[FFML] [Mai Hime, Future] A Dream of Flight

John Biles john at biles.us
Thu Feb 26 18:44:51 PST 2009


A Dream of Flight

By John Biles

Series:  Mai Hime (future)

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

    When I sleep, I dream of flight.  I soar across the landscape, looking
down on everyone, sometimes slowly, sometimes at incredible speed.  I can
fly to the moon if I desire or even to other worlds, where strange
civilizations dwell.  Some love me, some fear me, but everyone knows who I
am, for I am the Dragon-Rider, the Princess of Fire.

    Sometimes I wish my normal life was like that.  But most of the time I
know better.  Adventure has its vicious, dirty side.  Friends against
friends...I never want to have to fight someone I like again.  I couldn't
bear to see them die again.  Adventures mean fighting and fighting means
killing.  I've seen too much death.  We got off easy.  Too easy, probably.
Though I think we all became better people for it.

    I feel guilty, sometimes.  Every time I know Midori and Nao's team has
gone into danger, every time I know Reito has gone with them even though he
has no powers at all...I try not to know, or I think I'd go crazy.  I
just...I can't.  I shouldn't.  I want a normal life.  And I can't just jump
back and forth between a normal life and fighting monsters.

    The power is just too tempting for that. I have a husband, a wife, a
child, a career...I can't just throw them away and I don't want to make them
take second place to blowing things up.  Even though Mikoto would like to
blow things up...

    It's just so intoxicating, to ride Kagatsuchi into battle, to unleash my
fire.  Too intoxicating.  I can't trust it.  The next morning, after I last
helped them out, I had a morning meeting and it was a disaster and part of
me just wanted to burn everything and leave.  A small part, but still...it's
better I can't just use my powers all the time.

    Isn't it?

    I wish I knew.  Maybe I have a duty to fight these things.  Part of me
wants to.  And part of me is terrified of another...of what happened before.

    Enough angst.  I pulled into the parking lot at Rosewood Academy and
finally found a visitor's spot after what seemed like days of effort.  I
really shouldn't check up on Crystal like this; the last thing a girl her
age wants is her mother hovering over her.  I'm just feeling paranoid after
seeing those things...

    As I consulted my map, Shun startled me.  "Hi, Aunt Mai," he said.

    "Hi, Shun," I said, smiling, then notice what he's wearing.  "Umm, Shun,
why are you wearing a Catholic girl's uniform?"

    "Infiltration," he informs me, grinning.  "I had to sneak into Saint
Mary's and find out their plans for the One Act Play competition."

    "..."

    Shun twirls, skirts fluttering.  You'd think he was a woman...some days
I wonder if he can turn into a woman, really.  He certainly knows how to
exploit his skills for his own amusement.

    "When's the contest?"  I'll have to come watch.  Shun's a good actor.
Crystal tries but she's not good at learning her lines.

    "In about a month," Shun said, rocking back and forth on his feet; he
can be a little hyper sometimes.  "What brings you here, Auntie?"

    "Oh, I just came to visit Crystal," I lied.

    "You're kind of early; class is still in session," he said, studying me
curiously.

    "Oh, I just thought I'd enjoy the campus a while; I wanted to beat rush
hour traffic."  I steeled myself to try and supress any tics which might
give away the truth.  "And shouldn't you be in class?" I asked him.

    He smiled that gentle smile he got from my brother, his father.  "Don't
tell me you never skipped class, Auntie Mai.  Or broke a curfew."

    "I only did it when I had to f...," I caught myself just in time.  For a
moment, his eyes flicker and they are more his mother's in triumph than his
father's gentle ones.  And I wonder which of them he really got more from.

    "Hmmm?" he said with a rising inflection.

    "I worked hard to take care of myself and my brother.  You have it
easy," I told him, switching topics.

    "Oh, I work as a waitress, part time."  Shun curtseyed.  "You wouldn't
believe some of the odd things I have to dress up in."  It's clear he enjoys
it.

    "As...wait...."

    Shun just smiled at me, then took my arm.  "I will escort you around so
they'll know you aren't a student snuck out of class."

    "I don't look that young," I told him.  But it was kind of flattering.

    I let him lead me around campus, trying to see if I could sense
anything, if my tattoo would manifest, if I could feel my weapon.  But I
couldn't.  It all seemed utterly normal.  Which was what I wanted for
Crystal, a nice normal school where you don't have to kill your friends and
no one gets attacked by monsters.

    The school logo was everywhere, a huge green and brown tree with a white
circle at its base in which sits the blue rose of Rosewood Academy.  There
was a huge garden at the center with an arborium in the middle surrounded by
swirling rows of roses of every color.  All of the departments have a rose
logo of various colors.  I guess someone just really liked roses.

    The arborium contained many other kinds of flowers, but other plants as
well, including, to my surprise, oddly colored melons.  "The biology teacher
conducts experiments here," Shun told me as I studied them.  "I got to eat
one of her melons once; it was very tasty, though it reminded me of
strawberries."

    That sounded pretty tasty.

    Okay, now I sound like Mikoto-chan.

    I felt my nerves untangle.  There was nothing to worry about, really.

    The door opened and a dark haired teenage girl with glasses and long
black hair, clad in a Rosewood uniform (blue dress with gold trim), stepped
in, holding a watering can.  "Shun, did you sneak out of class to come here
and make out with a girlfriend AGAIN?" she demanded, hands on her hips.

    "This is my classmate Mitsu Kagami," Shun said to me.  "Mitsu-san, this
is Tate Mai."

    Mitsu Kagami stared at my chest; she was rather modest of figure but
everyone seems modest compared to me.  She frowned more.  "And you're BOTH
out of uniform!"

    "And you're skipping class," he observed, smiling.

    "I am not his girlfriend, I am his Aunt," I said firmly.

    "Auntie, you ruin the joke when you say that," he said to me.

    "Aunt?  But you..."  Kagami-san stared at me.  "You look too young."

    "Thank you," I said.  I don't really look THAT young, though, do I?

    "And Dr. Koyabishi asked me to water them right now!," Kagami-san said a
little frantically.

    "The biology teacher?" I asked.

    Kagami adjusted her glasses.  "Yes."

    "Don't let us hold you up," I told her.  "Let's go see the library.
Nice to meet you, Mitsu-san."

    We headed towards her and she looked progressively more nervous; as we
passed her, Shun kissed her cheek, then ran, dragging me along.  "You're
cute when you're flustered," he yelled back to her.

    "Shun-san, don't kiss and run!  I mean..."  She then chased us angrily
in the manner of someone who chases people like this a lot.

    I laugh a little, then get more serious.  "Shun, flirting with a woman
like that can hurt her if you don't take it seriously," I told him as we
keep running.

    "I can't help it; she's so cute when she drops her shields and shows her
true face," he said.  "Here we can cut through this dorm..."

    We raced past the maidstaff, who stare at us; it now hits me we're
running through a men's dorm, but I'm clearly a woman and Shun looks like
one and a third woman is chasing us.

    "Oh wow, she actually followed me in!  That's new," Shun said.

    "This happens often?"

    "Somewhat.  Helps keep me in shape."

    I can say he definitely didn't get this from EITHER of his parents.

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

    We ran and ran and ran until finally, as we came around a corner, the
two of us crash headlong into a pair of teachers, two big, strong men who
don't look very pleased.

    "Hi, coaches!," Shun chirped as one of them picked him up.

    "Back to class with you, freak," he said, carrying Shun off.

    The other studied me.  "Who..."

    "I'm his aunt," I tell them.  "I came to visit my daughter Crystal and
he was showing me around."

    I heard Mitsu-san coming and waved her off; she retreated in time to
avoid being noticed by the coach.

    "Parents are supposed to wait until class is over.  Come with me."

    I end up in the faculty lounge a while, feeling like I'm in detention.

    Then Crystal came in.  "Mom?" she asked in surprise.

    "The one and the same," I said, rising and hugging her.

    She looked half-embarrassed and half-pleased.  "Mom..."

    "I thought we could have dinner and just hang out a little," I told
her.  As the campus seemed clean to me.  Which Nao had told me.  But I had
to be sure.

    "Man, first Aunt Nao and then the whole nun Aunt brigade, then you.
Busy week for me."

    "She told me she'd visited, but didn't talk much about what happened."

    Crystal mumbled something incoherent, then looked embarrassed.

    I raised an eyebrow at her.

    "She didn't tell you?" Crystal asked, wobbling a little.

    "No," I told her.  Now I'm curious.  Though I guess she just wanted to
check on things.  Make triple sure it's safe here.

    "We had a good time," Crystal said neutrally.  Clearly hiding
something.  But I won't pry.

    Much.

    "Oh mom, I have good news for you."  She paused.  "I think."

    "Hmm?" I asked her curiously.

    "Come with me," she said, smiling in the way I know means she has
winkled out a secret.  Surely she can't...

    We end up outside the nurse's office; Crystal opened the door, revealing
a brown-haired woman in a nurse outfit busy kissing some dark haired guy
rather passionately.

    A few seconds later, I realized I was, in fact, looking at Chie busy
passionately kissing Aoi; Chie was wearing black slacks, a black vest and a
white buttoned shirt with a tie, while Aoi was wearing a pink and blue nurse
outfit.  For a moment, I remembered the first time I saw them kiss, way back
in High School and all the years fell away and I remembered them as they
were.

    They're older now.  I'm thirty nine, but I still look the same as I did
when I gave birth to Crystal sixteen years ago.  Magic, I guess.  But Aoi
and Chie were spared our miseries...but also didn't get the benefits.
They're both in good health and take care of themselves, so they only look
in their mid-thirties.  But it is noticable.  Though I think that one middle
lock of grey hair on Chie's head HAS to be an affectation.

    I haven't seen them in a year, not since our twentieth high school
reunion, and really, I haven't seen a lot of them since college.  You know
how it is, once you go out into the world, it's easy to drift away and lose
contact. I didn't even know Aoi worked at Rosewood, though it makes me feel
better about the place.

    And it's hard for those of us in the family to really...people know when
you're hiding something.  When you have to keep a secret...though really,
they're both pretty trustworthy.

    I'm not sure how much they know...they might know everything or almost
nothing; you couldn't attend our high school without knowing of some of the
weird things which happened.

    I got out my cellphone and took a picture, just to tease them.

    They both jumped, not having noticed us opening the door.

    "Reporter caught kissing school nurse, film at 11," I said to tease them
some more.

    "Journalism teacher now," Chie said.  "I'm teaching here at Rosewood.
Mai!"

    And then they're both on me in a tight hug.  There's a hint of
flirtation in Chie's embrace, though I know she is just teasing.  I don't
fall apart in the face of that any more, though, and I just hugged them back
firmly.

    "We were about to go get dinner," I told them.  "Want to join us?"

    "Yes," Chie said.  "I will drive, though, as I have the cool car."

    Chie has published several books; I kind of envy her that, and it means
she has enough money to do what she wants.  Though the last I knew, she was
a journalist, not a journalism teacher.

    We roar off in her GENOM 2800, which even I, who know little of cars,
have to say is a very, very nice car.  Crystal is laughing the whole way as
we roar down the road going far too fast.  To my surprise, the police don't
stop us at all.

    Then again, knowing Chie, she probably has blackmail on them.

    "So why are you teaching now?" I asked Chie as we race along.

    "I had a clash with my editor and I decided to spend a while teaching
and working on another book," Chie said.

    "What happened?" I ask, worried, as I lean on the front seats.  Crystal
and I were seated in the back.

    "I have to admit I am not 100 percent sure what happened," Chie said.

    "..."

    "Ever heard of the Tallin Institute?" Chie asked.

    "No."

    "They were trying to find ways to view other dimensions," Chie said.
"So far as I can tell, what actually happened was a lot of people ended up
brain-damaged by electromagnetic fields frying their brains and basically
went mad in various ways."  She grimaced.

    "Oh, I heard about that, I thought they all got electrocuted," Crystal
said.

    "He killed the story because he didn't think my evidence and
reconstruction of events was solid enough; I think he got leaned on by the
corporate sponsors," Chie said.  "So I'm going to make a book."

    "Good luck," I tell her.  Chie's exposed all sorts of corruption and
problems over the years; I guess I've seen more of her work than I've seen
of her.  Which makes me feel guilty.

    "It's going to be a very good book," Aoi says, patting Chie's right
hand, which is on the gear shift.  "And I switched jobs so we could move
closer to Rosewood and save some money on commuting."

    "Your anniversary is in two months, right?"

    "We'll have been married sixteen years soon, yes," Chie said.

    Their wedding rings are gold circles with a ruby set into them; I now
noticed each of them also wore a silver ring with a gemstone rose set into
it; Chie's was amber and Aoi's was yellow topaz.

    Aoi noticed me looking.  "We each got issued a ring by our department,"
she told me.  "I think mine is really pretty."

    "I wish I had a garnet one," Chie confessed.

    "I wish I could wear a school ring," Crystal said a little enviously.

    "You have to be in Ring Club or on the student council or a senior,"
Chie said.

    "Ring Club?" I asked.

    "The Rose Ring Club is a service club," Chie said.  "Their charitable
work means even freshmen members can wear the blue rose rings."

    I looked over at Crystal, who mumbled, "It's full of boring people."

    "Now, now, you didn't join the service club at our school," Aoi said,
waggling a finger at me.

    I laughed nervously, while Chie and Crystal both laugh loudly.

    "I know you had to take care of Uncle Takumi," Crystal told me, patting
my hand.

    "Does everyone still think they're a gay couple?" Aoi asked.

    "What?" Crystal asked, confused.

    "Haven't you ever seen the pictures?" Aoi asked.

    "Pictures?  What?" she asked.

    "I could have...well, I suppose it never came up," I told Crystal.
"Akira-chan was posing as a boy when she came to Fuka Academy."

    "She roomed with Takumi," Aoi said, fanning herself.  "I still get hot
thinking about what I thought was going on with them."  She was teasing.

     I hope.

    Crystal's eyes crossed.  "Wait, they were ROOMMATES?  At school???"

    "The school thought they were guys, everyone their age wanted Akira's
manly love," Chie said, grinning brightly as she passed a motorcyclist.

    "..."  Crystal's mouth flapped wordlessly.

    "I really thought everyone knew by now, including you," I told Crystal.
Surely it must have come up at some point, right?

    "Did they...I mean..."  Crystal's eyes were crossed, so I snapped a
picture.  So did Aoi; this left her rubbing her eyes.

    "I don't want to know," I told Crystal.

    "The odds are pretty good they were already doing it by the time they
came back from Takumi's surgery, but I can't prove anything until they were
juniors," Chie said.  "However, once Akira's cover got blown, she had to
move into the girls' dorm," Chie continued.

    "Why was she crossdressing?" Crystal asked.

    "Ninja thing," I told Crystal.  That would have to do for now.

    "So she IS a ninja!  Scoop!," Chie crowed.

    Aoi laughed softly, then began fiddling with the radio.

    We eventually got to the restaurant; Tiger Claw is a pretty good Chinese
restaurant; I have to say that one thing I appreciate about being an adult
is being able to afford good-quality food.  Even if I would make their
orange sauce differently.

    We settled down to eat and for quite a while, the three of us gossipped
about old times and people we knew, while Crystal listened very quietly.
But intently.  Which surprised me a little; gossip is usually only
interesting if you know the subjects of the gossip.

     "So I stop running and WHAM, Arika runs right into me and stumbles back
as I topple over, knocking Aoi down," Chie said.  "Aoi smacks into Nina, who
crashes back into poor Erstin, who gets buried under both of them. And then
Irina took a picture of us all, of course."  She shook her head, waving a
piece of chicken in the air with her chopsticks for emphasis.  "I'd show
you, Crystal, but it's stuffed in a photo album somewhere."

    "I'm surprised Nina and Mikoto never killed each other," Aoi said.
"Well, figuratively."

    That's because I made sure she didn't, I thought but didn't say.  "I
wonder whatever happened to them."

    "Oh, you didn't know?" Aoi asked.  "I thought you saw Haruka a lot."

    "I'm not sure if Haruka ever actually met them in school; she was a
senior by then and they were in middle school with Mikoto," Chie said.
"Irina works for one of Haruka's companies now.  I ended up talking to her
for technical advice on the story about that company.  I'm surprised you
didn't know about Arika, though."

    I'm about to look stupid, which I hate.  But no escaping now.  "What?"

    "You know, she won ten medals for Japan in three sets of Olympic
games....?" Chie said.

    "Wait, that was HER?" I asked, stunned.  I don't pay much attention to
sports.

    "Wait...Arika as in Yumemiya Arika?" Crystal asked, sounding a little
awed.

    "Everyone does grow up eventually," Chie said, amused.  "Anyway, she's
got a big pile of money and coaches, Nina's a major in the Self-Defense
Force, and Erstin teaches elementary school and last I heard had finally
shacked up with Nina.  And Irina is doing 'secret things' for Haruka."

    "So is Natsuki on boyfriend 2,000 or 3,000?" Aoi asked, looking up from
her barbeque pork.

    "I lost count long ago," I confessed.

    "He's a lot higher class," Crystal said.  "His name is Roger Smith and
he's a negotiator."

    "Wait, she's dating Roger Smith?" Chie asked, surprised.

    "You know him?" I asked curiously, then began working on another
eggroll.

    "He's so handsome," Aoi said, putting a hand to her cheek.

    "He is handsome," Chie said, sounding slightly rueful.

    "I thought he had a thing with his creepy secretary, though," Aoi said.

    "That's because you are very skilled at inventing fantasies, dear," Chie
said, then patted Aoi's left hand.

    "He does seem different than her usual," Aoi said thoughtfully, tapping
her cheek with her chopsticks; this was a mistake as she now put barbeque
sauce across her right cheek.

    "Senoh-sensei, you're smearing barbeque sauce on your cheek," Crystal
said to her right as I held out a napkin to her.

    We both smiled as Aoi took it and embarrassedly cleaned her cheek.

    "Are you all planning any more kids?" Aoi asked me.

    "Not right now," I told her.  "We're both too busy with work."

    "Well, remember, you'll get too old soon for kids," Aoi said, then
looked at me a second time.  "Even if you don't look it."

    "We had to adopt," Chie said.  "And I suppose you could, but..."  It was
clear she wished they'd been able to have one who would be the natural child
of both of them.

    "How is Erica doing?" I asked her.

    "She's at Rosewood this year, same grade as Crystal," Chie said.

    Crystal cocked her head.  "Wait...Harada Erica is your daughter?"  She
poked the side of her head.  "Of course.  I should have realized."

    "Shouldn't we have brought her?" I asked them.

    There was a deep and terrible silence.

    "We're totally going to die," Aoi said, burying her face in her hands
and looking stricken.

    "Maybe we'd better go stay with Mai a few days.  Mikoto-chan and
Yuuichi-kun can protect us with their swords," Chie said, teasingly.

    "Is she waiting for a dinner that is never going to be made?" I ask,
half-teasing and half-aggravated at them.  They're both grownups, this sort
of thing shouldn't happen.

    "No, she lives on campus and cooks her own dinner for her and her
roomate," Chie said.  "But she loves Chinese and is going to kill us for not
taking her."

    "Well, I'm sure she'll be understanding," I lied.  I have a teenage
daughter, I know better.  They're going to be in hell for days.  But they
brought it on themselves.  "But if you want to stay overnight at our place
tonight, that would be fine.  I'm sure Yuuichi-kun and Mikoto-chan would be
happy to see you."

    "Sure," Chie said.  "I'd like to tease them."

    "That would be nice," Aoi said, sounding grateful.

    "Aww, now I'm going to miss out," Crystal said.

    "We would just bore you talking about old times," I tell her.

    "It's always interesting," Crystal said.  I expect she hoped for more
hints of the things we can't tell her.

    "Did Mai-chan ever tell you about the time she confessed her love to
me?" Chie asked Crystal.

    "..."  Crystal stared, mouth wide open.

    "I...Chie!"  Okay, THIS flustered me some.

    Aoi giggled.

    "Well, sort of.  Told me that if I was a boy, she would have fallen in
love with me," Chie said.  She sounded very proud.

    "I was very jealous," Aoi said, smiling.  "I didn't get a confession."

    "Though it seems like you broadened your tastes after that," Chie said,
grinning.

    "I'm just glad you came out of all that okay.  I was very worried about
you," Aoi said, shivering a little.

    I noticed Crystal was now watching us very, very intently, the way
Mikoto watches something she's stalking and is about to pounce on.

    This is getting into dangerous territory.  "I wasn't as crazy as Haruka,
standing in front of those tanks."  I gave them a look, hoping they'd
understand.

    "Now Haruka has her own tanks to stand in front of," Aoi said, smiling.

    "And attack helicopters," Chie said.

    I suddenly wonder if she knows...but how would she?  "They're remarkably
comfortable to ride in," I said, then cursed myself for being a
blabbermouth.

    "You got to ride in one of her attack helicopters?" Crystal asked, in
surprise.

    "Yes."  No point in lying.  "I was pretty stunned when it landed in our
backyard."  Actually, I wasn't THAT stunned, as I'd called her about it.

    Crystal stared, mouth open.

    "Anyway, she took all three of us for a ride.  Pretty amazing," I said.


    "Man, I wish I could have gone," Crystal grumbled.

    I managed to redirect conversation to safe ground, then we took Crystal
home and the three of us headed to my house.

    "I'm home!" I announced.  "And I brought guests!"

    Of course, the day I impulsively invite old friends home is the day that
Takumi is hiding under the couch while Yuuichi (shirtless for no clear
reason), Akira, and Mikoto are sword fighting across the NEW FURNITURE.

    "Hi, sis!" Takumi said.

    Aoi said, "Shirtless Yuuichi-san!!"  She wolf-whistled appreciatively.

    "Chie-chan, Aoi-chan!"  Mikoto tried to jump to hug both of them at once
and instead crashed into Aoi, and they stumbled against the wall.

    Aoi hugged her tightly, while I said, "MY NEW FURNITURE!"

    Akira and Yuuichi both turned to dust and blew away in the wind.

    Chie snapped a picture of them and laughed.  "Some things never change."

    "What exactly happened?" I asked Mikoto, who is now hugging Chie.

    "We had to decide who would do the dishes," Mikoto said.

    I slapped my forehead as Takumi got out from under the couch and came
over to shake hands with Aoi and Chie, though they both hugged him instead.

    Yuuichi said, "I'm sorry I'm not wearing a shirt, but..."

    "We're not sorry at all," Aoi said, smiling and he turned a little red.

    "I'm very sorry, sister," Akira said to me, bowing.  "We got carried
away."

    "It's okay.  It still looks pretty good."

    "We should all take our shirts off, just to be fair," Mikoto said.

    I take no responsibility for how she gets these ideas.  None.

    "Let's not embarrass our guests," I told Mikoto.

    A series of very short bursts of music came from Chie's cellphone and we
all turned and looked as she punched buttons frantically.

    "I've got a bump and grind on here somewhere," Chie said distractedly
and everyone laughed.

    "I will get everyone some ice cream.  Mikoto-chan, will you help me?"

    By the time I got back out, everyone had settled down into chairs and
the couches in the living room; Takumi was sitting next to Akira, who had an
arm around him, holding him very tightly, which surprised me as Akira's
never been great at that kind of display of affection.

    We settled down for a nice long chat.

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

    Later, I went upstairs to take a bath, while my lovers and my sister
were in the backyard trying to beat each other up, while Chie egged them on.

    I found Aoi came to the bathroom at the same time as me.  "You can go
first," I told her.  "You're the guest."

    "Is there room for both of us?" she asked hesitantly.

    "It's not well designed, though you can have more than one person," I
told her.  For a microsecond, I wondered if she was...but no.  She and Chie
were very happily married so far as I could tell.  Chie still flirted with
everything under the sun and Aoi liked to tease, but...  I shook my head at
myself for even thinking about it.  But she seemed suddenly very worried.
"Are you okay?" I asked.

    "I need to talk to you in private," she said softly.

    Without Chie...what was wrong?

    "Okay."

    The basic problem is that the bath is long enough that 3, maybe even 4
people can stand in it, but the one closest to the showerhead is going to
cut off the water mostly.

    So I let her get in close and worked on her hair while she showered.
"I'm worried about this story Chie's working on," she said to me finally as
she scrubbed her stomach.

    "Go on?" I said, slowly working through her long hair; I keep my hair
short because washing long hair is a huge pain.

    "The Tallin Instititute was engaged in really dangerous experiments, but
it had really big money behind it," Aoi said.  "I'm just afraid Chie's going
to get herself in over her head."  She sighed.  "I hate to burden you with
this, but I just need to talk about it to someone who cares.  Without having
another fight with Chie about it."  She sighed deeply.

    I know the feeling.  Luckily, I can usually talk to Akira about things
if I have trouble with Yuuichi or Mikoto.  I patted her shoulder.  "You're
afraid they may try and...'deal' with her?"

    "Yes.  Also, she plans to sneak into the Tallin Institute ruins and poke
around.  Which is completely crazy.  It's totally dangerous and an
invitation to get shot by security," Aoi said.  She sighed.  "But Chie won't
back down. You know how she is."

    "Yes," I said softly.  "I don't know if she'd listen to me."

    "I doubt it," Aoi said, sighing and looking older than usual.  "I love
her courage but I'm scared."

    "When is she going?"

    "Saturday night, when she doesn't have to work," Aoi said.

    I had a sudden idea.  "I think perhaps I can talk Akira into watching
over her," I told Aoi.  "That should keep her safer."

    "Thank you," Aoi said.  "So is she really a ninja?"

    "Yes."

    "Wow," Aoi said, scrubbing her arms.  "What's it like having a
ninja-in-law?"

    "Remember the big swordfight we walked in on?" I asked as I finished her
hair.

    "Yes?"

    "Happens ALL THE TIME."

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

    To my relief, Akira was happy to help.  I just hoped I wasn't sending
her into danger, but unless our powers worked there, I would have just been
deadweight, whereas, Akira can take care of herself in dangerous but normal
places.

    I couldn't help but try driving past the place on my way to work the
next morning, though.  It gave me a very uncomfortable, unsettled feeling
and at time, the lights inside the ruins seemed wrong.  The shadows seemed
twisted.  But probably this was my imagination.  I couldn't feel my powers
coming on but then...

    I made myself forget it, but at lunchtime, I called Haruka and asked
what she knew about it.

    "Yukino can tell you more than I remember; our spies indicated, though,
that the whole process might have actually briefly touched other dimensions
but was completely unstable and dangerous.  I'm not surprised it went to
hell."

    "Is it safe for Chie now?"

    "There's no power flowing in, so I can't see how the equipment could fry
her.  Security guards, on the other hand, might be a threat," Haruka said.
"Yukino found no evidence of any menaces from another dimension when she did
a sweep."

    I felt somewhat better.  "So it's not a power zone?" I asked hopefully.

    "Not now, anyway," Haruka said.

    This made me feel much better.  But...  "Wait, not 'now'?"

    "There were traces that might have indicated it was briefly a power zone
before everything went to hell," Haruka said.  "But I don't think it is
right now."  She paused a moment and said, "Not that I can tell personally."

    I felt reassured I wasn't sending Akira into something terrible.
Probably it wouldn't be dangerous at all.  But better safe than sorry.

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

    That night, I tried to work on a project to make sure it would get done
in time, but instead, I kept checking my phone every three minutes to make
sure I hadn't gotten any calls from Akira or Chie.  Or a panicking Aoi.

    The phone rang and I grabbed it before it could ring twice.  "Hello?" I
asked nervously.

    "You need to come arrest our children and their friend," Akira said to
me.

    "What?" I ask in confusion.  Wait...did the kids follow Chie from the
school or something?

    "Crystal, Shun, and a classmate of theirs are here, having gotten it
into their heads to sneak around the place and investigate.  Can you bring
Yuiichi-san or Mikoto-chan and haul them off?"

    "Yes," I said.  "We'll be there as fast as I can."

    I got my lovers and we piled into my car and headed off to where Akira
told us to meet them, a parking lot near the ruins.

    "We should help them search!," Mikoto said.  "Yuuichi-kun can give the
kids their beating."

    Part of me wanted to; even if Yukino had said it was clean, it might not
be.  But the other part knew that unless I could use my powers, I wouldn't
be much use here.  But Mikoto would.  I hate to see her in danger, but...

    I glanced over at Yuuichi, who said, "I can handle the yelling if you
two think you need to help."

    Mikoto smiled brightly and I caved in.  She wants to help but I usually
hold her back. And really, this shouldn't be that dangerous, unless it is a
power zone, in which case they may need me.

    "Okay," I said.  "We'd best hurry; we all have to work tomorrow."

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

    It turned out Mitsu Kagami was the one they'd shanghaied, as she had
access to a car.  The last thing I need is a teenage driver with no license
risking my daughter's life.  Though she'd seemed a responsible girl.  But I
now suspect she likes Shun but can't admit it.  And I think he knows it.
And exploits it.

    Which rather annoys me, but I'm not his mother, so I can only do so
much.

    Akira was tugging him around by the ear when we pulled into the parking
lot.  I let her work on him and came over to Crystal.  "Crystal, I thought I
taught you not to be crazy."

    "Aunt Akira came here with Harada-san to investigate!," Crystal
protested.

    "My sister could take out half a dozen security guards if she had to
without getting hurt.  And Chie-san is old enough to take care of herself."
Though I now realized I couldn't see Chie anywhere.

    "I just want to know what's going on," Crystal mumbled, staring at the
ground.

    "Ideally, nothing," I told her, then sighed.  "We're just trying to make
sure Chie doesn't get in over her head," I said very softly.

    "Does this have something to do with...," Crystal began, then glanced at
Mitsu.

    She's far too determined to stick her nose in a light socket, but at
least she has a little discretion.  I love my daughter, but sometimes she
makes me crazy.

    Mitsu shifted back and forth on her feet, glanced at Shun, then shuffled
some more.

    "Sister, where is Chie?" I asked Akira.

    "Business," Akira said.

    I wondered what exactly that meant.

    Mikoto now stepped up to Crystal, taking her hands.  "I know it's hard
to let other people go on adventures without you, but you're going to have
to be patient until you're an adult, and then no one can stop you doing
whatever you want."

    Crystal sighed, staring at the ground.  I had the feeling we might need
to station someone to make sure she didn't just sneak back here tomorrow or
something.

    Yuuichi now went over to Mitsu-san.  "I'm going to drive you all back in
your folk's car, then Mai will come pick me up.  Which one is yours?"

    She took him off to it.

    Crystal mumbled, "Dan gets to go on adventures with his mom, sometimes."

    I rubbed my forehead.  "I'm not Midori and I don't take my children near
hails of bullets."

    A distant roar interrupted our...discussion.  We all turned and saw
Natsuki roaring up into the parking lot.  "I'm here, Akira," she said.
"What's the...Mai, what are you doing here?"

    Crystal glanced and got a look I know too well, the suspicious look.
Well, as long as she doesn't sneak out of school again...

    I pointed to Crystal.  "Some of the kids decided to 'borrow a car' and
come 'help'," I told Natsuki.

    "Hey, I can fight pretty well, Shun too," Crystal said.

    "You exploited the affections of a schoolmate to get her to help you
break school rules and come here to risk your life," I said sharply to her
and she now looked mortified.  "Unless Mitsu-san is hiding secret combat
abilities, you were putting her in danger to satisfy your own curiosity.
And there's nothing worse than playing with someone's feelings!  NOTHING."
I had to force myself to calm down as I was about to start screaming at the
top of my lungs.  And it had been Shun's idea, I was sure of it.  Dammit.

    Crystal spluttered, but I could tell I'd scored a solid hit.

    "You're going to go with your father and turn yourself in to the school
authorities and accept whatever punishment they see fit, though I'm sure
your father will ask for clemency for you."  Yuuichi's a softie.  I love him
for it, but I always ended up having to do the disciplining.  "And apologize
to Mitsu-san."

    Crystal sighed in the way teenagers do to express adults are idiots and
grumbled at the ground.

    I soon got her herded off and Chie returned from nowhere as Yuuichi left
with the kids; Crystal still looked petulant as she got driven off, but what
did she expect?  This could be dangerous.

    "Hey, I didn't expect to see you stay, Mai," Chie said.

    "Aoi asked me to watch over you," I told her.  "She was worried, so of
course I worried."

    "And I will watch over Mai!," Mikoto said excitedly.  She looked very
happy.

    "It's been a while," Natsuki said softly.

    "I expect we won't find anything," I said.  "But just in case..."

    "I know.  There probably won't be anything," Chie said.  "But I need to
make sure there isn't anything important here."

    "Are we sure the kids can't give Yuuichi the slip somehow and come
back?" Natsuki asked.

    "No," I said.  "But he will call us if there's any trouble," I
continued.  I rubbed my fingers together nervously.  "Let's do this."

    "You don't have to come," Chie said to me softly.  "I mean...I don't
mind, but don't feel you have to.  I know this isn't your kind of thing."

    If I knew for sure this place wasn't another powers zone, I wouldn't
come.  But I want to be sure Chie is going to be safe.  That's all.

    "It's okay," I told her.  "We need to see each other more often, anyway,
not just kind of drift in and out of each other's lives every few years.
We're friends, right?"

    "Of course," Chie said, though she was giving me a little bit of an odd
look.

    "Don't worry, Chie-san!  I will protect both of you!" Mikoto said
firmly.  "Are we ready, Mai-chan?"

    I suddenly realized everyone was looking at me expectantly.  When had I
suddenly gotten in charge of this expedition?

    But if they wanted me to lead, well, part of what I do for a living is
tell people what to do.  I studied the road just for a minute.  "Did you
already find us a way in?" I asked Akira.

    "Yes," she said.  "We'll need to circle to the northwest corner where
the fences don't come together well; with a little effort, we can get in
there."

    I suddenly wondered if I should have called Yukariko and Nao and Midori
and Miyu and Alyssa and Reito.  But no, I couldn't always lay the burden on
them.  Especially as nothing might be happening.

    Though I don't know what to tell Chie if I do end up having to use my
abilities.  But I would figure out something, I was sure.
    "Cellphones set to vibrate," I said.  "Last thing we need is one of the
kids calling to yell at us and alerting some security guard."

    There was a flurry of clickings.

    "Is there somewhere to park closer to the entry point?"

    "Not unless we break into a closed parking lot," Akira said.

    "Natsuki, scout our entry point; text me once you think it's safe and
we'll approach," I said.

    Natsuki nodded, mounted up and roared off.

    Mikoto bounced back and forth excitedly.

    It seemed like a million years, but I soon got the heads up from
Natsuki.  "Okay, let's go." I said softly.

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

    We got into the wreckage of the facility; we all had to move carefully
as there was still bits of glass and twisted metal everywhere.  Whatever had
happened here had been an utter disaster.  I could see body shaped splatters
of blood, but the police had moved all the bodies by now, thankfully.  Just
seeing the mess made me feel a little sick.

    "Ne, ne, no one is using a computer, are they?" Mikoto asked.

    Chie blinked as she took a cell phone picture of one of the splatters.
"Do you hear something, Mikoto-chan?"

    "It's the computer sound," Mikoto said, looking around.  "But it doesn't
look to me like there's any electricity running; all the lights are out."

    Akira had vanished into the shadows, while Natsuki stood near me, pistol
in one hand, flashlight in the other.  "The power into this place is
supposed to have been cut off," Natsuki said.

    "Hmm, which way is it?" Chie asked.

    Mikoto spun, then pointed and we headed that way through the ruins.  I
wondered how many people had been hurt or killed and I felt very sad for
them.

    As we walked, we all looked around warily and I tried to listen to
my...I'm not sure what to call it.  My sense of magic, I suppose.  I can
tell I'm somewhere my powers work if I focus.  I'm not too good at it,
though, as I don't get into such situations too often.

    The first sign of trouble was when Natsuki pushed a door open and got a
little static zap.  My hair felt strange, I realized and pretty soon we
could all feel the charge in the air.

    I raised a hand.  "I can't say I know much about electricity, but
something has to be making this, right?  This much static doesn't happen
naturally this time of year."  I think.

    Chie frowned.  "Yeah.  Also, I feel something in my feet."

    We paused and listened.  It felt like almost a heartbeat in the ground,
some sort of steady rythymic rattle.  Or maybe...  "It's a generator," I
said.

    "What, one of those portable ones that run on gasoline?" Chie asked.

    I nodded.

    Nervously, I licked my lips.  "Well, static is more annoying than
dangerous...did the experiments here produce static?" I asked Chie.

    "Not like this, I don't think," Chie said, looking around and frowning.
"We may have to..."

    There was a noise like a sharp stab to the head with an ice pick.  We
all staggered and then suddenly the static was gone.  This did not actually
relieve my worries.

    My phone vibrated; it was Akira with a text message.  'There are two men
downstairs with a generator hooked up to some of the equipment.  Come
quickly.'

    We hurried, though she had to send us directions.  Mikoto looked very
excited, Natsuki looked worried and alert, and Chie was grinning.

    As we came down the stairs, there was an odd feeling in the air, a
feeling like dropping into the sea, pressure all around me, though gentle.
Then I felt the pressure slowly increasing but something else as well.

    Magic....or whatever it is that gives us our powers.  Mikoto's eyes
widened and I could see Natsuki looking at me and nodding seriously, while
Chie seemed oblivious but generally excited.

    I got another message from Akira.  'Summoned my Element.'

    Part of me was now extremely nervous.  The other part was extremely
excited and almost eager.  And a third part quietly noted there was no way
any of the Childs except Dhuran could fit into this basement.  Maybe if
Diana flattened herself out a lot, but certainly not Kagatsuchi.

    I could feel my mark.  And the more I felt the power, the stronger the
pressure.

    Chie paused, took off her glasses and began to wipe them; she was
sweating a little.  "What the hell is this?  Is the air getting denser?  I
feel like I'm underwater."

    "Mai, should I..." Mikoto began.

    "Not yet," I said softly, glancing at Chie.  Louder, I said, "I feel it
too," to Chie.

    "And I," Natsuki said, frowning.  "What is this?"

    "Even when the equipment was functional, this didn't happen," Chie
said.  "Unless it was normally contained somehow."  She got out a microcomp
and began paging swiftly through notes.

    I wanted to call up my Element but having to explain things to Chie
would be complicated.  Once again I told myself I should have thought that
through before committing to this.

    Natsuki looked thoughtful, then said, "We'd better go forward."

    I nodded nervously; I could feel my heart beating faster from the
stress.

    Slowly, we advanced, flashlights showing us the way.  And then the
pressure suddenly burst, as if we'd stepped through a bubble's skin.  Or
something.

    Chie said, "I think normally, the pressure shift was contained in an
experimental chamber, according to these files I borrowed."

    "Borrowed," Natsuki said, a little amused.

    Chie sent a text message, got a reply, then pulled a pistol.  "I would
have brought you one, Mai, if I'd known you were coming."

    I stared at it, then licked my lips.  This was serious.  "Don't shoot
unless I say to fire," I told her.  I prayed for a moment, then hoped very
strongly I hadn't been an idiot to come here.  Maybe I should have just sat
on Chie until she gave up.

    But she wouldn't give up without the truth.

    Mikoto moved to protect me, sword in hand; Natsuki took the lead in
front of Chie and then we cracked open a nearby door.

    There were two slightly shimmering men in labcoats operating strange
looking equipment now being powered by a very noisy generator which had
conveniently hidden all evidence of our advance.  In places in the equipment
room and beyond the broken glass pane which connected it to another room
full of huge crystalline rods and strange electronics, there were shimmering
curtains of light, like tiny ground-level aurora borealis.

    "Doctor Wang and Doctor Homer," Chie whispered.  "They don't
normally...that isn't radiation is it???"  She pulled a box and waved it
around but it made no noise, which relieved her a little.

    "Any chance they'll talk to us?" I whispered to Chie.

    I had to repeat myself before she could hear me over the generator
noises.

    "Maybe," Chie said.  "Crazy bastards, what do they think they're doing?"
she asked angrily.

    One of the curtains tore suddenly, revealing a swirling mist, out of
which emerged something like a tiger if you flayed it alive and made its
muscles maroon and green.  It was intensely creepy.  It floated in the air,
but began to drift towards the ground.  The scientists looked very excited
and jabbered in some language I didn't know.

    "Mai," Mikoto said urgently.

    "Chie," Natsuki said softly.  "There wasn't anyone involved with this
project named Nagi, by any chance?"

    "Nope," Chie said.  "Doesn't ring a bell."

    "We have to try and talk to them."

    Chie looked hesitant to my surprise.  "I want to know," she said
softly.  "But this does look really dangerous.  Maybe I should just snap
some photos and we should call the police."

    That was the sensible thing to do, but whatever that was, I had a
feeling the police couldn't handle it.  Chie...We'd have to use our powers
if it came to a fight.  I trusted Chie, but she was a journalist and...

    "Chie, go call the police, we'll keep watch," I said softly.

    "I can call them from here; those guys will never hear me over that
generator.  And you think I'm going to run off and leave YOU here, Mai?" she
asked.  "You're not even armed."

    I felt the ground shake gently, just for a moment.  We all looked around
but the micro-quake passed, thankfully.

    "Can't we call Haruka and her attack copters?" Mikoto asked.

    "Not here in the middle of a city," I told her.  "But...Chie, call
Yukino.  Keep her linked in; she can call the police if we tell her to."

    Chie nodded and did so.

    I'm being crazy, I thought.  But...

    Another tiger creature emerged from another rift to more scientist
self-congratulation.  And the ground shook very gently again, worrying me
more.

    No more delaying.  I got us into this, I thought.  And I will get us
out.

    Once Yukino was listening in, I breathed in and out, then stepped into
the room with Natsuki and Mikoto covering Chie and I.  "Stop," I said.
"You're releasing monsters from other dimensions into this one!"

    "We are conducting an experiment," one of the men, Wang, said.  He
stared at me hollowly with a perfectly calm expression.  "And you are
trespassing."  His voice echoed like something else, something staticky and
electrified was speaking in unison with him.

    "They must perish," Doctor Homer said with the same kind of eerie
effect.  "Do you not recognize them, brother?"

    Given he was white and Wang looked Chinese, it was hard for me to see
them as brothers.

    Wang stared at me, lights flickering in his eyes.

    "The last time this was tried, the whole place exploded!" Chie said.
"Shut this down immediately!"

    "That was due to one of the others realizing in time and trying to stop
us."

    Another tiger thing appeared; they were prowling our direction.

    "Battle Princesses!", Wang suddenly hissed.  "The daughters of the
Crystal Princess!"

    "What?" Chie said.  "You two have just gone crazy, haven't you."  She
half-raised her gun, then lowered it to a quarter of the way up and
hesitated.  I was pretty sure she's never killed anyone.  And I hoped she
wouldn't have to start now, but if they knew that....

    This was about to go to hell.

    Only one hope left.  I stepped forward, next to Mikoto.  "If you know
that, then you know who I am and who serves me."

    "Your Children cannot save you here.  This space is too small for them,"
Wang said hollowly.  He pushed a lever up all the way and the generator
began to whine loudly as now more and more rifts ripped and tiger creatures
began to pour through.

    "What the hell is going on?" Chie asked me now.  "Mai, what are you
doing?"

    "Chie, please don't tell anyone about this.  I trust you to keep my
secrets, please?" I asked her urgently.

    "But my story..."

    "Mai...," Mikoto said urgently.

    "Please, we can't have a normal life if this gets out," I said to her
urgently.  "Please."

    "Mai, I think we need to worry about SURVIVAL now," Natsuki said,
summoning her pistols.  I don't think Chie noticed, as Natsuki was behind
her.

    "Okay," Chie said softly.  "But I want to know the truth."

    "You will know," I promised her.  "Who are you, really?" I asked them.

    They said something totally incomprehensible with a bunch of growls and
klicks and car crash noises I can't even reproduce.

    "I am the victor of the Festival, I am the Dragon-Princess, who commands
Kagatsuchi, mightiest of the Children.  And I am going to stop you before
more people are hurt!  Natsuki, summon Dhuran and take out the generator!
Mikoto, start killing the...mutant tigers!  Chie, stay close by me!"  I
summoned my Element in a great gout of flame rising around me; Chie jumped
back in shock.

    "DHURAN!" Natsuki shouted triumphantly, even as I fried the first
tiger-thing to come at me and Mikoto now called her black blade and began
dancing tiger to tiger, laying waste to them.

    Chie stared at me mouth wide open and again I wished I had thought of a
better way to handle this.   Then she stared at Dhuran as he appeared.

    More tiger-things were pouring in while Wang and Homer scampered about,
tending their devices.  Until I set the machines on fire.

    "Dhuran, BURNING ALUMINUM ROUND," Natsuki shouted.  He fired off a huge
bullet into the generator, which now exploded in a ball of flame.  The
shockwave knocked all of us down and I landed on Chie, who now began blazing
away with her pistol at the tiger-things.  To my surprise, the bullets
actually hurt them, though it took several shots to kill any of them.

    "Are these things really from another dimension?" Chie asked.

    "Yes," I told her, then blasted away another tiger-thing which was
trying to come for Chie, then helped her up and got up myself.  Part of the
room was on fire, which was not very fun, given the smoke.

    Unfortunately, though the rate stopped speeding up, more tiger-things
were still coming.  Dhuran tried a silver round, but this didn't do any good
to shut the portals, though it tore through several of the tiger-things.

    And now something bigger strained at the rifts, as if trying to come
through three of them at once.

    I could see several tiger-things coming towards Natsuki at once; I could
sort of hear Yukino saying something to Chie, and Chie said, "Yukino says
she's got satellite footage of something above you, a giant humanoid of
metal, like a military combat mech.  No clear ownership markings, though!"

    I burned one of the tiger-things but was too busy keeping them off Chie
to help her.

    There was a sudden flash and now Wang and Homer collapsed, spectral
figures oozing up out of them as Akira stood over their bodies, blade in
hand.  She began attacking the figures and I prayed the two men weren't
dead.  They must have been possessed.

    Natsuki blazed away while Dhuran hammered at the portals and some of the
tiger-things, but there were just too many.

    And then the roof ripped off and a huge metal hand scooped Natsuki up
out of harm's way.  Another fist came down, crushing the burning machines
and some of the tiger-things.  I pulled back with Chie, frying tiger-things
right and left, while she cursed the fact that she had to shoot a lot of
bullets to actually kill one and now she was running low on ammunition.  I
was surprised she had a gun at all, given Japan's laws.  Let alone ammo for
it.  She looked rather panicky; I couldn't blame her.

    "Natsuki-chan!" Mikoto shouted, jumping up to the hand and standing
defensively in front of Natsuki as the hand lifted her up to ground level.
Dhuran fired a shot into the portals beyond which something bigger, nastier
was trying to come through.  I could see the edges of the bubble now; they
were starting to shrink with the generator dead, so we just had to hold any
more from coming through.  I hoped that was all.

    "You can't have Natsuki!" Mikoto shouted at the giant...well, it looked
like a huge mostly blue mechanical robot that looked vaguely like a giant
pharoah.  Wearing a big red bib under his chin.  Okay, he's hard to
describe.

    Several tiger-things jumped up and got hosed down with huge bullets by
the giant robot; the tiger-things caught fire and burned to death; Chie
looked rather frustrated by this and grumbled about guns.

    It was pretty clear to me it was on our side and trying to protect
Natsuki.  "It's okay, Mikoto, it's on our side!"

    Something huge and strangely two-dimensional lashed out of the rifts
with some kind of tendril at Natsuki, but the robot interposed itself,
blocking the attack and shooting into that rift.

    Akira now took the head off one of the spectral, twisted figures which
had been controlling the two scientists and began chasing the other.  I
blasted the other one with flame and it evaporated, leaving only an
after-image.  I could see the bubble shrinking and now the giant robot
rippled.

    Rippled?

    Hastily, it set down Natsuki and Dhuran, who began to ripple himself,
while Mikoto leaped down next to them.

    The Robot turned and fled, flickering more as it left the shrinking
bubble.

    It wasn't hard for us to hold off the creatures now as the rifts
collapsed; soon they were all dust and then our powers faded entirely; the
robot had vanished and Yukino reported it had moved out of her satellite's
visual range, though it had headed off east.

    "Time to get out of here," I said and we took off as fast as we could
before the inevitable tide of police, firemen, etc.

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

    Aoi stared at us in shock as we sat on her couch with her in Chie's lap
on a facing recliner.  "Chie..." she began.

    "I know it's hard to believe, but it's real," Chie said.  "I even got
pictures, though I can't show anyone."  She began flicking through them to
show Aoi.

    I sat on the couch with Mikoto half-asleep next to me while I drank my
tea.  Akira and Natsuki were in recliners as well, also drinking tea.

    "Whoever was piloting that mech knows too," I said.

    "I think it was a Child," Akira said.

    "But we already know all the Childs, don't we?" I asked her.

    "It faded away once it left the magic zone; I don't think it was a real
combat mech, but a Child that looked like one," Akira said.  "And it
definitely was trying to protect Natsuki."

    "Maybe her love for Mr. Smith created a new Child!" Mikoto said,
suddenly perking up.

    Natsuki turned red.

    "Or maybe it's Chie's Child," Mikoto said.  "She ought to have one too."

    "It doesn't just work like that," I told her.  Does it?  We still don't
know why WE are the Battle Princesses and not someone else, after all.
Surely it can't just be stress in a magical zone.  Right?  I had my mark
from birth, but then it vanished, but it comes back when I'm around
magic....aargh.

    "Wouldn't it have been trying to save my ass?" Chie asked.

    "Mai had your ass covered," Mikoto said.  "So maybe it then tried to
protect your friends and Natsuki was in the most danger."

    But why now, I wondered.  And not back then?  Or had we undone some
limit on the number of battle princesses when we ended the Festival?  Chie
had been at the school, so maybe...but it didn't seem quite right to me.

    "So now what?" Aoi asked nervously.

    "Yukino's going to investigate some," Natsuki said.  "I think the site
is useless to them now, but we need to be watchful.  Too many unanswered
questions."

    There was a knock and Aoi got up and let Yuuichi in.  He looked tired.
"Hey, dear," he said to Mikoto and I, kissing each of us, then falling down
on the couch.  "Kids aren't supposed to be this exhausting once they're
teens."

    "Honey, do you know much about combat mecha?" I asked him.

    "We're in robots more than mecha," Yuuichi said.  "But maybe.  There's a
lot of overlap in parts and things for some purposes."

    Chie showed him the pictures.

    "Not a model I'm aware of and no ownership insignia," he said.

    We told him the whole story as he listened and stared up at the ceiling,
frowning.  "Unless it had some kind of weird stealth tech, that sounds more
like a Child which looks like a robot.  Not that I'm exactly an expert,
though."

    "But if it's a Child, the only person it could be would be Chie, right?"
I asked him.

    Aoi and Chie both looked like they weren't sure if they wanted this to
be true or not.

    "Or one of the children," Natsuki said softly.  "We have no real idea if
being a Hime is hereditary or not.  They weren't born with marks, but our
marks don't normally show now either."

    "But I kept the kids away," Tate said, frowning.

    "You kept Shun and Crystal away," Natsuki said.  "But there is still
Natasha and Kasumi and Dan."

    "Kasumi would never try to sneak into a place like that," I said.  "And
Dan...unless he's a better cross-dresser even than Shun, it's only women,
right?"  But we couldn't be sure of that either.

    "But Natasha would sneak in," Natsuki said.

    "And possibly use the others to distract us," Tate said, now
face-palming.

    "Want me to put out some feelers to see if anyone saw her sneaking off
campus?" Chie asked.  "I know a few... people."  She grinned a little,
clearly more comfortable to be on familiar ground.

    "It seemed protective of Natsuki," Akira said.  "Perhaps it is possible
for us to somehow bond to multiple Children.  And yes, I think that is
wise."

    Chie got on the phone.

    Aoi rose.  "I'll get everyone more tea."  And then she vanished into the
kitchen.

    "Well, there's an easy way to tell if it's Chie's Child," Akira said.
"We'll have to ask Sister Yukariko, but I know her order tracks those places
where magic works.  Check for the Hime mark.  Or possibly something else.
Certainly we know there are other things and people who sometimes weild
power besides us."

    "What about those things that possessed the scientists?" Mikoto asked.

    "They must have escaped during the earlier experiment and jumped into
the scientists," Akira said.

    I nodded.  "That makes sense."

    "But they glowed," Mikoto said.  "Wouldn't people notice?"

    "They probably could hide it," I said, hoping there weren't a bunch of
other evil possessing spirits around.

    Chie closed her phone.  "Natasha's not in her dorm room."

    "We'd better call Shiho," I said.  "Natasha is her daughter."

    "Let's make sure there's reason to accuse," Natsuki said.  "Once Shiho
gets worked up, she's so hard to calm down.  And she's still mad at Mikoto
over Natasha skipping out of school for the tournament."

    I frowned a little but I couldn't argue with that. It's just...well, I'd
want to know if the others found Crystal up to something.

    Mikoto looked embarrased and mumbled at the floor.

    Then my phone rang; it was Crystal, so I answered it.  "Hi, honey.  Is
something wrong?"

    "Are you okay?" she asked urgently.

    Why would she...oh.  It must be on the news at least somewhat, now.
This was going to complicate things.  "I am perfectly fine."

    "The TV says that place is on fire and people are claiming they saw a
giant robot!," Crystal said.  "Or a combat mech or something!"  She sounded
frantic.

    "I am just fine," I told her.

    "What happened?  Why is it burning?" she asked urgently.

    "What's wrong?" Yuiichi asked.

    "Looks like we sort of made the news," I mumbled, embarrassed, to them.

    Chie slapped her forehead, and the others looked worried or aggravated
or both.

    To Crystal, I said, "Some of the scientists who ran the initial
experiments didn't take 'laboratory destruction' for an answer and decided
it was a good idea to plug a gas-powered generator into damaged equipment,"
I told her.  It was more or less the truth.  "None of us know why a giant
robot or mech or whatever it was showed up."  Again, more or less the
truth.  We weren't sure of anything.  "None of us got hurt," I told her.

    "Mom, you're not off being a spy instead of a consultant when you're at
work, are you?" Crystal asked, sounding slightly hysterical.

    "That's more of Natsuki's job," I told her.  "I really am a consultant,
honey.  I just got into this to help Chie."

    Chie looked rather embarrassed and now turned on the TV, which was busy
showing the burning facility.  Mikoto stared at the fire, half-hypnotized.
Aoi returned with the tea and stared at the fire.  Natsuki sighed.

    "Is she some kind of secret super-spy?" Crystal asked, still sounding
hysterical.

    "Not normally, but being a journalist does mean risks," I told Crystal.
"Honey, do you want us to come over?  You don't sound so good."  I paused.
"Also, have you seen Natasha?  She's not answering her phone."

    There was a brief silence.  "Wait, does that mean Natasha has the
mech???  How did Natasha get a mech?  Where is she keeping it????"

    "I can't imagine how Natasha could get one," I told her.  Unless it's
her Child and...no, surely this is coincidence.  She didn't even know we
were going, right?

    "But you think she's somehow responsible," Crystal said urgently.

    "She didn't talk to you about your trying to follow us, did she?"

    "We didn't have time to round up everyone," Crystal said.  "So no."

    "Well, we just want to make sure she hasn't done something crazy.  We'll
be on campus soon, so just calm down, okay?  I'm fine.  Maybe...well, why
not call Kasumi?  She can help you calm down."

    "She'll probably lecture me about my taste in boys even though she likes
that tramp, Hayao," Crystal muttered.

    "What?" I asked.

    "Ummm...nothing.  See you soon, Mom."

    "See you soon, dear."

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

    "Kasumi isn't answering her phone," Crystal said.  She had Shun and Dan
with her when we showed up.

    "Maybe she's asleep," Akira said.

    "Her roomate says she's not home," Crystal said.  "If she's sleeping
with Hayao, I'm going to KILL her."

    "Oh come on, Crystal.  There's no way in hell Kasumi would be off having
sex with some guy.  Not without months of buildup and her drowning us all in
syrupy speeches about how wonderful he is," Dan said, shaking his head.
"And she'd bug you and Natasha for advice."

    "Maybe Natasha dragged her off into something," Shun said.

    "Maybe it's secret sword practice," Dan said.

    "This late?" Shun asked dubiously.

    "Why would she need Kasumi for sword practice?" I asked.

    "Umm...Aunt Miyu was kind of hinting Kasumi needs some self-defense
training like the rest of us," Crystal said, looking evasive.  She's a
terrible liar.

    "She announced Kasumi would surely die if she didn't toughen up," Shun
said flatly.

    "I have to agree; she needs to know enough to take care of herself,"
Akira said.  "But she's not my daughter, so I will not interfere in her
raising."

    Mikoto nodded.  "This is where...hey, we do know a mad hacker!"  She got
out her phone and made a call.

    "Aunt Mikoto, are you about to get Aunt Yukino to find Kasumi's
cellphone?," Crystal asked.

    Mikoto nodded.

    "I'm sure it's just one of Natasha's stupid plans," Shun said.  "Unless
that was her mech the people saw at the burning research facility I note you
carefully haven't mentioned."

    The phone rang and I answered it.  "Hello?"

    It was Sister Yukariko.  "Yukino said a new Child appeared?"

    "I'm here visiting Crystal," I said, hoping she'd get the hint.
"Natasha and Kasumi have run off somewhere for some reason, possibly
together."

    "Wait, do you think..." Yukariko said, now sounding worried.

    "Maybe.  Probably not, but...we have to find them, just to be sure."

    "Call me later when the children aren't present," Yukariko said.

    "I will.  Thanks for calling."

    We said our goodbyes and now we got a fix from Yukino and went to
investigate.

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

    Akira and Natsuki snuck back to us.  "For some reason, she's just inside
the forest between the schools, doing Tai Chi," Akira said.

    "She's what?" Crystal asked in confusion.

    "Wait...what???  She snuck out in the night to do secret Tai Chi???" I
asked.

    Yuuichi laughed a little; I don't know why, but Mikoto laughed a little
too and hugged Crystal and I.

    "Maybe she's secretly been a martial artist assassin all this time," Dan
said, then laughed.

    "Let's make contact," I said.

    Kasumi was indeed doing something which I think is Tai Chi.  Or
something like it, anyway.  But why out here in the night?  She looked
groggy but her movements seemed quite fluid to me.

    "Hello, Kasumi, why are you here in the middle of the night and do I
have to call your mother?" I asked her.

    She froze up in mid-motion, mouth moving wordlessly.

    "Good balance," Akira said.  "I didn't know you practiced that."

    "Mom learned a long time ago and taught me," Kasumi said.  "I do it to
keep in shape.  Along with my running."  Kasumi does track; Akane says she's
very good at it.  She looked at all of us.  "Ummm..."

    It hit me.  "Kasumi, did Natasha drag you out here to stand sentry for
her?"

    "No, of course not," Kasumi said, staring at my feet.  Bingo.  She's an
even worse liar than Crystal.

    Akira vanished into the woods.

    "Well, at least we know neither of them has a giant mech," Dan said.

    "Unless it's hidden here in the woods," Shun pointed out.

    I hear the sound of a boy and Natasha both yelling loudly and then
running.

    Soon a half-naked teenage boy with short blue hair ran past like the
wind, followed by Natasha, with only a bra on above the waist, though she
was still wearing a skirt below.  To be precise, Akira was carrying Natasha
and we could now see someone had painted Japanese characters onto her back.
Though I couldn't read it at this distance.

    Crystal stared, eyes wide open.

    "Mom, want me to catch Gin here?" Shun asked Akira.

    "We weren't doing anything wrong, just having a little romantic tryst
like you all did in high school!  Don't oppress me with your hypocrisy!,"
Natasha said.  "I know all about it!!!!  Put me down, Auntie!"

    "Your mom's a madwoman!," shirtless Gin shouted as he ran to try to
evade us.

    "Kneecap him, honey," Akira said firmly.

    Gin went down in about two seconds.  "C'mon man, bros before hos!"

    I could hear the wind move and distantly crickets chirped.

    Natsuki moved between the boy and Akira.  "He's young and stupid, please
don't kill him, Akira."

    Akira, however, just rolled her eyes.

    Shun, on the other hand, to my surprise, now had Gin by the throat.
"You just called my mom a 'ho'!" he shouted; I could see Gin's hair shake.

    "No, I meant...urg...can't breathe..."  Gin flailed impotently and I
started to step forward.

    Yuuichi pre-empted me as he took Gin from Shun.  "We're going to have a
little talk," he said, dragging him off.

    I studied the writing; it looked like a love poem to me, though a little
oddly worded.  Kind of sweet and romantic, really.  Though kids that age
shouldn't be getting half-naked in the woods.

    Natasha sighed.  "Kasumi, you were supposed to warn me."

    "How was I supposed to stop Aunt Akira?  No one can stop her," Kasumi
said.  "And I should be in bed asleep."  She sounded frustrated.

    "You want my advice or not?" Natasha asked.

    Crystal said, "Natasha, this had better not be about Hayao."

    "Someone's bitter," Natasha said in a sing-song voice.  "'Cause her
would-be boyfriend is now after someone else."

    Crystal ground her teeth.

    "Well, we'll see who is bitter when I tell your mother about this,"
Akira said.

    "Please, no, I'll do anything!" Natasha pleaded, suddenly deflating.

    "What is going on?" Akira demanded.

    "Gin and I were going to write love poems on each other with this
temporary tattoo paint, to show our love for each other," Natasha mumbled.
"It sounded totally cool.  And Kasumi agreed to stand watch in return for me
giving her some help with self-defense stuff.  Since Aunt Miyu apparently
thinks the mafia will come for us at 18 or something."

    "Not the mafia," I said.

    The kids all looked at me.

    Aaargh!  Me and my mouth.

    "Mom," Crystal said, seriously.  "Did you blow that place up the first
time somehow and come back to finish it off?"

    "..."

    "I would have made sure it blew up all the way the first time," Mikoto
said.  "You know I'd never let Mai-chan go into danger without me."

    Chie sighed.  "Your mother got dragged into this.  She's safe and you
don't have to worry about it, Crystal."

    Aoi rubbed her forehead intensely, looking frustrated.

    "So if the giant robot doesn't belong to Natasha...," Shun began.

    "Wait, you came looking for me because you thought I had a combat
mech???" Natasha asked in confusion.

    "What???" Kasumi asked.

    I suddenly worried whether security was going to find us here and what
they would think.

    Crystal suddenly looked thoughtful, which worried me a little, as she
was studying the writing on Natasha's back.

    And who was this Hayao boy, anyway?

    "You totally missed Mom and Aunt Natsuki and Aunt Mikoto and
Harada-sensei blowing up a research facility," Shun said.

    Kasumi stared.

    "I...really?" Natasha asked weakly.

    "We didn't...I mean...we didn't go there to blow it up, just to collect
evidence for Chie's book," I mumbled.

    "The kicking ass was just a bonus!  Mai-chan....," Mikoto began
excitedly, then paused and walked over and hugged Crystal.  "It's okay," she
said softly.  "I will always protect Mai-chan.  Always."  Her voice was very
firm.

    "We're not going to get strip-searched again, are we?" Kasumi mumbled.

    "I'm already half-stripped," Natasha said.  "Please, promise me you
won't tell Mom about this, Aunt Akira. PLEASE.  She will either totally kill
me or else tell me stories which make me regret being born."  She shivered.

    "She doesn't tell you about...," I began a little nervously.

    "Mom likes to embarrass me when she's mad with me," Natasha mumbled.

    "Let's get you all home before the school yells at me again," I
mumbled.  "Everyone's safe so we should probably go get some sleep."

    "So what's this about a giant mech I allegedly own?" Natasha asked.

    "I will tell you on the way back," Akira said.  "And Kasumi, if you wish
to train, I can help you."

    "I don't want to, but I'd rather not die by 18 either," Kasumi said,
sighing.

    "Mom, is something going to happen when we turn 18?" Crystal asked.
"Did something happen to you?"

    I rubbed my forehead.  If I tell them, they'll do crazy things like they
tried doing this time.  But if I don't, they'll do crazy things too.  And it
may not even be hereditary.

    But I couldn't tell them. They'd rush off into this matter of a possible
new Child or something and...  No, I couldn't risk it.  "When you're 18,
you'll be of age and we'll tell you everything," I said.  At that point, I
can't hold them back unless they let me.

    "That's not for two years," Crystal said, frowning.

    "Mai-chan," Mikoto said softly.

    "If you have any unusual trouble, you can go to Chie-san for help," I
told them, then paused.

    Chie nodded firmly.  "Aoi-chan and I will do our best to help you with
anything.  We always talk about having more kids, anyway."  She smiled
warmly at them and they smiled back, which made me feel a little better.

    "You can call me Aunt Aoi-chan," Aoi said smiling now, and I felt a
little better.  I'd kept Chie safe, but I knew she had to be worrying about
the future.

    For a moment all the kids, and especially Crystal, gave Aoi a weird
look. Then Shun said, "And you too, Harada-san?"

    "I'm your Aunt Chie now," Chie said softly.

    Crystal's eyes narrowed a moment, she glanced at me, and then she sighed
and relaxed.  "Okay, Aunt Chie-san."

    "Welcome to my spy network," Chie said, grinning.  "This should be fun."

    Natasha laughed and Shun smiled and Crystal smiled just a touch, while
Dan looked curious and Kasumi fretted.

    "Okay," I said.  "Let's get back to campus."

***********

    I arranged to be sick at work the next day and stayed over at Chie's
place.  She and Aoi called in sick so we could meet with Sister Yukariko and
her crew and see about checking out Aoi and Chie, just to be sure.  Tate had
gone to work, and I was busy cleaning up dishes when the phone rang.

    "Hello?"

    "Did you really blow up a factory last night?" Shiho asked me over the
phone.

    I tried to wash while keeping the phone propped between shoulder and
ear.  "Not intentionally," I told her.  Sort of not intentionally.  "News
getting around?"

    "Yukariko called me," Shiho said.

    "Look, I have to tell you something," I told her.  She needed to know
what was up with Natasha and the boy.  She was Natasha's mother.

    "Is this about you all busting my daughter?"  She sounded irritated, but
that's pretty common with her, unfortunately.

    "Yes," I mumbled, almost losing the phone but managing to hold onto it.

    "Did the boy have protection or not?" Shiho demanded.  "Natsuki didn't
give me a straight answer when she called me."

    "..."

    "Well????"

    "They weren't having sex, just painting each other," I mumbled, now
scrubbing a plate vigorously and wondering what exactly Chie had done to it
that made the food stick so much.

    "Yes, but that sort of thing usually leads to sex, speaking from
experience, not that you'd know since you've only ever had one boyfriend,"
Shiho said.  I don't think we've ever had a conversation that didn't involve
her bragging about how many lovers she's had.  Admittedly, she did end up
fairly good looking once she grew up and ditched the squid hair.

    Some days we have stupid fights about this, but not today.  "We didn't
ask since they weren't actually having sex.  Can't you just ask Natasha?" I
told her, switching from a cloth to a brush to attack the caked on...is this
jam?  How had it dried so much?

    "Natasha will give me a 20 minute rant on how she never interferes in MY
love life and why can't I extend her the same courtesy and how many
boyfriends I had by her age, blah, blah, blah," Shiho said.

    "Too much like listening to yourself?" I asked, just a touch cattily.
Finally some of the caked on jam started to come off.  Surely someone in
this house normally does dishes more often than this usually, right?

    "Exactly."

    Beat.

    "THAT IS NOT WHAT I MEANT AT ALL," Shiho shouted and I nearly lost the
phone again.

    "Yuuichi talked to the boy; he might know but I don't," I told her.

    She muttered something in French; I have to admit I do envy her the
facility she has with languages. I can speak reasonably well in English but
that's it and my English is much weaker than my Japanese.  Shiho speaks
English, Japanese, French, German and a little Chinese and Korean.  Which is
why she works as a translator and meets and dates a lot of foreigners.

    "So Harada-san knows the family secret now?" Shiho asked more calmly.

    "Chie and Aoi both know," I told her.  "They've agreed to watch over the
children at school."

    "Good.  That's very nice of them," Shiho said, calm now.  She burns like
a wildfire, but then she gets calm so quickly.  "No one got hurt, right?"
she asked softly.

    "We're all fine," I told her.  "The place blew up after we got out.  But
we may have found another Child." I explained about the robot.

    She grumbled in French again.  "Maybe someone has duplicated the Sears
Foundation's research," she said hesitantly.  "After all, science is
something where you can repeat the results, right?"

    "Yes," I told her.  "So you think this may be another artifical Hime?
Why would it protect Natsuki?"

    "I don't know."  I could hear her tapping her fingernails on something.
"But if it was a Child, wouldn't you have seen the Child's Hime somewhere?
Unless she's as good at hiding as Akira."

    I frowned at that.  "Given it was a combat mech-like one, maybe she rode
inside it."

    "True," Shiho said, then sighed.  "I've gotten used to normality."

    "Me too," I confessed.  Though the trip to the factory ruins had been
pretty exciting...but no.  I wanted a normal life.  A nice, simple, normal
life.

    "Call me if you need me, of course," Shiho said.  "Whatever else may
happen, I will help if you need me, Mai."

    "Thank you," I told her.  "I know I can count on you, Shiho."

    There was silence, and then she said softly, "Thank you too.  I'd better
get to work."

    "We're taking Aoi and Shiho for a test once the others get here," I told
her.  "We'll call you if we need you."

    "Okay," she said.  "Good luck and goodbye, Mai."

    "Goodbye, Shiho."  I finally finished the dish, and eventually the
dishes.

    I was surprised to see Roger Smith in the living room; he was talking
quietly to Natsuki on the couch.  "Hello, Mr. Smith."

    "Sorry to intrude on your reunion," he said.  "I just came by to say
hello to Natsuki since I don't have any work until lunch time when I have to
meet with some men from the Tallin Institute and Megas Bank."  He shook his
head.  "I fear the giant explosion may well finally scuttle them,
though."

    I blinked.  "You're working for them?"

    "I was called in to assist negotiation over loans I suspect Megas Bank
will deny, using the explosion as an excuse to avoid the wrath of Tallin's
owners."  He shook his head.  "I wasn't too optimistic before but this
definitely puts a knife in it."

    "I don't think it would be very good if it did succeed," Natsuki said.

    "I don't know enough about physics to pass judgement on what they were
doing or how safe it was," he said.  "Or have you heard something from the
grapevine, Natsuki?"

    "I heard they were trying to covertly restart the experiments and it set
off the equipment," Natsuki said.  "But that's just a rumor of course."  She
sounded a touch nervous; not surprising as it's never fun to have to decieve
your boyfriend, even just a little for his own good.

    "I was afraid of that," he said, shaking his head.  "What a mess."

    "So Tallin is trying to get enough money to restart?" I asked Mr. Smith.

    He nodded solemnly.  "I can't pretend I understand the physics of it,
but I do know finance.  With two disasters in a row, I fear they don't have
a prayer, though of course, I'll do my best to help as that is what I am
being paid to do."

    I had to hope he wouldn't succeed, which made me a little uncomfortable,
as he seems like a good guy for Natsuki.  But whatever they thought they
were doing, it was clear the Tallin Institute had gotten in over its head.

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

    Later, Nao arrived with her gang and we headed out to what passes for
wilderness in Japan, up in the mountains, to a place where we could check
Aoi and Chie, just in case.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to find something or
not, and I could tell, glancing at Aoi and Chie in the back seat of my car,
that Aoi wasn't sure either.  Chie, on the other hand, looked somewhat
eager.  It rather reminded me of Crystal, who I suspect, if she does turn
out to have inherited our status, will probably treat it like Midori did.

    They talked quietly in the back seat while Mikoto bounced around in the
front passenger seat.  We were caravaning, following Nao and Sister Yukariko
and Alyssa and Miyu in their blue sedan, while Natsuki followed us on her
cycle.

    For a few seconds, I felt paranoid that the kids might somehow be
following us, but instead, the green sedan I spotted passed us and zoomed
off at stupidly high speed.  "Mai, you can't let him pass us!" Mikoto said
excitedly.

    "Why?" I asked.

    "Because...umm...it would be cool!," she said.

    "Seeing our Children will have to be cool enough," I told her.

    Another car passed us, this time a black compact driven by some crazy
looking teenager with black spikey hair, apparently out cruising with his
skinny girlfriend.  Shouldn't he be in school?

    Okay, now I feel so old.  But all these people in the land of nowhere
was making me paranoid. And why were they in such a hurry?  Sister Yukariko
was driving just five kilometers an hour under the speed limit and I matched
her, so we weren't crawling, right?

    Then I saw an attack helicopter fly overhead towards out destination
point.  Aoi and Chie fell silent, staring, and Mikoto said, "Was that
Yukino-chan?"

    "Maybe."  Were they coming?  I didn't mind but I didn't remember telling
them about it.

    A third car passed me, this time full of men in black suits.  What is
going on???

    "Is it just me...," Chie began.

    "Maybe you should speed up a little," Aoi told me.

    "A LOT," Mikoto said.

    "I can't speed up; we're following someone."  I tried not to sound too
frustrated.

    I could see Nao gesticulating at Sister Yukariko, probably trying to get
her to speed up and I smiled a little.

    My phone rang; I gestured and Mikoto got it.

    "Hi, Crystal!" she said.

    A few seconds of silence ensued.  "No, we're both fine; they just
decided they needed a little rest."

    "Crystal worried about us?" Aoi asked, sounding a little surprised.
"She got your mother-hen tendencies, I see, Mai."  She smiled at me.

    "Not a bad thing to inherit, I think," I told them.  That was nice of
her to check, I thought.  "Tell her I'm glad she called but shouldn't she be
in class?"

    "Mai says she loves you lots but you should be in class," Mikoto said.

    Silence.

    "She says she overslept and decided to just stay in her dorm room and
work on homework," Mikoto told me.  She said to Crystal, "Your mom and I did
that sometimes.  Study hard!  You're going to need good grades to get into
college.  I only just barely made it, so don't be like me."  Her voice had
turned more serious than usual.  I could see Aoi looking surprised in the
rear view mirror.

    This time, a pink car driven by a middle aged woman in a suit passed
me.  That wasn't a pink cadillac, was it?  "Chie, can you call Sister
Yukariko or someone and see if they know what's going on?"

    She nodded and got on the phone.

    "Talk to you later!  Love you, Crystal, bye!" Mikoto said and hung up.
"She was just worried because Aoi and Chie didn't show up for work."

    "Very sweet of her," Aoi said.

    "Yukariko says she has no clue if this stream of cars means anything but
I think I heard Nao shouting something about how this happens every time
Yukariko drives because she's TOO SLOW."   Chie laughed softly.

    It's just traffic, I told myself.  Just traffic.

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

    When we got there, Haruka and Yukino and their chopper were there, but I
couldn't see the pilot anywhere.  There was a little lake here and a nice
house and lots of grassy fields.  I suddenly wondered who owned this, though
the house had a large cross in front of it, so maybe the order did.

    Yukino had already summoned Diana; Aoi freaked out when she saw Diana
and tried to hide behind the car before Chie chivvied her out.  I can't
blame her; Diana is pretty scary looking.

    I wanted to summon Kagatsuchi very much but I was afraid now that would
scare Aoi further.

    "So now what?" Chie asked as everyone approached.

    "You both get naked and dance for our amusement," Nao said, but her
smile belied that.

    "I suggest moving to a living room of the house so I can see through the
window with Diana and then you will both need to strip to check for a mark.
And I will see what Diana can figure out."

    Aoi looked very nervous now, and I could tell everyone was a little
nervous.  Except for Haruka, who stood there silently, looking confident by
Yukino's side.  Did she...no, I'm just being paranoid after all those cars.

    Chie said, "C'mon, honey, it's strip-tease time."

    Aoi buried her face in her hands, but she laughed a little.

    We went inside after Yukariko unlocked the door; Alyssa wandered off
inside while the rest of us went to the living room.  "We come here to
train," Yukariko told us.  "Alyssa is going to turn the heat up just a
touch, as it feels cold."

    I could feel my mark tingling softly.  "You may feel some kind of
tingling," I told them.

    "I'm so nervous I'm tingling all over," Aoi said, then began unbuttoning
her blouse.

    Chie began stripping silently as Alyssa now returned from whatever she'd
been doing.  I could hear the AC running now, so she must have adjusted the
thermostat.  I could feel myself getting more nervous.  I had the feeling
that something was going to happen, and I could tell the others had it too.
I glanced out the window; Yukino was studying a set of Diana
mirrors/windows, while Haruka stood there, arms across her chest, looking
confident.

    I sat on the couch, fretting, while Miyu, Nao, and Natsuki stood by Aoi
and Chie, studying them.  Aoi was getting more and more nervous, while Chie
seemed to somehow not even notice being stared at.  Though surely she did.

    I rose and came over to Aoi.  "It's going to be okay either way," I told
her.

    She mumbled something incoherent and I felt rather guilty about her
being dragged into all this, but we had to be sure.

    I felt...something.  "Mikoto," I said softly.  "Go outside and make sure
nothing or no one is coming."

    Mikoto nodded and headed out.

    "Is something wrong?" Aoi asked in the middle of taking her skirt off.

    "I'm just being cautious," I said.

    "I think it a wise precaution.  Alyssa, we should assist her," Miyu
said.

    Alyssa nodded and they headed out.

    "I...," Aoi began.

    "It's okay," Sister Yukariko said to Aoi.  "I don't think we're going to
find anything, but it's best we know."

    "Aoi," Nao said firmly.

    Aoi turned to look at her.

    "Look, if you don't want to know, you can stop.  None of us were given a
choice, but we won't force you into anything," Nao said.

    Chie nodded.  "It's okay, honey."

    Aoi hesitated, closed her eyes, then said,  "I just..."

    "I know," I said to her softly.  "I'd be happier if we were all just old
high school and college friends."  I felt my arms tingle all over and
glanced at them; they looked normal, but the hairs on my arms were starting
to stand up, which didn't bode well.

    I glanced at the others and they were all shifting about and staring at
their arms as well, except for Chie and Aoi, who either didn't feel it or
maybe were too distracted to notice.

    Then I heard Yukino shout, "BREACH!  BREACH!"

    The sky outside began to shimmer; I knew that glow.  "They somehow found
us here!  Yukino, see if you can find a way to close the breaches!  Natsuki,
Nao, call your Child and attack!  Sister Yukariko, see how many of them you
can trap in a fantasy.  I'll cover Aoi and Chie!"

    The house came apart around us as our Childs erupted from the ground; I
winced, hoping it wouldn't cost too much to fix it, though I knew it would.
Soon, Aoi, Chie, and I were in the air, riding on Kagatsuchi.

    It was only when Aoi mumbled, "So cold..." that I realized they were
still in their underwear.

    "Aoi, Chie, I'm so sorry!" I said, stripping off my own shirt and
tossing it to Aoi, only to have it whip away in the wind.  "..."

    Chie began laughing so hard she nearly fell off Kagatsuchi and Aoi had
to grab her.  I turned red, feeling like an idiot as Kagatsuchi made a run
on the twisted inhuman beasts now erupting from the rifts.  Had these things
somehow followed us, waiting for us to go somewhere they could break
through?

    His fire fried half a dozen, but the creatures were pouring out and
there was no easy way to kill this zone.  I could see Haruka blazing away at
the creatures with twin pistols; to my surprise, her weapons were setting
the creatures on fire.  Had she...

    "What, now they're vulnerable to bullets?" Chie asked, sounding
frustrated.  If she'd brought her gun, she clearly didn't have it up here,
though I could see she held her cell phone in one hand.  This made me smile
just a little.

    I could see Mikoto hacking her way through the enemy forces, laughing
happily as Alyssa blazed away with pistols; the creatures she shot burned
horribly around the wounds and began slowly dissolving.  Miyu's arms had
become blades and together the three of them were making their way towards
one of the rifts...could our Weapons destroy them?  It was worth trying.

    "Dammit, her gun kills them too!" Chie howled into the wind.

    "Your gun's down in the ruins of the house, dear," Aoi said, clinging to
Kagatsuchi with one hand and Chie with the other.

    I shivered a little, wishing I had a shirt.  Kagatsuchi helped; he felt
so warm.  But the wind was whipping at me.  But surely this shouldn't chill
me, given I survived the cold of space before.  Or I could...

    I wove fire around myself, shielding myself from the winds, then wove
shields around Chie and Aoi as well to keep them warm.  I could see Mikoto
and Miyu ripping one of the gateways shut and Dhuran blowing a hole in
another one at Natsuki's command.  Many of our foes wandered around in
confusion as Sister Yukariko directed her Child.  It was going well.  Julia
was webbing up creatures and devouring them as Nao danced about, slashing
creatures open.  I blinked, noticing Julia looked a lot larger than I
remembered from the last time I saw her.

    "Mai!  INCOMING!" Chie shouted.

    It was only then that I saw the aerial rifts and the giant bird monsters
coming through them.

    The bird-creatures were everywhere, attacking Haruka and Diana and
Yukino too.  Haruka blazed away like Alyssa, setting more of them on fire;
what was she shooting them with?  I set a course for them; Diana was one of
the weakest in combat of the Childs; her power was information and scouting,
not combat.  I blasted apart a giant humming bird and Kagatsuchi ate a giant
parrot with no skin and rainbow colored muscles and bones and piercing black
eyes.

    Only to see a giant falcon had snuck in and was now bombdiving at Chie
and Aoi, while its fellow now moved in to attack me.  I couldn't save them
and defend myself at once, so I fireblasted the one diving at them, only to
lose my perch and get clawed on the arm and begin plummeting towards the
ground.

    "Kagatsuchi, protect them!" I shouted; I could see the horror on their
faces as I fell, but at least they would be safe and I was pretty sure I'd
survive this; I can fly, after all, I just have to remember the trick for
it....

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

Chie Speaks:

    Seeing Mai take the fall for us, letting herself get hit to save us,
made me feel intensely guilty.  It also made me intensely stupid.  I had to
save her.  HAD to.  I couldn't let everyone else fight but me again.

    So I dived after her; I could see from her face this wasn't too smart at
all and I honestly can't say I have any clue what I was thinking other than
guilt.  Lots of it.  This was all happening because I was determined to
stick my nose into this and dragged everyone along with me.  These things
wouldn't have been hunting them if I'd left them out of it.  Left Aoi out of
it.  I had to save Mai.  Somehow.  Even though I could now see her jetting
flame and it looked like I'd jumped for nothing, given she was righting
herself and probably about to fly back up to us.  But I could see she was
about to be attacked from behind by the same creature which had knocked her
down and now had circled behind her.

    Please, if there's anything listening, I thought, give me the power to
save her and protect Aoi.  I'll do anything, anything at all.  PLEASE.
Please let me protect those I care about.

    I felt a sudden burning over my left breast and instinctively, I held
out my camera phone and triggered the flash at the creature.  Something was
lighting up my face and shining on Mai as well as we drew closer to each
other and the light seemed to grow even brighter as my flash went off and
the creature flew into the light.  It howled and the light washed over it
and now it was blinded and I started laughing even as Mai caught me.

    She touched my left breast, just for a second.  "Chie, you have the
mark," she said softly, and I looked down at myself and saw it, the double
circle with flechette they'd shown us a drawing of, and I could see Mai's
mark, nestled in her bosom, glowing like mine, and I felt a surge of triumph
and terror at once, triumph to be one of them and terror I'd have to pay as
high a cost as they had.  I hadn't even really thought about that part up to
now.  Aoi...

    I looked up and saw her staring down at me; she was making herself
smile, but I could see she was scared too.  I'd dragged her into trouble
again; I seem to have a knack for this.  I will protect you, I swear, I told
myself as I looked at her and gave her a firm smile back.  "Yeah," I said
softly to Mai.  My cell phone felt strange in my hands; it had changed color
and now it had the Hime symbol on the back of it.  And...I had a message?

    Instinctively, I knew who it was from and what it meant, just looking at
the header 'Call My Name'.

    "ERICA!"  The name of our daughter, our precious adopted daughter, who I
love very much.  And now the name of...

    The ground erupted below us and a great calico cat emerged from it,
batting aside an elephant like it was playing with a mouse, knocking it into
the air towards Sister Yukariko, who shot it in the head with her bow.  And
then it leaped skywards, and I could see its fur was made of metal, soft and
supple and strong all at once, and I laughed for joy.

    Mai landed me by Aoi and I kissed her, twining my arms around her.  I
could see Erica trying to fly, but clearly not used to this, though Mai had
told us every Child could fly; she landed on several twisted wolves,
squashing them flat.

    "That is our Child, Erica," I told Aoi.

    "..."

    "Thank you, Mai," I told her.

    "I'll always protect you, my friends," Mai said firmly.  She looked down
at Erica.  "You named your Child after your daughter?"

    I laughed a little nervously and Aoi mumbled, "I was thinking Helen
would be a good name."

    "Well, you can name yours Helen," I told her, brandishing my cell
phone.  A twisted hawk zoomed our way and I pointed and willed it to...do
whatever exactly it did, which I still didn't know.  A stream of lights
blinded it and now I could see it start to come apart like unravelling
yarn.  It dissolved away into bits by the time it reached us and then even
the sparkling bits faded.

    My phone was vibrating; I had another message, I realized.  But I'd have
to read it later.  There was fighting to be done!

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

Aoi said:

    I have only seen Chie happier than this once, and that was our wedding
day.  She wanted this so much; she's got the heroic instinct; that's why she
became a journalist, to fight for justice in that way.

    Well, also I think she likes sticking her nose into everyone else's
business, but so do I.

    But I wasn't sure what I wanted.  Knowing what had happened to them...I
couldn't help imagining Chie dissolving away into sparkling lights.  Or our
daughter.  Or...  I shivered and only some of it was cold from flying around
on a giant dragon while half-naked.

    Couldn't they have waited for us to get our clothing back on???

    Though having Mai lose her shirt had actually made me feel a little
better.  I suppose it must be true that one person's disaster is another's
comedy.

    But I couldn't let Chie do this alone either.

    Erica jumped up towards us again; I felt bad for her and wondered how we
could best teach her to fly.  Given neither of us could fly, we couldn't
model it the way a mother bird does for her chicks.  I think that's how it
works.  This kept me busy for a little while while Kagatsuchi wove about,
taking on aerial foes; Dhuran took to the air with Natsuki riding him and
supported us, which helped.

    Diana suddenly banked to avoid a diving pair of giant warped Hawks with
green glowing beaks and fire for eyes.  Unfortunately, this tipped a
surprised Haruka over the edge and she plummeted towards the ground.
"Haruka!" I shouted, though this was utterly futile.

    "HARUKA!" Mai shouted and now Kagatsuchi dived, but Diana's tentacles
lashed out, seizing the birds and ripping them into bits.  Yukino looked
furious, a look I don't think I've ever actually seen on her before.

    Mikoto ran to try and catch her by jumping into the air, but ended up
taking Haruka's head to her face; she landed holding Haruka, then fell
over.

    "Take us down to her!  I'm a nurse, I can help her if she's hurt!" I
said urgently.  I can't stand to see my friends getting hurt.  I might not
be much of a fighter, but I can aid the injured.  This is what I trained
for; this is something I could do without guilt or hesitation or concern.
To heal the sick and the injured is my duty and my pleasure as well; all my
worries faded away, replaced by a sense of determination and confidence.
I'd have them right as rain soon.

    Chie looked mortified and worried and I hugged her a little tighter.
"It'll be okay.  This is what I do."

    Mai brought us down and Chie and Mai and Kagatsuchi fought to give me a
clear space to tend to their needs.

    I'd already applied a bandage to each of them's forehead bruise and was
treating Haruka's injuries when I suddenly realized that I was still
half-naked and somehow had a doctor's bag with me that I hadn't even brought
to the farm!

    Also, my chest was glowing and I could see the mark on my left breast,
exactly where Chie had hers, except my breasts are a lot bigger than hers.

    Also, I could now see the injuries fading as quickly as I treated them,
and my mouth opened wide.  A shadow fell over me and now I could see Erica
standing over my patients and I, her giant metal furry body shielding us as
she batted a twisted toucan into her mouth and ate it.  She looked even more
gigantic than before.

    Haruka opened her eyes wide and stared at me, then for a moment looked
intensely frustrated.  But then she smiled at me softly.  "You're lucky,"
she whispered, then sat up, saying, "Thank you."  She propped up Mikoto, who
now rubbed her forehead.

    "You have a hard head," she said to Haruka ruefully.

    "Hmmph, you shouldn't try to catch me with your skull," Haruka said
irritably, but helped her up even as Yukino rushed over to her.  "It's
okay," Haruka said, but she didn't stop Yukino from embracing her.  "Aoi-san
healed me."

    Yukino stared at me, then hugged me in turn.  "Thank you," she said.

    "We can flirt in front of Haruka and Chie later," I told her, smiling a
little.  "You'd better win this fight before anyone else gets hurt."

    Chie laughed, then zapped an onrushing bear; I shivered a little, seeing
it unravel.

    Yukino nodded firmly, then took Haruka by the hand.  "Come on."

    Chie grabbed me and we vaulted onto the back of Erica; I don't think she
even realized she'd just made an impossible jump. Or maybe that's why she
was smiling so brightly.

    I could see Julia webbing up a rift in the air which collapsed and I
suddenly wondered if I could use my abilities to 'heal' the rifts.  I dug
through my mysterious doctor's bag, pulling out one of those reflective
mirror headband things no one uses any more, though I put it on, just in
case.  There were all sorts of things, but none of them seemed to relate
well to closing rifts, which we really hadn't covered in nursing school.  I
did, however, get to sedate a giant monkey which jumped up on Erica's back
and tried to attack us.

    "Steer us over by Yukino.  I'm going to ask her something," I told Chie.

    Erica flew us over to match her flight path and I shouted to Yukino, "Do
we have any idea what is causing these rifts?"

    "They were caused by the machine at the factory, but these were ripped
open from the other side this time, Diana thinks," Yukino shouted back.

    "I'm wondering if there is some way to 'heal' the rifts," I shouted to
her.

    "Good idea," Yukino said.  "But I'm not sure how."

    "Do you have equipment for doing stitches in there?" Haruka shouted to
me.  "Or a surgical knife to 'cut' the wounds out?"

    Indeed I did.  I was starting to think I could pull just about anything
medical out of my bag.  Which was pretty cool.  This could be very helpful
at work.  It was probably going to have to be the knife, though, as I don't
think I could effectively manuever enough to 'sew' the rifts shut.

    Cutting the rifts was harder than it looked; every time I sliced one, it
was harder than the one before it.  Or possibly I was just getting tired.

    There were still several open when I finally just collapsed of
tiredness, falling over onto Chie and falling asleep.

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

Mai's Tale Continues:

    We took care of the rest of the rifts with the help of our Childs, but
now we had to figure out why this had happened.  Had these things learned a
way to break through?  Was this a revenge attack?  And could it happen
again?

    We'd landed and now Aoi (still mostly asleep) and myself were wearing
habits borrowed from Sister Yukariko and Miyu (who had been wearing clothing
under their habits, which must get pretty hot sometimes, I'd think).  Our
Childs huddled around us protectively.

    "Are you okay?" I asked Haruka, realizing too late everyone else had
already asked her this.

    "I'm fine," she said curtly.  "Aoi put me back together well."  She
seemed resentful of this, oddly enough.  Don't ask me why.

    "She has a nice power," I said.  I was a little jealous myself; it's a
very positive ability and I certainly could have used it in times past.
Though not having medical training, I suppose I wouldn't be able to do all
that much beyond the first aid I know even with the tools.

    "Someone wanted their powers to awaken," Haruka said.

    Nao raised an eyebrow.  "What makes you think that?"

    "Why didn't Chie's ability manifest before in the factory?"  Haruka
asked.  "And remember the purpose of the Orphan attacks at Fuuka was to push
all of you to awaken to your abilities and strengthen your ability to use
them."

    "But why waken her now?" Nao asked, thoughtfully.

    "Whoever is behind this may not have been aware of Chie or ready at the
factory," Haruka said.  "But saw her with Himes there and thus staged this
attack to push her to the brink; the intervention of the other Child, the
mecha-Child, may have prevented this by relieving the pressure on her."

    "I asked for it this time," Chie said.

    We all turned to look at her.

    "I prayed, desperately...I'm not sure to what.  God, Buddha,
something...  And I think my prayer was answered."  Chie said.

    Haruka frowned deeply at that.  "You can't just pray and get magical
powers."  I could hear a definite tone of 'I tried' in that.  And if it was
quite that easy, I have a feeling Crystal would have powers by now.  Didn't
there have to be more to it than...

    Our powers were fueled by our love for someone; the stronger it got, the
stronger our Child and our Element.  But Haruka...I knew Yukino loved
Haruka.  But they weren't...Chie and Aoi loved each other and while I knew
Aoi had her moments of doubt and frustration, their love was open and honest
and not so conflicted as whatever exactly is going on with Yukino and
Haruka.

    But I couldn't slap her in the face with that.

    "Maybe it's because they were in very deep danger," Mikoto said.

    "Chie was only in danger because she flung herself possibly to her doom
trying to save Mai when Mai didn't need saving!," Haruka protested.  "I was
certainly in danger and nothing happened!"

     "You don't have a daughter," I mused.  Though I wasn't sure that was
relevant.

    "Most of us don't have children!," Haruka said.  "And Erica is adopted!"

    Alyssa was about to say something, but Sister Yukariko made a 'silence'
gesture at her, and I wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking.

    Though that couldn't be all of it; surely we were not the only girls at
Fuuka who had been in love.  Right?  Though the festival had been designed
for a certain number, so the process was cut short once enough of us
awakened, but now the festival was gone and perhaps the rules were not being
enforced making it easier.

    I suddenly wished there was some way to talk to Mashiro.  She would
know.

    Chie said, "Hmm, Fumi...Fumi...I know that name from somewhere."  She
was looking at her phone.

    "Fumi? She's one of us," I told her.  "She runs Fuuka Gakuen now."

    "She must have called me in the middle of the fight."  Chie listened to
her phone.  "Wants me to call her back."

    Everyone stared at Chie, who shrank just a bit.  "Is that bad?" Chie
asked.

    "Maybe," I said.  Why was Fumi calling now?  Or had there been trouble
at Fuuka Gakuen?

    I pulled out my phone, just in case she'd called me too; I could see the
others doing likewise, except Aoi, who continued to drowse, leaning on Chie.

    Haruka paced, agitated.  "This has something to do with Nagi invading my
kitchen. I can smell it."

    "Haruka-chan, I'm pretty sure you dreamed that," Yukino said, taking off
her glasses and cleaning them.

    "Yes, I'm Harada Chie; I attended Fuuka with Mai and Natsuki and the
others," Chie said into her phone.

    We all fell silent and listened.

    "Mashiro? Who is...wait, was that..." Chie asked.

    We all froze up; Haruka vibrated as if she wished to grab the phone and
start shouting.

    "I know.  Everything has a price," Chie said a little sadly.

    The price is to risk that which you value most, I thought, remembering
Nagi's words to me so long ago.  Which was among the reasons I didn't like
to fight.  I didn't want to put those I love on the line.  Neither directly
nor indirectly.  But it seemed like we might have no choice for a while.

    "Do you know anything about this mecha-Child?"

    We all tensed a bit more at that.

    "I see," Chie said.  "Mai, she wants to talk to you."

    Nervously, I took the phone.  "Hello, Fumi-san," I said.

    "Hello, Mai-san," Fumi said softly.  "I have recieved a message. I think
it is from Mashiro, but I can't be sure, as a raven brought it to me."

    A raven?  Like a carrier pigeon?  "What did she say?  Has she sent you
messages like this before?"  There was no way to be sure from just a message
on a bird.  This could be some kind of trick.  "Are you sure it isn't a
trick by whatever is controlling these animal monsters?"

    There was a sudden silence which made me feel both smart and worried.

    "I had not considered that," Fumi said.  "It had her seal, however.  But
yes, we had best be careful; it could be a trick."  Fumi's voice was very
hesitant.

    "So what was the message?"

    "The Crimson Huntsman, red in tooth and claw, is not very happy with the
Hime and has declared vendetta on you."

    Delightful, I thought.  More insane beings from other dimensions.
Wasn't their home dimension enough for them???

    "You have the ability to recruit new Hime, but by doing so, they must
make the same bargain and take the same risk as you."  She paused, then
said, "I told Chie this."

    I nodded, then remembered she couldn't see me.  "Why can't Haruka....,"
I whispered, hand over my mouth and the phone.  I didn't want to further
embarrass her.

    "I don't know," Fumi said.  "The original Hime were destined, but by
breaking the festival, you have changed the rules.  And I don't know what
the new ones are."

    She hesitated again, then continued.  "I just know that every form of
magic has its price.  It may be that you all have paid that price in full.
But Aoi and Chie haven't.  But they will.  That, even more than destiny, is
inescapable."

    I felt a sick feeling in my gut.  I didn't want them to go through what
we had.  But she was right.  My life had taught me that everything had its
price and some prices could be very high.

    I needed answers, but there was no one who could give me any.  "Thank
you for calling.  Any other news?"

    "No," Fumi said.  "Crystal hasn't tried breaking into the records room
since the last time I caught her."

    I laughed a little, helping me to shove my worries aside for the
moment.  "That's good."  Now it was my turn to hesitate.  "Does this mean
the children..."

    "I don't know," Fumi confessed.  "Mashiro's message was short and the
rest of what I know about Hime may not be true any more.  Especially not if
new ones are appearing."

    "This Crimson Lord, do you know anything of him?" I asked.

    "No, but there may be records here; I will search.  I just wanted to let
you all know," Fumi said.

    "Thank you," I told her.

    "You're welcome," she said.  "As always, call me if you need me."

    "Of course," I said.  "See you later."  And then I hung up and told the
others what I knew.  Which wasn't much.

    Miyu listened quietly, looking thoughtful.  "The Crimson Lord was
defeated by SEARS many years ago.  They assumed he was dead."

    "It was one of the field tests which led to me," Alyssa said flatly.
"They believed he had been destroyed.  He controlled orphans who resembled
various kind of animals and was very much a Social Darwinist."

    "A what?" I asked.

    "Take the idea of 'competition of species' and apply it to races,
nations, your neighborhood, your gang, or whatever level you think at.
Encouraging people to compete viciously so the strong would survive and the
weak would die," Alyssa said.  "Not a surprising philosophy for a lord of
animals.  It is entirely possible, though, that this is all some sort of
trick to make us go chasing evil rainbows while something else moves on
us."  Her voice made it clear she thought that likely.

    "Do you know anything else, Miyu?"

    "Given that even during the festival, artificial Himes could be created,
it's not surprising that it's possible for others to be made now.  However,
my knowledge of the theoretical material is more limited than my practical
knowledge," Miyu said.  "My readings indicate that Aoi and Chie are now
linked to the same power as the rest of you, but I was unable to observe the
process as I had hoped, so I am not sure how that link was achieved.  I can
tell you that I did not percieve such a link upon our arrival here, though.
But I did not study any of you before the awakening of your powers, so I am
not sure if this is different."  As always, her voice was cool and collected
and mostly impassive.   "I did not percieve anything unusual when we visited
the children.  But I don't know if I should, in a null-zone."

    "The only way to be sure is to take them to a place like this," Nao
said.

    "But that means having to explain everything," I said.

    "We can't wait forever," Nao said.

    "Not yet," I said.  "I'm sure we can handle this without dragging them
into it."

    Nao grumbled, but said, "Alright.  Well, no point in staying here and
freezing; best we head back to town and get clothing for our naked people.
Or at least take some pictures we can sell on the internet."

    "..."

    Chie began laughing, while Aoi looked embarrassed.  "Let's go," I said.


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

    I had to borrow one of Aoi's shirts, which meant it was too long for me
and a bit tight in the chest.  But that would do me well enough to get home
and put on something more comfortable.  And better too long than too short.


    I came out of the bathroom into the hallway to find Haruka waiting for
me.  She looked impatient and irritable.  "I'm sorry," I said.  "I would
have just changed in Chie's bedroom if I knew you needed to use the
bathroom."

    To my surprise, she grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me back into
the bathroom and closed the door.  I stared at her blankly in total
confusion.  "Haruka?"

    Haruka closed her eyes, somehow staring at me, even though her eyes were
closed.  "Mai."  She was shaking.  Was it anger?  Or was she trying to
resist the urge to cry?

    I put my hands on her shoulders, hesitantly.  "Haruka?"

    Instead of speaking, she just stood there vibrating, shaking like she
was in high winds instead of a peaceful bathroom.  For a moment, I was
afraid she was starting to have an epileptic fit, but this seemed more like
intense distress.

     "Do I need to call Aoi-chan?" I asked hesitantly.

    "Why not me?" Haruka asked, agonized.  Her eyes snapped open and she
looked...it was completely not like her.

    For a few seconds, I stared at her in total confusion.  Was she
saying...no, that made no sense.  Then it hit me.  "Haruka, you're better
off without this responsiblity."

    "Don't make my decisions for me!" Haruka said angrily, shaking even
more.  "I'm part of this now!  How am I supposed to protect Yukino without
this?"

    "You were fighting pretty well with those guns," I told her.  "Did you
develop special ammunition?"

    "My scientists have worked out special weaponry that's much more
effective against orphans and the like.  Though it needs more refinement.
Still, I am going to have to give Dr. Irina a raise, though."  For a moment,
her voice had calmed, but now it was not so much berserk as just intense.
"Mai, my life is on the line, whether I fight or not.  So I have to fight
and I have to fight as strongly as possible.  It's this or resort to
experimental technology with who knows what kind of side-effects.  But I'll
take any chance for Yukino's sake."

    I stared at the ground for a moment.  "Alright."

    "What...why was it so easy for them and not for me?" Haruka asked
softly.

    I didn't know what to say.  For one thing, there was some evidence that
there was a genetic component to the possibility of being Hime, which is why
I worry so much about Crystal and the others.  I know Alyssa's powers were
tied to genetics, anyway.  I think.  But that might have changed now.  And
none of us were actually related, so surely the trait would have been wider
spread than just us, right?  Of course, what I know about genetics, I could
probably write on my hand.

    And the other thing...what was I supposed to do?  Ask 'why aren't you
dating Yukino?'  'Do you love Yukino?'  'Is something wrong with your
heart?'  I have no right to pass judgement on their love.  And I...I hadn't
understood my own feelings when I made my bargain.  I certainly was
conflicted, in denial. So that couldn't be it.  Could it?  But what else
could be holding Haruka back?

    "I..."  A thought struck me.  Haruka had been absorbed by the pillars
and they had not.  They were far away during the reign of the Hime Star.
And Haruka was right there.  Could it?  But what exactly...  "Haruka, do you
remember anything at all from when you were imprisoned in the pillars?"
Yuuichi didn't.  I knew that.

    "No," she said softly.  "Wait, do you think..."

    "Haruka, you know better than any of us the price we have to pay.  Maybe
it did something to you or maybe just knowing it is somehow holding you
back.  Remember, if you are one of us, unless things have changed..."  That
had to be it.  Somehow.  It couldn't just...  But no, wait, Shizuru and
Natsuki had both experienced that too.  And they still had their powers.
Though I think Shizuru is afraid to ever use hers again.

    I felt my gut twist and I sighed.  But then, Haruka hadn't...dammit, I
needed answers and had no way to get them.  For all his lying ways, for all
that Mashiro often wouldn't tell us anything, at least we had someone who
had some answers for us, even if they were tricks sometimes.

    Okay, most of the time.

    "If I don't, Yukino may well die anyway.  And if she dies, I die,"
Haruka said softly.  "We'll both live longer if I can fight by her side.
Please."  I had never heard Haruka actually beg.  It was a little scary.

    "Alright.  I don't know how.  But we'll find out what to do to enable
you to join our ranks."  I couldn't tell if I was making a mistake or not.
But she was right.  She's helped us all over the years; she is one of us in
fact, if not in power.  And she's certainly earned a place with us.

    Even if I don't know how to give it to her.

    Haruka pounced on me like a cat and I toppled against the wall as she
hugged me tightly.  "Thank you," she whispered.

    "It's okay.  We'll find a way somehow," I told her.

    Please let this be a good decision, I begged the universe.

    It didn't give me a reply.

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

Aoi's Tale:

    I think it's been years since we made love as much as we did that
night.  We both work a lot which tends to leave us too tired for a lot of
the hanky panky newlyweds get up to.  But I was so full of energy, I could
hardly believe it.  And Chie...she was so hyper, I was surprised she didn't
propose we go run a naked marathon.

    I don't know what to think.  I'm not really a fighter by nature, but I
can't let Chie go into this alone without me, either.  I wish they at least
had some kind of work procedure manual for this so I'd know the rules.

    Not that I like the rules I know.  Or like knowing they're not sure
which if any of those rules actually still apply.  I have a definite feeling
it was too easy for Chie and I, that the other shoe is going to drop.

    I don't want any dropping shoes.

    Well, this isn't the first time she's gotten us in over our head.  And
won't be the first time I've had to go along in order to get her out.

    I just think the stakes are higher this time.

    I just wish I knew what the stakes ARE.
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