tiny animal replied.

Makie, who had been making strange faces for the last few moments, finally reacted by slamming a foot down on it. "EEEEEEKKKK! A TALKING RAT!"

Let it be said that the ermine did not cry out, "Animal Abuse". This version of Chamo is too cool for that dumb gag.

"-- and then I swore I'd be stand by my Bro's side forever!" the ermine passionately stated at the end of his emotional story of Boy Meets Ermine Fairy, a tiny paw made into a fist ... somehow. "Albert Chamomille always repays his debts, even if it takes him his whole life!"

"The weasel is talking," Haruka blandly said.

"In better Japanese than yours," Shizuru blandly agreed.

A heavy-looking mace flickered into being in Haruka's hand, before flickering out again almost as quickly. A number of the girls noticed this, most notably Kaede, who slowly nodded in sudden understanding.

For his part Negi was much too busy hugging the diminutive white vermin. "Oh, Chamo, I'm so glad to see you again!"

"Heh heh, well, yeah, I couldn't leave you to your own devices in a strange land for long, Bro," Chamo chuckled, patting Negi's arm. "Though I see I had no reasons to worry! Whoo-whooo! You're already surrounded by beautiful partners! I'm so proud of you, and no doubt your old man will be, too!" He paused to look in Asuna's direction, and offered her a polite nod. "Asuna."

"Albert," she replied in much the same, distant tone.

"B-beautiful?" Haruka, Misora and Yue all stammered at the same time.

"Ah, Chamo, I hate to disillusion you, but while these are all my friends ... and, well, two people I only met this evening ... none of them are actually my partners in the way you mean."

The ermine, somehow, visibly paled under his fur. "H-How come? You mean you haven't even made a single Pactio yet?"

Negi's head slumped down. "I ... well ..."

"Pactio? What's that?" asked Makie.

When Negi seemed to be hesitating, Sakura took it on herself to explain. "A Pactio or Alliance is a link between a Mage, who comes to be called Magister or Magistra, and a helper or assistant in combat, whom we'll call the Minister, or Ministra. As tonight's events demonstrate, often a mage needs help fighting overwhelming enemies, and the Pactio system aims to provide that help. Misora is my Ministra, and had I brought her with me into tonight's battle, things might have gone very differently."

"Nope," said Asuna, shaking her head.

"You can't know that," Sakura replied, just a bit tensely.

Asuna turned to look at Misora. "What do you think?"

"... that I kinda wish I wasn't here right now," answered the acolyte.

"The Ministra," said Sakura, trying to pretend that the last minute or so hadn't happened, "gains enhanced strength and toughness from the magical energy lent them by the Magister, and in some rare cases, also manifests a magical item, or Artifact."

"That sounds like a very useful thing to have," said Nodoka, speaking up for the first time that evening. "I think it would be a good idea if all of your ... friends ... were to make this alliance with you, Negi-sensei."

Negi gestured for her to slow down. "Nodoka, please, remember what has just happened! I'd never forgive myself if any of you, augmented or not, were to fall on a battlefield just to protect me!"

"And the whole rest of the Academy," Kaede added.

Negi looked somewhat upset. "That wouldn't make it any--"

"Oh please!" Chamo interrupted. "That isn't like you, Bro! Have you lost your nerve this soon? Let's hear what has you, your class' best graduate, that scared. I'm sure it can't be that bad."

"It's Evangeline McDowell, the Maga Nosferata," Negi said. "She is living here, at Mahora, now, and it seems that someone is trying to frame her for various crimes. Whoever it is must be a powerful vampire themselves."

Chamo's face became a void for a moment, then he sharply turned around, produced a hat and suitcase, and stomped his way towards the door, setting the hat on his head as he went. "I just remembered I'm needed by my wife and children in Wales. Good luck with that, Bro."

"Is he really --" Yuna started to ask.

The door opened and then slammed shut in the distance.

"I guess he is," she said. "... how did he reach the doorknob?"

Negi sat with an askew jaw, and everyone else traded confused glances and shrugs of shoulders.

A moment later, the door opened noisily, and closed just as noisily. Moments later, Chamo returned at the same pace he had while leaving, streams of tears trailing behind him. "Damn the softness of my heart!" he cried. "I-I'll help you, naturally, Bro! You know you always can count on me!"

"Oh, Chamo, I never doubted you even for the shortest moment!" Negi lied, hugging him again.

"Sssssomebody's right outside, aren't they," Asuna deadpanned.

"I-I-I have no idea what you could possibly mean by that that strange, baseless accusation," Chamo stiffly said. "I swear I never saw that vampire right at your doorstep."

There came the sound of soft knocks on said doorstep's, well, door.

"Why don't I go answer that?" Ryoko said smoothly, and headed out to the front door, leaving behind the others while Chamo trembled violently against Negi's chest. She took a deep breath as she opened the door slowly, and was rather shocked to see a gently smiling Mina Tepes standing there.

"Good evening, Mikado-sensei, may I come in?" the petite pinkette requested. "I'd like to discuss a few things with some people I'm fairly sure are here. Mostly about a fellow classmate of ours."

"Ah," Ryoko said. "Vampires, as the myth says, can't walk into one's home unless one invites them in, right?"

"In fact, that is true," she said with a nod. "I suspect that Negi-sensei would probably be able to explain the theoretical underpinnings of the phenomenon better than I could, but for some reason, land ownership creates a powerful bond between the land and the legitimate owner, which they can use to prevent supernatural beings, such as myself, from entering without their permission." She paused, and smiled sweetly. "Such a shame that you used a false name on the purchase papers." With that, she lifted one delicate toe and reached across the threshold to tap on the other side beside Ryoko's feet. Smiling all the while.

"Please come in," Ryoko said, musing that science was so much simpler than all this nonsense.

"Well, well," Mina said cheerfully as she was escorted into the living room area where Negi, his collective, Asuna and the high schoolers were waiting. "This is quite an assembly! A ninja, a Joketsuzoku, and a pair of Valkyries? You must almost be to twenty at this point," she said to Negi, as he cradled Chamo's terrified form against himself.

"Ah, they're not -- wait, how do you know about that?" he abruptly demanded.

"How does she know about what?" asked Asuna, concerned at this reaction.

"Valkyries?" Shizuru asked, looking skeptically at the middle school girls. None of them looked like they could step out of Wagner.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Mina apologized to Shizuru. "Do your kind not call yourselves that anymore?"

Shizuru and Haruka exchanged a very startled look.

"Evidently not. Ahem. In answer to your question, Sensei, I have eyes and ears pretty much everywhere ... and one set of them are attached to the person who made you that offer, some time ago."

Negi rocked back. Zazie was working for the vampires? But the mazoku and the vampires had been at odds for centuries! And how did that work with their supposed alliance with his family? No, no, focus on the here and now, he reminded himself. "That's interesting," he said, trying very hard to conceal the welter of emotions he was feeling right then. "But shouldn't you be on your way back to your island, right now."

"I did say that weather or other circumstances might keep me here," she reminded him. "As it happens, concern for the possibility that one of my people is about to come under attack by a group of student vigilantes is just such a circumstance."

"Wait," said Haruka. "Wait wait wait. I have just now caught up with this conservation."

"Are congratulations in order?" asked the pink-haired vampire.

"You're talking about McDowell-san, aren't you?" Haruka demanded. "She's the one of your people you mentioned, isn't she?"

"Yes, they are in order," said Shizuru.

"Muzzle it, Fujino."

"Yes," said Mina. "She may not agree with that, but all vampires, across the world, are my people, and I will do whatever it takes to protect as many of them as I can from the coming crisis as I possibly can."

"Then is the one who actually did the crimes Eva-chan has been accused of also one of your people?" Asuna asked, staring levelly at the vampire princess.

For the first time, Mina's smile slipped. "Yes," she said, sounding unhappy. "I do not know the identity of that individual, but please believe me when I tell you that I have also been investigating these events. Well, not me personally, I have people for that," she admitted.

Shizuru gave Haruka such a look.

"So what exactly are you planning, here?" Negi asked, trying to get the conversation back to the important matters.

"My intentions are to assist Evangeline in defending herself from those who would attack her, thus placing her in my debt," Mina admitted candidly. "Then, once the curse on her is broken, she will be able to leave this place and join my people in our bund, where she will advise me. I would prefer to also clarify the identity of the attacker of Shinonome-san in the process, to demonstrate the idea that we can police our own. And of course, there's the matter of my servant."

"So that wasn't a joke?" asked Makie.

"No, that was not a joke."

"... then do you sleep in a coffin?" she pressed.

Mina stared at Makie for a long moment, then slowly turned to look at Negi. "I question your priorities," she said.

"As do I yours," said Negi. "I have yet to agree that I'll become your servant."

Now Mina stared at Negi in much the same way that she'd just been staring at Makie.

"What?" he asked, confused.

"What gave you the impression that I meant you, child?" she asked, sounding perplexed.

Negi blinked. "Wait ... what?"

Shaking her head, Mina raised her voice. "You should probably come in, now, some introductions are in order," she called out.

"Ah, the front door is locked," said Ryoko, starting to head towards the living room door once again.

"I will compensate you for the damages," Mina assured her.

There was a sudden crunching noise, like of wood and metal being torn. Then footsteps in the corridor outside that came to a halt just before whoever was out there came into view.

"Come in here, my dear one," said Mina, shaking her head. "It's time they knew."

And then the person came into the living room, and Negi and Yuna's jaws both dropped.

"Well," said Akira, "did you two really think you were the only ones with secrets?"

To Be Continued


Chapter Text

Once upon a time, a young girl asked the queen of monsters a question. "You're always staring sadly out at the world. How long are you going to keep doing that?"

"If you grant my wish, I will stop being sad," the queen replied. "But, if you fail to grant it, I will eat you. So, dear girl, will you still make your promise?"

"This doesn't seem like a very equitable arrangement," said the young girl.

"It's the only offer on the table, child, and you should have remembered that I am a monster before you asked certain questions. So how 'bout it?"

"All right," she said, shrugging.

"Very well, then. My wish is --"

Then Akira Okochi Regendorf woke up. It was, although she naturally didn't think of it in those terms, about a month before Negi Springfield would come into her life. The dream she'd just been having faded from her mind fairly quickly, leaving her with a vague impression of something not being equitable. She let out a sigh as she rose from her bed. What in the world was equitable, these days?

Breakfast with Yuna, who was unaware of the Regendorf part of her name and heritage, was fine as it always was. Akira rather liked Yuna, actually. She sometimes entertained fantasies about telling her roommate everything about her situation, as she had the impression that Yuna could pretty much roll with everything, somehow. But inviting her into the much larger universe where Akira had to live would not be a kindness, so she refrained from doing so.

Just as they were about to leave for class, the phone rang. Akira was closer, so she picked it up. "Hello?" she said.

"Today," said a familiar voice, then hung up.

Akira hung up too.

"So what was that about?" asked Yuna.

"Wrong number."

Class was fine as it always was. Club was fine as it always was. Then Saegusa Yukiteru, one of the students of the boy's side, hesitantly approached her with a confession of his feelings, and Akira had to break his heart as gently as possible. Which was apparently not gently enough for one of her senpai in the club.

The slap mark was still red on her face as she walked home to the dorm, which was also when a car rolled up on the street where she was walking and came to a stop behind her. The window of the back door opened, and the voice from that morning spoke through it. "Get in," the voice said.

After a moment of regret that she hadn't told Yuna that she'd be late for dinner -- as she probably could have done -- Akira did exactly what the voice told her, and found herself seated beside a tall woman who looked to be in her early forties, with coal black hair, icy blue eyes, and an outfit that resembled a military dress uniform, complete with medals on her breast.

"Akira," the woman said.

"Mother," Akira replied.

The car sped up, and, for a while, nothing was said in the rear seats. (Nor anything by the driver, or the person in the front seat who was probably more heavily armed than someone in Japan should be.)

"How did you come by that mark on your face?" asked Ulrike Regendorf.

"Honorable battle," Akira answered, since 'I was slapped for breaking a young boy's heart' would probably not have gone over all that well.

"I see," said her mother, and chose not to press the issue.

Akira did not exactly hate her mother. In truth, she'd come to an understanding that her own character -- the stoicism and stern determination that her swim team coach had praised so often -- was largely a reflection of the older woman's, and that she could no more honestly despise her than she could hate herself. (And did not do so, being a healthy person.) But it was fair to say that she resented the fact that Ulrike had been largely absent from the life of the man who considered himself her husband, and that of their daughter.

She wondered if her mother was going to ask after her father.

"The Princess is here," Ulrike announced.

Apparently not, was Akira's first thought, followed quickly by Whaaaaat? "Here, as in, in Japan?" she asked.

"Here, as in, in the castle which is our current destination," the older woman elaborated. "She wishes to see you. This is a tremendous honor. Be worthy of it."

"All right," Akira replied.

A few more minutes passed.

"I have already paid a visit to your father, incidentally, and so have no need to ask after him."

"Oh. Good."

"Kneel," declaimed one of the people standing beside the woman in Elvira cosplay on the throne before Akira. "You are in the presence of her royal highness!"

"I know," Akira replied calmly. "I have been for the last few minutes." She turned to offer a polite bow to the pink-haired girl who'd offered her a flower, presently pinned to her uniform's blouse, before they were all escorted into the throne room. "Greetings, your highness."

Mina grinned broadly as she looked at the woman on the throne. "Told you she'd remember me, Vera!" she said smugly. "You owe me a Coke!"

"Was I really supposed to forget after only seven years?" Akira wondered aloud. Then she blinked. "You drink Coke?"

"You'd be amazed how well it goes with Stigma," said the ruler of all vampires.

Several hours later, Akira found herself clinging to the side of a tower with one furry arm while the other, equally furry, was wrapped around a naked Mina, as they both watched the sun rise. It had been a rather long night, full of explosions, violence, and the sorts of things that sell manga. After a moment of consideration, Akira decided to say something. "I think I preferred it when you made bets involving Coke, instead of your life."

"That's the appropriate attitude for my bodyguard to take," Mina agreed.

"Also, I think you should know that I prefer Pepsi."

Mina's face froze. "Well," she eventually said. "If you were perfect, you wouldn't still be single."

Akira sighed. "And you really remind me of Makie, sometimes."

"... who's Makie?" she asked with just a tiny bit of danger in her voice.

"Of course," said Mina to Makie, interrupting Akira's narrative, "now that I've met you, I understand how silly I was. You're a wonderful, charming young lady, Makie-san, and I'm so glad that we're classmates!" She took her started classmate in a hug, which allowed her to get her mouth close enough to Makie's ear that she could whisper, "Akira is mine, mine, all mine, and if you ever even try to seduce her, I will make your suffering last for decades."

"Uhhh?" said Makie, bewildered by this mixed message.

"Well, after that, Mina had me going to all sorts of places and doing all sorts of things in preparation for the establishment of the bund," Akira continued to explain. "That's pretty much what I've been doing whenever I've gotten called away for 'emergency swim team practices' for the last month."

"Haaa," said Yuna, nodding politely, eyes very wide.

"I'm sorry for lying to you about that," Akira added.

"Oh, I'm still coming to terms with the werewolf thing," Yuna managed to declare. "Way too early for me to get upset about the lying about practice thing."

"While I'm happy to learn that your minor injuries that I've been noting are not the result of abusive coaching practices, as I feared," Negi said, sounding very serious, "I'm less happy to learn that they are actually the result of you going about risking your life, Akira-san."

"Um," she said, looking at him a bit askance. "I'm sorry, sensei, but, well, I've never suffered any serious injuries, and I heal very quickly, so I don't think it's such a big deal."

"Nonetheless, I wouldn't be doing my duty as your teacher if I encouraged you by word or deed to keep doing such dangerous things!"

Akira stared at him for a moment, then turned to look at the other students, most notably Fei and Kaede, with a vaguely quizzical look on her face.

"Yes, he gets like this from time to time," Kaede answered the implied question. "We've learned to just move past it."

"This really is going to be a fun classroom," said Mina, snickering a bit. "I especially look forward to seeing what happens when he tries that line on Tatsumiya."

"Eh?" chorused Nodoka, Yue, and Haruna.

"Um," said Akira, when it became clear that Mina wasn't going to elaborate. "While her story isn't really mine to tell, I should mention that I've frequently run into Mana-san on these errands of mine, and we've worked together a few times." She nodded, paused, seemed to struggle, then added, "And been at cross purposes a few times, too."

"You fight Mana?" asked Fei. She had learned about her classmate's mercenary activities by accident, and was rather impressed with her abilities. This, however, was a shocker.

"I prefer to avoid fighting, when I can," said Akira, clearly uncomfortable. "But, well, things do happen, and --"

"You fight Mana!" said Fei. "... who win?"

"We're both still alive, so I suppose both of us could be said to be winners," the tall girl explained, getting a bit past uncomfortable at this point. "Could we drop the subject?"

Fei looked to be about to press the matter further, but Haruka clapped her hands sharply. "Yes, that's just what I was about to say, too," the high schooler said. "Enough of these disturbing personal revelations. I want to get back to the business of Evangeline-san. So, on the one hand, she is a vampire, but she's not the one who's doing these vampire crimes?"

"Wasn't this more or less established already?" asked Mina.

"I want it furvert established," snapped Haruka. "Has she been attacking other people for their blood?"

"Other than me, two years ago, and like I said we worked it out, no," replied Asuna ... slightly shading the truth a little. The other girls involved had all recovered completely, so it didn't really matter, after all.

Haruka looked frustrated. "Well, then, how did she get blood before the blood substitute went on the market?"

"Oh," Asuna said, understanding suddenly. "Eva-chan doesn't need to drink blood. She benefits from doing so, but she can subsist on the same food as anybody else. That's one of the reasons she --" Another sudden fit of understanding struck her, and she hesitated with a glance at Mina.

"-- looks down on 'an inbred aristocrat raised up by other inbred aristocrats as some sort of figurehead royalty for them to scheme over'?" Mina asked sunnily, as Negi went into a sudden coughing fit. Akira didn't cough, but she looked visibly annoyed, which told Yuna that her roommate was probably furious.

"I definitely was not going to use those words or anything like them," Asuna said quickly.

"Then you are much more diplomatic than your master."

"Well, that goes without saying," Asuna muttered.

"Wait," said Makie, looking shocked. "That's what Eva-chan thinks of you, Mina-chan?"

"Yes," the vampire princess admitted. "I have very good ears, and that is how she referred to me in her conversation with Negi-sensei earlier today."

"That's so mean!" Makie almost cried. "Why would you want someone like that advising you?"

"Because she has genuinely valuable, first-hand knowledge of communities that I only know about in rumor, and because I believe it's important to have insight from people who don't look up to me as a living god, Maki-chan," Mina answered, sounding surprisingly gentle considering how she'd addressed the other girl earlier.

"I really don't get anything you just said," Makie admitted. "This is as hard to follow as what Negi keeps saying about the end of the world and all that."

Mina blinked. Then she looked again at the trembling Negi. "I don't mean to offend, and she seems kind and goodhearted enough, and it would certainly be in my interests, but are you sure you really want her to bear your children?"

At those words, all hell broke loose throughout the room. The last thing Negi saw before the world went dark for what seemed like a long time, and the last thing he heard as well, was the sight of Suzushiro Haruka swinging a gigantic mace in his direction, screaming, at the top of her lungs, "You filthy little DEGENEROUS!"

She wasn't even sure how long she'd been attending or working at this school. Since middle school? Yes, that had to be right. So it had been twenty-three years, at least. (Could it have been even longer? For some reason, memories of her time as an elementary schooler were not coming to her mind at all.) And yet somehow, Juri had never noticed that one of the dormitories had a planetarium on the top floor. Or rather she had always been aware of it, and just never considered it.

Either possibility was less terrifying than the idea that someone had somehow planted that knowledge inside her mind.

Juri had seriously considered not showing up, right up until she arrived at the building's entrance. Or at least delaying so that she was, ahem, 'fashionably late' for her midnight appointment. But in the end, she found herself there, at the correct time, and walking into the elevator that would take her to the top floor. A remarkably slow elevator, she thought, as it slowly climbed.

Ding, went the bell at last, and the door opened up into darkness. She took a deep breath and stepped out of the car's light, but not too far. Not that how far she'd gone mattered a moment later, when the doors quietly slid shut behind her, cutting off the last bit of light. Well, what a terrifying development. She should really scream girlishly.

Or she could reach into her coat pocket and produce the flashlight she'd brought in case something like this happened, then turn it on. Which is what she actually did.

Standing in the circle of light she'd just created was a tall, dark-skinned man with light purple hair that almost seemed to shade into white. He was wearing a red shirt and black pants, and smiling warmly. "Ah, there you are, you beautiful leopard," he said.

"Excuse me?" Juri said.

"Oh. Yes, I'm sorry. That was actually someone else. Really, my sincere apologies, Arisugawa-san." But he didn't stop smiling. And then she saw he cast no shadow.

"What --" she started to ask.

"This way, please," he said gesturing to his left, and then walking out of the light in that direction.

With the horrifying certainty that even if she turned around, there would be no button to summon the elevator unless her host wished there to be, Juri proceeded to follow him to the left. A few steps, and she could see that he had sat down in an old, overstuffed chair, and was gesturing for her to do the same on a decayed looking couch. She did so.

"You were asking something?" he prompted her after a moment.

"Yes," she said. "But it was unnecessarily rude, and I apologize. Let me ask, instead, who are you?" She half expected to have the answer suddenly appear in her mind.

"Otori Akio, chairman --" He sighed then, and shook his head. "Emiritus chairman of Otori Academy."

"You seem a little young to be an emiritus anything," she said, conscious as the words were shaped that they were as rude as a demand to know what someone was, and yet unable to stop them from coming forth. As though they were demanded by the situation.

"Why thank you," he said, still with that smile of his.

"And you're in charge here?"

"In as much as anyone could be said to be."

"All right," Juri said. "You know why I'm here. I think I can safely say that you've gone to a fair amount of trouble to bring me here. Why are these things happening to me, and to my friend? What --"

"Could I just point out that someone you see on an average of once a year can't really be claimed as a friend? An acquaintance, certainly. But for friendship, perhaps, a little more is needed."

Juri counted to ten in silence. "What do you want?" she asked then.

"That was exactly the right question," he replied, nodding. "Twenty years ago, you were also acquainted with my sister, before she dropped out of school here. I have reason to believe that she will contact you, at some point in the near future, and ask for your help."

Well. At least things were being consistent in not making any sense at all. "What's your sister's name?" she asked.

"Anthy," he said.

"I don't remember ever meeting anyone by that name," she told him.

"When she contacts you, you will remember having met her."

"Like I remembered the planetarium," Juri said.


"All right," she said, even though it defintely was not. "And I presume you want me to ... refuse to help her."

"Oh, no," said Akio, if that was indeed his real name. "I want you to help her as much as you can. Although the help that she wants and the help that she needs and that I'd like you to give her are very different. I would like it if you would help her to realize that her best option is to give up what she's doing and come back here, to this school."

"... she got out of the trap, didn't she?" Juri asked.

And now he was not smiling.

Juri took a deep breath. "You won't let me leave unless I agree, will you?"

"Oh, no. You can leave as soon as you want. The button will in fact be there on the wall when you go to find it. But I'm being rude, asking you to make such decisions without some refreshment."

"I'm not particularly thirsty at the moment," she told him as she heard the sound of a squeaky wheel drawing near. "And I don't think --"

"Coffee, ma'am?"

Juri closed her eyes.

"Tea, ma'am?"

She opened them again, and turned to see what she knew she would see, in the light of the flashlight. And indeed, there she was, dressed in a ridiculous uniform, standing behind a cart, looking at her with an expression which seemed right on the verge of panic.

"Milk --"

"Shiori," Juri interrupted. "How are you here?"

"That is my name, yes," she said. "I'm not sure what you mean, ma'am."

"You're supposed to be in America," Juri said.

"Isn't this America?" she asked, terror clearly growing. And then, before Juri could react in any way, she said the worst thing of all. "Who are you, ma'am?"

"Perhaps you'd prefer my other attendant?" Akio asked from behind her.

"All right," Juri said, though she suspected that nothing would ever be all right again. "I'll do what you want me to do."

Eventually, Negi found himself regaining consciousness. He opened his eyes to find himself lying on his back on one of the living room's sofas, staring up at the ceilling, which happened to be interrupted by the somewhat concerned-looking face of Fujino Shizuru. "Are you awake?" she asked.

He briefly considered saying no. Then his habitual politeness reasserted itself. "Yes, I am, thank you." He turned his head to look past her, then blinked. A few more checks confirmed his initial assessment -- he and Fujino were the only people in the living room. "Where is everyone? How long was I out?"

"Well, it's been about two hours, I think," she answered carefully. "Suzushiro departed wtih the vampire princess and her bodyguard, saying that she was going to work with them to stop Kiryuuin. After Mikado-sensei assured everyone that you were all right and in some sort of healing trance, most of your ... friends ... returned to their respective homes. I believe that Akashi and Saotome are introducing your sister, Sasaki and the, ah, the ermine to some other guests of the doctor, who just stepped out for a while."

"I see," said Negi, as he sat up on the couch. The world had moved on without him. Of course it had. On the other hand ... "Not that I don't welcome your company, Madame Vice President, but why did you stay?"

Fujino stared at him. "That's an interesting way to put it," she said, then sat down beside him. "Ahem. I have some questions I need answered. Between them, Akashi and the princess were able to convince Suzushiro that she'd overreacted to that question, but I couldn't help noticing that everyone else went to some lengths to keep Sasaki from talking while they were doing so. So I suppose my first question should be ... sensei, are you having sex with your students?"

He was too tired, and hurting just a bit too much, to come up with a plausible sounding lie. "Yes, I am, with all of those who were here tonight, except Asuna and Akira-san, as well as Sakura and Ryoko, plus a couple of others."

"Hmm," she said, nodding. "I appreciate your forthrightness, Negi-kun. You'll forgive me, I hope, if I don't call you sensei anymore. And you're doing all this, as the princess implied, with the deliberate intention of impregnating these young women?"

"My goal is to create a new generation of heroes and leaders who'll face the challenges of the years to come after my generation saves the world from the oncoming disasters," he related, not even particularly caring that he sounded like someone reading a script.

"Well," said Fujino, nodding. "Um. How is that even remotely possible? I was under the impression that you were ten years old. I'm not a doctor, of course, but I thought boys couldn't, um ..."

"Produce semen before they go through puberty?" he asked to clarify. When she nodded some more, he continued. "I've been subjected to a course of pharmaceutical and alchemical treatments to stimulate that production."

"Oh," she said. "That's monstrous." This was delivered with the solemnity of someone discussing the weather.

"It was necessary for the mission," Negi answered the charge.

"Heavens above," said the Vice President, with a sad shake of her head. "You are really starting to remind me of someone."

He looked at her curiously, but she only shook her head again.

"Well, then, I suppose I should ask what you are planning to do with this information?" Negi asked.

"Mmm, yes, I guess you would be concerned about that. Truth to tell, I wasn't planning on doing anything. You did come to my rescue this evening, and I assume that you're going to keep the secrets you've found out about me and this 'Valkyrie' business. It would be beneath me to repay that trust with treachery," she said.

Negi nodded, and decided to avoid pointing out that he had no idea who would be interested in learning those secrets, rendering such a betrayal impossible. However, he could make certain admissions that would help him to learn more. "I'd never even heard of Valkyries, outside of their mythological context, before this evening."

"And I hadn't heard that was another name for us before now," Fujino admitted. "The person who explained the situation to me used the term 'HiME' -- a word formed from the English words 'high-energy materializing equipment', which I presume refers to our weapons. Essentially, we're supposed to fight a number of monsters that have been appearing in the area, but we're left to our own devices to figure out how to do so. And since I'm not a fighter by nature," she lied, "I chose to just let the others handle it."

He frowned at that, but didn't address the discrepancy of someone who wasn't a fighter by nature being the one to charge into battle first. "Have you done any research into the nature of these powers?" he asked instead.

"Not I, but I'm ... distantly acquainted with one who has. She would probably be better able to answer any questions you might have."

"Oh, I actually don't have any," Negi clarified. "But I was going to offer the assistance of the Library Research Club in doing some more."

She blinked. "Well, my goodness. That's very generous, Negi-kun."

"Um, not really. I don't like unknowns," he admitted, "and there are quite a lot of them."

"Oh my, yes," agreed Fujino, then eyed him. "I do hope that you're not trying to get in good with me by making that offer, however."

"Well, I won't deny that's --" he started to say.

"All right," she interrupted loudly. "Let's just nip this right in the bud, shall we? I am not attracted to you, Negi-kun, nor to your entire sex. Yes, the rumors are true."

"I hadn't heard the rumors," he admitted sheepishly.

"Oh," she said flatly. "Well, I would hope that you would not force your attentions on someone incapable of appreciating them, Negi-kun."

"Definitely not," he said, just a bit sharply. "I'd never do such a thing."

"Well, g--" she started to say. The rest of the word turned into a vague grunt as her eyes went wide.

"Madame Vice President?" Negi asked, growing alarmed.

"No," she gasped. "No! It's happening, but she's not here! This --" She looked around frantically, then finally turned to Negi. "Help," she nearly sobbed.

"Talk to me, please," he said. "Tell me what's wrong."

"Ngh, we, Suzushiro and I, w-w-we get these things sometimes where we just have to, have to --" She was almost in tears. "-- d-do it to each other, until one of us -- ahhhhhh!"

"Oh feathers," Negi said, aghast. "You're in estrus?"

"The fuck is estrus?" she asked, accent in full force.

"Madame -- Shizuru-san," he said, using her name for the first time. "I think I can help you, but you might not like what I'll do very much."

"Do whatever!" she shrieked. "I'm losing my mind, here!"

"Well, that was confusing and a little scary," said Makie as Yuna and Haruna led her down the corridors of Mikado's dimensionally untethered house. "But I understand why Setsuna-san tried to talk me out of a duel to the death, now, so I guess that's good, too. I wonder if Negi-kun is awake yet?"

"Probably," Yuna told her.

"And he's probably gotten up Fujino's skirt, I'll bet," said Haruna with, of course, a grin.

"Oh, come on, everybody knows that she belongs on Astraea Hill, not at Mahora," said Yuna disgustedly. "He's a seductive little jerk, but he's not --"

"Ahhhhhhhh!" cried a woman's voice in the distance.

"Sorry, did you say something?" asked Haruna.

When they got to the living room, Negi was pounding into Shizuru from behind, her habitual pallor now changed for a bright red blush as she leaned on one of the end cushions of the couch and gasped at the sensations she was feeling. His hips were pumping up into her, her breasts, pulled free of their confinement, were shaking with each motion, and from the sounds of things, she'd already achieved a few climaxes. Then Negi gave one last thrust, and his body went all stiff.

"Lahk ohmagawd," said Fujino, head dangling.

"Oh, glad you could join us," said Mikado to the three girls in the doorway, as she sat on the couch overlooking this coupling and masturbated. "Well, wait are you waiting for?"

"Yeah, baby!" cried Makie, and started to get undressed.

Not terribly far from Casa Mikado, Mina drew back, primly drying the corners of her mouth with a white hankerchief that quickly grew scarlet in the full moon's light. "That should calm you down, I think."

"Gah gah gah gahhh!" Haruka stuttered, holding her neck with a hand. "What, what have you done to me!"

"Well, if your confused statements about the sexual frenzy into which you had fallen were true, then any orgasmic experience -- such as being fed upon by a vampire -- would suffice to pull you out of it. And without any need to sate your vicious lusts on either myself or Akira! You are welcome," she added sunnily.

"But now I'm a vampire!" Haruka cried to the heavens. "I'm a hideous monster who shies from the sun! A beast in human form! A child-eh of Cain-eh! A creature of dorkness!"

"That's dark--" Akira started to correct.

"No, she got the word right," said Mina firmly. "As to the rest, well, the beast is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it? I should note, though, that there is a cure, as long it's taken during the first forty-eight hours after the bite. And it just so happens that I have a sample." Mina casually pulled a small vial from her clothes. "And I will be glad to provide --"

Haruka's hands quickly snatched the vial, and she drank its whole contents avidly, almost choking on them, to the last drop.

"It wasn't necessary to drink the whole sample," said Mina, very calmly. "Now whatever shall we do if you fall into that fit of yours again, or if some fool demands proof that I am in fact a vampire?"

"It, the fit doesn't happen more than once in twenty-four hours, and I can go days between episodes," Haruka said, her words slightly distorted as she checked her teeth with her fingers, giving a sigh of relief when it became clear that they hadn't become any more pointed.

"Ah, well then," said Mina. "Let us proceed with the rest of the plan." And she started marching once more, fully expecting to be followed. Akira did in fact hurry to catch up with her, and so, after a moment, did Haruka.

"Wait," said the Vice President. "If just the bite will do it, doesn't that mean that Shinonome-san will also --"

"Oh, yes," replied the princess, carelessly. "As soon as the sun set. I have one of my other operatives following her, in hopes that she'll lead us to the one who attacked her, and is now her master."

"I could have done that, you know," Akira pointed out.

"I needed you where you were and are, dear girl," said the seeming ten year old to the one who towered over her. "The time had come to show ... most of my hand to Negi Springfield, and observe his reactions. They ... surprise." She pursed her lips and shook her head. "Yes, that's the word. And -- hmmmm. I see that the individual with whom we wished to negotiate is currently distracted."

Evangeline's cabin could be seen in the distance, and standing on the embankment over the river that ran past it were Kiryuuin Satsuki and her Elite Four -- and before them, Matoi Ryuko. Both young women, dressed in the battle modes of their respective costumes, were up in each other's face, while Satsuki's supporters held back from charging their mistress' nemesis with difficulty.

"Wretched girl, can it be that you do not understand simple spoken Japanese?" Satsuki was demanding. "This is not a matter of our school, but of this city. I have no time with which to entertain your delusions of significance this evening. Leave!"

"Yeah, yeah, that is really gonna happen," sneered Ryuko. "I might not know what you're up to right now, you haughty wench, Kiryuuin Satsuki! But whatever it is, I'm not just gonna stand by and let you do it! Tell me what I want to know!"

And where Ryuko was, so was Mako, who stood off to the side with a dozing P-chan on her head. Hearing the sound of people approaching, she naturally turned to see who it was, and her face lit up. "Ah!" she called out, waving. "Akira-chan! Have you come to watch Ryuko fight?"

"You know her?" Haruka asked, bewildered.

"Um, a while ago I got cut up by a man with a silver dagger, and her father helped sew me up again," Akira admitted, waving back at Mako. "Fortunately, I don't get infected."

"Wow, Akira-chan!" said Mako, once they were a little bit closer and she got a better look at Mina. "I didn't know you knew people from TV! Can I get an autograph?" she asked.

"Did you know that you're the first person to ask me that?" Mina inquired.


"No." Mina looked past her, to where Ryuko and Satsuki were still talking at each other. "How long is this likely to continue?"

"I really don't know, this is the longest that they've gone without trying to kill each other," Mako admitted. She too looked at where the two were standing. "I don't like it very much for some reason," she further admitted.

"Fight me, then!" demanded Ryuko of her enemy. "If you don't want me here, then make me leave."

"And I have told you, we will not fight this night, Matoi Ryuko! And I say again, leave!"

Ryuko's hand clenched into a fist, which suddenly shot up towards Satsuki's face -- and stopped within perhaps a centimeter's breadth from it. Satsuki neither moved, nor blinked.

"Why didn't you dodge?" Ryuko asked, strangely quiet.

"Why didn't your punch connect?" Satsuki replied, also sotto voce.

"Oh, I really really don't like where this is going," Mako droned.

Neither did Haruka. "President!" she called out.

"Yes, Suzushiro?" replied Satsuki, without turning her cold gaze from Ryuko's furious eyes.

"I have conducted some investimations, and discovered a witness whose testirony offers an alibi to McDou--Dowell-san," she said. "Further, someone has come forthard with information you should probably hear."

"I see. Very well. You are fired."

"Thank y--" said Haruka, followed swiftly by, "I'm what?"

"You are fired," repeated Satsuki, still with eyes only for Ryuko, and she only for her. "The fact that you are reporting this as something you personally investigated, rather than the results of investigations by your subordinates, suggests that you are too personally involved with this matter to maintain the objectivity required of your position. This is the latest in a series of missteps that have concerned me for some time. Thus, you are relieved of your duties as head of the Student Council Executive, effective immediately. Turn in your uniform and depart."

"You can't fire me," Haruka replied.

Now Satsuki turned that icy glare away from her adversary for the first time, focusing it on Haruka instead. (Meanwhile, Ryuko blinked, and looked around, seeming a bit confused as to what had just happened.) "You serve at the discretion of the Student Council President. For the remaining two months of this year, and possibly longer, as events may turn, that is Kiryuuin Satsuki, who may indeed fire you, and has done so. I have told you turn in your uniform. I will not repeat myself."

"Again," supplied Mina.

Satsuki's glare slowly tracked from the devastated expression on Haruka's face as she began to undress to Mina's rather bored expression. "What."

"You already repeated yourself when you told her she was fired," the vampire princess reminded the master of Honnoji of facts which had clearly slipped her somewhat distracted mind. "So you just won't repeat yourself again. Except if you do, of course."

"The treaty you signed with the failing apparatus that is this nation's legislature indicated that you would return to your 'bund' after the end of each school day," Satsuki said after a moment.

"You're well-informed," Mina complimented her. "I made sure to give myself a certain amount of wiggle room by failing to specify exactly how long 'after the end of each school day' had to be. My people have always gotten the pick of the bar," she added rather smugly.

"... very amusing," said Satsuki, in a tone which sounded somewhat less than amused. "Return to your island, feeble potentate of a dying race. This is not your affair, nor has it ever been."

Akira took a step forward at that description, frowning deeply (which on her manifested as a slight turn down of the corners of her mouth.) The Elite Four responded by taking a step forward themselves. Akira glared at them, and took a breath ... then sembled. In much less time than it takes to tell it, she added almost half a meter of height and a comparable amount of bulk, grew thick black fur and a wolf's muzzle and fangs, and clawed fingers at the end of her hands. With still strangely human eyes, she glared pure death at the four Honnoji students.

And Gamagoori Ira took another step forward, smiling broadly as he uncrouched to stand at his full height ... which was a full head and shoulders taller than Akira's wolfwoman form. "Permission to engage, Satsuki-sama?" he asked.

"Quiet, child, the grown-ups are talking," Mina said rather loudly. "'Not my affair'?" she repeated, directing her words to Satsuki. "I beg to differ."

"Oh? Are you claiming that McDowell is one of your subordinates? I am sure that she would loudly deny that point."

"You speak as though you know her," said Mina.

"I have known Evangeline Athanasia Katherine McDowell since I was a student at Mahora Kindergarten," Satsuki replied. "Others may have been encouraged to forget the length of time that she has been a student here, but such trickery shall not avail against Kiryuuin Satsuki. I remember everything."

Standing just a pace behind Gamagoori, Nonon risked a glance back at Satsuki. "She was there when we were in kindergarten?" she asked quietly.

Satsuki simply nodded in response, but Inumuta took it on himself to reply, the zipper of his jacket sliding down to expose his mouth as he did. "There are hidden records which explicitly state that she has been a student at Mahora for fifteen years, in her current state."

"Hoo-ee," whistled Nonon. "I'd start sucking blood, too, if I was stuck there that long."

"I don't like repeating myself either, so I'll just say that, even if she denies it, she remains a member of my people, and I am sworn to do whatever I must to protect all of my people. Will Kiryuuin Satsuki not, this once, relent without having to be forced to do so?" Mina asked.

"No, and you do not have the power with which to force me," Satsuki answered.

Mina let out a genuine sigh. "I tried. There are those who sometimes accuse me of being too quick to try dirty methods to get my way." Before her, the immense wolfwoman coughed a bit. "But I really did try to do this the nice way for once. Oh well." She reached into her pocket and produced a phone, dialling a certain number before bringing it to her ear. "Hello, this is Mina Tepes, Princess of Vampires. I'd speak with Kiryuuin Ragyo. Yes, I'll hold." She studied the fingernails of the hand that wasn't holding the phone for a moment.

"You cannot seriously --" Satsuki started to say.

"Kiryuuin," Mina said cheerfully into her phone. "Why, thank you, I'm glad to hear it. Unfortunately, this is not a social call. Yes, owing to certain circumstances, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to order my people to stop using Revocs-brand clothing. Yes, all of them. And the stores you were planning to open in the bund will unfortunately not be allowed to operate, after all. It's very sad. Your daughter has, alas, offended me in such a way as to make me otherwise inconsolable --"

Perhaps she would have said more, but quite suddenly the phone was shattered by a tiny thrown stone. Akira snarled in the direction of the Elite Four, yet they seemed every bit as startled as she was. Even Satsuki was moved to raise an eyebrow slightly.

For the stone, picked from the bank of the river, had been thrown by Ryuko.

"Excuse me, that was an important conversation," said Mina, eyes changing color slightly.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Ryuko replied in a non sequitur. "You don't drag someone's family into a fight you're having with them! That's just not right!"

Mina stared at her, then laughed in her usual bell-like way. "Oh, you dear idiot. You do not know what you are dealing with, do you." It wasn't really a question, and she didn't wait for Ryuko's sputtering response, turning instead to look at Satsuki. "Am I going to have to get another telephone?"

Satsuki made a disgusted noise. "I have already stated that Evangeline McDowell is no longer welcome in my Academy City. I will not ..." She paused then. "... without better cause than I have been shown, withdraw those words. However, I am willing to postpone the confrontation between myself and her." Her hauteur was undiminished. "She is, after all, going nowhere."

With that remark, Satsuki began to march away from where she was standing, and the Elite Four followed her, pausing only to offer Ryuko baffled glances as they went, with Gamagoori grabbing the uniform out of Haruka's hands as he passed her. For her part, Ryuko still seemed a bit bewildered herself as Mako ran up to her and started to escort her in a different direction all together.

"Well, that buys you some time, at least," Mina said, with a glance toward the cabin at the center of this controversy. "What will you do with it, I wonder? And what will he do?"

"Do I go to class tomorrow?" asked Akira as she sembled backwards into the form of a tall girl.

"Yes, I think we both do. Call the helicopter."

"... I don't have a phone, Mina."

"... well, neither do I, now." She turned to look at Haruka, who was standing nearby in nothing but her underwear and a huge blush, and kindly chose to forebear asking whether the high schooler would lend her a phone. "Perhaps the inhabitants of yonder cottage might kindly lend us theirs," Mina said at last.

"I've betrayed Natsuki," Shizuru murmured. "I mean, I betrayed her the first time that Suzushiro and I used each other to relieve the impulse, but back then I thought there was no way that she could possibly ever love me. Now I know that she might, if I just do some stuff, and yet I've already betrayed her ... with a ten year old boy!" She covered her eyes and let out a sobbing groan.

"Aw, don't be like that," Haruna said, hugging her new sister in perverse sexual lust to comfort her ... and copping a feel in the process, of course. "It's a collective, right, so you're free to be with her if you really want. Actually --" She paused to concentrate momentarily, trying to overcome the distraction of Makie's hooting and hollering on the other side of the room. "Is Natsuki that motorcycle chick people think you're dating?"

Shizuru lifted her hands so that she could gaze in an appalled manner at the middle schooler who was groping her. "People think Natsuki and I are dating?" she asked.

"I'll take that as a yes. And ... yeah, well, it's actually more like people think she's one of a bunch of girls whom you're, well, five-timing." Haruna nodded.

"That's my public image? I'm some sort of female Casanova?" she asked, growing increasingly horrified. "Then why hasn't someone tried to have me impeached on morals charges?"

"Ummm ... well, maybe sixty per cent because nobody wants Kiryuuin to appoint a new Veep from Honnoji, and forty per cent because people think you're doing a good job regardless and the morals charges are complete bullshit." Haruna coughed, waving a hand as she did. "Anyway, what I was saying is, that Natsuki is kind of cute, so why not bring her in on this?"

Shizuru was now gaping at her.

"It's the simple solution to all your problems!" Haruna told her. "Girlfriend can't get mad at you for 'betraying' her if she's getting in on the fun herself. It's how I'm planning on solving my sibling's problems with their fiancee," she confided.

"... you are depraved," Shizuru told her.


"Ah, yes!" shrieked Makie, being fucked up against one of the living room walls, and clearly fucked rather well. "So much better than the first time, the second time, the third time -- no, wait, that was actually better than this -- but the fourth time wasn't nearly as good! Ah, Negi-kun, I love the way you love me!"

"Makie!" Negi almost hissed as he held her, marveling at how light and yet how very strong she was, to be able to support herself like this. He had no favorites. He must not have favorites. And yet there was something genuinely amazing about this girl, in particular, out of all the girls. Maybe it was just the way she just always gave it her all, whatever it was, whatever her all might be.

Ilya was going to hate her, he was fairly certain. And yet he kissed her once again, as though trying to draw just a bit of that joie de vivre into himself.

"Mmm, someone's had some practice," mused Ryoko as she lay on the couch and let Yuna eat her out, running her fingers through the girl's short hair.

"Um, well, yeah, a little," Yuna admitted as she licked at the alien woman's folds and what she certainly hoped was a clitoris. The possibility that it was some weird 'never touch me there' button disturbed her, but it was in pretty much the right place, wasn't it?

"But you're nervous," Ryoko said, abruptly reaching down to pull Yuna up so that they were face to face and moderate breast to great big knockers. "Why so nervous?" she asked.

"Well, I mean, part of it is -- you're you," Yuna said.

"And I've had so many lovers, and how can you possibly compete." Ryoko shook her head. "Yuna, don't try to compete. This isn't the sex Olympics. I'm not looking for someone who can blow my mind. My mind was blown a lonnng time ago. All I want from our encounter is you, just as you are."

Yuna flushed. "How you can you make something so corny sound so --" And then she broke off, as she noticed subtle movement in the pile of underwear that they'd left on the floor. "And that's the other reason," she growled, jumping up from the couch and lunging over to the pile, reaching in to pull out --

"Um, did I take a wrong turn somewhere?" Chamo asked in an attempt at innocence.

"I knew it! I knew you were gonna sneak back here and watch us!" Yuna snapped. "Nothing that looks so much like a dildo as you do could possibly be innocent!"

"I wasn't watching you," Chamo protested.

"Oh tell me another one, with kittens and puppies, maybe," she snarled, tightening her grip on the ermine.

"Ah, ah, actually, Yuna, he's telling the truth," said Negi, while still wallbanging Makie. "Chamo doesn't have any interest in human sex acts, he just likes underwear."

"Bro gets me, Sis," said Chamo.

"Well ... all right, I guess I made a mistake. I'm sorry, Chamo." She stared at him. "Why am I Sis?" she asked after a moment.

"You're Bro's main girl, aren't you, Sis?" the ermine asked, and someone might have noted a certain gleam in his beady little eyes.

All around the room, everyone paused to observe Yuna's reaction to this notion.

"Uh. Well. Um," she said, having turned bright red. "I, erm -- shouldn't you call Asuna that?" she finally blurted.

"Oh no," Chamo quickly retorted. "I call Asuna by her name. Just that. No nicknames. Ain't that right, Asuna?" he asked.

"Yes, that's right, Albert," said an irritated voice from the living room door.

"Glk," said Negi,

Asuna was studiously not looking in Negi's direction. She was actually looking about a thousand meters away in a direction that did not involve looking at any naked flesh. "Negi," she said. "I was going to invite you to come visit Eva-chan with me so we could work out what we're going to do about all this. But clearly there are other things you'd rather be doing. Good night, then."

"I, I can --" he started so say.

"Good night, I said." She took a deep breath, then looked at Chamo, which necessarily meant looking at Yuna. "Albert, if you'll come by sometime tomorrow morning, I'll have some stuff ready for you to take to your sister when you have the chance. See you all later." And with those words, she was gone.

"Get up," Yuna commanded.

"Don't wanna," replied the blanket covered lump she had just addressed.

"Okay, this was funny the first time, and maybe even the second, but it's already eight in the morning, Akira and I have already had breakfast --" A meal without any of their usual morning conversation or any conversation at all, but breakfast nonetheless. "-- and she's already headed off to meet you know who at the helipad -- and I can't believe no one ever told me that Mahora has a helipad -- so it's way past time for you to get up, get dressed and get on your way to school, too."

"I'm sick. Cough cough cough." No, he didn't cough three times, he said the word cough three times.

"Oh, seriously?" she asked. "Faking sick? You picked now to start acting your age?"

"I'm not faking anything," said the voice from under the blanket, sounding just the slightest bit irate. "I don't feel well. Maybe I've come down with something."

"Maybe I should call Mikado-sensei?" Yuna inquired sarcastically.

"That would not be a productive use of her time. I'm just sick. Achoo."

"I'm not gonna dignify that incredibly lame-sounding sneeze with a gesundheit," she told him. "You've gotta get up, teachers do not have the right to call in sick."

"That is a blatant lie," said the lump. "Refusing to permit sick teachers to take a day off would likely result in the students themselves becoming sick, and the school system would collapse."

"Yeah, well, it's a little late for you to be worrying about spreading stuff to your students," she pointed out, then regretted the remark when she saw him retreat even further into a fetal position. "Okay, okay. Do you want me to call in --"

"No." Negi poked his head out from the blankets to glare owlishly at her, as his bifocals were presently not on his face. "I do not want that guy finding out any more about all of this than he already has! He'd probably take the opportunity to come over here and give me a nauseating motivational lecture, and I think I'd rather die, if it's all the same to you." Having delivered this small rant, Negi pulled the comforter back over his head and resumed sulking.

Yuna reached the end of her patience. "Fine, then. I'll call Shanna instead, and tell her that we're going to need a substitute. I bet she'll be really impressed with you." She stepped back from the nook, and climbed down the ladder to the floor, where she turned to find Chamo regarding all of this from his perch on the table, cigarette in paw. She opened her mouth to say something.

"Relax, Sis," Chamo reassured her. "I'll watch over Bro, make sure he doesn't do anything even dumber than this."

"That's not what I was about to say, you little nuisance!" she snapped, grabbing the cigarette away from him. "No smoking in the dorms!"

"It's a candy cigarette!" he protested.

"I know what tobacco smells like, Chamo," she told him. "No means no!" Yuna grabbed her bag, gave one last glare towards Negi's bed, and then stomped out towards the doorway.

Chamo waited a few moments after the door slammed shut to produce another cigarette and stick it in his mouth. (In his defense, he didn't light it.) "Bro," he said in a serious tone, "you got a problem."

"I know," Negi wearily agreed.

"The plan was to make pactios with the girls you hooked up with, not just play hide the wand and make baby Springfields. So what exactly has been the holdup here?"

The boy let out a long sigh as he finally untangled himself from his blankets and moved to the ladder so he could climb down from the nook. "Well ... I suppose it starts on the first day here, when I rescued Nodoka and Yuna found out about my magic. They were both so vulnerable, in different sorts of ways, and I just couldn't bring them into battle with me! I'm sure that father didn't bring mother into battle with him when she was pregnant with me -- and come to that, I didn't give Ilya a pactio either! If I didn't start there --"

"Bro, you didn't start there because Little Big Sis makes you look like a Squi--"

"Chamo," Negi interrupted. "I'm sure that I've asked you before not to use terminology from those awful novels."

"Irregardless, you know and I know and both of your moms know that if you make a pactio with Little Big Sis, you're gonna end up the ministra. But that's not gonna happen over here. And anyway, okay, let's take Sis and Glasses and Nodochi and Yuetchi off the board. That still leaves China Sis and the tall drink of water, experienced combatants it would seem to my discerning eye, plus Busty Sis and Nun Sis, who already have a pactio so they know how it works!"

"And you've really got to put some practice in on memorizing people's names! Those are horrible nick--"

Chamo bopped him on the cheek with one paw. After a moment, Negi obligingly turned his head to the side as though he'd been struck with actual force.

"Don't change the subject," Chamo warned him, once the demands of drama had been met. "What's the matter, Negi?"

"I don't know, it just seems like it would be asking too much of people that I'm asking a lot already," Negi said. "And, really? I'm not even sure the plan is such a good idea anymore, or if they really want any of this anymore. You want to know the real reason I don't want to go to class today? It's not just the thought of walking into a classroom with Asuna, and Evangeline-san, and Karin-san, and Mina-san, all with their plans that don't include me at all. It's the way almost everybody else just ... left, last night, after I was knocked out. And those who stuck around were only curious about ... stuff."

"Okay," said Chamo, a bit more gently. "I get where you're coming from now, Bro. You're just having some blues, right now. That's all it is. Give it some time, and things are gonna get better."

It was interesting coming into class that morning. The girls had more or less gotten used to the idea that she and Akira would show up together, escorting Negi. Not only had Akira shown up somewhat earlier, and escorting someone else -- the bodyguard thing was apparently not going to be a secret, and Yuna wondered if the werewolf thing was also going to go public -- but now Yuna was arriving alone.

Fortunately, before she could be thoroughly grilled about the reasons why not, with Iincho and Makie leading the way, Rei walked in through the front door and a different drama began. The dark haired girl nodded politely to the greetings she was offered in the few moments before she noticed that someone else was sitting in her seat. And, of course, who that someone was.

Mina waved politely across the classroom at Rei, and, for some reason, a sudden hush fell on the room, stilling all conversations.

"Um ... have you met Mina-chan already?" asked Makie, who predictably couldn't read the situation.

"No," said Rei, very precisely. "We've never met."

Slowly, she walked down the left aisle, each footstep seeming to sound like a little earthquake. Akira started to get out of her seat, but Rei was standing at the back of the room, staring down at Mina, before the taller girl was standing.

"Hello," said Rei. "My name is Hino Rei, and I think you are in my seat."

"Greetings to you as well. My name is Mina Tepes, and I thought seats were unassigned," said the vampire, sounding utterly guileless.

"That's true," Rei admitted, nodding sharply. "However, I do usually sit there."

"Yes, and I can see why," Mina said, also nodding, though more in an easy-going way. "This spot has some very good feng shui."

"I don't believe in feng shui, and that's not the reason that I like to sit there," Rei replied. "Please move."

"I think I must decline," Mina said, 'apologetically'. "Try looking at this as an opportunity to see the world through a different perspective."

"I like the perspective I have."

"The privileged often do."

"A hereditary aristocrat is lecturing me about privilege. This would be diverting if it happened to someone else."

Before matters could go any further, and Yuna had the distinct impression that it going further wouldn't involve a slap-fight but something rather more terrifying, the front door slid open and, of all people, Takahata Takamichi entered with a weary smile on his face. "Is it not amazing the places in which old friends meet?" he quoted a famous novel.

"Takahata-sensei!" cried Asuna ... well, really more cooed Asuna.

"... I being punished?" muttered Fei, head against her desk.

"I'm afraid that Negi-sensei is sick with a cold today, so I'll be subbing in for him -- just for today, though," he added with a glance at Fei. It seemed to cheer her up a bit. "If everyone could take a seat, please?" he asked, looking right at Rei.

After what felt like longer than it was, Rei quietly walked over to the empty bench on the other side of the room from where Zazie and Mina were sitting, and sat down there.

"Okay, and I see that Negi-sensei isn't the only victim of cold season," said Takamichi, looking at that particular bench. "And that we have a new friend! Your Highness," he added, with a formal bow.

"Just Mina-san will do, Takahata-sensei," she reiterated her advice from the previous day. "Or I suppose after our conversation last summer, you could call me Mina-chan."

"Excuse me, what?" said Asuna, turning in her seat to stare cold death in Mina's direction.

And the adventure continues, thought Yuna.

"So he's not really sick?" asked Haruna at lunch. The collective, or at least its members in 3-A, had gathered together outside on the lawn, away from any of the other groups. For example, Ako was eating with the cheerleaders and throwing confused glances at Makie.

"No, he's just ... upset, I guess," Yuna admitted.

"Maybe we should all go visit him after class, instead of going to clubs?" Nodoka quietly suggested.

"Um ... you know what's likely to happen if we do that, right?" asked Misora.

"Well, yes," said Nodoka, looking a bit confused. "That would be sort of the point. Do you not want that to happen?"

"Hemm," Misora hemmed.

"I think that might actually be part of the problem," said Yuna. "Maybe this thing of ours has grown a little too big, a little too quickly. It can't be easy looking after all of us, that way, and then there are the other girls, too. Maybe all that is more than he can handle. Even with you-know-what."

"... you do realize that this sort of talk probably wouldn't convince anyone overhearing that we're not involved in some sort of conspiracy?" asked Yue."

"I'm not trying to hide that, I'm trying to hide --" Yuna broke off before she could completely give lose to her thoughts, and just glared a little at Yue. This wasn't working. They were just all so different.

"This one might have a notion for how our mentor's wounds might be healed," declared Kaede. "'tis a method which has soothed mine own many a time."

"At this point, I'd even try fung sooey or whatever the vampire was talking about this morning."

"風水," said Fei, just a bit sharply. "And that not how it works."

Ahead of him, the Narutaki twins were marching cheerfully along the mountain path, singing a nonsense song that he couldn't understand. (Were they perhaps using the sort of private language that he'd heard twins sometimes developed?) Behind him, Kaede was bringing up the rear of their pilgrimage, making sure he didn't slacken his pace. And the middle, there was just him.

Negi was honestly a little bewildered at what had happened. There he had been, counting the the bumps on the ceiling in perfect contentment -- all right, he had been very bored -- when all of a sudden Kaede, Fuka and Fumika had burst into the room, seized him, stripped him of his pyjamas and shoved him into some clothes, then dragged him out of the room while Yuna stood in the doorway and cheerfully waved bye bye. And now he was on a guided tour of the mountains to the north east of Mahora.

Actually, not so much a guided tour as a forced march. The girls' profiles had indicated that they belonged to something called a 'strolling club', but this was considerably more athletic than anything he'd imagined as strolling. Nor was anyone pointing out views of interest to him; he was entirely on his own when it came to noticing them. Still, he had to admit that he was seeing a great bit of natural beauty.

"I thought all the forests in this region had been chopped down," he said with surprise as they approached one such grove of evergreens.

"Not all, only most." Kaede sighed. "Perhaps most is too weak after all. Say 'almost all' is closer to the truth. But this is a nature preserve owned by Iinchou-dono's family, which is generously open to the public," she explained. "We are almost to our campsite."

"Yay!" chorused the twins.

"Yay," echoed Negi, with perhaps a bit less enthusiasm.

"Fear not, my master," Kaede half-whispered to him. "All will become clear in due time."

The camp was situated on a rocky cliffside, not far from a small waterfall. Negi gazed in wonder at the cascade, glimpsing a rainbow below him for once. "This is a beautiful place," he said aloud as Fuka and Fumika put up the small tent.

"Indeed," Kaede agreed. "One comes here quite often, either with these two or alone ... the latter especially in order to soothe wounded nerves and find some inner peace. One told Yuna-dono that you too would be able to recuperate your forces better here."

He flinched a bit. "Was she really worried about me?" he asked.

"Somewhat, though there was also a touch of exasperation and more than a small amount of misunderstanding, as well. However, one should clarify that these statements to Yuna-dono were largely a lie," Kaede added, beginning to undo her the belt that held up her pants.

"What?" Negi said, turning to look right at her ... and then seeing that Fuka and Fumika were also getting undressed. "Oh, no."

"Alas, yes," Kaede agreed. "When one returned from the expedition to library island, the two were so quizzical and so persistent in their questions that, before terribly long, all was known to them! They are terrible and merciless in their suspicion! All one could do was succumb!"

"Kaede-ne!" protested Fuka. "All we did was ask about Chizuru's house and you told us everything without any prompting! Don't tell Negi-kun lies about us!"

"I liked my version better, didn't you?" Kaede asked Negi, a bit softly. "Still, it was necessary for me to trust them with my secrets, just as I trust them with my life." Her eyes opened just a bit as she gazed into Negi's eyes. "Perhaps others might do to follow my example."

"Um," said Negi, glancing at the now nearly naked Narutakis.

"It's okay, Negi-kun," Fumika spoke up. "We still like you even if you're a dirty little pervert who knocked up Kaede-ne." There was a tiny bit of ice in her tone when she said that last bit.

"That is not yet known," observed Kaede, by now stripped down to total nudity. "We should still take every effort to ensure that it is true."

"Before that, though, I should probably say a few things to Fuka-san and Fumika-san," Negi hedged.

She gestured for him to proceed.

"Ah, all right, Fuka, Fumika, I hope you don't mind me getting a bit ahead of myself by calling you that. I should start by saying that I was actually considering abandoning the plan that Kaede told you about, because I was becoming concerned about it being all give on the parts of the girls involved, and all take on mine. I wondered if it was right to ask any of you to follow me into danger, as well as subjecting you to the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. But Kaede has pointed out to me that you're walking into this with eyes wide open, and I'm realizing that it would be even more wrong to deny you the right to choose your own fates."

"Right on, Kaede-ne!" enthused Fuka. "That's right, we like danger!"

"Some of us more than others," Fumika said, looking aside.

"And I actually think that's a problem in and of itself," said Negi, clearly answering Fuka rather than Fumika. "But ... well, the world is dangerous, with or without this decision, and I believe -- or at least I have hope -- that taking this course will make it a safer place not only for ourselves, but for those who come after us. So I would be honored if you would join us."

"But there is one more thing to do before we join together in blissful disport," said Kaede.

"What's that?" asked Negi, surprised.

"We must deal with a spy," she replied, and tossed a kunai she'd produced from literally nowhere in the direction of one of the nearby rocks, where it sliced through a painted image that was being held up and slammed into the rock through the shadow of that person.

"Oh, dammit," said a hoarse voice, as the painting was dropped.

"Ah!" cried Fumika and Fuka, covering each other up. "Akira is a perv!"

"Eh?" Negi gasped. No, it wasn't his other roommate, but another person in a ninja jumpsuit and a mask that covered the lower part of their face, looking quite embarrassed behind that mask.

"'tis a most common name," Kaede quickly informed him, then spoke up. "Have we not spoken of this in the past, Okuzaki Akira? You are welcome to join us without such subterfuge."

"Uhhhh," said the newly revealed person. Okuzaki Akira was not having a nice day. To be honest, she hadn't been having a very good month.

Matters had started to go awry when, towards the start of the current school year, she had been assigned a roommate. This complicated her life considerably, since she was posing as a boy and living in a boy's dormitory and was therefore now expected to live under the same roof as a boy to whom she was not related. Plus there was the whole business of being a ninja and attempting to secretly monitor the doings of the other individuals with her birthmark and talents, which might be discovered by someone living in close contact with her ... at which point she'd have to kill that someone, and go through the trouble of disposing of their corpse.

However, Tokiha Takumi had actually proven to be a rather welcome surprise on that front. He was a kind and earnest young man who respected Akira's privacy, and with whom Akira shared a number of common interests. Somewhat against her will, Akira found herself becoming quite fond of her new companion, and so the thought of having to kill him and dispose of his corpse had become quite distressing. It was a mixture of good and bad, in other words, but it seemed like a not uncomfortable situation.

And then one night Takumi had come home rather late with a shocked look on his face, towed along by his older sister, whom Akira already knew to be one of the other women she had to monitor. Before Akira could offer any guarded greetings, Tokiha Mai had declared, "Look, I'll show you that I'm right," walked over and yanked Akira's pyjama top up to reveal her breast bindings. "See? Girl, like I said."

"Neechan, I said I believed you!" Takumi had said, covering his eyes with his hands.

At this point, Akira had decided that the wisest course of action was to flip out and kill people. Before she could do so, however, Tokiha Mai had knocked her senseless with a rather forceful punch. On regaining her self-awareness, Akira had found herself bound hand and foot, in her underwear, all the weapons she'd been carrying spread out in front of her, and Tokiha Mai sitting on the bed and facing her. "What say you and I have a little chat, okay?" she'd said. (Takumi had been standing nearby with his hands over his eyes and definitely not peeking through the cracks of his fingers, which Akira felt somewhat conflicted about.)

Tokiha Mai had explained that she had complete knowledge of all those who were called HiME, owing to circumstances which she had described and which Akira did not believe for one second. (On the other hand, she had no alternative explanations either.) This included the secret of Akira's true sex and her ninja training, as well as the fact that she could summon a mechanical toad named Gennai. As all three of these things were true, Akira had no real choice but to acknowledge that Mai clearly had some genuine source of information.

And then she had given Akira a real surprise by stating that Akira's most important person, the key to her powers as a HiME, was none other than Takumi. That seemed a bit odd, given that she had had these powers for quite some time before she even met Takumi, but Tokiha Mai appeared to have a great belief in the idea of red strings of fate binding people together.

"So here's the thing. I don't want to hurt you, Akira-kun, because if I do, I'd pretty much annihilate you easily, and then that would destroy Takumi. But I don't want you hurting me either, because I don't enjoy pain. So, I think we should try to get along, as your future sister-in-law."

"I think you are probably insane," Akira had told her.

"Oh, there's no probably about it," Tokiha Mai had agreed. "But look on the bright side, the crazy person is all in favor of your forbidden love for her little brother! Which proves I'm not a brocon, and you should never accuse me of being a brocon, got it?" The taller girl had glared fiery death at Akira for a moment, then went back to smiling. "And the good news is, there's a treatment in America for Takumi's condition, which he should take real soon now, which will get you both out of this place and prevent all the bad stuff from happening!" She'd clapped her hands together. "Win win situation!"

"Does that mean she's dressed, yet?" Takumi had asked faintly.

And so, ever since then, Akira had been a reluctant ally of Tokiha Mai, meeting her other allies, the equally insane Sugiura Midori, the much more restrained Kuga Natsuki, and the very quiet Minagi Mikoto, who was apparently Tokiha Mai's roommate. Taking the chance to get away from them all and spy on the other ninjas based in Academy City had seemed like a good way to relax.

And this was how it had turned out, as she was now confronting a trio of naked ninjas and a boy teacher who apparently had carnal knowledge of one of them and was going to gain it of the other two. Anyone would hem and haw a little when they were exposed to such things, surely.

"Well?" said Nagase, arms wrapped under her annoyingly impressive breasts, reminding her entirely too much of Tokiha Mai.

"I offer my humblest apologies," said Akira. "I believed that this was to be a training expedition for your pupils in ... non-sexual ... ninja techniques. As it is clearly not, and as I have no wish to steal such techniques from you, I will with your kind permission leave at once."

"'Tis not this one's decision whether you shall be granted that permission, but that of one's master," Nagase answered as if she weren't making rather startling declarations. She looked to the boy, lips curled up slightly. "Well, my master? What shall we do with him?"

"'him'?" the boy repeated. "Um ... you do realize that's a girl, right?"

Akira's heart stopped. "No," she gasped. "Are you also from the future?"

"... what an interesting thing to ask," said Nagase as she slowly turned to look at Akira once again.

Supper in Akira and Yuna's room that night began as an affair every bit as silent and uncomfortable as breakfast had been. Oddly, it was Akira's nerve that broke first, for she broke the silence. "So, where is Negi-sensei?" she asked, looking at the empty side of the table.

Yuna's answer came out before she had quite thought it all the way through. "Where's Mina-san?"

Akira nodded after a moment. "Yes, I suppose that is a question I probably shouldn't ask under the circumstances," she said softly, and went back to eating.

Dammit, no, no, that's not what I wanted, Yuna cursed herself. Aloud, she coughed. "So. Um. What's it like, being a werewolf?"

Akira stared across the table at her. "What's it like, having sex?" she asked in return.

"Good point," Yuna said, nodding. "Good p-- wait a minute, no it isn't! You can have sex, but I'll never be a --"

"Then why would you bother asking?"

"I'm trying to communicate, here," the basketball player said, a bit forcefully. "Okay? I'm trying to clear the air, 'cause I'm not actually that angry at you, no matter how it seems. The situation is a little messed up, but I know that you're not the one who made the mess. All right?"

And there it was, after what felt like entirely too long -- the tiny little upturn of the cheeks that meant Akira was smiling. "Thank you, Yuna," she said.

Yuna took a deep breath. "So are you having sex?"

Akira, who'd taken a bite of her rice a moment before, proceeded to choke a bit. "Ahem. Ahem. I presume you're asking about me and Mina?"

"No, you and Asuna. Of course you and Mina-san! Do you think that I missed that bit where she was warning off Makie?"

"No, we are not having sex," Akira said firmly. "I more or less think of her as a somewhat insane little sister. She flirts with me a lot, but I'm pretty sure flirting is just how she shows friendliness. She does it with her maids, too, and ... okay, we're getting close to details I probably shouldn't talk about."

"Okay," said Yuna. She briefly considered telling Akira that she was pretty sure Mina wasn't just being friendly, but it might end the conversation with more of the stony silence. Problem was, she struggled to find something else to talk about. "So ... how long did you know we were having sex?"

"About a week now," Akira replied with a subtle shrug. "I had suspicions, before that, but, well, let's say that a conversation I had with a certain person left me fairly sure about what was going on."

"I guess the nose knows?" Yuna half-joked.

"Like I said, the nose suspected," Akira admitted. "I can identify smells fairly well, but there were other explanations than the obvious one."

"Um." That raised some interesting questions. "Do you need any special foods, like more meat, or something?"

"If I did, I should probably point out that I do most of the grocery shopping already," her roommate reminded her. "But no. The wolf form wants meat, obviously, but I prefer to eat in human form."

"But you have eaten in --"

"I think this is another area we should probably not discuss," interrupted Akira.

"Right, got it," Yuna said rapidly, and reached for the remote. "Let's watch some TV."

"Yes, let's."

There was a middle-aged man addressing the camera when the set turned on, halfway through a speech. "-- aren't the first times that the government has engaged in negotiations with a non-human nation, just the first time we've done so openly. Which I think should be a welcome change for those who've accused our administration of secretiveness."

The picture changed to a pair of newsanchors, one of each sex, regarding their camera with earnest, solemn expressions, which was unusual given that their sort usually strove for earnest, enthusiastic attitudes. "That was Minister of Communications Hinata, addressing the day's events," said the male. "To recap today's top story, the government has announced that they have signed the Interspecies Exchange Bill, publicly opening up relationships between Japan and a number of hidden, non-human nations found here on Earth."

"Wait, what?" the two girls chorused.

Heedless of their confusion, the female newsanchor began to speak over images of a woman with cat ears and a pair of tails shaking hands with the Prime Minister, who looked (to Yuna at least) like he'd just eaten something that really disagreed with him. Standing behind the cat-woman were a dog woman, an individual who looked remarkably like Orlando Bloom, an actual centaur, and a bald man in robes who was hovering above the floor. "The Bill, signed today by Prime Minister Yagami and one Kali Belladonna, a representative of the Extraspecies Alliance, will open up Japan to trade with these nations, and cultural exchanges as well. Following quickly on the heels of the establishment of the Vampire Bund, these are the first times that any human nation has publicly admitted to dealing with non-human intelligences, at least in historical times."

"Uh ... I take it you didn't know this was going to happen?" Yuna asked Akira.

"No. No we didn't," Akira answered calmly. "Oh, she's not going to be happy about this."

In a different dorm all together, yellow beauty Yang Xiao Long slowly turned to look at her partner and roommate. "So, that's your mom, right?"

"Yes," said the girl beside her, undoing her ribbon to reveal that the cat ears atop her head were quite natural. With a grunt, a pair of cat tails extended from behind her rear, as well. "That's my mom," said Blake Belladonna.

"Where exactly were you hiding those?" asked Yang.

"I think that's a subject we should probably not talk about," replied Blake.

"... can we talk about how sensitive they are?" Yang inquired, starting to smile broadly.

"It would probably be better to just show you later tonight."


She was leaning back on her sunlounger, gazing up at the blue sky when the phone started ringing. She checked her wristwatch first, and found herself pleasantly surprised that the individual on the other end of the incoming call had waited so long to contact her. Of course, it was possible, even likely, that her contact had spent most of that time engaged in unproductive cursing, which changed matters. She let the phone ring nine times before she reached out to pick it up and accept the call.

"Good evening," Usagi Small Lady Serenity said into the phone.

"What the hell is this?" Mina Tepes voice roared over the line.

The Moon Princess waited a moment before answering. "By 'this', do you mean the Interspecies Exchange Bill?"

"Obviously, yes! This isn't what we agreed upon!"

"I'm fairly sure it's nothing we agreed against, either," she said in a warning tone. "I never guaranteed that your people would be the only ones coming into the light and making deals with the Japanese government. And you're still in a better position than the Extraspecies Alliance is -- they didn't purchase any portion of Japan's debt, after all."

"But they're going to be wandering freely all over the country while mine are penned up on our island!" the Vampire Princess nearly snarled. "You helped them get a better deal than we ever could!"

"Everything is subject to renegotiation, Mina-san," Usagi reminded her patiently. "As an immortal, and the leader of the species who's always gotten the pick of the bar, as you told me not long ago, you should know this better than anyone else."

"But I don't have the --" The vampire's voice broke off. "And you knew that I wouldn't," she continued much more quietly.

There was no question pending, so Usagi quietly waited to hear what else her counterpart had to say.

"Do you know what one of the very few pieces of political advice that my mother ever gave me was?" Mina asked, breaking the silence. "She told me to never, ever, ever trust the White Moon Kingdom. That your people would do everything in their power to destroy us and make it seem like they were righteous for doing so. I can't believe that I honestly thought you were different from that." Without any further words, the call ended.

The Princess of the White Moon Kingdom set down her phone, let out a long sigh, and stared up at the Enhanced Video Emulation beneath which she lay.

"Yeah," she said at last. "I get that a lot."

"So you decided that she must be from the future," Negi concluded, nodding in understanding. "It will be very ironic if that's the case. I'll have to talk with Mai-san on the subject the next time I see her."

"I'm sure the two of you will get along very well," said Akira. "You have the same proclivity for interrogating me while I'm bound and in my underwear."

Negi coughed uncomfortably. "I'm sorry about that, actually."

"Don't be," Kaede told him as she crouched behind him, rubbing his shoulders. "'twas necessary to ensure that she had no weapons."

"Oh, please," Akira sneered. "I can summon a weapon from nowhere, just like you can. This is simply humiliation -- which isn't working, by the way." The red tint on the kunoichi's cheeks suggested that this might not be the whole truth of the matter.

"Well, humiliation and satisfying the curiosity of one's pupils," Kaede agreed, glancing at Fuka and Fumika, who were off to the side, studying Okuzaki's body from a distance.

"Why were you posing as a boy, Akira?" Fumika finally asked. "It must have made your mission a lot more challenging than it had to be." She sounded a little sympathetic, to Negi's ears.

"Well, I can't really argue with that," the bound girl replied reluctantly. "But the point was to make it that much harder for the other HiME to figure out that I was one of them, so I could spy on them more effectively. And until Tokiha Mai showed up, it was working -- I'd had confrontations with Kuga and with Suzushiro, and neither of them ever connected the ninja they saw with the boy Okuzaki."

"One wonders how much of that was due to your stealth, rather than your disguise, though," Kaede observed.

"We'll never know, I suppose," Akira replied with an attempt at a shrug, hindered by the ropework. She looked straight at Negi. "How did you see through my guise?"

"I guess that it was just down to my having a lot of familiarity with the female form," said Negi, since he felt like he owed the girl some explanation and wasn't ready to admit that it had been nothing but pure instinct.

"Indeed," she said with a glance at Kaede's nudity. The latter smiled, completely unashamed.

"There's still something I'm a little confused about," Negi admitted. "How did your superiors know to send you here?"

"Unlike some recent immigants or those who've forgotten their history, my people have records dating back quite a ways," Akira said, just a bit boastfully. "Including information about the last time this battle was fought, here in Japan, four hundred years ago. The mark on my body appeared two years ago, and they knew what it meant, so we had plenty of time to prepare."

"'Recent immigrants'?" Negi repeated, confused.

"She's talking about me," Kaede said. "My grandparents came to this world from another, two generations hence. I will tell you about it another time."

"She's also talking about us," Fuka said, just a bit angrily. "It's not like our mom's forgotten our history, it's just that she thinks that's all over." The petite girl snorted. "She pretty much thinks everything is over, certainly everything fun. Why else would she get so het up about sis and I having some happies together?"

"N-neechan!" Fumika stammered, looking at Akira in a frightened way.

Fuka did not heed her sister as she began to speak more loudly. "She's such a fucking hypocrite, too! Acting like we don't know how she still fools around with Hayate-jisan, and Kasumi-basan, and probably Honoka-basan, as well! Poor papa, he had to marry a slutty ex-ninja bitch!"

"Neechan!" Fumika cried pleadingly.

Both Negi and Akira were staring at the two of them with wide eyes. While Akira kept silent, Negi managed to say, "Ohhhhhkay, then."

"My my," cooed Kaede, still crouched behind Negi, but now reaching down in front of him to grasp a certain area of his anatomy. "Someone is excited by these sultry tales of debauchery. An interesting thing to know for the future. For now, though, one imagines 'tis time to resume that which was so cruelly interrupted." And with that, she began to unbutton Negi's shorts.

"Yay!" Fuka chorused, anger forgotten.

"... neechan, I really think you might have some serious problems sometimes," Fumika said weakly.

Ignoring the disturbed twins, Akira focused her own attention on Kaede and Negi. "Are you truly going to do this in front of me?" she asked, voice higher than normal.

"A true ninja, of a clan of long history, would surely be able to escape from the bonds of a recent immigrant," said Kaede without even a glance in Akira's direction as she sauntered around to Negi's front. "So you may leave, if you truly wish to do so. One is sure to be quite distracted in a few moments. Mnnnnnnnnnnnn," she added as she took his erect member in her mouth.

So, too, were Fuka and Fumika soon distracted, as they rushed over to offer their kisses -- but from the sounds of things, not by any means their first kisses -- to Negi, which he accepted with good grace while Kaede bobbed and sucked below. Far sooner than he would have expected, Negi clenched and cried in release, shooting into Kaede's tight mouth. She pulled back and looked up at him, opening her mouth to show him the emission before swallowing it down.

"The second and subsequent times," she said seductively, "will take longer."

"Lemme!" cried Fuka. "I wanna show Negi-kun how surprisingly skilled I am!"

"No, me!" cried Fumika.

"'tis better to share," said Kaede warningly.

"Yes, Kaede-ne," they chorused after a moment, and Kaede drew them down so that they could each work one side of Negi's cock, which, indeed, they did with startling proficiency.

"How --" Negi asked, faintly.

"Practice upon a dildo, how else?" Kaede whispered into his ear. "And the lesson that 'tis better to share is one which others could learn as well."

"Ahhhh," Negi gasped at the feelings brought out in him by the twins' fellatio, and the sensation of Kaede's breasts against his back.

He had been somewhat surprised by how easy it was to tell the difference between the two Narutaki girls, even now that their hairstyles lacked the decorations that were the easiest way to distinguish them. Fuuka was the active, even aggressive one, and she was also the first to stop licking along the sides and slide her mouth down the length of his member, taking it all in and licking at his testicles with her tongue, and then too the one to pull back, share the taste with her sister, then push the head into Fumika's mouth. Fumika, in her turn, was the more passive, shyer sister, and she sucked slowly, even agonizingly, down his cock, and also the one who leaned into the touch of her sister and Kaede, as their classmate reached across Negi's sides to carress the two of them.

Yes, Fuka was surprisingly skilled, and Fumika was very adult-like. And Negi found that he could stand it no more. Perhaps it might be the wiser course of action to spend his first release into one of their throats, or across both their faces, so that he might be more leisurely when he fucked the twins, but he chose otherwise. Wrenching back from their grip, he half-asked, half-gasped, "Who's first?"

"Meeee!" cried Fuka.

"Heeer!" cried Fumika.

As expected. He fretted for a brief moment about the possibility that they might find the rocky surface uncomfortable, then remembered that their hands and knees had pressed against it for several minutes now, without complaint. With that, he gently pushed Fuka to the ground and spread her legs so that her heels rested against his shoulders -- taking advantage of their height similarity -- then slid up and in.

"Squeeeeee!" Fuka ... well, you get the idea. "Thicker than fin-gerrrs!"

"Maybe I should use the whole fist, next time?" Fumika said just a bit sourly.

"Mmmm, yes!"

Her twin drooped a little further. "You're not even listening to me. Again."

"Fuck me, fuck me, papaaaaa!" Fuka cried out as Negi's only slightly delayed release at last burst forth into her, the surge of warmth triggering her own climax. And then another climax on top of that as Negi continued to slide back and forth even after his ejaculation, during her moment of great sensitivity.

Papa? thought Negi, then dismissed it. Haruna had spoken of girls in the class with daddy complexes, after all, though if Fuka had one, it clearly didn't limit her as much as Haruna had seemed to think.

"Oh, so pretty," groaned Fumika, bending down to take a closer look at Fuka's orgasmic face -- then seized and brought in close for a particularly savage kiss.

"Ride my face," Fuka gasped once she let go. "Get your sweet little cunny on my tongue while Negi-kun fucks me stupid!"

"Neechan," Fumika said with a gentle smile. "You're already stupid." Yet, moved by the compliment to it, she nonetheless brought her cunny to her sister's mouth, kissing Negi's own mouth as she did.

Deeming her job here to be done, for the moment, Kaede proceeded to half-strut, half-walk over to where Akira had been bound a few moments earlier ... and was still bound, watching the tripling with something between horror and fascination. "Still here, then?" Kaede faintly taunted.

"I reluctantly concede that your ropework has indeed gotten the better of my own family's escape techniques," Akira said, mouth dry as she reluctantly looked up to the naked woman before her.

"Is that in truth the only reason you remain?" the taller ninja asked, tone thawing a little.

"No," admitted Akira, with another glance at Negi and the twins. "I have never seen the Miroku clan's techniques practiced before, and --"

Kaede laughed quietly. "Oh," she said, smiling broadly. "You think these are the techniques my family learned from the Miroku clan? Oh, no. No indeed. One knows that you are telling the truth, for there is no way that you could mistake them for this."

"Oh," said Akira, nonplussed.

"Perhaps I should show you."

"I think I would not ask for that," replied the ninja -- uncomfortably aware that as the older ninja, and the one who had asserted the superiority of her lineage just a few minutes before, she should not be in this situation. "There is another in my heart ... and I hope that one will be the first to enjoy my body, as well."

"I see," said Kaede with a sigh. "One shall not force you. It is ironic, though, for one must admit to having had a mild infatuation for the boy Okuzaki. Your disguise was in truth good enough to fool even me. Can you take some pride in that?"

"I can and do," said Akira. "Can you take some pride in knowing that I never suspected that infatuation, even once?"

"I suppose I can, at that," replied Kaede. "Then our respective pride is salved." Yet another kunai appeared in Kaede's hands, and she bent to cut the single knot that undid all the others. "Go quickly, lest my master's boundless appetites include you, as well. And be sure not to speak of any of this to that Mai person, ere he contacts her himself."

"I should tell you that she is probably crazy, even beyond her claims of otherworldly origin," Akira said, rubbing her wrists as she stood up uneasily, glancing at Negi, who'd finished with Fuka and was now pounding away at Fumika from behind as she crouched over her satiated sister.

"All the best people I know are crazy," said Kaede with a smile that was kind of crazy in itself.

"Um. Just let me get my clothes --"

"Ah ah, no no. Walk of shame," Nagase added with a 'shoo shoo' gesture.

Once the blushing Okuzaki had gotten on her way, Kaede went over to join her master and the two newest members of his collective, this time to truly demonstrate the basics of the Miroku style for them.

His own name was Maruo and his family name doesn't matter, not to him and not to the narrative in which he was entwined. What did matter was that he was rising up in the organization, and he was certain that someday, and someday soon, he was going to be at the very top of it. Until then, he wasn't going to do anything to risk his situation, so he never touched his own product, and worked by very specific rules about how he sold it.

That night, just after sunset, the girl walked off the street and into his alley, eyes filled with desperate need. Maruo decided that just this once he was going to ignore his own rules about always getting the money, even from a first timer, and offer her a hit of Refrain in exchange for services rendered. He had her up against one of the walls in an instant, pulling open her blouse to mouth at her tits and commanding her to spread her legs. All of which she did. Man, it really was the quiet ones, who would have thought that the secretary of the student council was --

And then she tore his jugular open with her fangs, and the story quickly ended for Maruo.

A few moments later, the mouth and much of the neck of Shinonome Nanami were drenched in blood, and she sat against the wall staring at the corpse of her first lover with a dull and unhappy expression. Footsteps sounded nearby, and she looked up. What she wanted to feel was fear, anger, anything but what she did feel on looking up at the tall blonde woman in a jet black dress and elbow-length gloves who was gazing down at her with a smile.

"So you finally did it," said the vampire Hysterica.

Nanami said nothing. Nothing the other vampire said demanded a response.

"Really, I'm sort of impressed," Hysterica continued. "You went a full twenty-four hours without blooding yourself. I've never heard of a fledgling with that level of self-control. Of course I thought you were going to do it when --"

"Don't," Nanami whispered, a tiny bit of something that wasn't desperate need to please the woman talking to her somehow breaking through everything that was.

Hysterica actually fell silent. "A gentle reminder, little piggy. I tell you what you do and don't, not the other way around." Still, the subject she'd been talking about was not all that interesting, so she moved on to other matters. "Now, who was your meal? Oh, I see it's one of that Torchwick fellow's people. Well, that could make things a little interesting later on, but he has others. Leave the body for the other side to deal with, dear, and come with me."

"... yes, master," said Nanami, getting up and allowing the being who owned her soul to lick her face clean before they departed.

"What are you going to do about --" Akira started to ask as she followed her master down the curfew-forbidden street.

"I don't want to talk about it," said Mina as she stayed ahead her bodyguard, wearing a rather cute sundress and hat combination.

"All right then, have you managed to find --"

"I don't want to talk about that, either."

Akira sighed. "What do you want to talk about, Mina?" she asked, in the tone of one who already knew the answer.

Mina stopped short, whirled around and pointed just behind Akira. "Gosh, whatever could I possibly want to talk about? What's she doing here?"

"Hi, Mina-chan!" said Makie, waving happily at the girl pointing a finger at her. "It's so gloomy tonight, I thought you maybe you didn't notice me when I showed up."

"Oh, I noticed you all right," growled Mina. "Well?" she added with a glare at Akira.

"She'd come over to talk with Yuna and I when I got your phone call, and she insisted on coming with me," Akira explained.

"And you, the big strong werewolf, were unable to stop a middle school gymnast from doing that because why now?"

"I let her come with me because I knew that, once she'd decided to tag along, nothing short of the end of days was going to stop her from doing so," the big strong werewolf admitted.

"Oh, don't talk me up like that, you'll give Mina-chan the wrong idea about me," Makie protested.

"Maki-chan, why are you here? No, wait ... you'll tell me that philosophy is Ayase's thing, won't you?" Ignoring the mystified look that Makie was giving her, Mina pressed on. "Why did you decide to follow Akira to her meeting with me?"

Makie decided to give her the same answer she'd been about to give, since the questions meant the same thing as far as she could tell. "Well, you're trying to help Eva-chan, like you said, and Eva-chan is a classmate, and so are you, and Negi would want me to help my classmates, and I'd want to do that even if I'd never met Negi, so I basically just want to help." She nodded in conclusion.

Mina stared. "Just like that."

Makie nodded.

The princess of vampires closed her eyes. "So shines a good deed in a naughty world," she murmured. When she spoke again it was considerably more loudly. "All right. Fine. But you need to understand, this could get really dangerous and nobody is going to save you if it does."

"Akira will save me," Makie answered with certainty.

"Akira will be busy saving me," Mina answered that with equal certainty.

"Akira will save us both," Makie trumped that.

"What if she can't save us both?" demanded Mina.

"Then she will still save us both, because she is just that awesome, and you know it or you wouldn't like her so much," Makie said very quickly.

Mina glared at Makie, turned that glare briefly in the direction of Akira, who was blushing in a most un-werewolf-like manner, and snapped, "Do not derive any meaning from the fact that I agree with her about your awesomeness." With that declaration, she turned and stomped off in the direction she'd been heading before she came to a halt.

Following that direction brought Mina -- and Akira and Makie, following closely on her hills -- to the residential district just outside of Academy City's east gate. (Unbeknownst to any of them, they were rather close to the home where the Yuuki family and that family's new houseguest resided.) Standing on the sidewalk and regarding one house on the other side of the street with a frustrated expression was a tall brunette woman in a butler's suit, who fit the stereotype of the sexy female vampire far more than Mina did. She turned at the sound of their approach and offered Mina a formal bow. "Your Highness," she said. On straightening, she added, "Akira. Annnnnd ..." She stared at Makie, then turned to regard Mina questioningly.

Mina made a disgusted noise. "Vera, meet Maki-chan, who's volunteered to help out of the goodness of her heart. Maki-chan, meet Vera, my chief adviser."

"Hello there," said Makie, waving.

"All right, then," said Vera, clearly still mystified. "Ah ... Ernestin has reported finding Shinonome-san's sleeping grounds, and she's following her trail. I returned to this position in expectation that she'd come back here, but it hasn't happened yet."

"Why did she come here?" Akira asked. "Wait, is this her family's home?"

"It used to be," Vera confirmed, pointing to the house to the left of the one she'd been observing. "She grew up in that house, and her parents still lived there until three years ago, when they were fired from their positions at the school that became Honnoji and moved elsewhere. The focus of her attention, though, was on the neighbors' house." Vera glanced at Makie, but kept on talking as she did. "Towards morning, Shinonome-san approached one of the windows of that house, and ... well, lured the young boy who lived there to come out and ... play with her," she concluded delicately.

"I'mmmmm going to make a wild guess here that you're not talking about hopscotch and jump rope and hide and seek and that sort of thing," said Makie.

"No," Vera replied, much less delicately.

"How badly was the boy hurt?" Mina asked, face tightly pinched.

"That's the strange part about all of this," her adviser answered. "There was a moment when she went completely berserk on him, and I was about to intervene ... but then she stopped herself and ran off. He was just left confused and a little afraid, and went back inside almost immediately. It was the strangest thing I'd ever seen. She's a fledgling, and she hadn't fed at all during her first night as a vampire. How did she manage to stop herself --"

"She would have to have a strong will, to be a member of the Joint Student Council with Kiryuuin-san," Akira pointed out.

"Student Council?" Vera asked, clearly skeptical. "That's your explan--"

"Vera, we're new here," Mina reminded her. "And I've actually met Kiryuuin Satsuki, and find Akira's argument somewhat plausible. But, yes, this is very strange."

"Ummmmmm," said Makie, looking at the sidewalk as though it had become incredibly interesting. "I kinda think there might be another factor."

"And what might that be?" asked Mina.

Makie started to sort of rub the pavement with the tip of one of her shoes. "Well, um, I mean, I've never really met the secretary, but I've seen her, and I've heard a few stories about her, and, well, she supposedly doesn't really like boys her own age. So how old was this boy?"

"He was ten, what does that have to ... do ... with ... ohhhhhh," concluded Vera after a moment or so.

Makie nodded, still clearly fascinated by the concrete. Mina and Vera also found other things to look at than her, while Akira quietly rested her palm over her eyes and shook her head slightly.

The disturbing moment came to an abrupt end, as Vera brought a hand to her left ear and spoke. "Report. Right. Dammit. Clean up the scene, and have Mavra continue the pursuit alone. Out." Now addressing those physically present, she continued. "Ernestin followed her trail and discovered that Shinonome has fed and is now in the company of another vampire."

"Well, that makes the situation that much worse." Before Makie could speak up, Mina addressed her. "We have a cure for a vampire bite, but it has to be administered within forty-eight hours -- which are almost up -- and its efficacy depends on how much human blood the subject has consumed." She glanced at Vera, who shook her head almost imperceptibly. "So the chances of us resolving this situation the easy way are pretty much zero at this point."

"Excuse me," said a small voice not too far away. "Are you people looking for oneechan?"

The four of them turned to see that, unnoticed until right now, a ten year old boy in a jacket over pyjamas and slippers had crept up to where they were standing.

"Ah, maybe," Makie said, taking point before Mina or Vera could. "Is your oneechan Shinonome Nanami, boy?" she asked gently.

He nodded rapidly. "I saw her last night. Mom told me that it was just a dream, but I know that it really happened."

"I believe you," Makie said. "What's your name?"

"Yuzuru," he told her.

"What a cute name!" she said, smiling widely.

"Maaaa-kie," Akira said, clearly horrified.

"Well, it is!"

"They'll probably come for us around midnight," said Evangeline, dressed in a black teddy and matching panties, barefoot and seated in a rocking chair in the cabin's living room, eyes fixed on more or less nothing.

"We shall be ready," said Karin, standing behind the chair in her maid's outfit.

"Quick question, though," Asuna said dubiously. "Why midnight?" For her part, she was sitting on the living room's couch, and wearing the elaborate dress that appeared on her whenever she invoked her pactio. (Normally, she would change out of it into something a little more battle-appropriate, but she couldn't exactly do that in front of the one who insisted it was the only appropriate garb for a mid-level boss of evil.)

"Do you doubt Evangeline-sama's word?" the maid asked, glaring death in Asuna's direction.

"Nnnno, not this time," Asuna specified. "But I don't see what midnight has to do with anything. Actually, wouldn't attacking at dawn be the smarter move?"

"Oh my, baby's first tactical analysis, I should really take some pictures," Evangeline half-sneered. (The other half, which wouldn't have been apparent to anyone who didn't know her very well, was a genuine smile.) "Nothing about this is the smart move, Kagurazaka Asuna."

"But that's crazy. I mean, okay, she's kind of a jerk, she's mean, she's cruel, and last year I voted for that Kuno guy -- don't look at me like that," she told the other two people in the room with her.

"Then don't make disturbing personal revelations that inspire such looks," drawled Karin.

"Need I remind you people that my vote, as a second-year middle school student, counted as one-quarter of an actual vote? It's not like it mattered, is what I'm trying to say. Anyway! The point I was trying to make is that nobody, no matter how much they might dislike Kiryuuin, has ever said that she's an idiot. So why is she going to attack the veritable queen of darkness --"

"My blushes," said Eva with a smirk.

"-- at midnight, instead of dawn when you'll be weaker?"

"Because as I already said, it's not about the smart move. It's not even about vengeance for Shinonome, not really. This is about settling a very old score." The vampire leaned back in her chair, tilting all the way back until her eyes could stare up at the ceiling. "If anything, I'm surprised that she decided to wait until close to the end of her last term as president to settle things with me," she added, almost softly.

When it became clear that no further additions to that were forthcoming, Asuna let out a cough. "Okay, you know you can't leave it like that."

"Oh can't I?" Evangeline asked sourly.

"You rant about what Nagi-san did to you on an average of once a day," the girl with bells reminded her. "Usually while kicking my ass. You love to talk about stuff that happened to you. So what happened to you and Kiryuuin? Maybe it can serve as a lesson to me as a mid-level boss of evil!"

"How'bout you let the ultimate boss of evil decide what will be a good lesson for a mid-level boss of evil?"

Asuna ignored this, of course. (What kind of mid-level boss of evil is obedient?) "Do you know anything about this?" she asked Karin. She and the maid did not get on, to put it mildly, but Asuna had actually been paying attention to the way that Eva's servant was listening to all of this. She thought there might just be a chance that that pressing this particular button could work.

"I do not know what passed between them," Karin stoutly replied. "And it is surely none of my concern. For after all, there are no memorabilia about her anywhere to be found in this house, so whatever happened cannot have been of any great significance. It is not as though there is any possibility that, before I arrived here to take up my rightful position, this person could possibly have been Evangeline-sama's leman, and their parting so troubled and angry as to make her destroy all the keepsakes of their doomed romance, or at least hide them so well that a concerned individual would never be able to find them no matter how diligent --"

"Oh, for Nocticula's sake, she was in kindergarten!" Evangeline protested.

"Also a possibility," added Karin after a moment.

"Well, you started it," said Asuna. "You might as well finish it. I mean, unless you want to be seen as someone who leaves stuff undone."

Evangeline rolled her eyes. "Where did you learn such transparent manipulation?"

"From you."

"... fiiiiiiine. It was about two years, maybe a little more, after Nagi immured me in this place. Kiryuuin sought me out and basically commanded me to teach her just like I've been teaching you. This worked out --"

"Hold it," Asuna interrupted.

"Oh, you just love to live dangerously, don't you?"

She ignored that as obvious. "How did she even know about you? The Kiryuuins aren't part of the magical community, at least not that you've mentioned until now. And even if they are, she was fiveif I'm doing the math right."

"No, they are not," Evangeline confirmed wearily. "However, the very rich and the very powerful, which her family have been for the last two centuries, have always been more aware of the Moonlit World than the man on the street. Sometimes, those families get that way because they know about the Moonlit World, one way or another. Not in this case. As I was saying before a half-wit interrupted me ... at that time, I was genuinely trying to live in the light, and was not interested in having any students. So I told her no. And then I did it again the next day, and the next, and eventually she'd been coming around for a month, and I got a little annoyed ... and, well ... Ispnkdhr." This last was delivered as quietly and as quickly as she could manage.

"You spanked her?" Asuna repeated for clarification.

"Lucky wench," muttered Karin.

Evangeline half-growled, half-sighed. "Yes, Kagurazaka Asuna, the forthcoming battle royale is all because I gave a girl a spanking thirteen years ago. And that is why she's going to attack at midnight, rather than dawn -- because even though she probably knows that midnight doesn't mean anything to me, other people might think that the witching hour has some significance, and she wants everyone to know that she beat me at what they'll think of as my full power. Any other questions?"

"... what do you think would happen if you apologized like Negi wanted?" Asuna asked.

"Before or after she ran me through with that sword of hers?"

"All right, Yuzuru-kun," said Mina after some further discussion and elaboration of what had already been said. "There's something I need to make very clear to you, and you're not going to like it. I want to save your oneechan. She is one of my people, whatever she might think about herself. But. That is not my primary goal here. I'm trying to get the person responsible for these attacks, and if the only way that I can get her is to go through Shinonome-san, that's what I'll do."

"But that's not right!" the boy protested. "That person is the one who did this to oneechan! Why do you care more about the perpetrator than the victim?"

"Where did you learn those complicated words?" the vampire asked, bewildered. "No, never mind that now. I have to look at things this way, because I don't want there to be more victims. And you should also know that, even if we do manage to rescue Shinonome, she is going to have to go live in the Bund and you will probably never see her again."

Yuzuru was practically in tears. "Couldn't I at least visit her sometimes?" he managed to bite out.

Mina's face honestly creased in pain. "We might be able to arrange something," she half-mumbled. "But --"

"How very kind of you," came a voice from further on down the street. "Not at all what I'd have expected of the queen of the night."

The small party of vampires and mortals all turned to see who was approaching. Just a few houses away, Shinonome Nanami was standing -- well, standing in a hunched over posture, her eyes fixed on Yuzuru and her face clearly tortured -- and behind her was a blonde woman who looked even more like a stereotypical vampire -- a different sort of stereotypical vampire, admittedly -- than Vera did.

"And who might I have the displeasure of addressing?" asked Mina, cutting off the other vampire before she could go off on a rant about her plans, as Akira and Vera both stepped forward to stand before her.

"My name is Hysterica. The pleasure is entirely --"

"Your name is Francesca," interrupted Vera.

"Ohhhh, I have a feeling that I know where this is going, Yuzuru-kun," Makie confided in her fellow mortal.

"Why, Veritas, I didn't see you there in your master's shadow," said Hysterica. "How long has it been? I last saw you in Warsaw, around 1900, wasn't it?"

"Paris, 1918," Vera replied. "And don't call me Vertitas, Francesca."

"My name is Hysterica."

"Yep, ex-girlfriends," said Makie, nodding soberly.

"Oh," said Yuzuru, blushing brightly.

Hysterica's teeth seemed to grind together for a moment. "Enough of this. I'm going to give you one last chance, Veritas. Renounce the little brat, take out her pet dog, and we can both bring her before my employer. Then you can have anything you want."

Vera's eyes, as grey as gunmetal, seemed to soften for a moment. "Oh, Francesca. Haven't you learned yet that all those things that you want and take and toss away will never ever fill the void in your heart? Only one thing will do that, and it's what I already have. I genuinely pity you."

The other vampire stared, wide-eyed, at Vera ... and then her jaw seemed to detach from her skull as she opened her mouth to let out a most ferocious roar from a mouth filled with fangs. From behind her, further away in the dark, there appeared dozens of dazed, pale people, some still bleeding from the wounds on their necks or elsewhere, eyes uniformly black as the night.

"Oh, someone's been busy," said Mina.

"Mina -- run," Akira quietly comamanded. "We'll hold them off as long as we can, but you need to get Makie and Yuzuru-kun out of here --"

Abruptly, the odds became a bit more even. They seemed to move like ghosts as they came to stand before Akira and Vera, a group of young women with hair colors varying like the colors of a rainbow, all equipped with weapons that seemed to gleam in the moonlight. "The Elite Eight are here!" one of them proclaimed.

"... Elite Eight?" Akira repeated, turning to give Mina such a look.

"I had mine first," Mina said, looking away. "If anything, she stole it from me. Ahem. Ladies of the Earth Clan! I charge you, let no one harm either Hysterica or Shinonome-san. The rest ... disable if you can, but slay if you must. Clear a path for us to the heart of our adversaries."

"Yes, your highness," proclaimed the group's spokesman, who turned to offer Akira the shaft of a certain pole arm.

"Oh, mother," Akira muttered as she took it. "I told her, I prefer punching people, but does she listen?" Still, she was clearly versed in the use of the naginata as she brought it up into a ready position.

"Akira -- after Nanami! She's the key to all of this!" Mina cried. "Vera -- guard!"

With a roar that was more than an echo of Hysterica's earlier bellow, the Elite Eight lept forward to meet the vampire army, driving their flanks back so that Akira, with Mina following closely on her bodyguard's heels, could dash towards Nanami ... who promptly panicked and ran headlong away from them.

"And so it comes down to you and I once more," growled Hysterica, for they had also cleared the way for her, and her eyes were locked on Vera. "Let us at last see whether this void of mine is stronger than your so-called love!" And with that, fingers become talons, she launched herself at Vera, who stood ready to receive her charge like a bulwark.

From a direction Hysterica had not even noticed, a ribbon shot out and wrapped around one of her legs, pulling her out of her leap and down to the ground in a heap. "What --" she nearly shrieked.

"You always were kind of a sucker," said Vera sadly, as she dropped onto her fallen former friend, pulled a syringe out of her vest pocket, jammed its barrel into Hysterica's chest, then shoved the plunger down with a thumb.

"No -- no!" Hysterica screamed.

"Oh, yes," Vera confirmed. "Shinonome's not the key to all this. You are. Welcome to being bound to her highness."

"I'm sorry, I really didn't understand any of this when you explained it," said Makie, whose ribbon was still wrapped around Hysterica's legs. "Run it by me one more time?"

"When a vampire takes in another vampire's blood, the one who drank becomes bound to the one who was drunk," Vera said. "Or this case, the one who was injected becomes bound to the one whose blood was injected. Some vampires call it being overwritten, but that terminology has never made much sense to me."

"So ... now she's a good vampire who'll do what Mina-chan tells her?" Makie asked.

"Something like that," Vera replied, watching Hysterica curl up in a ball and start sobbing.

A few intersections away from the ongoing fight between the Elite Eight and the vampire army, Mina and Akira found Nanami collapsed against one of the street signs, breathing heavily. "How come?" she asked, without looking up at them. "How come vampires still get tired out?"

"If we are magic, then it is not the sort of magic that defies the law of conservation of energy," Mina answered. "If you do work, you expend energy, and in time you run out of it. Are you sane again?"

"What do you think?" the fledgling vampire shrieked, turning a distorted face and pure black eyes back at them.

"What I hope," Mina said carefully, "is that by now Vera has overwritten Hysterica's loyalty, transferring it to me ... and making me your master, as well, and that of those other poor souls, so that we can save as many of them as we can."

"You ... you have no fucking idea what you are talking about. I'm past saving."

"In the sense that it is by now probably impossible for you to become human once again, yes, that is true. But there is another life, a different sort of life than you can imagine now, waiting for you in the Bund. Shinonome-san, the door to your past is closed, but you do not have to turn away from the door to your --"

"I'm not even talking about that!" she cried. "I'm sick! I'm a sick, twisted, deviant thing! What I did to Yuzuru-chan --"

"But I'm okay, oneechan," came a voice from behind Akira and Mina.

Mina turned sharply to glare at the boy. "I told you to stay back when the fighting started," she hissed.

"Well, yeah, but I thought that was kinda dumb," Yuzuru told the princess of vampires as he finished jogging up to the two of them, and then continued past them. "I'm right here, oneechan. You didn't hurt me."

"I was going to! Stay back!" Nanami almost shrieked. "I was about to do something terrible and twisted and monstrous to you --"

"And then you didn't," Yuzuru reminded her as he continued to close the distance between them. "So you're still you, oneechan. And no matter what happens, I wanna be with you ... Nanami."

The girl jolted at the use of her name. "Yuzuru-chan ... no, no, you don't mean that. I have to go away from you, I have to go to the island and never see you again, that's, that's the right thing to do."

"Then I don't wanna do the right thing," the boy said, frustration becoming more apparent in his voice. By now he was standing right in front of her. "I want to go with you, wherever you're going. I want to be with you, whatever you become."

"Yuzuru-chan," Nanami almost sobbed, looking into his face. And then she bent forward and pressed her lips to his.

"Well, make that at least two new vampires going to the Bund," Mina mused as the two in front of her began to move together. "I guess this is sort of okay, I mean, if four hundred year old me can do it with a fourteen year old whom I first met as a two-week old baby, then this isn't really any worse."

"I'm just going to pretend you didn't say that," said Akira, blushing brightly enough to light up the area, as Nanami began tearing at Yuzuru's clothes. "And -- oh, my," she added, and promptly covered Mina's eyes.

"Really?" asked Mina. "You are really doing this. For me. The four hundred year old."

"Yes, and I wish someone would do it for me," Akira replied, watching Nanami's long black hair sway as she moved her head back and forth against Yuzuru's midsection, to his evident stunned arousal.

"Well, I can see why you might think like this, since we are in public. Well, anyway, once they get done -- whatever that might entail in these circumstances -- let me know so that I can gather the interested parties for the detective's summation."

Around midnight, just outside the McDowell Cabin.

"I see," said Kiryuuin Satsuki, calmly regarding Shinonome, and then Hysterica, who both stood before her. "Then this person, and not Evangeline McDowell, is the individual who attacked you, and then compelled you to commit several crimes through occult means."

"Yes," said Nanami, not quite able to meet the President's eyes as she answered.

Satsuki nodded, then looked at Hysterica. "Is this true?" she asked, sounding utterly disinterested.

"Yes," Hysterica replied, almost as quietly as Nanami had spoken.

"And do you regret your actions?" the President asked again.

Standing behind her, Mina opened her mouth to give her new subject an order.

"No," snapped Hysterica. "I regret nothing! I would do it a thousand thousand times more and it would never be enough! You should all --"

With that last word, Satsuki casually lifted her sword, and swung it on an arc that sliced Hysterica's head off in a single powerful blow. The head, and the body to which it had been attached, decomposed in seconds, leaving nothing but dust in the wind.

"I was only asking as a courtesy, incidentally," Satsuki stated after a moment. Then, ignoring the looks she was getting from Mina and her company, she turned to regard Evangeline, who was standing on the porch overlooking all this, with Asuna and Karin on either side of her. "It seems," said Satsuki, "that you are not responsible for any of this. Nevertheless, my statement that you are no longer welcome in my Academy City has not changed."

"Wha--" Mina started to shout.

"Of course not," Eva sighed.

"However," Satsuki barrelled on. "There is no longer a pressing demand for your removal. Therefore, you have until the end of your current school year to find a way to remove the so-called 'curse' which keeps you here, so that you can continue your education elsewhere ... or not, as it turns out. Fail to do so, and I will see to your removal one way or another."

Eva stared. "What?"

"I do not wish to repeat myself."

"What are you doing? What about --" Evangeline broke off, as a horrible thought struck her. "You're setting me up for something even worse than this, aren't you?"

"Believe what you like. My involvement in this matter is --" Satsuki started to say.

"Are you seriously trying to act like you don't still hold a grudge?" demanded the eldest vampire present.

"Over what? Your petty refusal to offer me assistance, thirteen years ago? I found other teachers -- frankly, better ones -- and if anything, you are the one who lost out by passing up the opportunity to ally yourself with Kiryuuin Satsuki when you had the opportunity to do so. Such opportunities do not come often, and will never come for you again. As I was saying before I was interrupted by a narcissist, my involvement in this matter is at an end. You are all in violation of curfew, and, in some cases, of international treaties. I will not wish any of you good night." And with that, she stalked away into the shadows, seeming to gleam as she did so.

"Well," said Mina after a moment. "That didn't go quite the way I thought it would."

"Oh, I bet it didn't," said Evangeline, focusing her angry glare on Mina. "I suppose that, technically, I owe you something for your involvement in all this. Very well ... I will repay the debt I owe you by forgiving you your utter impertinence in meddling in my affairs, for which I would normally kill you."

"You, you utter ingrate!" Mina sputtered.

Evangeline ignored her, and turned her gaze towards Makie. "Sasaki Makie. Is it true what was said tonight, that you aided these people solely out of altruism?"

"... I'm not sure what that means, but I don't think you need a reason to help someone," Makie answered.

"Ooh, ouch," muttered Asuna, flinching.

"But, I did think Negi would like it if I helped you," the gymnast admitted.

Eva stared at her. Eventually, she reached up and covered her eyes with her palm. "I really feel old, tonight," she murmured. Dropping her hand, she looked down at Makie. "Tell the boy, when next you see him, that I owe him a debt that I will repay at a time, and in a coin, of my choosing."

"You would rather owe him a debt than me," Mina nearly snarled.

"Seems that way, doesn't it. Good night, gentles all," she said, waving a hand as she turned to walk back into the cabin, followed by a silent Karin.

"... I don't fucking believe this," announced Mina.

"I do," said Akira, looking elsewhere.

"I do, too," added Asuna, coming down the stairs from the cabin's porch. "You mind if I tag along with you on the way back to the dorms?"

The sounds of the door opening, and then closing again, drew Yuna out of her doze, and after that she couldn't help but notice the soft pad of feet on the dorm room floor. She opened her eyes and peeked out of her bed, down to see Negi tip-toeing over to the ladder leading up to his nook.

"Negi?" she asked.

He didn't jump, which was sort of cool, but he did quickly look up to meet her gaze. "Did I wake you?" he asked.

"No, I was lying in my bed, staring blankly at the dark and pondering the imponderable," she told him.

He looked at her.

After a moment, she nodded. "Yeah, you woke me."

"I'm very sorry. Try to get some more sleep, it's still a few hours before sunrise," he urged.

"I got a better idea. Get up here," she said, then beckoned him with a hand.

"Really, really, I think you should sleep instead of --"

"We need to talk, dumbass."

"Ohhh," he said, understanding. With that, he came over to the ladder leading up to her bunk, climbed up, and -- in response to her silent invitation -- slid under the blanket with her.

"So ... I was actually only sort of sleeping," Yuna said, after a moment. "I just got back to sleep after Makie called me and let me know that she took care of Evangeline-san's problem."

"Eh?" said Negi, startled. "How did she --"

"I didn't really follow it, there was something about her using her ribbon on somebody and a cute little boy, and I was sort of only half-listening. Hopefully she didn't use the ribbon on the cute little boy, but we'll probably get the full story in more detail than either of us really want later today. The point is, it's over, and we came out ahead, I think."

"I ... guess that's a good thing," he said uncertainly.

"And Akira told Makie to tell me that she'd be over at the Bund for the rest of the night and probably the rest of the day," she added.


"Your turn."

"Are we taking turns?"

"We are now."

Negi took a deep breath. "Well, the Narutaki twins have joined the collective."

Yuna made a face, but nodded. "Yeah, I figured that was gonna happen when they showed up with Kaede. So is it true what people say about the two of them?"

"I don't know what people say about them, but if people speculate that the two of them are intimate with each other, then, well, yes."

"I probably shouldn't talk, should I?" she said.

"I also met another 'HiME', and it turns out that I know two more, so I'm going to be trying to talk with them about what's happening on campus."

"Talk like this or talk like you talked with Fujino?"

"... probably like Fujino."

"Uh huh," she said with a shake of her head. "You wanna pass the turn to me?"

"There's one more thing," Negi admitted. "I did a fair amount of thinking -- well, most involving paying attention to what Kaede was trying to tell me -- and I realized that in trying to protect all of you, I was being --" He broke off, gave an uncomfortable laugh. "-- paternalistic. You've all made a choice to follow me and work with me, and I shouldn't be as overprotective as I have been. So I'm going to give you and everyone else who wants one a pactio, as soon as we can arrange it. Um. Would you like to get yours ahead of the rest of the group? Because I saw Chamo sleeping in one of the drawers, and we could wake him up --"

"No," said Yuna. "It's better that I get it the same time as everyone else."

"O-okay," he said, confused by her somber tone. "Then ... it's your turn."

"Right," she said. "Negi, what do you know about basketball?"

"The most important thing -- that I know nothing," he answered cheerfully.

"Okay, then. Probably the most important member of a basketball team is the point guard. This is a player who's usually not as tall as the other members of the line, but who knows the game inside and out, knows the players, knows how they all work together. In football, they'd be like the quarterback, the one who comes up with plans of attack and defense."

"And this is the position you play on your team," Negi guessed.

"No," she said firmly. "I'm a different player. I'm what's called a swingman, sometimes acting as the small forward and sometimes as the shooting guard."

He blinked. "Then ... why did you tell me all about the point guard?" he asked, confused.

"Because the point guard is the leader of the team ... and I've tried to be a point guard, and it didn't work. And I can't be the leader of your team, either. I gave up on you this, em, yesterday morning, Negi. A leader isn't allowed to give up on a member of the team, especially someone as important to that team as you are to ours."

"Oh," he said.

"So, I guess what happened with Fujino was a good thing, because ... well, your team needs a leader, and she's a pretty good one."Yuna nodded. "Iincho might be better, actually, so that's another vote besides Chizuru's for getting her in on this. Or even As-- well, this is all up to you, really, and I shouldn't tell you what to do. That defeats the whole purpose of this little rant."

"This is not really much of a rant," he told her.

"The point is, I'm not, and can't be, your main girl," she said at last.

"Yuna, no matter what I do from now on, or whoever takes charge of the coll-- the team, as you put it, you will always be a very important person in my life," he told her.

The room grew a bit more illuminated, then. "Goddamn Casanova," she said, and pulled him close.

Adam Wingard. Charley Parlapanides. Vlas Parlapamides. Jeremy Slater.

"What are you doing, Raito?" asked the lazy voice from somewhere behind him.

The Prime Minister of Japan paused momentarily in his writing. "Ryuk," he said without a backward glance. "I believe that our relationship has progressed beyond the point where you need to pretend not to understand what I'm doing. I'm well aware that you're not nearly as dumb as you've sometimes pretended to be. So please don't act like it." And then resumed.

"Okay," the voice said agreeably. "Who are you killing, Raito?"

Jonathan Eirich. "Not who I'd like to be." Brendan Ferguson. "That would be those obnoxious Sailor Guardians who manipulated me into signing that disgusting treaty with those ... things.Pauline Fischer. "But I don't know the Guardians' real names, do I?" John Powers Middleton. "So instead, I think I'll deal with the people who made that ridiculous 'documentary' about L last year." Sarah Perlman Bremner. "I don't like how they portrayed him as incompetent."

"Well, it's not like I care who you kill with that thing, as long as you understand that --"

"-- someday you will write my name in it, yes, yes, you remind me of that at least once a year." Miri Yoon. He moved on to the producers, next. There certainly were a lot of them.

"I actually watched that movie, you know," Ryuk said. "They didn't do so bad. I just hope that you're not mad because they had him played by a Black guy."

Lakeith -- He finally realized what Ryuk had just said, and stopped halfway through the name. "I am not racist," he told the soul reaper.

"Didn't say you were."

"I'm not."

"Okay then."

He let out a sigh of annoyance as he watched the half-written name vanish, and moved on to the next name on his list.

A god's work was never done.

On the other side of the world, in what remained of the borough of Queens, a mother and daughter were lying on their garret's bed, watching a TV news report on recent developments in Japan. "While the majority of these so-called liminal entities are familiar figures from folklore, others are considerably more disturbing. There are reports of zombies, mummies, and spider-human hybrids among the newcomers to Japan, and doubtless this will be the cause for a great deal of confusion in the months to come," said the newscaster over artistic renderings of the extraspecies.

"Mom," said the daughter, whose name was May. "I think I need to go to Japan."

Mary Jane Watson-Parker let out a long sigh, and reached out to rub one of her daughter's eight legs. "Yeah. I think that might be a good idea. There's just one bad thing about it, sweetheart."

"What?" May asked, blinking all of her six eyes at once.

"It means I'm going to have ask for help from someone I really don't like."


To Be Continued


Chapter Text

Day One -- The United States

Twelve hours after she'd watched a news report, Mary Jane Watson-Parker (MJ, as she preferred to be known) opened the back doors of the van she'd obtained. "Okay," she said, without looking at her daughter. "So here's the idea. You climb in the back here, and squish up really tight against the front. That's the only way I can get the crash webbing around you."

"If I'm squished up like that, won't that mean I'm not able to talk?" May asked quietly.

MJ nodded, as she turned to look at her arachne daughter, who'd been wearing a miserable expression all morning. "Yes, you're going to have to keep your speech bladders empty. But if anything, and I mean anything, goes wrong, give the front of the compartment a good thump, and I'll pull over as soon as possible and come see what's the matter." She took a deep breath. "So what's the matter?"

"Mm?" asked May, doing an innocent look that was so much like her father's attempts at one that it almost stopped MJ's heart.

"Don't give me that," her mother told her gently, once her heart started again. "Why are you looking oh so sad? I know this isn't going to be comfortable or all that fun, but it's the only way we've got to get you to the other side of the country."

"I know," May said, not meeting her mother's gaze. "It's not that. It's just ... I didn't know that you disliked Kamala."

MJ blinked. "I -- wha -- oh," she gasped as she achieved enlightenment. "Because I said -- oh, sweety, no, no, no! I wasn't talking about Kamala! I think Kamala is awesome, beyond awesome! I was talking about the person we're going to have to deal with at the end of this road trip, not the one at the start!"

"Oh!" said May, brightening a bit ... then promptly darkening a bit. "But isn't she a hero? A really big hero?"

"It's, it's a long story, May," her mother told her. "Maybe when you've met her, I'll be able to tell you about it. Okay? Now, let's get you set up. Those tubes at the front, there, those are your rations, try to avoid drinking more than about one a day, we aren't going to be able to buy anymore on the road."

After her only child was securely packed into the van's rear compartment, MJ headed up past the van's front to the head of the alley where Kamala Khan was keeping a watch. MJ had been genuinely startled when Jersey City's protector had shown up in person to turn over the van and help out, instead of sending one of her people to take care of it, even if she and May had become friends. But it had been a comforting sort of startle, in the end.

"All set?" the younger woman asked, turning to regard MJ as she approached.

"After some confusion was resolved, yes," the former model-slash-actress replied. That earned a lifted eyebrow, but all MJ did was wave a hand. "Too stupid to go into," she white lied, then grew more serious. "Kamala, we can't thank you enough for all this help."

"Please, don't," replied the superhero. "This is the very, very bare minimum the community owes you and your kid, Mary Jane. Everybody else might be doing their best to forget him, but we remember Peter." She jerked a thumb back towards the van. "And if we can help get May to a safe place? Pretty much anything we can do is on the table." Kamala's face turned a bit bleak. "Even if I'm not sure there really are any safe places left in the world."

MJ's heart clenched at that. "Something you'd like to share with the rest of the class?" she asked.

Kamala took a deep breath. "I don't ... no. You probably should know. Carol still has some friends in Space Command, and one of them sent her a message about some troop build-up in Area Ten."

"Let's pretend for the moment that I haven't been paying rapt attention to the Brittanic Empire's territorial acquisitions," said MJ.

"Sorry, Melanesia. Just to the south of the Philippines."

"Ohhhh," she said. Geography had never been one of her best subjects, but she did watch the news, and picked up on the implications. MJ shook her head. "But that would be crazy. They're already fighting in China and Iran, why would they open up a third front? And they'd have to know that we'd defend the Philippines, right?"

Kamala sighed and shook her head. "You really trust President Osborn to keep that deal he didn't even make?"


"And they may not be fighting in Iran much longer, reports say that the Brittanians are about ready to cut a deal with the House of Saud to divide Iran up between them." She shrugged. "So they might get the Philippines, and after that, Japan is going to start looking pretty tasty, I think. And even if Osborn wanted to make an issue out of it, his government needs that sakuradite trade."

"And I'm sending May into this?" MJ groaned. Tiiigerrrr! she thought, as she often did.

"Hey. It still might not happen. And being able to be out in public, when the sun is shining, will be good for her. Just ... be aware, okay?"

"Okay," said MJ, wearily.

"I'll have my people keep an eye on your digs until you get back," Kamala added.

"Thanks, but I'm not coming back," MJ said with a head shake. "One way or another ... I think I might move back to Phillie. If I do, I'll call and let you know what you should have shipped to my new address." She hesitated for a moment, then asked, "So, how is Carol, anyway?"

Kamala's face looked even bleaker. "She recognizes me, on good days. There aren't a lot of those."

"I'm sorry."

Impossibly, the younger woman laughed. "Married couples really do start to resemble each other, don't they? You sounded just like Peter would have, just then." She proceeded to hug MJ. "Get going," Kamala said, "before we both start crying our hearts out."

"Okay," MJ managed to say.

A few minutes later, the van pulled out of the alley, and MJ paused to offer Kamala one last wave before she started driving towards the highway for what she suspected would probably be the last time.

Day Two -- The United States

Drive for six hours. Rest for five. Little by little, making their way across the breadth of a continent. Finding deserted rest stops where she could pull over to stretch her legs, and, more importantly, let May out so that her child could also relieve her own stress. MJ preferred the dark hours for that, as it reduced the chance that a passer by might see what was going on.

The first time she pulled over and they both got out, she couldn't help but notice that May hadn't touched her food supply. Well, maybe her stomach was jittery. It was the first time she'd ever left the sprawl. MJ considered asking May to drink some of it in front of her, but ultimately decided that it gave the wrong message. Ignoring her memories of a cousin who'd almost wrecked her life with an eating disorder didn't sit well with her, though.

May brought out such memories in her. Maybe it was just the way that her daughter had the same red hair that MJ also shared -- admittedly not just on her head, but in places that neither of them had had places. She shook her head. What kinds of stupid things were she thinking about, now? She summoned May to get back into position, but, while there was still a chance to talk, asked why she hadn't eaten.

"Oh," said May. "I just kinda forgot."

And other times, she brought out memories of her father. It was hard to say which hurt more.

Drive for six hours. Rest for five. Four days of this would put them in San Francisco-by-whatever-name. She talked to -- okay, at May as much as she could, and occasionally tortured her best beloved by singing along to old songs on the radio. (Well, she supposed that she could have sung along to new songs, but she didn't know the words, and half the time they were accompanied by unfathomably obnoxious disc jockeys.) May demonstrated that she possessed the Parker masochism by banging 'no' every time MJ asked if she wanted her to stop singing.

It was sort of funny how the automation of everything from gas pumps -- where she could pay with her credit card at the pump -- to toll takers -- same deal -- meant that MJ had almost as little human contact as May did. If they'd replaced the customer service staff at the convenience stores where she bought her meals and coffees with drones, she'd have been completely cut off. She laughed as she thought this while in line, and laughed a little more at the clerk's absolute lack of reaction to the customer giggling like a maniac. Perhaps they already had done that, and she just wasn't noticing.

She needed the laugh. The other way she was cut off was the way that her schedule had her driving even in the dark of night, which was very dark, with even the stars somewhat blocked out by the red skies. Bits and pieces of a story she'd red in high school, so long ago, about stars going out as a sign of the end of the world occasionally passed through her mind, which wasn't good for her, she knew. She checked her clock. Still about an hour to go on the six, but maybe she could make a little pit stop somewhere and --

Ahead on her right, an explosion off the side of the road lit up the night. MJ slammed on the brakes. "It's okay," she said to May. "Something's going on, but it doesn't --" And then she heard the distant, too familiar sounds of gunfire. "It's okay," she repeated, voice sounding hollow.

With an enormous crunching noise, a metal giant of blue and black slammed face first into the road ahead of her.

"Oh god no," MJ whispered, praying May couldn't hear her.

Slowly, the Sentinel began to push itself up from the ground, head turning slightly from the right, away from the van, and then to the left, towards the van. MJ might have thought that was strange, if they were, as they were supposed to be, remotely operated, but all such thoughts were banished by the way that the head continued to look at the van, as though staring back at MJ who was staring at it.

Mutant detector gear, MJ thought. Terrible thought: Is it sensing May? Worse thought: Is it sensing me? There were rumors that they didn't just sense mutants, but people who might give birth to mutants. In that case, even if May was another species and not detectable as a human mutant, she might be about to die because of her mother, and then -- "It's okay, sweety," MJ said desperately. "It's okay."

The Sentinel pushed itself up from the ground, regaining its footing, and then turned away from the van and marched back towards the inferno off the side of the road. Looking in that direction, MJ could see other Sentinel units directing laser fire down towards the source of the blaze, and various attacks coming up out of it -- lightning, and ice. She sat there, staring at it, for what felt like even longer than the way that she'd sat staring at the fallen Sentinel.

Then she slammed on the accelerator and drove away as fast as she could.

Two hours later -- the time it took for her to become reasonably certain that nothing was coming after her to eliminate any witnesses -- MJ pulled into a campsite. Unsteadily, she walked back to open the back doors so May could move freely.

"What was that?" were her daughter's first words.

"What was what?" MJ asked, feigning calm.

"That thing where you stopped so suddenly. Did something happen?"

MJ considered, decided, and lied. "Yes, another car went off the road just ahead of us."

All six eyes went wide. "Shouldn't we have helped?"

Fighting back nausea, MJ continued to lie. "That wasn't an option, sweety. If we'd stayed around, the highway patrol would have showed up and started poking around, and you could have been discovered. Not an option. And, and it didn't really look so bad, anyway. Just, they were probably shaken up a little, that's all." Before May could respond, MJ continued, "Why don't you, uh, do some stretches, mom needs to review inputs, all right?"

For a wonder, she managed to get into the rest room stall before she emptied her stomach into the toilet. For a moment, she crouched there, breathing heavily. "What am I doing, Tiger?" she asked someone who wasn't there. "I can't do this. How the hell am I supposed to keep getting up, day after day, if I don't have her to look after anymore?" MJ let out a sob. "She wanted to help. Of course she wanted to help. It's exactly what you would have done. And look where it got us!" she concluded with a near-shriek.

Eventually, she got up from the washroom floor, went out to the sink and washed her hands, face and mouth, before heading back to the van and climbing up into the front seats to try and get some sleep.

Drive for six hours. Rest for five.

Day One -- Japan

"This is the staircase to the shrine," said Haruhi, nodding slowly. "It's definitely the staircase to the shrine. So then why," she asked, turning to glare at her assembled Brigade members, "is this happening?"

"Well, mostly because I asked Tadamichi to tell me where and when you were going to assemble to visit the shrine, and she was kind enough to do so," Negi cheerfully answered the club's dictator from where he was standing among the girls in the club, plus Asahina who looked to be on the verge of letting out a squee at the very idea of Negi's presence.

"Tadamichi, you say," Haruhi repeated, now evenly dividing her glare of promised wrath between Negi and Kyonko, who at least had the dignity to look concerned about that, in contrast to Negi's air of total sang-froid.

"Yes, Tadamichi," Negi repeated. "Thank you, Tadamichi."

"Eh heh," replied Kyonko, who seemed less happy about being addressed by a proper name than you might expect. Yuki seemed faintly happy that this was happening, though, while Koizumi bore an expression of amused indifference that even Negi had to somewhat envy. For her part, Mai was also glaring at Negi, almost as much as Haruhi was.

"Well," Haruhi finally said. "You have some interesting imaginary friends, sensei." And with that statement, she turned and began climbing the aforementioned staircase to the shrine.

"So, is that it?" Negi asked dubiously. "She's just going to pretend it didn't happen?"

"That and a slice of pretending I don't exist," Kyonko explained, then glanced at Koizumi. "She came up with something meaner for you when you tried that a while ago, didn't she?"

"I do not want to talk about it," replied Koizumi, looking aside uncomfortably.

The child teacher grew affronted. "That's not right, Tadamichi, Koizumi. You shouldn't put up with this sort of bullying."

"This is just how the club works," said Nagato, startling everybody. She was speaking very quietly, but she was speaking. "It's just something you have to put up with, if you want to be in the club."

"But why do you want that?" Negi pressed. "Nothing about this club makes any sense. Your leader actively ignores the wonders that are happening in the world at large in favor of pursuing ones that exist nowhere except in her imagination, and drags you all along with her, bullying you in order to do so. Why would anyone put up with this?"

"It has its perks," Asahina said, smiling ingratiatingly at Negi.

Nagato, Koizumi and Kyonko exchanged a look, and then Kyonko offered a shrug. "We're kind of scared of what Haruhi will do if she's left to her own devices," she admitted.

"The way she has been, now?" Mai asked from the staircase. Unlike the others, she had started up the stairs immediately after Haruhi, but had paused to look back when she realized no one was followng her.

The trio of girls exchanged another look, a rather horrified one, then headed quickly up the stairs, with Kyonko and Itsuhime dragging Mitsuru along with them, much to his vocal distress. Mai watched them pass, then turned her gaze on Negi. "Coming?" she asked.

"We need to talk," he told her.

"Later," Mai replied as she turned away.

"Not much later," Negi told her retreating back, then headed up the stairs behind her.

By the time he got up to the shrine, the resident shrine maiden was patiently giving Haruhi a lecture about the history of the shrine and the various services it offered to the community. Tatsumiya paused in this, briefly, to offer Negi a polite nod when she saw him, apparently not noticing the rather blatant way that he was checking her out. (He couldn't really help herself; while Tatsumiya was beautiful no matter what she was wearing, something about the contrast of the red skirts, white blouse and her dark skin really appealed to him.)

"So, all this stuff about praying to the gods for help aside," said Haruhi once it seemed that the lecture was over, "any sort of paranormal phenomena going on here?"

Tatsumiya stared at her. "What exactly do you mean by paranormal?" she asked, taking the implied insult to her profession in stride.

"You know, not normal?"

"Maybe you could establish what you mean by normal, first?"

"Are there any talking animals?" Haruhi finally growled.

"... no, but I'm fairly sure that the crows who live nearby understand what I'm saying when I talk to them, even if they never answer," replied Mana.

"Riiight," the brigade chief said dubiously, as she started to pretend Tatsumiya didn't exist and began scanning the area for more interesting subject.

At that moment, the shrine's main door slammed open, and an old man who was not that much taller than Negi came out, smiling broadly. "So many visitors!" he said happily.

Tatsumiya quickly turned to regard him with concern. "Ojiichan, please don't get so excited," she said, phrasing her comment in such a way as to suggest that the old man was not literally her grandfather.

"Bah, I'm fit as a fiddle," he boasted as he hopped down the steps leading up to the building. "And I think these young people are in for a very real treat! Come out, dear, it's time for you to greet your first guests!"

And then, from within the shrine, a young woman slowly, shyly poked her head out. She was a red head with oddly pointed ears set at an angle, and she audibly gulped at the sight of the brigade. But a moment later, she came the rest of the way out, or at least much of her did, with another part of the long, red length of her serpentine lower body still hidden behind her. She was wearing the same basic outfit as Tatsumiya, and offered them a polite bow.

"Good afternoon," she said, in Japanese with a slight accent that Negi couldn't immediately place. "My name is Miia Lamaille. I'm very pleased to meet you all."

Negi frankly stared, then slowly turned his gaze in Haruhi's direction ... then turned away, because he couldn't handle the look on the girl's face. Besides, he couldn't deny that it was fascinating to watch what had happened to him, a few weeks ago, happening to someone else. Even shy Nagato had a few questions to ask, and it wasn't long before Miia's own nervousness had completely vanished, and she was talking and laughing cheerfully with the members of the brigade.

She first clarified her national orgins ("My people live in a small village in Anatolia. That's the far western part of Asia.") and personal history ("I was one of a few candidates chosen to participate in a program to learn foreign languages and cultures, and it was just fate that the Extraspecies Alliance made a deal with Japan, the nation whose language I'd learned, before any of the others.") and then her status at the shrine ("Well, this is where I've been temporarily settled until a host family is arranged, and since snakes are considered lucky here in Japan, I thought this might be a good way to help out here.")

"What do you think about Japan?" Itsuhime asked.

"I haven't really seen a lot of it, yet. I only arrived here last night," Miia explained. "But if you mean what I think about what I was taught ... then I'm amazed. My people are still recovering from the damage that we suffered when the Euxine -- that's the Black Sea -- rose up and nearly drowned our town, but your country suffered so much more, back then, and you've rebuilt so much. This is a land of wonders, and I can't wait to meet them all."

Negi couldn't help but flinch at that, and glanced again at Haruhi ... who'd disappeared. Turning sharply, he saw that she was meandering away from the group towards the hills around the shrine. He considered going after her, but hesitated. He didn't want to seem rude to a fellow visitor to Japan. Turning back, he saw that Kyonko had also noticed that Haruhi had walked away, and was now looking to Negi with an expression of concern on her face.

The girl bent her head in the direction Haruhi had taken. Negi thought a moment, then nodded. With a relieved look, Kyonko walked quickly after the brigade chief.

"Is something the matter?" Miia asked, having not exactly missed all this.

"No, not really," Negi reassured. "Haruhi-san is just a little ... um ... well, let's just say that she didn't really believe that the Interspecies Exchange Bill was real, instead of being a joke, I think."

"Ohhh," said Miia, nodding. "I know exactly how she feels. That's just how I felt when the Alliance showed me the videotape of that Princess Mina person declaring that vampires were real. I didn't believe it. I still think that's sort of scary." She frowned, then. "But she didn't object to you?"

"Eh?" Negi asked, privately panicking. Did lamia have some special knowledge of mages and magecraft? They had certainly kept to the shadows even longer than the mages had.

"I mean, aren't you a hobbit?" she asked.

"Miiiia," Tatsumiya groaned, hefting the broom she'd been using to sweep the shrine grounds, while the old man broke into loud laughter.

"Wah!" said the lamia, tilting back. "That's what Rei-san said about him last night!"

"She was messing with you, silly!" said Tatsumiya.

"Yes, um, yes, she was," Negi agreed, thinking very unkind thoughts about one of his students as he did. "I'm a human child, about ten years old, not a ... hobbit." He coughed. "All right, I think we've taken up enough of Miia-san's time. We should get on with searching for strange things, like Haruhi-san intended."

"Um, but --" Asahina started to hesitantly object, glancing at Miia.

"Visitors to this country aren't what she had in mind, I'm sure," Negi said. "Let's go, then. Just take care not to disrupt the shrine's workings?"

"What workings?" asked the old man. "Take a look at whatever you want, that's what we're here for. And incidentally, Negi-sensei," he added, much more quietly than he'd spoken up until then. "Thank you for looking after my great-granddaughter, and not being too bothered by her little joke."

"Oh!" the boy teacher said. "I didn't realize -- of course, you're very welcome." He bowed politely, and headed off in the same direction as first Haruhi and then Kyonko had taken.

When he found them, a few moments later, he was somewhat stunned to see Haruhi kissing Kyonko rather forcefully, the shorter girl holding tightly onto the taller one's head and pressing their lips together. Negi managed to hold in a yelp, and kept behind cover to watch what was going on.

Kyonko finally managed to pull back, looking both confused and angry. "Why did you do that?"

"Why did you let me?" Haruhi answered.

Before she'd even finished saying that, Kyonko was shaking her head. "No. No. I'm not going to play these games with you, Haruhi. I was pissed off enough when I figured out what had happened between you and Asahina, I am not going to be another notch on your bedpost while you're looking for ... Mr. Goodbar or whoever."

"His name is --" she started to say.

"I. Don't. Care."

"Did you ever think," Haruhi asked, then broke off. "Did you even once consider that what I might want is someone who'll make me forget him?"

"No," said Kyonko. "Not after what you told me about love being a mental illness."

"I wasn't talking about --" Haruhi started to retort.

"And I'm not interested in what you want instead. If love is out of the question, then so is anything else, Haruhi." Kyonko was breathing a bit heavily. "Have you changed your mind about that, yet?"

Haruhi started to say something, then closed her mouth tightly, in an expression that was roughly half pout and half glower.

"I didn't think so," said Kyonko, sounding suddenly weary. She shook her head, turned her back on the other girl, and walked away, past Negi's concealment without seeming to notice him. When Negi looked back at Haruhi, he was startled to see that the girl was covering her eyes with her hands and breathing heavily.

"Haruhi-san?" he asked reflexively as he hopped out of hiding.

The hands came down, and she glared at him, without any sign that she'd been crying to be seen. "How much of that did you see?" she growled.

"... how much of what?" he asked, doing his best to look innocent.

For a wonder, it worked ... sort of. "Good answer," she said, still seeming irritated.

"Are you okay?"

"Oh, I am just fucking dandy," she told him. "It's all real, isn't it? The invasion, that stupid Deviluke girl, the vampires, the monsters, all of it. And none of it is happening to me."

"You ... did meet one of the first extraspecies individuals in Japan before nearly anyone else did," Negi reminded her, not even bothering to chide her for language.

"Big fat hairy deal," she groused, and started to march back to the shrine.

Day Three -- United States

The sun was bright. Maybe just a little too bright, or so MJ thought, her mind still back a few hundred miles. Like it was trying to burn away the memories. She wondered what people driving past the ruins would think, now that it was so bright as it was. Or whether they would keep their eyes firmly on the road and ignore the signs. That would be sadly typical.

Thinking those thoughts had her scanning the area she was passing through, and so it was that she saw the hitchhiker, thumb raised in the traditional manner, seated on a suitcase. The thing that grabbed MJ's attention was the redness of the hiker's hair, so much like her own or May's. Despite knowing that she shouldn't, she found herself slowing down, and rolling down the window.

It was in fact an actual blue-eyed girl -- which meant the hair was likely henna, but so it went. "Y'know it's illegal to hitchhike on an interstate, right?" MJ asked before the other girl could say anything.

"I'm on the shoulder, not on the interstate," the girl answered, a bit of Kansas in her voice.

"Oh, so young to be a lawyer," said MJ. "Where you headed?"

"Sin City!" she answered happily.

"... then you're really in the wrong place, kiddo, I-85 doesn't go anywhere near Las Vegas."

"Ah?" she said. Realization hit. "Oh, yeah, they used to call it that, didn't they? I meant the real Sin City."

Realization hit twice, and MJ shook her head. "Right, right, right. I still think of it as San Francisco. Well, you're in luck, then, because that's where I'm headed. Back's all filled up, though, so you're gonna have to carry that on your lap." She pointed towards the suitcase. "A bit of help out with the tolls would be appreciated, as well. Still interested?"

"None of this is a problem, ma'am," the girl said with total sincerity.

"One more rule -- never call me ma'am. All right, get in."

Moments later, they were on their way. "So what's your name? I'm Mary Jane, incidentally."

"Kyra," she answered. "So, why'd you pick me up, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Saying 'if you don't mind my asking' after you've already asked is kind of gauche, y'know? But ... well, when I was about your age --" MJ gave the girl a mildly questioning look.

"I'm almost fifteen."

"When I was also 'almost fifteen', and ran away from home for the last time, I hitchhiked all the way from Philadelphia to my aunt's place in Queens. So I've kind of got a soft spot for red-haired hitchhikers." And I want to feel like I helped someone after I drove away from a massacre last night. And I hope hearing someone else's voice will be good for my daughter, hiding in the back.

"Well, thank you, Mary Jane."

"Like some music?" asked MJ, reaching for the radio dials.

"Defined as something recorded within the last decade?" Kyra asked quickly.

MJ grumbled, but adjusted the dial accordingly. She came upon a song just starting out, with a series of sharp guitar chords.

"Oh, I love this one," Kyra breathed, and joined in with the male singer as the lyrics started. She actually had a rather good singing voice.

Life is just
A fall of rain
We all know that
Despite all the pain
In the end
It all ends the same
A fall of red red rain

The girl's head bobbed rapidly as the guitar chords came back up again.

"Kind of a macabre little tune," MJ said once it was over and the radio had moved on to something Kyra clearly didn't like so well.

"Ah, no, no," Kyra disagreed. "It's sort of hopeful, in its own way. I mean, yeah, we're all gonna die and nothing's gonna change that. But we're not gonna die until someone kills us, know what I mean?"

"Not really, no," she said. This is a generation gap greater than anything my parents had to go through. I wonder if that's how May sees things, too.

They'd gone through a few more songs that Kyra had generally positive views about, and that MJ found variously creepy and weird, when the siren started wailing behind them.

"Shit!" MJ cursed. The Sentinel must have picked up something but been too busy to do anything about it, and then passed the vehicle's description on to the law enforcement network. Her eyes darted to Kyra. "Okay, here's what we'll do -- I'll pull over and then you run for it, you don't want to get mixed up in this."

"Uh ... if they're coming after you for picking up a hitchhiker, I think I already am," the girl replied.

MJ froze. "Good point," she croaked as she brought the vehicle over onto the shoulder and slowed to a halt.

The officer, wearing sunglasses and a mustache that ridiculously ill-suited him, came up to the window. "License and registration, please?" he asked indifferently.

MJ silently handed the documentation which falsely proclaimed her to be the owner of this vehicle over, and forebore from asking the obvious question.

He frowned for a moment. "Were you ever on TV?" he asked.

"Uh, yes, a long time ago, I was on a soap opera called --"

"Secret Hospital!" the officer exclaimed. "My mom never missed an episode. Wow! Small world."

"Yeah," said MJ. "Um, so ..."

"Well, there's nothing to worry about, ma'am," the young man said with what he probably intended as warmness. "We've just gotten some reports that someone stole some experimental animals from a research facility in the area, and we have to check every vehicle that might be carrying them. That includes yours. So if you could open up the rear compartment of your vehicle, I'll just do that and you can be on your way."

People shouldn't sound so warm when they are signing your daughter's death warrant, MJ thought, more clearly than she would have thought she could think under these circumstances. "Ah --"

"Okay," said Kyra. "I'll go back and open it up for you, mister. You can just stay where you are, mom."

"Ah --" MJ said again as she watched Kyra open the door on her side and slide out.

"Nice daughter you have," the officer said as he turned and headed back out of sight.

Seconds later, MJ reeled at the sound of someone being punched rather forcefully. Then fainter noises she couldn't identify, footsteps on gravel, a car door opening and then closing, and more footsteps ... as Kyra -- if that was indeed her name -- came up into the van again, rubbing her hands together as though to wipe dust off of them.

"So that's taken care of," the girl said.

"What did you do?" MJ asked quietly.

"Knocked his lights out, took off everything he was wearing but his undergarments, put his own handcuffs on him, and shoved him in the back seat of his cruiser," the girl counted off on her fingers.

"Isn't that all going to be on the cruiser's cameras?"

"I've got someone taking care of that," the girl said calmly.

MJ nodded, then asked what she probably should have asked first. "Who are you?"

The girl made a face. "I really do like Kyra better than my real name, atchally. But I'm Kara Kent. It's nice to really meet you, Ms. Parker." She raised her voice. "Looking forward to atchally meeting you, May."

"... Kent as in --"

"Yeah." She smiled then. "Did you really think my mom was gonna make you come all this way without some help?"


"So you're really really strong?" May asked as she crouched beside the fire pit in the otherwise deserted campsite.

"Prolly add a few more reallys to that," Kara said cheerfully, eating from the tin of beans she'd produced from her suitcase and helped to cook. "I've never really tested it out, y'know, juggling elephants or something like that, so I dunno how much I can lift-press, but it's a lot, I think." Her face went speculative. "Y'know, I've heard that arachne silk is really strong, so maybe that might be a good test, later."

"Cooool," May said, almost glowing. "And you're invincible."

"Ehhhh, nobody's really invincible. It might take a bursting shell to hurt me, but the army and our faithful peacekeepers all have weapons that dish out much more punishment than that. So I try and avoid fights when I can."

"... can you fly?" the spider-girl asked, as though she was asking for a divine revelation.

"Nope," Kara answered firmly. "Running broad jump of two miles, high jump of a bit more'n six hundred feet. And it's none too comfy for anybody I'm carrying, so I wouldn't go asking for a ride."

"I ... wasn't going to do that," said May, blushing, in an unconvincing manner.

"Yeah yeah," the super-girl replied with a grin. "Most of the really cool stuff is invisible, like x-ray vision and hearing stuff that most folks just can't. I'm atchally doing that right now to some news reports from my partner, who's been nice enough to confirm that a highway patrolman was rescued after being assaulted by a gang of drug-crazed bikers. I'd feel sorry for the drug-crazed bikers in the area if they weren't, y'know, drug-crazed bikers."

"Kyra -- Kara, I mean --" MJ started to say.

"Either will do."

"-- if I hadn't picked you up back there, what exactly were you going to do?"

"Follow along until you ran into trouble and then help you out as best I could," Kara answered promptly. "Secretly if I could, but if not, then not."

"Okay, but wouldn't it have been a lot simpler to join up with us at the very start?" MJ asked, pressing a bit.

"Yes," said Kara, emphatically. "I thought so too. Mom decided otherwise." She paused, studied her beans intently for a moment. "She said you needed as much of a chance to change your mind as possible, and figured you might not have that if you were under ... supervision, if you'll pardon the pun."

"... smart woman, your mom," MJ said at last. "Sees all the angles. Okay. Um ... one more thing that's been bothering me, Kyra. You said you were about fifteen. How much is about?"

"Urg. Could I plead secret identity?" the girl asked lightly.


"Fiiiine. Forty-nine weeks less than fifteen. My birthday was three weeks ago." Kara looked very unhappy with this admission.

"Wow, you're way younger than I am," May said, cheerfully. Then paused. "Wait a minute."

"Second Impact was fifteen years and a few months ago," MJ quietly observed. "You're not old enough to have been conceived before it. And, as we all know --"

"There was this project," interrupted Kara, accent in abeyance. "They had his DNA. My mother found out about this, arranged to break in to the place, found the sample and ... inseminated herself with it."

"Oh," said May, looking every bit as uncomfortable as Kara did, and using one of her eyes to give her mother a really unimpressed look.

MJ ignored that. "Of course she did," she murmured. "Sees what she wants, and -- excuse me." With that, she stood up and walked away from the fire, back towards the van.

After a few moments, May spoke up. "I'm sorry, my mom ... doesn't really like your mom, apparently."

"'sall right," said Kara, having recomposed herself. "I'm a teenaged girl, May, I don't like my mom all that much sometimes, either."

"I'm really grateful that she's helping us," May added.

"Well, lemme just warn you that she's gonna get something she needs out of the arrangement. I love my mom, but she's turned into kind of a schemer. But whatever she gets, it'll be something you won't mind giving. Girl Scout promise." She held up the three middle fingers of her right hand.

"Isn't it the Girl Guides?"

Kara's face twisted a bit. "Spend a lot of time online, I take it?"

"Well, they do call it the web."

Over on the other side of the van, MJ was crouched, covering her face with her hands, and muttering the most common term for excrement, over and over and over. She heard a footstep nearby, and looked up to see Kara standing nearby. "I, uh, I'm sorry --"

"All right, then," said Kara. "That's not what I came to talk about though. Given your route, and the pace you've been keeping ... did you happen to run into some Sentinels yesterday?"

"Yes," MJ admitted. "That's why I thought the patrol was after me, and --"

"Does May know?" the other girl asked.

"No," MJ said, almost silently.

"All right." Kara took a deep breath. "This is pretty much what I figured happened, and my partner thought so too ... so you should know that the only mutants who were in that compound were the ones who volunteered to stay behind and keep the Sentinels from realizing that the rest had already fled. They knew they were gonna die, and if you, or May, had run into help, you'd have just died too ... and for no good at all. Just in case you were feeling guilty about all that."

"Oh," she said.

"If you're really feeling bad about it, when we get to Sin City, I'll get you in touch with Rachel Summers, the mutant leader, and you can work out between you how to help them out. But that's for later, so, why not come back to the fire and make some good memories with May?"

MJ started to get up, then shook her head. "How do you do it? You, Kamala, her people, those mutants ... how do you all of you keep going, keep fighting, when everything seems to be working against you?"

"I speak only for myself," said Kara. "I do it for the happiness that I feel when I remember that other people -- like you and May -- don't have to do it. Now come on, you need some grub."

Back they went to the fire.

Day Four -- United States

When San Francisco Bay had risen up and drowned most of the city of the same name, as well as much of Oakland and San Jose and other towns, there had been serious discussion about abandoning all of them, as many different coastal communities had been abandoned. The prominent Roarke family had led the efforts to save the area, and by the time the National State of Emergency ended eight years after Second Impact, it was clear that their efforts had led to results. The new community around what was now called the basin was, logically enough, named Basin City.

Within a year of the new city's incorporation, it was discovered that some wit, or community of wits, had defaced all the "Welcome to Basin City" signs at city limits, erasing the first two letters of the name. Efforts to catch the vandals, or even to prevent them from continuing to vandalize the signs, were resounding failures, and Mayor Roarke had a screaming fit and bodily attacked a reporter who asked about the subject. This made the national news, and so it came to pass that the community became known nationwide as 'Sin City'.

Driving past one such sign (defaced, of course) MJ let out a sigh at the destruction of a beautiful city she'd enjoyed visiting during her years on the West Coast, and its replacement with ... this. Even in her youth, Manhattan had never been quite this dingy and unpleasant to the eye. She couldn't see it, but she knew that the wreckage of the Golden Gate Bridge lay just a bit out of her line of sight, it having been too expensive to try and repair or remove it. "Why did your mom set up camp here?" she asked Kara, seated beside her and navigating.

"Would you expect to find superheroes in a place like this?" Kara asked. "Turn right here. Right again, just up here."

MJ decided not to argue the point.

Little by little, through a maze of twisty streets that looked all alike, the van made its way into the sick heart of this urban hell. Finally, some distinctive building designs became apparent. "Is this Chinatown?" MJ asked.

"Was, once, I think. These days there's no such thing as an ethnic neighborhood. And we're here, so ... uh, yeah, okay, past this alley, stop, back up and turn into it, then keep backing up until I say stop."

This was promptly done, and MJ heard a garage door opening as they approached. "Annnnd stop!" said Kara.

Almost as soon as she did so, the garage door closed, much more quickly than it had opened. MJ promptly shut off the ignition.

"Welcome to the Hall of Justice," said Kara, and opened her door to get out of the van.

MJ did the same, and found that she was in the cleanest looking environs she'd seen since arriving in Sin City. She made her way back to the rear of the van and helped May back out of it. By the time she accomplished that, a door at the top of a short staircase on the far side of the garage had opened up, and a brunette woman in a black jacket and a pair of jeans came into view, leaning on the staircase railing and overlooking them. "So you made it," she said, in a voice which was pure Gotham.

Kara, who had been closing the van doors, whirled around at that voice. "Helen!" she fairly shrieked, then leapt from the garage floor up to the railing, stepped off it and dropped to the landing in order to grab the other girl. "HelenHelenHelen!" she cried as she hugged.

"Ow, ow, ow," said the woman MJ was fairly sure was Helen. "I just got out of the hospital, you want to put me back --" She was then interrupted by being vigorously kissed on the mouth.

MJ watched this, and nodded a bit to herself. Glancing at May, she found her daughter regarding it with voyeuristic fascination. "Ah-hem," she said.

"Oh, yeah," Kara said, pulling out of the kiss. "I found 'em," she told Helen.

"Got that from the fact they were here," Helen said dryly. "Welcome to our base of operations, Ms. Watson-Parker, Ms. Parker."

"This is Helen --" Kara started to introduce.

"Eh!" coughed Helen. "Secret identity! No last names!"


Helen shook her head in a 'what am I gonna do with you' sort of way, before turning back to the two below. "The Princess asked to see you as soon as you came in, but if you need time to refresh yourselves, just let me know."

"I'm good, thanks. Sweety?" MJ asked.

"I feel like I could use a few minutes to settle down, but I really do want to get on with things," May answered. "Let's go."

"All right. Follow me, please."

The trip through the well-lit corridors of the base seemed to almost recapitulate the trip through the city streets to the base, but involved a number of elevators as well, so it seemed to play out in three dimensions. At last, they came to a pair of bronze doors, with a masked man standing before it -- and then MJ realized that, though he was wearing a mask, the bull horns on either side of his head were quite natural.

"Adam," said Helen, politely but not friendly. "She wants to see these people."

He examined each guest, including Kara, as though he could see inside their souls, but then turned to the door and opened it a crack. "Your Highness, Agents W and K are here with guests."

"Send them in, please," said a warm female voice from the other side.

He bowed in acquiescence, and proceeded to swing both the doors open to their full extent, so that May would be able to enter without compressing herself aside from the need to duck down a bit. She smiled at him gratefully, but flinched a bit as he regarded her without a change in his expression. For her part, MJ was realizing that the doors were solid bronze, and wondering just how strong the doorman had to be.

The room beyond was half-office, half-museum -- mostly devoted to weapons, and a few patriotic-themed shields, one circular and one more of a traditional type. Seated at the desk was a woman with long black hair in a white dress that would have been the height of fashion in Athens of twenty-six hundred years past. She was smiling, but her smile grew very broad when she saw May in all her glory. "Welcome, May Parker," said Princess Diana of Themyscria, rising to her feet.

"Uh, h-hello, your highness," May started to say.

"Diana will suffice, thank you. And this is your mother. Greetings, Ms. Watson-Parker."

Now she was here, looking at her, and the anger was growing with every moment. But all that MJ said was, "Yeah. Hi."

If that offended, it was not apparent. "I would very much enjoy discussing your trip here, and other matters, but I suspect you probably wish to get right to the point," Diana said to May. "You would like to travel to Japan, I'm told?"

"Yes," May said. "I'll do whatever you want me to do --"

"That's a very dangerous thing to promise," the grey-eyed princess of power warned her. "But I believe your wishes can be arranged. However, there have been some developments you may not be aware of. The Extraspecies Alliance has recently signed agreements, much like those they made with Japan, with a number of other nations, including the Republic of Eire, the Union of Albion, and the Kingdom of Greece."

"Oh!" said May. "I, you're right, I had no idea."

"Listening to the news was not a priority on your journey, I suspect, and these agreements have not been as well-publicized as the first one was in any event," Diana allowed. "Regardless, I would now discuss your choices. If you choose to travel to Japan, as you originally planned, you will be sailing in a container on a cargo carrier ship, taking about two weeks to reach the islands. It will not, I think, be comfortable. It will be a slightly longer trip to reach Albion or Eire. But, as I have some connections with the Greek royal family, I can arrange for your transportation to Greece by plane. The decision is yours."

May was silent for a while. "I think," she said at last, "that I should do what I planned from the start, and go from there."

"Very well, it shall be done," said Diana, giving no sign as to what she thought of this particular choice.

"Um ... Kara said you'd want something --"

"Did Kara?" said Diana, smiling broadly at the shortest redhead in the room. "Regardless, that discussion can wait. First, I need to speak with your mother. In private, please."

MJ closed her eyes a moment. Here it comes, she told herself. Her eyes opened enough to give May a reassuring glance as her daughter, looking unhappy, was ushered out of the room by Kara and Helena. Then they turned to lock on Diana.

Who, smiling calmly, said, "You hate me."

MJ swallowed. "I ... do not like you, no. Are you going to refuse to help May because of this?"

The older woman blinked, then shook her head firmly. "Of course not. That would be utterly capricious of me. I would very much like to know the cause of this hatred, since, to the best of my knowledge, you and I have never met before this."

She could feel her self-control start to fray, but MJ managed to hold back for just a few moments. "Why don't we start with the way that you're an impossibly beautiful immortal superhuman demigoddess and I'm an aging, no longer beautiful mortal?"

"We could start there, but I'm neither immortal nor a demigoddess, you are a very lovely woman, regardless of your age, and nothing you've shown me so far indicates that you are motivated by such banal jealousy. Ms. Watson-Parker, please, if I have given you cause to hate me, I would ask that you tell me what I did so that I can offer what apologies are appropriate."

"You can't apologize, he's --" she started to shout, trying -- and failing -- to stop herself before she gave too much away.

Diana's calm expression was finally punctured, as she looked both bewildered and a bit concerned. "He? Is this about Peter? He and I fought each other on occasion, when one or both of us were misled or subject to mental influence, but I wasn't aware that I gave him any permanent injury during any of those episodes. If I did --"

"You're really going to make me say it, aren't you?" MJ practically snarled.

"That would indeed be my goal," the Amazon replied, nodding.

"Are you seriously to pretend it never happened?" she demanded. "He told me what you did to him the first time you two met, all right? He told me how you molested him!"

Now Diana looked genuinely shocked. "Zeus on high," she said. "That's what he thought?"

"Of course that's what he thought. He was fifteen! You were a grown woman, already a living legend, and you made him have sex with you long before he was ready to do that kind of thing. What would you think if someone did that to Kara?" MJ demanded.

The not-quite-immortal not-a-demigoddess seemed almost faint. "I'm quite sure that Kara is sexually active, already, and that my other daughter was by that age, in fact, but that is neither here nor there. Ms. Wat-- Mary Jane, please --"

"Wait," MJ said, thrown off. "You have another one, besides Kara?"

"Yes, Kara is my adopted daughter, and Helen is my biological daughter."

MJ's jaw dropped.

"But that is neither here nor there," Diana insisted. "Please. Please allow me to tell my side of it. I assure you that I had no idea that Peter felt that sort of ... revulsion for what we did, or that he thought he had been molested. Had he let me know that he felt that way, I would have done everything I could to make amends for what had happened. I now regret his death even more deeply than I did before all this."

MJ shook her head, now almost past disgust. "'what we did'," she quoted. "God, you even talk like a predator. He was just a boy!"

And quite suddenly, Diana no longer looked feeble or upset, but rather angry and in full possession of the forces with which to do something about that anger. "No," she said firmly. "I will not hear that. You may say whatever you like about me, accuse me of many things, but I will not have you insult your husband's memory in that manner."

It occurred to MJ, rather belatedly, that she was talking to a woman who supposedly possessed strength rivaling that of Kara's father, and somewhat fewer compunctions about using it. Anger forced her onward. If she was committing suicide by doing this, then maybe it was her time to die. But she would not die without having spoken truth to power. "What --" she started to say.

"What was his name?" Diana interrupted.

Unfortunately, it seemed that power was bent on speaking to her, first. "Wha-- you've said it yourself, his name was Peter Parker --"

"No, that was the name his parents gave him. What name did he give himself?" she demanded.

MJ just stared. "I -- I don't --" Just as she was about to confess her lack of understanding, the lack was ameliorated. "No, you don't mean --"

"I do mean. I very much mean. Spider-Man. He was fifteen, but he had already made adult choices and taken on adult responsibilities by the time that I met him. I may have done a regrettable thing by ending his sexual innocence, but he was not a child. I will not stand by and allow you to diminish Peter in that manner."

MJ looked at Diana. "'You won't stand by and ...'" she quoted again, this time without nearly as much heat. "You talk like you loved him."

"I did love him," she admitted. "Not as you did, but I cherish and honor his memory, just as I do those of Richard, Garth, Roy, Kara's namesake, Johnny, Scott, Jean, Henry, Warren, Bobby, Alex, Lorna, Garfield, Jason, Koriand'r, Cassandra, Stephanie, and many other young people I have known who chose to join the good fight long before they would have been considered adults in your culture."

"I suppose you had sex with all of them, too," MJ said wearily.

"Not Bobby, he was homosexual," Diana answered.

"Oh, holy shit," MJ groaned, hand on her face.

"Please, sit down," Diana said, beckoning her over to one of the chairs in front of the large desk.

Not really wanting any more 'help', but not wanting to faint on her feet, either, MJ came over and indeed sat down. Eventually, she managed to work up the nerve to ask a question. "So, if you're in a revelatory mood, which one of those people was Helen's father?"

"None of them," she answered. "Her father was Bruce Wayne, with whom I had a long-standing relationship in the years right before Second Impact. It's possible that I would have married him, had fate not had other plans."

"So you do it with other adults, too."

"Mary Jane, I am neither a pedophile, nor an ephebophile," Diana told her. "I am Venus' champion, and I do what I can to show others that love is love."

"I-I don't even care anymore," MJ said, waving her hands. "That was a cheap shot, and I'm sorry. It's just all too much ... but ... if you're not Kara's biological mother --"

Diana hesitated, but eventually spoke up. "Her mother was Lana Lang, whom you might know as the chief executive officer of Global Broadcasting Systems. She was somewhat infatuated with Kal-el, having grown up with him, and took his death particularly hard. She --"

"I heard this part."

"Ah. Well, once she had done what she did, and had some time to think about it, it came to her that she had no idea how to be a single mother to any child, much less a superhuman one. So she contacted me and arranged for me to 'adopt' -- informally -- Kara, when she was born. I love her as much as I do the daughter of my body, and Kara ... has never actually met her biological mother."

"And you ... and him --" she asked.

Diana smiled, almost shyly. "It never happened. I dreamed about it, but ... he loved one woman, all his life. I think she was the luckiest human being who ever lived."

"So, so fucked up," MJ said, shaking her head. "All right. I think I can take it, now. What do you want in order to help get May into Japan?" She visibly braced herself, clutching the armrests of he chair.

And Diana told her.

"... I don't get it," MJ said.

"Is she going to kill my mom?" May asked as she followed Kara and Helen down one of the twisty hallways.

Kara started to answer, but Helen beat her to the punch. "Has your mother used mind control on anyone recently?" she asked.

May blinked about eighteen times. "I-I don't think she has."

"Then she's probably safe," said Helen with a shrug.

"I mean that's not exactly the sort of thing that comes up at the dinner table --"

"May," interjected Kara, looking back with a gentle smile. "She's just kidding. The moms are prolly gonna come out of this singing Bette Midler tunes together."

"All right," said May dubiously -- hiding a fair amount of curiosity about what that would look and/or sound like. "So, where are we going now?"

"'Member how I told you about my partner? You're gonna meet him and he's gonna set you up with the documentation you need to be a liminal in Japan. And he is right behind this door," Kara said, and opened a door on the side of the hallway.

A hollow scream ensued.

Kara slammed the door shut. "Or possibly one of the other doors. Don't look at me like that, I'm a field agent."

"It's this door," said Helen, and opened a door on the other side of the hallway, which opened up to a dimly visible room beyond. In the absence of a scream, Helen and May entered, and May -- squishing down a bit -- also went through. The room was lit only by the illumination of about twenty-four different TV displays, each showing a different news program, many of which were in languages May didn't know -- which was to say anything other than English.

Seated in the middle of the room was a figure with rather spiky black hair, facing towards the screens and only faintly visible behind the mass of the chair in which they sat.

"Hey, Tim," said Kara, softly.

The figure let out a sigh, then spoke in a masculine voice. "Kara, we spend all day talking to each other when you're in the field. Don't you think we deserve a break from each other when you're in the Hall?"

"Well, except that I like talking to you and there's also something we need," she told him.

"Pause," he said with another sigh, and the TV displays all locked up. Then the chair rotated so that he was facing them, and May found herself trying very hard not to gasp. He looked to be in his late twenties, or possibly a bit older, but that only applied to the parts of him that weren't mechanical -- which included only his left arm, the shoulder of his right, his upper chest and his head, save for one eye. "Helen," he said. "And I'm being introduced to May Parker. Greetings. My name is Timothy Drake."

"Am I the only one who cares about secret identities anymore?" asked Helen.

"The name will mean absolutely nothing to her --" Tim started to say.

"The Timothy Drake whom Bruce Wayne adopted five years before Second Impact?" May quietly interjected. "I spend a lot of time online," she added into the silence that resulted.

His artificial eye made a whirring noise, and he suppressed a cough -- or it might have been a chuckle. "-- and that boy has been missing and presumed dead for more than fifteen years, and she will be going to Japan, soon."

"Did this hurt?" May asked, unable to stop herself from staring at his cybernetics.

"It was very painful until I decided I wasn't interested in feeling pain anymore," Tim answered. "Can we move forward?"

She nodded quickly.

"All right," he said, and behind him, the screens which had been displaying paused news programs went blank for a moment, then displayed various pictures of May's head and shoulders, taken from a number of different angles, all of them from her short time in the Hall of Justice. In another moment, the various images were pulled together onto one screen in particular, creating something like a three-dimensional image of her, which then shrunk down and was integrated into the image of a card.

"We're going to print you a forged copy of an Extraspecies Alliance identicard that describes you as a sixteen year old citizen of the Arachne Tyranny, which lies beneath the Greater Caucasus," he explained.

"Tyranny?" May asked, quailing a bit.

"In this instance, it just means 'adoptive absolute monarchy'," Tim said. "The arachne are a very peaceful people who've had exactly one civil war in the three thousand or so years that the Eternals have been recording their history. Admittedly, that was within the last hundred years, and the same challenges that are confronting every intelligent species on Earth are probably doing a number on that peacefulness."

"Oh-kay," said May. "But, if I'm from, uh, Georgia, I think? Why would I be on a ship coming from the US?"

He nodded, and it seemed to her that he might actually be smiling a little. "We're also going to be coming up with a fake background for you, saying that you ran away from home two years ago, and managed to get from Armenia all the way to Atlanta. With the situation in Japan, you've decided to move there instead -- as the latter part is true, it should be fairly convincing."

May nodded. "And what language do, um, 'real' arachne speak?"

"Their own, which bears some resemblance to Koine Greek. Helping you there is someone else's department," Tim admitted. "One thing about your background I should probably tell you right away involves your rear carapace."

She glanced over her shoulder at that, the stylized black spider figure on a red background that was covered in black lines that suggested webs. "I'm guessing most don't have that sort of marking," she said ruefully.

"Actually, they do, and the patterns usually indicate their family origin. But that is a unique pattern that wouldn't be found among them, so we've invented a background that has you getting your actual pattern covered up by a magical tattoo artist," Tim explained.

"Clever," she agreed.

"It should only come up if you run into another arachne." He looked at her for a moment. "Scared?" he asked abruptly.

"Yes," May admitted.

"Good. Shows a realistic appraisal." He coughed again. "As it happens, I also spend a lot of time online. Hashtag Boyracle. Look me up if you ever want to talk to someone from the US without compromising your identity."

"Oh. Thank you!"

"Right, I've spent long enough on this as it is. Out, all of you."

Helen and May quickly departed, but Kara lingered a while, smiling broadly.

"Don't say it," he said.

"You like her," she said sweetly.

"... she is the first person who asked me if it hurt," Tim admitted, after rejecting the option of pointing out that he'd just told her not to say what she'd promptly said.

Now Kara frowned. "I asked you if it hurt."

"She is the first person who isn't a pain in the ass --"

"Oh, fine!" she interrupted, making a face. Her smile came back almost immediately. "Love you," she called out as she started towards the door.

"Bah humbug," he replied.

"Y'know, now that I think about it, we prolly shoulda asked Tim where to find the next person on the list," said Kara, after a few moments of wandering the halls and taking elevators.

"No, that would be pointless, because I know exactly where she is, and so do you," Helen said, just a little irritably.

"Well, I don't like to make assumptions," Kara protested, looking away.

"Who are we talking about, here?" May asked as they approached a set of double doors -- light double doors, that could swing back and forth.

Kara danced out to stand before both Helen and May. "Behold!" she declaimed. "The true heart of the Hall of Justice --"

"My God, you actually told them we call it that?" Helen asked, appalled. "We don't," she promptly told May.


"-- the Cafetorium!" Kara continued as though she had not been rudely interrupted. She pushed the doors aside, much like Adam had the huge bronze ones, and proceeded to hold them both open on the other side. Helen marched forward and took one of the doors out of Kara's hands so that she could step to the side, and make space for May to enter.

It was basically a giant cafeteria. Various people in various uniforms and various sorts of plain clothes could be seen seated at the various tables, variously eating and having various conversations with each other. Some of them looked up at the new arrivals, but no one found them interesting enough to stare at -- or perhaps they were considerate enough to avoid staring, even if the sight of an arachne was novel even to these jaded persons.

Seated near to the door was a rather fat, middle-aged brunette woman in a long black gown who was eating from a large plate of spaghetti. She also looked up, but spoke when she saw who it was. "Ah, was wondering when you were gonna get here. I was just about to send out a messenger."

"Hi there, Za--" Kara started to say.

"This," interrupted Helen rather forcefully, "is Special Consultant Zed, our wizard-in-residence."

"We don't use that word," 'Zed' said wearily. "And I'm only doing this because someone, who has more magical potential that I've ever seen, has perversely refused to take any lessons from me in the arts of magic, in favor of punching and kicking her way through life." She glared in Helen's general direction.

"I sense some history here," May said quietly to Kara.

"Like you wouldn't believe," Kara said quietly back. She raised her voice to interrupt the staring contest Helen and Zed were having. "Okay, so this is May, and she's the one who needs your help."

"Gosh, here I thought it might be the other arachne I met today," groused Zed, as she rose from her seat and walked over to May, studying her face carefully. "Are your ears pierced?" she asked.

"Uh, no," said May, resisting the urge to pull back.

"Well, then, this will hurt a little," the old woman said, and reached out to grab May's right ear.

There was a sudden, sharp burning sensation, and this time May couldn't help herself -- she jerked back, her spider legs pushing her torso up and away from Zed. "Ow!" she said.

"'All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgians inhabit, the Aquilonians another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third,'" said Zed. "Did you understand that?"

"Uh ... yes," May had to admit. "That was Latin, wasn't it?"

"Very good," said the woman. "It usually takes a bit more time for someone wearing one of those translators to start recognizing the different tones that indicate the language being spoken. It's waterproof, so don't bother taking it off when you shower. Isn't magic wonderful," she added, with a look in Helen's direction.

"'I respect the gods; I do not rely on them,'" replied Helen. "That's what Japanese sounds like," she added to May.

"Thanks," said May, a bit dazedly.

"It's not about gods," Zed said angrily.

"The demiurges, then. Or whoever you are talking to when you start talking backwards. I am going to accomplish my goals by my own strength and Kara why are you snickering?"

"Gosh, I'm wondering if there are any famous magicians who do magic by talking backwards," Kara wondered aloud.

"... oh hell."

"Wait," May said, looking frantically at the three of them. "Are you saying -- no. That's not possible. I've seen Zatanna on television, and she, well, I mean --"

"Ekam em suoromalg," said Zed -- and quite suddenly, there was a slender woman who couldn't be much older than her mid-twenties, dressed in a costume that was half a tuxedo and half fishnet stockings. She posed coquettishly. "The magic of magic," she said, sounding completely different as well.

"Having fun, are we?" asked Diana from behind them. She and MJ had quietly entered the cafetorium when May was speaking about how the person who was talking couldn't possibly be Zatanna.

"Oh," said May, turning around. "Is everything okay?"

Diana and MJ exchanged a look. "Everything is as ... resolved as it is going to get," MJ said.

"No Bette Midler songs," muttered Kara.

"What?" asked Diana.


The Princess shook her head. "Now, May, you asked earlier what I would have from you in exchange for all the help I'm giving you. Here is what I need -- for you to travel in a container, on a cargo carrier ship, from here to Japan, over the course of the next two weeks."

"... I don't get it," May admitted after a moment.

"Like mother, like daughter," Diana said with a small smile.

"No, seriously, what?" May pressed. "That's what I need your help to do ... and your price for that help is for me to do it? That's ... crazy."

"It might seem that way," Diana agreed. "All I will say is that you doing this will help me in ways that you don't need to know about. And what I'm asking won't be at all easy, May. You will be completely alone, for all that time, out of all human contact. If you get seasick, or suffer from other illness, there will be no one to help you or care for you. What you are embarking on is a dangerous thing. Knowing this, do you still want to go through with it?"

"Yes," May said, without hesitation.

"Very well. You sail tomorrow night. Tonight, you and your mother will stay here, in our headquarters. You'll receive your information package in a few hours. Special Consultant Zed, could I trouble you to escort these two to the dormitory? I need to talk to Agents K and W in private."

"Yes, your Highness," said Zed, who had silently reverted to her older form. She looked longingly at the remainder of her spaghetti, but picked up the tray and started walking over to the waste recycler system. "Be with you in a moment."

As May and her mother walked out of the dormitory, she looked back to see that they were looking up at Diana as if expecting a serious lecture, and hoped that her new friends -- for she did think of them both that way -- were not in any great trouble.

Day One -- Japan

When Haruhi returned to the main area of the temple, she seemed cheerful, even a bit giddy. She apologized to Miia for running out like that, and asked her and the old priest some very profound questions on the subject of Shinto. She took an interest in the mundane mysteries that the Brigadiers brought to her by her request. If Negi hadn't known better -- and hadn't noticed the way that Haruhi was pretending that Kyonko didn't exist -- he'd have thought her emotional state had tremendously improved.

"This was really a lot of fun," said Asahina as the club trooped down the stairs once more. "I think I might come back and bring my little brother with me. He's really interested in the liminals."

Negi nodded absently, largely focused on Haruhi's situation. But he was able to say, "Well, please just remember that Miia and others like her aren't here for our entertainment. They are thinking and feeling beings, and it's important to treat them with dignity."

Mitsuru nodded. "Oh, yes, definitely." Of course, Negi was somewhat uncertain as to whether the boy was in genuine agreement with his points or whether he just agreed with whatever Negi said. There were a number of problems with this situation.

At least the problems with Mai seemed to be about to resolve themselves. As the others dispersed at the foot of the stairs, she stayed there with him.

"Are we going to have our talk?" Negi asked her when she hadn't said anything after a moment. "Is this private enough for you?"

"We're in full view of the road, so no, of course not," Mai answered. "There is an area up at the shrine that's set up as an area. That might be better."

"An arena?" he asked, dubiously. "Tokiha-san, I don't have any interest in fighting you."

She looked at him then, and he immediately saw what Okuzaki had tried to warn him through Kaede about. There was an intensity in this girl that was not unlike the manic energy that he kept seeing in Haruhi. "Good," she said, and for all that he was seeing, she seemed completely calm. "Then if I decide that I do have an interest in fighting you, it will be a very brief conflict."

Negi swallowed. "Arena it is, then."

Tatsumiya was a bit surprised to see them again, and even more surprised when they asked for permission to use the arena. After a interlude of careful consideration on her part, she escorted them there and left them to their own devices, simply asking that they leave it as they found it.

What they found was a fighting space sitting in the middle of a moat, with bridges on either side. Mai separated from where she'd been walking at Negi's side and headed over to the far side of the moat, entering the arena from that side. Negi obligingly entered it from the near side, so that they stood facing each other from a distance.

"All right," said Mai. "Are you one of the espers that Haruhi-san keeps talking about?"

"No," Negi answered. "I'm fairly sure her ideas of espers are based on a distorted understanding of the superhuman mutants who were once fairly common, world-wide, but are now very, very rare. I am a mage."

The orange-haired girl nodded slowly. "I see. Thank you for being honest with me, Negi-kun. Midori had already told me about your organization, and how she'd figured that you were one of the mages who run this school, but I didn't know if she were right or not."

"Thank you for confirming that Midori-san is another hime," Negi answered her politeness with some of his own.

"HiME," she corrected calmly. "All right. Are you associated with the First District?"

He promptly shook his head. "I don't even know what that is, much less anything about it. If it's an organization, rather than a location ... I'm aware that there are a number of esoteric factions active here in Academy City, and that I haven't been told about all of them, yet. If the Mage Association, with which I am associated, has dealings with that group --"

"They do, according to Midori," Mai interrupted. "It is an organization, and its men in black operate with impunity here, cleaning up evidence of battles with the Orphans and convincing witnesses that they saw nothing. Sometimes the witnesses disappear completely."

"-- then I haven't had anything to do with such dealings. I am, after all, a fairly low-ranking member of the Association's hierarchy."

"Figures," she said, a bit of frustration coming through in her tone. "Those who could help, won't; those who would help, can't. Even if the faces change, the big picture doesn't."

"I didn't say that I can't help you," Negi interjected. "As I understand it, you believe that you are a traveler from another world."

"Believe?" she said, fire nearly shooting from her eyes.

"I have no way of proving or disproving your statement," he replied. "Until very, very recently, I would have believed that such journeys are functionally impossible, with only a single individual in all of recorded history having succeeded in travelling to different dimensions, as opposed to realities found in the overworld, underworld or dreamworld. However, I have recently had it made clear to me that this is not the case, and I would be willing to introduce you to other refugees in our reality, who might be able to assist you in returning to your own."

He watched Mai's face light up. "Tell me more, please?" she asked.

"Oh! Oh, god, Shizuru! Ohmygod! Oh! My! God!"

Fate, mused Shizuru as she kissed Natsuki's belly button, was a tricky thing. There was a time, and the time was not long ago, when all that she could have wanted was to have Natsuki crying out in ecstasy at what was being done to her by Shizuru's hands. But now that she had that, and actually had to listen to said ecstatic cries, she was somewhat vexed to realize that they were ... well ... more distracting than anything else. She'd gotten the message that Natsuki was trying to give -- that she really enjoyed this -- and further indications were just pretty much superfluous.


And kind of deafening, too.

It had begun when she had shown up at Natsuki's dorm room and asked to come in. Even though it had been the first time that she had ever visited Natsuki's room, her friend -- her famously paranoid friend -- had let her come in, then paused to make sure that no one was observing this, then closed the door, locked it, and turned to ask what was the matter. That's when Shizuru kissed her, passionately, on the mouth. From there, it had been fairly easy to steer Natsuki's stunned form over to the bed, still kissing her the whole way, and make her to line down on its covers.

By the time Shizuru had started to unbutton the buttons and undo the laces of Natsuki's school uniform, Natsuki had regained enough presence of mind to stammer out, "W-w-wait!"

"Do you really want me to stop this?" Shizuru asked, honestly unsure what she was going to do if Natsuki said yes.

Natsuki turned bright pink and avoided Shizuru's gaze. "Please be gentle," she said.

Shizuru smiled. Mostly to hide the fact that she had no clear idea what that would mean, in these circumstances.

What she actually did, once she got Natsuki's jacket and blouse off, exposing her ridiculously cute bra and panties -- seriously, this supposedly practical girl spent way too much money on clothes no one was ever supposed to see -- was basically what she and Suzushiro had done to each other, all those times, with some stuff she'd seen the girls in Negi-kun's 'collective' doing with each other that crazy night. This included stuff she'd never done, or even imagined doing, like going down to Natsuki's genital area and licking and suckling there.

It did not, in fact, taste like honey. She had been cruelly, cruelly tricked. However, from the screams that she heard Natsuki releasing in response to this activity, it seemed likely that her friend enjoyed it. Which was nice, she guessed. But it seemed somewhat likely that fingering would have just as much of an effect, so she went back to that, allowing her to move up and pay homage to Natsuki's breasts.

Unfortunately, that too paled rather quickly.

"Ah! Ahhhhhhhhh! Oh, Shizuru ... no more! Please, I'm going to go crazy!" Natsuki was crying as Shizuru considered her next move.

"All right, all right," the vice president reassured her, pulling back. "Let's rest a spell, then."

"R-rest?" Natsuki stammered.

"Well, yes," said Shizuru. What, did Natsuki think she was some sort of sex monster, who'd keep going after a comment like that? They really needed to sit down and discuss their relationship. And she should probably admit all the other stuff that had been going on, and tell Natsuki that she was also a HiME. She opened her mouth to start her confession.

Natsuki pounced on her and kissed that open mouth. "I don't want to rest!" she cried out. "I want to show you how amazing you've made me feel!"

"Well, all right, we can do that if you'd rather," Shizuru said dubiously.

With that, her friend -- she supposed she should start thinking of Natsuki as a 'girlfriend', under the circumstances -- began fussing at her clothes, just as Shizuru had done to her. Unlike that episode, however, Natsuki's face went from excited to frustrated as her fumblings achieved exactly nothing. "How does this thing come off?" she finally yelled.

That finally got a thump on one of the walls from a neighbor annoyed by all the noise.

"It's a goku, I think it might only come off if I deliberately choose to remove it," Shizuru explained. No one had actually told her that was the case, but it might make sense if it were. "Let me, uh, get up and see --"

Sure enough, it came off quite easily once she was the one undoing the fasteners and sliding the skirt down her legs. Once she was sufficiently nude, Natsuki pulled her back into bed and began doing unto Shizuru as had been done unto her.

It was ... nice. Certainly better than all those embarrassing times with Suzushiro. But ... it was horrible to realize, considering how she'd defined herself since middle school, but Shizuru was becoming increasingly aware that lesbian sex did not really do it for her. She liked receiving better than giving, but that wasn't saying very much. Even though she didn't really want to, she kept thinking of the way that Negi-kun had satisfied her craving and then kept going, making her feel things she'd never imagined feeling.

She was thinking of Negi-kun while Natsuki was eating her out. Something had gone horribly wrong, somewhere. At least she could pretend her quieter reactions were in the interest of keeping the neighbors calm.

Mai's face had slowly fallen as Negi had explained and elaborated. Finally, she shook her head. "No," she said. "This isn't helpful. These people physically traveled here, where all that came with me was my ... my soul, I guess."

That made Negi tense up a bit. "I see," he said slowly. "Then what happened to the soul of the young lady who originally inhabited your body?"

Mai's face flushed. "I don't know," she admitted. "As far as I can tell, I am the only person in here. There's no one else. So she's sleeping, maybe. Or ... maybe she's dead." Mai looked away. "Maybe I killed her," she added, very quietly.

Negi glared. "You do understand, this is not the sort of thing that will encourage people to help you?" he said.

"It's not my fault!" she snapped. "None of this is happening by any choice of mine! Not here, and not back there, either! I keep getting thrown into situations that I want nothing to do with! And now I'm here, on this, this festering dungheap of a world, and it's just getting worse and worse."

"I'm aware that the world is not a particularly kind or gentle place, Mai-san, but that just means that those of us here have to work harder to make it better," he told her, not breaking his glare as he spoke.

"I get that, and I'm trying to do just that for the other HiME. But you -- standing outside and above our situation, you do not get to judge me!" she told him.

"I never said that I was, but if you've done harm to this world's Tokiha Mai, you need to be held accountable for it. If you'll come with me to our headquarters, people who are better at mental magic than I am will be able to look into it and determine what exactly --"

"Oh, no," Mai said firmly. "No, no, no. I trusted you because you didn't try any mind-fuckery on me, Negi-kun, but if all you're going to do is try and turn me over to those who can and will do that stuff to me, you can just forget about it."

By now, he had unlimbered his staff. "Tokiha-san, I think you've misunderstood this as a request that you can decline."

"So much for 'I don't want to fight you'," she half-snarled.

"I still don't want that," Negi replied firmly. "Circumstances, however, compel us to do things we might not want to do."

"Don't I know it," Mai said. Her arms stretched out to either side, and a circle of flame traced itself on the boards where she stood. A moment later, twirling jeweled bands were surrounding both of her wrists and both of her ankles, and she was hovering a foot or so above the ground. "All right," she continued, speaking in the same even tone. "I am going to leave this place now."

"Tokiha-san, you are not the only one who can fly," he told her.

"Yes. I do know that," she said, and snapped out a hand. "Kagutsuchi," she said.

Behind her, and to the direction of the hand, a giant circle appeared on the ground, its diameter beginning just beneath Mai's floating feet and extending across the dueling platform, the moat, and the area surrounding the moat, where it came to an end. Unearthly light gleamed from the circle, and slowly, ever so slowly, a gigantic silver form like that of a wyvern slowly lifted up from within it, the creature's wings folded against its body. There was a sword stuck through the creature's maw, all the way from its top to its bottom, yet it seemed not to impair it all, for it opened its mouth to let out a roar as it came fully into view ... then quietly bent its head so that it came close to Mai's still outstretched hand.

She momentarily turned her gaze from Negi to look at what she'd called up, and Negi found himself swallowing at the gentle look there. "I wasn't sure you'd come," she said.

The creature's head came close enough to her hand that it touched it, and the hand moved so that it gently caressed the metal surface. A sound like whalesong echoed through the area.

"What -- what is that?" Negi asked.

"This is my Child," Mai said, returning her gaze to the child teacher, gentleness gone in a flash. "You already know his name. Now. Kagutsuchi and I are going to leave peacefully if we're allowed to leave peacefully -- but if not ... then not. And you can expect the results to be very hard on this arena, that we both promised not to damage."

Part of Negi -- and a larger part than you might expect -- wanted to curl up in a ball and just let her go her merry way. But the responsible person that he wanted to be forced him to stay standing, and reply. "That isn't the sort of thing someone who wants to make the world a better place should be saying."

She took a deep breath. "No, I suppose it isn't. But the truth is, Negi-kun, that I have a really, really limited amount of empathy for most of the people of this world, aside from those I know from my own, and none of them are present. So I'm going to leave, now. Don't follow me, or we'll have problems." She glided over to the handle of the blade, and took hold of it.

"This doesn't have to go this way, Tokiha-san," he said, making one last try.

"Yes, it really kind of does," she answered.

And then Kagutsuchi spread his wings, almost spanning the entire arena, and what looked like jet engines within them roared to life. A moment later, he and his master were streaking towards the sky, faster than Negi could fly on his best day. A moment after that, they were nothing more than a twinkling in the sky.

He stared up at that twinkling for what felt like a very long time, before he finally muttered to himself. "I really am going to need help from everyone, aren't I?"

If only the sky were blue.

Mai had never taken Kagutsuchi out flying just to do so. There had always been some dread purpose, or terrible tragedy, that she needed help with. Technically, she supposed making an escape from a self-righteous little jerk of a mage still counted as something like that. But he had -- prudently or cowardly -- chosen not to follow her after all. So right now was as close to flying for fun as she'd ever come.

It would have been wonderful, on a bright shiny day, with a sparkling wind, carried by these wings of dreams, to just soar across the sky. But reality ... was not cooperating.

She shook her head. "Okay," she said to her Child. "I can take it from here."


"Yeah, I wish it had worked out better, too," she agreed. And with a deep breath, she let go of the knife handle and began to drop feet-first towards Academy City. She was too high up to be sure of where she was going to come down, so it just made sense not to start flying on her own power until she could see where she should fly towards. There was no death wish involved. Not at all.

She really was up quite high, wasn't she, though?! Higher than any birds were flying, though probably not higher than planes -- or, she realized quite suddenly, as she looked down, other flying people. A man -- no, a boy -- in a red suit with a kanji on its chest was coming up towards her, wobbling in the air as he did. Well, that wasn't the sort of thing you saw everyday.

But wait, he was coming up there to rescue her, wasn't he? Mai brought up her magatama and slowed her fall to a crawl. "It's okay," she called out to him. "I got --"

He flew past her.

"-- this," she told his retreating form, which seemed to be trying to slow down and/or change direction. It was tempting to fly after him and offer some tips on the subject. Well, that would be patronizing, and also, she didn't really care. Limited amount of empathy, and all.

Resuming her descent, she soon found that she was within visual range of the building she wanted to land on -- the rooftop of the Mahora High School's main building. She sped up her descent a bit, so as to look like nothing more than a flash of light coming down, and dropped down on the concrete.

"So what happened?" said Midori, who was waiting there for her, seated on one of the benches up there.

"It didn't work out," Mai summarized. "He said that he wanted to help, but he was just a tiny cog in a really big machine ... and then he started to get a bit salty about me being a ghost possessing the body of the real Tokiha Mai." This was probably being a bit unfair to Negi, but she wasn't in the mood to be fair.

"Dammit." Midori reached up to rub her bright red hair vigorously. "So now what?"

Now what indeed.

Day Four -- United States

The first thing that Diana did, after the Parker family had been escorted out, was to firmly grab both her daughters and pull them close to her in a not-quite-bone-breaking embrace. (She was mindful that Helen had just got out of the hospital.)

"Mom?" asked Kara, bewildered. She was never this publicly demonstrative.

"Recent events have made it clear to me that it is very important to make sure that the ones you love know that you love them," she said, just loud for them both to hear. "You do know that?"

"Yes, we know that, mother," replied Helen, doing her best not to panic at this display. "You drive me crazy sometimes, but --"

"And I am put out by the fact that Helen refuses to take advantage of the opportunities offered her, and that Kara told tales that required me to explain myself more than was strictly necessary, but you are my children, and I love you dearly. All right?" Now she let go, and looked at them plainly. "Now, come with me to my office, and we will discuss your next assignment."

"The reason that I need May Parker to travel to Japan in this circuitous manner, rather than being sent there on our private jet, is that we are also smuggling two agents into Japan in that manner," Diana explained, sitting at her desk.

"Us," the two girls chorused as they sat in chairs facing the desk.

"Correct. While the attention of port security will be focused on the liminal who has just arrived in their country, you will be able to slip out undetected. You'll be supplied with maps of the port, and I suggest that you memorize them on the trip there. You won't have much else to do in that interval."

Kara looked away from her mother and started whistling innocently. Helen just closed her eyes and shook her head for a moment, before asking a question. "So what's our target in Japan?"

"Your primary target is this individual," Diana replied, pulling a photo from the file on her desk and handing it to Helen. Kara promptly leaned over to get a good look at it too. "He -- and while I'm calling him that, be prepared for the things to be other than they seem -- has been active in the Academy City area for the last few months, but only begun to come to public attention recently, after he was involved in some business that was media blacked out. Shunning the limelight is a good sign, but it does complicate matters."

"I know this costume, somehow, but I can't remember where I know it from," said Kara, frowning,

"It bears a marked resemblance to that worn by Ralph Hinkley about thirty-three years ago --" Diana started to say.

"Oh, yeah, Rocket Man!"

"Can we please not use the silly code names?" Helen asked wearily.

"Hmph. Anything you say, Huntress."

"Ahem," said 'Wonder Woman', cutting off an objection from Helen, who proceeded to sit and stew. "In any event, Hinkley is still alive, and we contacted him for information about his successor. He couldn't tell us anything, and claimed that the aliens who gave him his suit took it away again after six years. Apparently, they eventually gave it to another individual, who, reports would suggest, also lost the manual."

"You'd think they'd consider putting the docs online, at this point," mused Kara, with a shake of her head.

"Our mission is to recruit?" Helen asked brusquely.

"That's the ideal situation," Diana agreed. "But even if he won't agree to work or share information with us, try to make it clear to him that he needs to be careful. This is not a world fit for heroes." She laughed, suddenly. "It's really strange, actually. Japan has probably produced more stories about superheroes than anywhere else on the planet, other than the United States, but they've always had a paucity of genuine ones -- I can only think of two, off-hand, and one was an expatriate. Yet here we are, trying to rebuild our forces, and one of the first heroes of your generation makes themselves known in Japan."

"We'll find him, mother," Helen assured her.

"I've no doubt," said Diana. "But be careful, too. What we've been able to find out about the situation that our new 'Rocket Man' was involved in suggests some very frightening things. I'd suggest Pendragon Rules, but you should operate as you see fit."

"Are you going to be okay without us?" asked Kara, quietly. "I mean, who'll take care of business?"

"Kim and Ronald will be stepping into your shoes," Diana replied. "If you don't mind, could you give them both a briefing on your take on recent activity?"

Kara nodded. Beside her, Helen made a face. "What I'm worried about is --" She broke off and looked back towards the office's huge bronze doors.

"Adam?" asked Diana, and shook her head. "He's a bit intimidating, but I trust him completely. He's the son of a very dear friend of mine, and he's shown that he's just as reliable. We have nothing to worry about from that direction."

"She's trying to slip a fake arachne into Japan," Adam said into the phone's receiver as he stood in the otherwise empty surveillance room.

"A fake -- how's that even possible?" said the voice on the other side.

"Some mutant," he said, making the word a curse. "I saw her with her human mother, and arachne don't breed with the baselines, right?"

"Not normally, no, but there's a lot that's not normal, these days. All right, we'll keep an eye out for this. Are you still safe there."

He nodded reflexively, even though his handler couldn't see him. "Wonder Bitch doesn't suspect a damn --"

"Adam, don't. Disrespecting the enemy is one step towards underestimating the enemy, and we cannot afford that."

"Fine," he growled.

"Keep on as you have been." The phone clicked as the other end hung up.

Adam Taurus stared at the phone with naked disgust on his face, something he wasn't allowed to show except when he was certain no one could see him. He lifted his eyes unti he saw the display of the surveillance in the director's room, showing Diana rising and embracing both her daughters, giving them warm tongue kisses in the process. His lips twisted with loathing as their clothes started to come off.

"Soon," he promised himself. "Soon."

Las Vegas was far from any waterfront, and had largely been spared the immediate effects of Second Impact. If anything, the sudden climate change from sweltering heat to northern chill had been good for the city, making it more livable for its permanent residents. Tourism never exactly stopped, but the profile of the tourists who were drawn were, even more than they'd been before all this, families rather than singles seeking excitement. Yet there was still gambling, and dancing, and comedians.

Especially comedians.

"And the worst part, beating out even getting beaten up by a guy in a gimp suit and a succession of teen-aged boys?" said one particular clown-faced, green haired, moustached comedian, parading on his stage before his audience and clinging to his microphone. "The absolute worst part had to be the way everyone thought I was crazy! I mean, okay, some of the kids were around the bend, but me?! Do I only commit crimes with a cat, bird or plant mot