[FFML] [Mai Hime, Future] Unexpected Visitor

John Biles john at biles.us
Tue Feb 10 19:49:13 PST 2009


This is part of a series set two decades after Mai Hime dealing with the
Hime's lives as adults and with their children.  Crystal is Mai and Tate's
daughter, for those who haven't read the earlier installments.

(Shun is Akira and Takumi's boy, Dan is Midori and her professor's son,
Kasumi is Akane and Kazuya's boy and Natasha is Shiho's daughter)

The kids are, as of yet, unaware of their parents' adventures in High school
but know SOMETHING strange hangs over their family...

(Other Stories:  Under a Barrel, The Sword of the Lord, Lighting a Fire
Under Their Feet)

Unlike previous stories, this one has multiple first person views

***************

Unexpected Vistor

By John Biles

***************

Crystal's Story, Part One:

    I had a bad feeling as I arrived at the party, but I ignored it because
I get these bad feelings whenever I have a plan and I don't know yet if it
will work.  I had invested a fair amount of time into finding out what Hayao
thought was sexy and what he didn't.  The hair ribbons made me feel a little
silly, but the short white skirt and the white halter top were fine.  My
cleavage drew more eyes than were useful to me, but I'm used to it.

    Finding him in the writhing sea of teenagers from three schools was
another issue.  We'd all snuck out of school--not very hard at Rosewood,
which really needs better fences, and gone to this little patch of forest
which lies between all three schools.  Rosewood is both genders, while Saint
Mary's is all girls and the Tokugawa Institute is all boys with ugly
haircuts.  Some of them are pretty good looking otherwise.

    So, we'd all drink, listen to music, dance, eat cheap snacks, and a fair
number of us would end up laid.  I was still waffling on whether I wanted to
end up laid, but I was determined to at least catch Hayao's attention.  I
have no big romantic delusions about sex, but I also want to avoid being
pregnant.  There's too many guys who seem to think condoms will kill them or
something.  Yeah, I'm on the pill, but it's best to be careful anyway.  The
pill won't stop STDs.  But refusal to wear a condom is a pretty good sign of
jerkdom to avoid.

    Much to my aggravation, after twenty minutes of looking, when I finally
found Hayao, he was dancing with some skinny redhead.  She wasn't totally
flat, but she couldn't match up to me, I can tell you that.  She was dressed
similar to me, but all in black.  And she looked vaguely familiar.

    I began to press through the crowd.  Dammit, I knew that woman...who is
she?

    But now she whispered into his ear and led him off, with him grinning
widely.  I stared, watching all my plans go down the toilet.

    DAMMIT.

    Fine, this was clearly a one-night-stand.  I'd have other chances.  If I
wanted them.  Maybe...

    Stop rationalizing, I told myself.  You knew he was no virgin.  He's
still very intelligent and a deep thinker and kind of witty.  In my
literature class, anyway.

    I'll just dance and have fun.

    Around the middle of song three, it finally hit me.  It looked just like
Aunt Nao.  But what would she be doing here, seducing a teenager?  I had the
feeling she wasn't exactly as chaste as she was supposed to be, but...surely
she didn't meet her needs this way, right?

    Then someone yelled from the edge of the party, "Oh SHIT, it's one of
the Nuns!"

    You could see catholic girls running about in a panic, which sent
everyone else into total chaos.

    Tiny wheels whirred.  Catholic girls.  Catholic school.  Catholic Aunt
Nao.  Catholic Nun incoming.

    But...

    The crowd seemed to part as Aunt Nao, in full nun regalia, strode
towards me.  I froze up.

    Then she hugged me.  "Hello, my little niece.  I came to visit you."

    "Hello, auntie," I mumbled.

    Loudly, Aunt Nao said, "Be not afraid, I come in peace for my niece,
Tate Crystal."

    I laughed softly, others laughed louder.  Once she didn't go on a
rampage, everyone went back to partying.

    "Let's dance," Aunt Nao said.  "Then we need to talk."

    Part of me wondered if maybe the big secret was finally coming out.  But
surely they wouldn't send her to do it, right?  I mean, my own folks...or
maybe not.  Telling us NOTHING had been Mom's idea.

    Watching her dance convinced me it had been her.  But what had she done
with Hayao?  And why?  Surely...

    Later, when we snuck back to my room, I asked, "Was that you, earlier?"

    "Maybe.  What was I doing?" she asked.

    "Seducing Hayao and taking him off for...something."

    "Yeah, that was me," Aunt Nao said, grinning as she sat down in a chair
in my bedroom.  I started changing into my pajamas.

    She stripped down to the outfit she'd worn earlier, though now she had
shorts on instead of a skirt.  "I heard him bragging to his buddies about
how smitten you were with him and all the things he could get you to do.  So
I gave him a little lesson in humility and chastity."

    "..."

    "And in running away from bees while naked," Aunt Nao finished.

    "..."

    "You can do much better than that," Aunt Nao finished.

    "You...you can't just..."

    "Sure I can," Aunt Nao said.  "There's nothing wrong with falling in
love and getting it on, but you've got to scout your targets better, so they
don't just use you for their amusement.  And he didn't have any condoms,
either.  Stupid punk."  She grimaced.

    "I'm old enough to make my own decisions!," I told her.

    "Given your parents' lifestyle, I'd hoped they'd taught you more about
how to get good sex and avoid the bad, but then, they all married the first
people they fell in love with, whereas I can already see you're not that
lucky."

    "I wasn't in love with him," I protested.  "I wanted to get to know him
better."  It was just attraction, not love.  And I was NOT so smitten with
him as to blind myself to his flaws.

    Was I?

    "Anyway, scream at me if it helps," Aunt Nao said.  "But I would have
done it even if he wasn't after you.  Stopping stupid predators is part of
my job."

    Adults are all so utterly sure they're right.  It makes me crazy
sometimes.  I grimaced back at her and finished changing into my pajamas,
then sat down on my bed.  "My folks..."

    "Won't know anything.  Who you fuck is your business," Aunt Nao said.
"Unless they happen to confess their sins to me and I have to give them
penance."

    "So what brings you here?" I asked her.

    "Well, originally I just came to be sociable.  Miyu and Alyssa went to
see some stupid foreign film about math.  The very idea made me ill, so I
had to run away to someone who wouldn't threaten my sanity with it."

    I laughed a little.  I was still aggravated with Aunt Nao for meddling,
but I can rarely stay angry with her for long.  "And then you decided to
meddle?"

    "Kasumi told me about the party she thought you were going to.  She's
too goody goody for something like that, of course.  Just like her mother.
Too goody goody for her own good."  She shook her head.

    "Did Aunt Akane..."

    "She and Kazuya were first loves.  REALLY SAPPY AND STOMACH CURDLING
first loves."  Aunt Nao made funny faces as she said, "Oh, my little
wuvi-lumpkins, I lurve you sooooo much."  Then she kissed one of my stuffed
bears.

    Yeah, they're still kinda like that, sometimes.  "What about Mom and Dad
and Aunt Mikoto?"

    "You really want to know?" Aunt Nao asked.

    Well, maybe not.  Part of me was curious as they don't talk about how
they met and got together and part of me didn't really want to think about
my folks having sex.  "Uhm...."

    "They weren't so totally sappy, thank God," Aunt Nao said, stretching.
"I'll leave it at that.  Anyway, you need to do your research better in the
future."

    "I did research," I mumbled.

    "Not well enough," Aunt Nao said.  She yawned.  "Is your roommate coming
back?"

    "She's gone for the weekend."

    "Mind if I crash here?"

    "Fine with me," I said.

    We both laid down and tried to sleep, but I couldn't.  I felt I ought to
ask something, say something...  "Have you ever been in love?" I asked, then
regretted it.  I shouldn't pry.

    "Yes...no...maybe," Nao said.  "We talking romantic love?"

    "Uh, yeah," I said.

    "I've never had the stereotypical romance," she said.  "Probably never
will."

    "Well, you are a nun now," I said.

    She just grinned for a moment.  "Yes.  But there's people I love, even
if I'm not...the family kind of love," she said.  "That sounds totally
lame."

    "No, I understand," I told her.  "You don't have to be blood to be
family."

    For a moment, Aunt Nao was very quiet, then said, "You are family to
me."

    "And you to me," I told her.  "You've always been a good aunt to me."
Even if it means meddling in my love life without even TELLING ME ANYTHING.

    When I was little, she got me in trouble sometimes as she tended to
encourage me to be naughty and break the rules.  Then Mom would yell at both
of us.  When she babysat me, we'd watch late night TV, eat up the ice cream
and not put away the toys.  Mom would go crazy, then Aunt Nao would tease
her about something and she'd just laugh and make Aunt Nao help me pick up
my toys.

    And I could remember times she'd chased off people who were harrassing
me about my name or other things.  She's very fierce when she's protecting
people.

    "I hope I can be as strong as you when I finish growing up," I said.
"You're so much fun and kind, but you're very strong too, like Aunt Haruka,
but without all the shouting and posturing."

    Aunt Nao laughed loudly.  "Kind, huh?" she said softly.

    "I know you're always watching out for me," I said.  "And for my parents
too."

    Aunt Nao was silent; I got the feeling she was a little embarrassed.

    "You were always good at teaching me how to get in trouble too," I said
teasingly.

    She laughed.  "Yeah, you have to know when to break the rules.  That's
like my life motto."

    I yawned.  I should sleep, but I don't get to spend a lot of time with
Aunt Nao.  Say something...  "Are Aunt Haruka and Aunt Yukino lovers or
what?"  They've got to be, but...really, I shouldn't gossip about this.

    "Definitely.  I'd respect them more if they were as honest about it as
your parents, though," Nao said.

    "They often have boyfriends," I said.

    "Yes, but that's because Haruka is too gutless to just kiss Yukino in
public," Nao said.  "And Yukino takes it because she's always been too much
of Haruka's flunky."  She sighed.  "I can't imagine living like that, but
they seem fine with it."

    "So they've always been like that?"

    "Pretty much," Nao said.  "I can't say exactly when the actual covert
sex started, but..."

    I laughed softly.  "Did..."  No, don't ask about Shizuru, it'll just
piss Aunt Nao off.  "Was Aunt Shiho..."

    "Worse.  Used to be obsessed with your father," Nao said.  "But she
eventually moved on.  With a little help from me kicking her ass," Aunt Nao
said, shaking her head.  "We'd better sleep."

    "Okay."

     Eventually, I managed to fall asleep.

*************

    I woke up later after dreaming everywhere I went, there was murmering in
the walls.

    This turned out to be Aunt Nao kneeling by her bed and praying.  She had
her back to me, so I feigned being asleep and just watched.  I couldn't hear
what she was saying, though she was doing something with one of those
bead-cross necklaces.  And it sounded like she was repeating some kind of
mantra.

    I really ought to know more about Catholics, given I have 4 nuns in the
family and a Catholic school nearby.  But my folks aren't Catholic, so I've
just picked up bits and pieces.

    I'd never seen her pray this much; I wondered if she always did this and
I hadn't noticed...I mean, I've heard her give blessings and things, but
this went on and on and lulled me back to sleep.

**************

    I took Aunt Nao around campus the next day.  We had a good time, though
I got the odd feeling she was looking for something.

    She didn't find it.  As we got lunch, I said, "About last night..."

    "I won't tell your folks," Aunt Nao said.  "Just make sure to get some
condoms, and make sure to avoid guys who won't use them.  Or who say
Froogle."

    "What?" I asked in confusion.

    "Just making sure you were listening," Aunt Nao said.  "You ever need to
talk about men, you can call me, I'll advise you whether to kill them or
not."

    I laughed.  "Okay."

    "You'll fuck up some, but that's okay, we learn by fucking up.  Just
don't get pregnant.  Don't sleep with men who won't use condoms."

    "Do you think he...," I said, wondering if he would have.

    "I don't know," Aunt Nao said.  "You have any trouble, let me know.
Also, we should get you some pepper spray before I leave, just in case."
She slurped down her noodles.  "Damn, this is pretty good."

    "A nun shouldn't swear," I teased her.

    "I'm not always a great nun," Aunt Nao said.

    "You looked like one, praying last night."  Dammit, I wasn't going to
mention that.

    She froze, looking embarrassed.  "I don't like praying with people
watching me," she mumbled.  "Not...big prayers."

    "It's okay, I won't tell," I said.  "So do you and..."

    "We have our own rooms," Aunt Nao said.  "I'm sure Miyu hears everything
anyway, but..."

    I slurped down some of my own noodles now, then had some pork.  "I wish
I had such close friends as you all are," I said.  "I mean, I have friends,
but..."

    "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it," Aunt Nao said,
eating more slowly now, then gulping her tea.  "You have to walk through the
fire together to have a really deep bond."

    ZING, I could sense opportunity.  "So what fire did you all walk through
together?"

    Aunt Nao looked over at me, looking a little melancholy, then said,
"Crystal, would you fight for someone you loved?"

    "What?" I asked, confused.  "Of course I would."  Did they fight...no,
that made no sense.  Fight over some boy?  Makes no sense at all.
Especially since Haruka and Yukino are totally gay for each other.
Totally.  "If someone burst in here trying to kill you, I'd fight.  Not very
well without a sword, but I'd fight."

    "Love can make us angels but it can make us monsters too," Aunt Nao
said, finishing her tea, then staring at her noodles.  "Love can make you do
terrible, horrible things.  Things you will regret for the rest of your
life."

    I suddenly wondered what she had done.  "I'm sure your God has forgiven
you."

    "God forgives everyone, because he loves us," Aunt Nao said, lost in the
threshold between now and memory.  "It's forgiving yourself that's hard."
She sighed.  "Now you've gone and made me emo."  She grimaced and finished
her food.

    I laughed softly.  "Sorry, Auntie."

    "You need me to kick any more ass for you, let me know."

    I nodded.  "Yes, Auntie."  I'd handle it myself, but I wanted to be
polite.

    She rose.  "I really should get back to work.  But it's been fun
visiting you."  She held out her hand.

    I rose and hugged her.  She looked flustered, but hugged me back.  "It's
okay," I said softly.  "Whatever you may have done, you're part of the
family and we care about you."

    "Your mother always says that," she said softly, then let go of me.
"I'm generally...it's okay.  If what I've done isn't enough to atone for my
mistakes, I can't imagine what would be."  She glanced off at nothing for a
second, then started to let go.  "See you later, Crystal."

    Then a camera suddenly flashed.  "Hah!  Caught in the act!"  It was a
woman who looked vaguely familiar to me, tall and slender with short black
hair with a single very grey lock, wearing glasses, a white blouse, and
black slacks, and holding a camera.

    "Oh wow, it's Nao-chan!" the woman with her said; she was the same age
as the other woman, maybe in her late thirties, with long brown hair,
wearing a blue dress.  She and the other woman both wore Rosewood staff
rings, I noticed.  Where had I seen them before?

    Then the woman leaped up and hugged Aunt Nao, hugging me in the
process.  "I never thought you'd stick with being a nun!"

    "Gee, thanks, Aoi-san," Aunt Nao said, but she didn't fight being
hugged.  "Hello, Chie-san.  What brings you two around here?"

    "I'm a Journalism teacher at Rosewood, and Aoi's the school nurse," Chie
said.

    Then it hit me. I'd seen pictures of them...when they were much
younger.  These were two of Mom's friends from high school and college...but
they didn't seem to be part of the family secret, so I'd never looked into
them much.

    "This is Mai's daughter, Crystal," Aunt Nao said.  She poked my right
breast gently.  "Note the resemblance."

    I said, "Aunt Nao!!!!"

    Chie and Aoi both laughed.  "We've met Crystal before, but she's
probably forgotten us; she's gotten a lot older since then."

    "You still getting in trouble all the time, Nao-chan?" Aoi asked.

    "Constantly," Nao said, sounding proud of it.

    "How's your mother doing?" Aoi asked, now sounding a little concerned.

    "She's fine," Nao said softly, looking a little embarrassed.  "She's
starting into her sixties, so she's slowing down some, but she's still very
healthy."  She looked around, then said, "She did finally give up on me
getting married, though.  Though I keep having to re-explain what I do for a
living every time I come home, it seems like."

    "I'm sure she just wants you to be happy," Aoi said.

    I've met Aunt Nao's mother a few times, but she lives in Hokkaido now
with relatives and so I haven't seen her in years.

    "Do you still work with Alyssa and Sister Yukariko and Miyu?" Aoi asked.

    "Yes," Nao said.  "Since...well, it seems likely we'll be together a lot
longer."  She stared out the window for a moment; I glanced, but didn't see
anything.

    Chie glanced over without turning her head to look outside the
restaurant.  "Is something wrong?" she asked very softly.

    "I'm just being paranoid," Nao said, shaking her head.  "I thought for a
moment, someone outside was watching me."

    Aoi turned and looked very blatantly; Chie slapped her forehead but
didn't say anything.  "I don't see anything," Aoi said hesitantly.

    "I'm sure it was just a customer coming through the parking lot," I told
Aunt Nao, but now I was a little paranoid.

    "Look, once you two finish, we can drive Crystal back to Rosewood and
drive you wherever you need to go, Nao," Chie said.  "I came over in my
car."

    "Thanks," Nao said.  "I'm sure it's nothing."  But I noticed she kept
eyeing the window every so often.  "Anyway, we were pretty much done, so
let's go."

    "Have you two been at Rosewood long?" I asked them as we headed out.

    "We just started," Chie said, getting out her keys.  "Do you need to go
to the bus station, Nao or somewhere else?"

    "Bus is fine; that will get me back close enough to home," Aunt Nao told
them.

    "So what was Mom like in high school?" I asked them as we all got into
the car.

    "Very hard-working, utterly responsible," Aoi said.

    "Wild woman, got in knife fights all the time, seduced men right and
left, then broke their hearts," Chie said.

    No way that was true.

    Right???

    Chie started to smile and Aoi said, "She's just messing with your head,
Crystal.  Your mother took very good care of her brother and was very kind.
And I think Tate-san and Mikoto-chan were the only lovers she ever had."

    "Reito was totally after her, but it never got serious that I know of,"
Chie pointed out.

    Aunt Nao stared out the window into the darkness, worrying me a little
with her silence.  What was worrying her?

    "You okay?" I asked her, a little worried.

    "It's nothing," she said, which makes me more certain there is a
problem.

    "You didn't see Aunt Haruka's imaginary ice cream thief, did you?" I
teased her.

    "Say what?" Chie asked me curiously.

    "Aoi-chan, you were a good roomate," Aunt Nao said, still staring out
the window.

    "You too," Aoi said.  "Though you certainly got in a lot of trouble."
She sounded concerned.

    "I still get in a lot of trouble," Aunt Nao said, but didn't seem as
cheerful about it as usual.  I had a terrible feeling but what could
possibly be getting her down like this?

    "Look, spit it out.  This isn't like you," Chie said to Nao.  "What's
wrong?"

    "Crystal," Aunt Nao said.

    "Yes?" I asked nervously.

    "Just be more careful in your choice of men in the future."

    Aoi looked at me curiously.

    "Auntie!"  I didn't even know what to say.

    "Aoi-chan, Chie-san, if you hear Crystal has a boyfriend, you need to
make me a complete report as soon as possible."  She handed a business card
to Aoi.  "But don't tell her mother, as she'll likely totally freak out."

    Chie said, "You know me.  I'll know she has a boyfriend before she
knows."

    "Thank you," Nao said, relaxing a little.

    I rubbed my forehead.  "I can take care of myself."

    "We all thought that.  I thought that," Nao said.  "But you can't always
go it alone."

    "Wow, I never thought I'd hear you say that," Aoi confessed.

     Aunt Nao looked slightly embarrassed.

    "So what's this about Haruka and an ice cream thief?" Chie asked.

    I told her the whole affair, leaving out family secret issues to avoid
an argument over the whole issue.

    She pulled up to the bus station and I hugged Nao.  "You sure you're
okay?" I asked.

    "I'm fine.  Long as they don't decide to talk about the movie the rest
of today, anyway.  Thanks for the ride, Chie-san, Aoi-chan."

    "You're welcome," Chie said.  "Don't be a stranger."

    "I'm sure we'll meet again soon," Nao said, sounding a little tired.
She performed a blessing for us.  "God speed."  And then she was gone.

    "I hope she's okay," Aoi said, watching her as we pulled out.

    "Me too," I said softly.

    "So what kind of boy trouble is she asking us to shield you from?" Chie
asked me.

    My eyes crossed.  "Nothing, she was just teasing."

    "I see," Chie said.

    I know that 'I see'.  The only question now was how soon she'd figure it
all out.  And whether Mom will kill me if she finds out.

****************

Nao Narrarates Now:

    I must be getting paranoid; I thought I saw Nagi, but it was just some
junior high kid with purple hair and his stupid looking junior high cronies
going out to eat.

    I hate being afraid.  I hate it more than I even hate Nagi himself.  He
used me, but I was a sucker asking to be used.  So full of...well, I think
anyone would be as nasty as I was, given how everything had gone before I
came to Fuuka.  But I let myself get played because I was stupid and
solitary and had an army of buttons to push.

    Fucking Shizuru.  BITCH.

    Seeing Nagi, even after all the ass I've kicked, made me feel terror.
Which pisses me off and double because it wasn't Nagi AT ALL.  Bastard.

    Stupid Haruka and her stupid nightmares.  Stupid Mai and her desire to
keep her daughter ignorant so she fucks up.  Stupid Shizuru, who should have
fallen down a fucking manhole long ago.

    I went and kicked the shit out of a wall before entering our convent,
just to let the stress out.  Sleep would help me feel better, I hoped.

    I slept a very long time and eventually woke the next morning, still
feeling aggravated but no longer hating everything ever.

    We had no new mission today, so I went to morning mass and then checked
out a car and headed into town, not that I knew where I was going.  I drove
around, letting my brain percolate.

    Finally, I started out of my fugue when Natsuki suddenly honked her horn
at me, then gave me a thumbs up.  I smiled a little and pointed towards a
nearby cafe.  Finding a parking spot was a pain, but by the time I got
there, Natsuki had scored us a table.

    "Hey, what's up?" Natsuki asked.  "Where's the rest of your gang?"

    "I think Miyu and Alyssa are reading journals and I don't know what
Yukariko's up to.  Probably kicking her husband's ass," I said, then flagged
over the waitress and ordered some tea and several nice jam-filled
pastries.

    "Just bored?" She asked me.

    "Do you ever wonder what it would be like to have children?" I asked
her, stunning myself by saying that.

    Natsuki stared at me blankly for a moment, then said, "In my line of
work, I'm better off without them. And my dogs are better behaved."

    It's not that I want children, it's...I don't know what the fuck I was
thinking, really.  "I'm not ready to settle down and have three kids
either."  I munched on a jam pastry, while Natsuki worked on her sundae.
"Crystal thinks I'm a very kind person."  I didn't mean to say THAT either.

    "You've dedicated your life to serving God and your fellow man," Natsuki
pointed out.  "And you're really kind to all the kids, even Natasha."

    "I think I might have been Natasha if I'd grown up a little happier," I
tell her, enjoying these delicious but probably sinful pastries.  I told God
to give me a rumble of thunder if they were sinful and used the silence as
an excuse to feel no guilt.

    She hesitated; I could tell she was about to say something about
Shizuru.  I must have bristled a bit, so she just said, "I've tried my best
to be a good aunt to the kids, and so have you."  She paused, studying her
sundae as if it held great mysteries within it.

    "Is Nagi hiding in your sundae?" I teased her.  It made me feel a little
better about my own burst of paranoia.

    "No," she said, laughing softly.  "So what do we do if he does appear?"

    "Find out what he's up to and then kill him deader than dead."  If I
could have manifested my claws, I would have, even if licking your claws
only makes you more likely to get your ass kicked.  Sometimes, you have to
take risks.  "He's not fucking with us again, not while I'm breathing.  And
I won't let him touch the kids.  Not like he did to us."  I could feel my
voice getting louder and I tried to force myself to calm down.

    "Neither will I," she said.  "But we're not stupid enough to fall for
his tricks again."  She glanced at my pastries.  "What's eating you, Nao?"
she asked softly.

    I sagged.  "I saw Chie and Aoi yesterday."

    "How are they doing?" Natsuki asked, a little excited then paused.  "Is
something wrong?"

    "No, they're very happy," I told her.  "Just wondering what might have
been." I sighed and crammed my mouth full of pastry. I hate being
vulnerable.  But Alyssa and Miyu have all the empathy of rocks most of the
time and Yukariko would lecture me.  Natsuki at least understands what it's
like to lose your family.

    Natsuki sighed, then took another bite of sundae.  Once her mouth was
empty again, she said, "Mai would be mostly the same if nothing had
happened, if her parents had lived.  But you and I...I don't think we'd
recognize ourselves.  It reshaped both of us very much," she said, staring
off into space.

    I suddenly wondered if Yukariko's Child could show us with his
illusions.  I suddenly wondered if I WANTED to know.  Could I even face
knowing what I could have become?  If I would have been something better...

    Better not to stick my head in the lion's mouth.

    But now I was so curious.

    Dammit.

    "You've met...have you met my new boyfriend?" Natsuki asked me, though
she appeared to be intently talking to her tea cup.

    "Roger Smith?  I've heard legends, seen pictures, but not met him," I
told her.  "Will he actually stick around long enough for me to bother?"

    She winced at that, but we both knew most of her boyfriends didn't last
long before either Shizuru scared them off or they figured out she wasn't
telling them something that everyone else she knew was already aware of.

    "Maybe.  He's very...he's not like the others.  I don't even...he's so
strong and unafraid and..."  Natsuki shook her head.  "I sound like a
teenager."

    "Does he know you have a secret?" I asked.  Part of me hopes she'll be
happy, but the rest knows her track record and is dubious this won't end in
tears.

    "I think he may suspect something, but he seems to me more likely to try
to figure it out than to leave over it," Natsuki said, now looking up.  "It
intrigues him."

    "Interesting," I told her.  Probably best to make sure he's not in the
Order's archives...

    "I don't know what he'll think if he does find out," Natsuki said.  "Not
everyone can handle something like this as well as Tate does."  She sounded
a little jealous.

    "Is he a good lay?" I ask her.

    "..."

    I grin, definitely feeling better.

    "So where did you run into Aoi and Chie?" she asked.

    "At the school," I told her.  "They work at Rosewood."

    "Oh, that's great," Natsuki said.  "I should go say hi."

    "They'd love to see you, I'm sure."  Now I felt a touch melancholy and
stupidly jealous.  Their happiness shouldn't bring me down.  "Maybe I should
just go back to bed."

    Natsuki frowned.  "You really are down."

    "And I hate it," I told her.  "I need to kick some ass, but I don't have
any ass to kick." I tumbled the last pastry around in my hands pointlessly.


    "Well, I do have a membership in a shooting range, and I'm off today.
So if you want to shoot some things up, we could go," Natsuki said.

    "Yeah," I told her.  "That should be fun."

******************

    Blowing holes in things is definitely fun.  After an hour of blowing
holes in things, I felt a lot better.

    Curiosity was nagging at me, though.  Could Yukariko's Child...but it
seemed to mainly either show you what you wanted to see or else what you
feared.  And what good would knowing do me, anyway?

    Though maybe Yukino could run some kind of sim with all her VR
shit...They can do some amazing stuff with that these days.

    I eventually said my farewells and decided to go see Yukino.  I ended up
waiting half an hour, so I closed my eyes and prayed silently, feeling a
little better afterwards.

    Some guy in a suit was ushered out and I got in.  "I'm very sorry to
make you wait, Sister Nao," she told me.  "My schedule is amazingly busy."

    "Your company works with VR, right?  Among other technologies?" I asked
her.

    "Yes.  In fact, we've developed something your order might find useful,"
she said.  "Though the cost is still very high."

    Now I was curious.  "Go on?"

    "Follow me."  We hopped an elevator up several floors, then went to a
laboratory.  There were some computers in one corner, but most of the room
was a big empty space.  She talked to the techs, then got two helmets and a
pair of gloves and body suits.  "We'll need to change in there," she said,
then took me over to a changing room.

    I stripped down without much of a thought, then glanced at her.  We have
much the same figure, though I'm more athletic.  Though I noticed she was a
little better toned than last time I saw her.  And she didn't get shy when I
looked at her.  Maybe they're more comfortable with being shacked up than I
had believed.

    They'd better be shacked up or I'm gonna have to kick Haruka's ass.

    "Is something wrong?" she asked me in the middle of suiting up.

    "Not used to wearing body suits," I told her.

    "I suppose so," she said.  "Though you were wearing a short skirt and a
tank top under your robes."

    "I'd overheat," told her and finish suiting up.

    "Run program Alpha," she said when we went back outside.

    The room rippled and turned into Fuuka Gakuen; I looked down and saw
myself in my old uniform; Yukino was wearing her student council outfit.
She adjusted her glasses and laughed softly.  "Look familiar?"

    "It looks so real."

    "It's illusionary, of course," Yukino said, turning and looking out
across the gardens towards the sea.  "You can interact with objects, but you
can also walk right through them.  This is just a test program, though, so
it's not hugely complex, but you can walk to any part of the school.  The
public parts."

    I glanced around.

    "Privacy is on; they won't hear us if we don't want them to," Yukino
said.  "Mode Beta."

    Reality rewrote itself.  Or more precisely, illusionary VR rewrote
itself.  With a gentle breeze...I could FEEL the breeze...the world blew
away and now I was at the site of our recent battle with the Froogles.  I
wish I had a less retarded name for them.  Goblins.  That's slightly less
retarded.

    Slightly.

    "You could record battles, then study them in the VR environment in
order to figure out your mistakes and strong points and do better.
Eventually, we'll have it where you could make theoretical environments for
practice, etc.  Mind you, it's all illusions, so you can't totally
re-enact."

    "Wow.  Though I think Sister Yukariko might be able to duplicate this."

    "Well, it would help your whole order.  We're quite aware of how much
you all keep down," Yukino said, her voice very serious.  "Supernatural
incidents have been slowly, steadily growing in frequency around the world
since our victory over the Obsidian Lord and the Hime Star," Yukino said.
"And it's getting faster."

    I had suspected that a long time.  "Is this...?"


    "There is no way to know.  It may be a consequence or it might have
happened anyway," Yukino said.  "Don't blame yourself, Nao.  We all got
fooled."  She stared at the floor a moment, then straightened up.  "But
never again."

    "Never again," I tell her softly, like an oath.

    We stare at each other for a few seconds; it's odd seeing her like this;
she's usually playing flunky to Haruka and some part of that kept me from
seeing she really has grown up.  This isn't Yukino the nervous subordinate
and bottom, this is Yukino the Battle Princess.

    One of us.

    "Thank you for helping us with the fight against those idiot goblins," I
told her.

    "You're welcome.  Sister Yukariko thanked us already, though," she told
me.

    "Yeah, but I hadn't."  I study everything.  "Can this thing speculate a
scenario itself or does it need instructions?"

    "Given enough data and instructions, it could, say, run monsters to
'fight'.  But it doesn't have the ability to take a scenario like 'What if
the Prime Minister of Japan was Nepalese' and play it out," she said.

    Not what I was looking for, then.  Though really, I was probably better
off not knowing.

    She cocked her head slightly.  "So what are you wanting to simulate?"

    "You sure we're private?" I asked her.

    Now she looked worried.  "As private as we can be in a VR environment."

    "I'm just being stupid.  I'm just wondering...why us?  Could I have been
different?  Should I have been...?"  I sighed.  "I'm just being maudlin,
really.  And I can't seem to stop saying things I ought to shut up about."

    "I know the feeling," Yukino told me, looking sympathetic.  "I think you
can feel proud about the you that is and the you that might have been is
never going to be, so she doesn't matter.  I spent too much of my life
living in fear.  I still do sometimes."

    "Crystal thinks I'm a good person," I mumbled.  "But I've done terrible
things."

    "We all did," Yukino said.  "Or would have if we could have mustered the
strength."  She shook her head then came over and took my hands.  "The kids
see us as we are now; they only know what we've become, not the seeds we
grew from.  You're a heroine, Nao.  I believe in you."

    "But I can't forget," I mumbled, squeezing her hand hard.  "They love
us," I whispered softly.  "I don't want to fail them, see them hurt like we
were.  But they're so...they don't know anything.  Innocence is dangerous,
Yukino.  We both know that."

    "I know," Yukino said softly, her eyes now gazing intently into mine.
They were so strong; had they always been this strong?  It wasn't possible.
How could she be so strong?  Why was I being so weak?  "But let them have
their childhood; adulthood comes fast enough even for normal people.  We can
protect them and we will."

    I was starting to breathe harder, staring into her eyes, physically
shaking, hating myself for showing weakness, but needing to desperately.  "I
want to believe that."

    "Believe it."  Yukino's voice was gentle but firm, the iron fist in a
velvet glove.  "We are Battle Princesses, the Hime who fight for those who
we love.  The more we love, the stronger we are.  And the better we can
protect them.  I do not intend to fail again.   Do you?"

    "No," I said firmly, though I was still shaking.  "I won't.  I can't.
Even if I die, I'm taking my enemies down with me."

    "Now that's the Nao I know and love," she said softly, smiling.  "Who we
all love."

    Was this really Yukino?  She was so smiling and confident and strong and
I had made myself a nervous wreck and now I suddenly wondered exactly when
I'd lost track of the real Yukino.  Also, somehow, I'd failed to notice she
was leaning in to kiss me.

    I froze up and she simply kissed my forehead, then said, "Let's do
something fun."

    "Don't you have meetings and shit?" I asked weakly.

    "You're more important than any meeting," she said firmly.  "Program,
track Haruka."

    THE PRESIDENT IS CURRENTLY BROWBEATING THE PRESIDENT OF PARAGUAY'S TRADE
MINISTER INTO SUBMISSION IN HER OFFICE.

    The voice echoed oddly as if coming from inside my own head.

    That's our Haruka, though.

    "Deliver Memo informing her to clear her slate for tonight after six.
Karaoke party at her place.  Send message invites to List Hime," Yukino said
firmly.

    There was a ping and a noise as if someone was licking envelopes.

    "It's not worth so much trouble," I said weakly.

    "It's worth LOTS of trouble," Yukino said.  "If all our money has any
meaning, it's to enable us to take care of our friends.  We're friends
forever, right?"

    "Yes," I said softly.  "Friends forever."

    "Then let's go take a bath; these VR suits make people sweat like pigs;
we still haven't figured out how to fix that," Yukino said.

    Soon, I was naked and wet in the baths and feeling a little more human
as I dumped yet another bucket of water on myself and scrubbed vigorously
while Yukino scrubbed my hair.  Not that there's a lot of it to scrub; I
still keep it short; it's more practical that way.

    It felt kind of nice to be pampered, though I hoped Haruka wouldn't get
the wrong idea.  Not that I couldn't kick her ass twelve ways to Sunday even
without powers, but she does have a lot of ability to make trouble for me if
she gets pissed.

    "Your hair would look nice longer," Yukino said to me.

    "Yours too but we're both too busy for that," I told her.

    "So true," Yukino said.

    Though if she was that busy, she'd be working instead of scrubbing my
hair, right?  Then again, here I was, 'busy' taking another bath.

    "So is this Pierre guy a real boyfriend or just a beard?" I asked her.
I shouldn't pry, so of course I pry.  If nothing else, it would take my mind
off being maudlin.

    "He has a really ugly beard, but Haruka-chan likes it," Yukino said
calmly.

    Way to totally evade, I thought.  "They fuck regularly?"

    "He tries his best," Yukino said calmly.

    That actually made me feel better; it was so nice and subtly vicious.

    "So not as good as you," I asked.

    "No one knows Haruka-chan like I do," she said simply, then yanked my
hair hard and I yelped.  "I'm sorry," she said.  "There was a tangle I had
to clear."

    I couldn't quite tell if this was the 'NEW TOPIC' signal or just a
coincidence.

    However, Haruka now came in, still clad in a suit that likely cost more
than the car I drove over here.  "Hello, Sister Nao, Yukino-chan."

    "Get naked, join the hair-washing party," I told her.

    "I have an appointment in a few minutes.  What's this about a karaoke
party?" Haruka asked, arms folded across her chest.  "We have dinner
with....those guys...from Sony tonight."

    "We had dinner with the Executive VP for research for the Shinohara
zaibatsu scheduled for tonight," Yukino said.  "Now he's been moved to
Friday.  Sony had to reschedule to Monday because the President is very
ill."

    I suddenly wondered when she'd rescheduled it, given she hadn't talked
to anyone when I was looking.

    "But..." Haruka started to protest.

    "Sister Nao needs cheering up, and we could use a social ocassion with
everyone, anyway.  So put on something informal once we go home," Yukino
said.

    Was she ordering Haruka around? Surely not.  But it sure looked like it.

    "But...you always tell me not to cancel meetings on a whim," Haruka
mumbled.

    "Friends are the most important thing, right?" Yukino said very softly.

    "Of course," Haruka said, recovering her footing.  "But we've already
rescheduled..."

    "That was the President of Bermuda," Yukino said.  "I had to lunch him
because you had to deal with the meltdown at Facility 28."

    "Oh," Haruka said.  She looked over at me thoughtfully.  Then she said,
"I'll see you this evening, then, Sister Nao.  You take good care of her,
Yukino-chan."

    "Of course I will, Haruka-chan," Yukino said.

    "You can kiss her goodbye.  I won't mind," I told Haruka.

    Haruka mumbled incoherently and fled.

    "I see who wears the pants in this family," I told Yukino.

    "We both do," Yukino said.  "We both override each other in the areas
where one of us is strong and the other is weak.  I am too cautious for my
own good and she is too headstrong.  She is a better negotiator and I am a
better administrator.  And so on."  Her voice was full of affection.

    Well, whatever works for them. I relaxed a little more.  This was
definitely making me feel more like myself.

****************
    Haruka and Yukino's house is ever so slightly creepy; it's big enough
for several hundred nuns, I think, but it's just them and a few servants.
Still, this made it easier for the three of us to turn one room into a
karaoke bar before everyone else got there.

    Midori and her hubby were the first to arrive.  To my surprise, they'd
both put on very fancy suits and looked overdressed, even compared to Yukino
and Haruka, who'd dressed down to just expensive blouses and skirts.  "Hey,
everyone!  Thanks for the invite!," Midori said.  "Let's get this party
started!"

    "Hey, Midori-chan, Professor," I said to them.  Midori can always cheer
me up with her boundless energy and optimism.  And often irritate me with
her naiveness, but I was ready to embrace even that tonight.

    "Hello, Nao-san," the Professor said, ambling over to the machine.  He's
a terrible singer but he sings so enthusiastically, it makes me laugh.  This
would be excellent.

    "Hello, Midori-sensei, Professor-sensei," Haruka said.  "Sorry for the
short notice."

    "Totally cool with me," Midori said, watching the Professor make his
selection.  While I'm mostly het, I cannot comprehend the way she sometimes
stares at that man's ass.  He's not super flabby or anything, but it just
doesn't impress.  Unless you're her.  "I didn't forget someone's birthday,
did I?"

    "This is just for fun," Yukino said.

    "And to stop Sister Nao being maudlin," Haruka said almost sternly.  "So
spread cheer!"

    "Oooh, this calls for something special," Midori said as her hubby began
to sing.

    Something special turned out to be us doing a duet of 'Girls Just Wanna
Have Fun' when the Professor was done.

    More of the gang began to drift in and I will spare you endless details
of who sang what, other than to note we all became progressively more drunk
and Mai kept taking as many turns as possible.

    I even got Akane drunk and took pictures to use as blackmail later.  If
the kids saw this, they'd probably have a heart attack and die.

    Drunk Mikoto has a tendency to climb all over everyone and rub on them,
like a cat marking her territory or something; Mai tried to stop her at
first, but eventually she just started laughing and couldn't stop.

    I'm pretty sure at some point Mai and I got up and sang some sort of
romantic song at...was it Natsuki?  Reito?  Maybe both of them?  I'm not
sure.

    A little after that, Mikoto was fumbling her way through a really
terrible song about some guy trying to murder his cat unsuccessfully, I was
flopped out next to Mai on a couch; Tate was sitting on the floor, leaning
on her legs and mumbling about how terrible American beer is and how this
made working with US Robots so painful.

    Mai said, "I love Karaoke."

    "But would you marry it?" I asked her.  Yeah, we'd reached that point.

    "I probably would have, back when I was a kid.  Been doing it since I
was eight or so," Mai said.

    I tried to remember my first time...some time in High School.  In
fact...  "I think...I think you and Midori basically forced me into it,
right after we defeated Alyssa and the SEARS Foundation."

    And then the panic hit me, made worse by drunkeness.  That party...the
whole giant death march had come right after.  We'd all lost those we loved
one by one and...

     I suddenly jumped to my feet and screamed at the ceiling.  "DAMN YOU,
NAGI!  DAMN YOU!"

    That caused everyone to start.  Haruka jumped to her feet and tapped an
earring she was wearing.  Sister Yukariko fell off the couch she was half
unconscious on and landed on Shiho, who was passed out on the floor, waking
her up with a yelp.

    "It's okay, Nao, he's gone," Mai said.

    Yukino fiddled with her glasses and a gold bracelet, while Haruka kept
tapping her earring as if she was using it to send Morse code.

    "FUCK YOU, NAGI!  I KNOW YOU'RE WATCHING!  SO FUCK YOU!"  I shook my
fist at everything.  Instinctively I tried to summon my Child and my weapon,
but nothing happened.  Of course, since this was a normal zone.

    "Nagi?  Where?" Midori asked, staring around warily and drunkenly.

    "Security says no one is here," Haruka said.

    "He's not here, Nao-san," Yukino said softly, coming over to me.

    Miyu, of course, was not drunk, and she now came over to me.  "He is not
here," she said firmly.  "Nor is he watching us.  It is only us."  Her voice
was unusually kind.

    "That's what we thought last time and we fell, one by one, into the
darkness.  Mother..."  I began to cry, slumping over.

    Mai was there, catching me and holding me against her shoulder and
chest.  "He's gone, Nao.  We beat the Obsidian Lord and he left."

    "I want to protect them," I sobbed.  "But I'm gone so often and I can
only be there for them a little...She thinks I'm a good person, but I'm
terrible...."  I became totally incoherent at that point.

    "You are a better person than I," Shizuru mumbled in my direction,
trying to figure out how to stand up.

    Normally I wouldn't want (or get) a compliment from Shizuru.  But that
made me feel just a tiny bit better anyway.

    "We trust you to help protect our children," Akane said drunkenly.

    "Us too," Mai said.

    Midori said something in French.

    Badly.

    I think I cried myself to sleep at that point.

*****************

    Eventually I woke up to my surprise in the same bed with Mai, my head on
her chest, making me feel like Mikoto.  Her lovers were absent, though
probably curled up together.

    "Aren't you going to miss work?" I mumbled, feeling drained and empty.
Which was actually a step up from maudlin.

    "It's okay, I left my morning free anticipating sleeping in," she said
softly.  "Feel better?"

    "Yes," I told her.  "Sorry to make a scene."

    "It's okay," she said.  "Crystal loves you very much, you know.  And I
totally trust you to help protect her.  Don't feel inadequate, we all got
suckered."  She sighed and shifted slightly, reminding me I still had my
head on her chest. And that both of us were still wearing what we came to
the party in.  "But we're smarter now."

    "I hope so," I told her.  "I don't think I really saw Nagi, but it seems
like the dark is rising and there's only us to hold it back."  I had a
sudden suspicion I'd just quoted a movie or something but couldn't think of
what or when.

    "You thought you saw Nagi?" Mai asked.

    "It was just some purple-haired kid and his idiot middle-school
cronies," I told her, sighing and wondering where in the mansion we were and
why I was here instead of her lovers.

    Glancing over, I could see Miyu at the window, looking outside, with
Alyssa curled up asleep on the floor, watching.  "You been there all night,
Miyu?" I asked her.

    Mai blinked, now noticing her.

    "Keeping watch over you," Miyu said.

    I suddenly felt rather guilty.

    "Sister Yukariko is in the hallway," Miyu said.  "But has probably
passed out."

    "..."

    "Is something wrong?" Mai asked, sounding worried.

    "We wanted Nao to feel safe."  Miyu said this very matter-of-factly.

    Now I felt rather embarrassed.  "You didn't have to."

    "We take care of our own, Nao my sister," Miyu said softly.

    I froze.  Was that her way of saying...

    "Like you, I wish not to fail again when put to the test," Miyu said.

    "Miyu...you saved all our loved ones," Mai said softly.

    "I failed Alyssa.  And I failed the world," Miyu replied flatly.  "And I
failed God."

    I listened quietly; Miyu never opens up this much.  Had something
happened to rattle her too?

    It was clear Mai didn't know what to say, either.

    Miyu stared at us; I couldn't tell if she was trying to read our
reaction; I couldn't read her.  She walked over to me and took my hands.
"Nao, you are under my protection.  You are part of my family.  And I take
care of my own.  You are safe; you need not fear Nagi or the past."

    "Thank you," I said softly.  Her gaze was scary and comforting at once.

    "Not when there is so much else to fear in our future," Miyu said.

    That's our Miyu, alright.  There's reasons why we don't let her hear
confessions.

    "Mai, I understand the need of humans to nurture their children, but
Crystal will be full-grown soon. And we will need you," Miyu said to her.
"Things are going to get worse before they get better."

    Mai grimaced at that, then stared at the floor.  "I'm not much of a
fighter."

    "Then you will have to learn," Miyu said.  "And soon, I fear."  She was
still holding my hands and now she turned to look at me.

    "You were pretty good when we fought those goblins," I told Mai.  "And
damn, I'd forgotten how tough Kagutsuchi is."

    "Kagutsuchi," she whispered like someone saying the name of a lover.

    "Anyway, we should get some breakfast before Haruka scarfs down the
donuts," I said, then said to Miyu, "Thank you."

    Miyu let go of my hands.  "Come, sister," she said softly.  I felt
embarrassed and pleased at once, especially when I noticed Mai was smiling
at me like I was about to run off with a lover or something.

    "And it's Mikoto who would eat everything before we can," Mai said,
standing up and getting off the bed.  "Come on, let's go!"

    She took off running, so of course we had a race, though I think Miyu
probably let me win.

*******************

Crystal's Story, Part Two:

    I parried desperately as Natasha came at me, giving ground.  Much to my
frustration, she's better at this than I am, even though her mother can't
fight worth...worth something valuable.  Though some of that is that she
practices more obsessively than I do.  We spar together a lot to keep our
skills up.  I only win about a third of the time, unfortunately.  But I
can't keep my grades up and practice as much as her.  I don't know how she
does it.

    It didn't help when Dan got slammed to the ground by Shun nearby, who
then danced away from him before Dan could grab at his feet.  Dan's a crack
shot with a gun, but Shun can completely whip him at unarmed combat.  Or
whip either Natasha or I.

    There was no whipping, though, just me getting distracted by Dan-impact
noises, so Natasha tagged my shoulder.  "Touche!" she shouted triumphantly.

    We were practicing in the yard behind my dorm as we did a lot of nights,
especially lately.  Natasha had been quite firm ever since Aunt Mikoto's
tournament we needed to improve our skills.

    I think someone beat her hard, but she won't admit it.  To me, anyway.

    I got into combat stance again, and now unleashed one of my attack
patterns.  I drove Natasha back, forcing her to jump to avoid several low
slashes.  I think if I jumped like that, my breasts would bounce up and
knock me out, unfortunately.  I trapped her against a tree.  "Touche!
Hah!"

    She grinned even as Dan got slammed to the ground again.  Shun said,
"C'mon, you can do better than that."

    "Mom's bitching me out because I got less than a 95 on a History test,"
Dan mumbled.

    "Geez, it's not like anyone cares about history, anyway," I teased.  Dan
likes history like his mother, so this usually gets his goat.

    Dan grumbled more and got up.

    I nearly got touched by Natasha and just barely parried it.  I managed
to riposte, forcing her to back off, but then Kasumi came around the
corner.  "Hey, Crystal, do you..."

    Natasha turned and charged her.  "THINK QUICK!"

    Kasumi panicked, tripped, and howled, "I don't like fighting!"  She's
our resident pacifist.  Given her parents are both pretty peaceful and sane,
I'm not surprised.  I think her younger brothers absorbed any possible
aggression she might have had.

    Shun said, "Natasha, don't harrass Kasumi."  A futile gesture, really.

    Natasha was about to do something which would probably send Kasumi into
another one of her crying jags when Aunt Alyssa suddenly was in front of
her, punching her in the gut.  Natasha made a stuck pig noise, staggered
back and fell down.

    Aunt Yukariko helped Kasumi up.  "Are you okay, dear?"

    "It's for her own good...world is dangerous...all her boyfriends are too
pansy to protect her..." Natasha mumbled, rolling around moaning.

    "Upon those who start vengeance, vengeance will be carried out.  So
sayeth the Lord," Aunt Alyssa pronounced.

    "Hey, Crystal," Aunt Nao said; she looked confident again, which
relieved me.  I was surprised to see her again so soon and with all my other
rarely seen aunts too.  Not that I minded.  "Dan, Shun, good to see you
too."

    "I'm okay," Kasumi said, wobbling.  "That was dangerous, Natasha!"

    "The world is dangerous.  I estimate a 90% chance you will not live to
see thirty if you do not begin some proper training," Aunt Miyu said to
Kasumi, who stared, eyes wide.

    Sometimes I wonder how exactly she gets these numbers or if they're all
pulled out of her ass to try to win arguments.

    But suddenly I wondered why Aunt Miyu had said she would DIE.  I could
see Kasumi was now vibrating like a tuning fork.

    "Miyu, be gentle," Yukariko said.  "Still, it would be a good idea if
you learned to defend yourself.  I'm sure the others could teach you."

    Kasumi mumbled, "Die?"

    "The world is not even close to that dangerous," Shun said to Aunt
Miyu.  "Though it would be good for her."

    "Stop malingering," Aunt Alyssa said to Natasha.

     Natasha made a 'come hither' gesture to Alyssa, who now leaned down.
Natasha took this chance to pound Alyssa in the gut, causing her to clutch
her stomach and roll around on the ground.

    Dan put a hand over his mouth to hide his body's efforts to laugh loudly
at this and I smiled a little.  Those two never change, I think.

    "It is important," Aunt Miyu said.

    Aunt Nao said, "I think she's exaggerating for dramatic effect, but if
nothing else, you need to be ready in case some guy comes onto you and won't
take no for an answer."  She grimaced at that.

    Kasumi's eyes widened.  "Did someone..."

    "A few have tried," Aunt Nao said softly, then louder, said, "We can't
always be here to watch over you like I did with that punk bastard who was
trying to use Crystal as a toy."

    Everyone turned and looked at me and I turned red.  "Aunt Nao!"

    "You're not talking about...ummm....Masakuri Hayao?" Kasumi finished
weakly.

    Aunt Yukariko looked expectantly at Nao.

    For a moment, I could have sworn Aunt Nao's head swivelled without
respect for human biology as if a demon possessed her, but it was just my
imagination.  I hope.  "Yes, I am."

    "He...I mean...I knew Crystal liked him and...ummm..."  Kasumi shuffled
on her feet.

    I slapped my forehead.  "Did you come to ask if I minded if you asked
him out?"

    "He asked me out, but I knew you liked him enough to go to dangerous
trashy parties half-naked to impress him...I mean...ahaha..."  Kasumi was
disintegrating again.  "I shouldn't even think about a boy like that but
he's so pretty," she mumbled.

    Shun said, "He's a pretty good poet, but pretty much a party boy.
Doesn't strike me as your type, Kasumi."

    Dan said, "I expect his name and number are probably in the women's
bathroom with 'For a Good Time Call' next to it."

    Miyu looked at Nao and made an odd gesture, as if rubbing her throat.

    Nao shook her head at Miyu.  "Tell him no.  If he won't take no for an
answer...well, we can spare the time to kick his ass again tonight.  Though
he'll probably shit himself and run if he sees me."

    "Okay, now I'm curious," Shun said.  "What did you do to him, Auntie?"

    "Just gave him a little lesson in treating women well," Aunt Nao said.
"With the help of our friend, the bee.  Anyway, Kasumi, obviously we can't
make you do anything, but you could do a lot worse than training with your
cousins."

    Kasumi mumbled something at the ground.

    "It's okay," I told her.  "You don't have to do anything you don't want
to, but Aunt Nao is right."  I sighed.  "It's probably best you stay away
from him."

    "Unless you're looking for a meaningless fuck, anyway," Aunt Nao said.
"I expect he's sort of mediocrely good for that."

    Miyu now came over and picked Alyssa up, whispering to her, and I helped
Natasha up.

    "I...why would I die?" Kasumi whispered.

    "I do not wish you to die," Miyu said.  "I would rather you live a long
and healthy life before the inevitable death that comes to all things."

    Way to cheer her up, Auntie, I thought as Kasumi stared at her,
widemouthed.

    "Miyu...," Yukariko began.

    "The Lord said to his disciples, Behold, I send you forth as sheep in
the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as
doves," Miyu began.

    "I think harmless as a dove describes Kasumi pretty well," Shun said.

    I had to nod at that.

    "However, the Lord was talking to men who could cast out demons with a
command and heal the sick.  Can you?" Miyu asked Kasumi.

    "..."

    "Well???"

    "Miyu...," Yukariko tried to cut in.

    "No," Kasumi mumbled.

    "Therefore, you're going to have to be tough enough to deal with the
wolves in other ways," Miyu said.  "The time for you to be a cub is almost
over, I think.  You must learn to be stronger or you will be a victim as..."

    "That's enough," Yukariko said sharply to her and Miyu fell silent.
"I'm sorry, dear.  We just want you to be safe, but soon, you're going to
have to be able to protect yourself."

    "Isn't that why we have police?" Kasumi mumbled.

    "Police. HAH," Aunt Nao said, a little bitterly.  "Anyway, we didn't
actually come here to dump on Kasumi."

    "What brings you around?" Dan asked curiously.

    "They all got jealous I got to hang out with Crystal, so I had to bring
them over," Nao said, smiling a little.  "Plus, they all wanted to see Aoi
and Chie."

    "Who?" Natasha asked.

    I explained it all to her.

    Natasha looked thoughtful, rarely a good omen.

    "Come on, everyone, I'll introduce you all to them.  They're good
people," Aunt Nao said.

    The rest of the day was much calmer than their arrival; we had a good
time and I was glad to see Aunt Nao back to normal.

    I was pretty surprised when Mom showed up later that week, but that's a
story for another time.
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