[FFML] [Mai Hime] Lighting A Fire Under Their Feet

John Biles john at biles.us
Tue Jan 13 21:45:43 PST 2009


Lighting A Fire Under Their Feet

By John Biles

Series:  Mai Hime (distant aftermath)

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

    Meiko still doesn't quite get it.  "That's not right," I told her, as
she thrust her sword forward.

    Meiko frowned, pouty again.  She's always so pouty whenever I criticize
her, but how else will she learn?  "I did it exactly like you did it!"

    "Hit me," I tell her.

    She thrusts out with her sword, striking at my chest.  Her form is very
good, very good indeed.  But it doesn't have her heart in it.  There's no
power in it.  Like most of my students, she doesn't grasp how to put real
power into her blows.

    So I take the blow, standing there, barely having felt it.  She stares
at me, frowning.  "See?"

    I thrust back in exactly the same manner, and she goes sprawling,
rolling across the floor.  She misses Hanako, which is what I had planned.
With my students, at least, everything usually goes right when I do
something.  Just not when they do it.

    Hanako stares at her, then idly kicks her; Meiko's long red hair flops
about as she turns and tries to kick Hanako, who leaps out of the way, her
own blonde hair flapping about wildly.  She really needs to cut her hair
shorter if she wants to fight, or it will get in her eyes.

    Like it does now when Meiko rises and charges at her.

    I start forward to stop them, then decide to stop and see if perhaps
Meiko will apply her heart better.

    When she swipes Hanako's legs out from under her and sends her toppling,
I nod my head.  Very good, I think.  That's using her heart.

    I gesture at the other students to keep practicing and sprint over to
them, watching as Hanako grimaces and kicks out Meiko's legs.  When they
start wrestling instead of sword-fighting, then it's time to step in.  "Now,
now, this is not a wrestling school," I tell them.  "I only wrestle with
Mai-chan and Tate-kun, so unless you two are..."

    Ooops, I'm not supposed to mention that in public, so I put my hand over
my mouth.  I'm gonna be in big trouble now.

    They both stare at me for a moment, and then suddenly Meiko goes red and
scrambles away, while Hanako looks confused.  "Who?  Are they in one of your
other classes?"

    I'm not good at hiding my love, though I did get through Tate-kun's
entire office party without jumping on his back once this year.  Mai-chan
was very pleased with me.

    I still don't know how Mai can resist riding around on Tate-kun; he's so
good at it, even as good as my brother.  On the other hand, Mai's breasts
would tend to get in the way, so maybe that's it.

    "Nothing," I tell them.  "I'm not hiding anything at all."  That should
fool everyone, right?  I hope so.  I'm normally much better about this.
Maybe I need to eat.

    Hanako continues to look confused, while Meiko says, hastily, "Was my
sword form any better?"

    "Yes.  You have to put your heart into it," I tell her, then I blow my
whistle, and everyone comes to attention.  "Practice your chest thrusts
while I get a snack."

    I must need food; my stomach rumbles and confirms it.  I still don't
understand why I get so hungry all the time.  But it's my life.

    This is why I keep a well stocked fridge and microwave in the office,
since Mai can't cook for me when I'm working.  Just thinking about her
cooking makes me drool, which Tate always tells me I shouldn't do in front
of the students.

    Which is why it's good that I'm in the office alone when I start
drooling.  Fortunately, hot pockets warm up quickly, and soon, I forget
everything in my food.

    I like teaching people, though it took me a while to adjust from how I
was taught, which apparently is not the way things are done these days.  And
the finance part of it makes me glad I have Tate-kun and Mai-chan to handle
those things, as when numbers get very big, I glaze over.

    Having eaten, I carefully wipe my face, as it helps the students to
respect me more; I had a lot of trouble with getting the older ones to
respect me without beatings until I learned this.

    Ambling back out, I find everyone is busy thrusting in unison.  It is
impressive to look at, but they're still not putting enough heart into it.

    They need a rival.  That's what really lets a person put their heart
into it.  But I don't want to turn my students against each other.  Not
after...that's not an option.  They need an outside foe, someone to get
their blood up and unite their hearts.

    But where will I find one?

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

    "A rival school, of course," big brother tells me, smiling, as I sit on
his couch and drink his tea and eat his cookies.  He's always been so smart,
you know.

    I really should have thought of this, but it makes perfect sense, I
think.  "I really should have thought of this, but it makes perfect sense,"
I tell my big brother.

    He relaxes back on the couch, sipping his tea.  "You could challenge the
Arisugawa school."

    I thought about the last time I had clashed with them.
"My...thing...will go up again."

    He turns to half-face me, raising an eyebrow.  "Your...thing?"

    "Insurance.  Fire insurance," I tell him.  "Her friend is crazy.  But
bald now."  Or maybe her hair has grown back.  It has been a few years.

    "I see," he says, but I can tell from his voice he doesn't remember
that.  "Perhaps the Hanwa school?"

    Oooh, good choice.  Big brother is so smart.  "The Hanwa school it is,"
I tell him.  "They're a good choice."

    He sips his tea again, then puts it aside.  "Very good, then.  I wish
you luck."

    I smile at him; he always wants me to succeed.  My big brother loves me
very much, though not like Mai-chan and Tate-kun.  Whatever some people may
think.  Of course, they're not supposed to think Tate-kun and Mai-chan love
me like that, either.

    You know what I mean.

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

    "I don't think people just barge into someone else's dojo and start
slapping everyone around these days," Mai-chan says, frowning at me.  She
doesn't like my plan, I think.

    Tate-kun staggers out of the kitchen, carrying everyone's food, since
Mai was busy at the table with me.  I dart over and grab his and put it down
on the table; I used to always grab my own first, but I have learned some
manners.

    He smiles at me and passes me mine, then turns to hand Mai hers.
"Depends on the dojo.  Some will want a challenge, others will call the
police."

    "I think Hanwa is traditional enough," I tell Mai, trying to reassure
her.

    Then...something is missing...tea!  I dart into the kitchen and pour
everyone a glass and bring it out.  "Ta-da!"

    Mai takes them and lays them out.  "Thank you, Mikoto-chan."  She smiles
at me again, and everything feels more right.  I can't stand it when she
stops smiling at me.

    "Anyway, I would suggest you do a little target investigation first,"
Tate-kun says to me as he sits down.  "That way, you avoid embarrassment
when it comes time for your offer."

    "Tar...oh, right."  For a moment, I was thinking about shooting
things...with an investigation...it made no sense.  But then I got it.

    "When dealing with other businesses, it's very important to have enough
information," Mai-chan says as she finally sits down.

    We all pray over the food a moment, then Mai-chan continues.  "However,
you're going to have to think about how this may impact your training
schedule for the students, if you're really going to go through with this."
I could tell she didn't want me to, but if I was, she was going to make sure
I did it right.  She always backs Tate-kun and I up, once she sees she can't
turn us aside from what we're planning.  I love my Mai-chan so much.

    By the time dinner was over, I'd been thoroughly interrogated and Mai
had come up with several plans.

    "Practice time," I tell Tate-kun.

    "I need to finish some things in the office," he tells me.  Which means
I'll have to attack him in the office if he takes too long, but he knows
I'll do that and he doesn't tell me not to, so clearly it's okay.  I can
tell he'd rather be sword-fighting.  I certainly would.

    Mai just shakes her head and says, "You can help me clean up, Mikoto."

    Yay!  I love to help Mai-chan.  I spring to my feet and secure all the
dishes at once.  "Let's clean!"

    I don't know why, but it always seems like both of us together can clean
the dishes in a quarter the time it takes Mai by herself.  Shouldn't it be
half?  I'm not good at numbers, though.

    So Tate was still working in his office (or pretending to work, as he
sneaks computer games, sometimes), when we finished, so Mai takes me over to
the couch.  As we walk, I try to figure out if she wants to talk, to
snuggle, or if we're going to make out loudly on the couch until Tate can't
focus any more and comes down and jumps on us and it gets really fun.  I
wish it was as easy to read people's moves outside combat as it is in it.
I'm getting better and almost never embarrass my loves in public any more,
but it always seems like they can read each other better than I can, which
makes me a little jealous.  I just can't even figure out where to start to
learn, and when I ask them about it, they just end up confused.  It's kind
of frustrating.

    Mai depositing me on her lap gives me some hints, so I lean forward and
kiss her.  This would be easier if it was a video game.  Mai smiles and
kisses me back, softly, which is probably a sign to not start taking her
clothing off and moaning loudly until Tate can't hold back any more.  Harder
kisses usually mean it's time to get naked.  But not in public.  But we're
not in public right now.

    She kisses me again, so I kiss her back, uncertain whether to escalate
or not.  It would be so much easier if there were rules for all this.  They
can get in the way, sometimes, but they avoid confusion.  And I get confused
by a lot of things.

    She breaks off the kiss, looking a little guilty, though I'm not sure
why.  "You're so understanding," she says softly.

    I nod, liking praise, even though I don't understand what I'm so
understanding of.  Must be sword fighting.  I understand THAT, anyway.  "You
understand lots of things too," I tell her.  A lot more than me.

    "No, no, not like that," Mai says, sighing.  "Just, all the false fronts
and...I wish I could marry you.  But not with three of us."

    She's feeling guilty again.  But I don't mind.  They love me and that's
enough.  I look terrible in a dress, anyway.

    "We do what we have to, right?", I tell her.  "You can give me ice cream
if you feel guilty."

    Mai laughs at that, and I feel better.  I like to see her happy.  She
kisses me again and goes and gets a tub of ice cream and two spoons, and we
both start eating from it.  We're not supposed to do this; Mai gets mad when
I do it.  Unless we're using it in bed together.  But it must be okay today
for some reason.  Even though this isn't a bed, unless we fold it out.
Maybe that's close enough for ice cream eating.

    After a bit, I'm full; I'm not completely hungry all the time, whatever
Crystal may think.

    I wish she was still living with us and not off at school.  She's fun to
play with, and I miss her, but she needed a better school than any of the
ones around here, and none of us wanted to move.

    But I miss her anyway.

    What's taking Tate-kun so long, anyway?  He'd better not be secretly
playing Master of Orion XII again.  Can't he do that at work?

    Mai comes back and snuggles up to me again, turning on the TV.  I put an
arm around her and snuggle up close, watching the news.  "Don't we need to
clean up?" I ask her, to my own surprise, as I tend to forget such things.

    "I'll do it while you two spar," she says.  "Your turn is tomorrow."  We
rotate the cleaning up between us.  Tate and I can't cook well, so Mai-chan
always cooks, but the two of us take turns cleaning up, usually.  But
sometimes, Mai lets us off the hook, like tonight.

    "Are we going to get naked tonight?" I ask her.  I'm feeling a little
frisky, after our snuggling earlier.

    "Well, we'd have to go to bed early," Mai said.  "As both of us work
tomorrow.  But if you want to, we can."  She leans over and kisses my cheek,
but she looks a little guilty.  I can never tell when she's guilty because
she's been bad and bought food without using a coupon or when she's just
guilty for reasons I can't understand.

    "I gotta finish this letter before I can get naked," Tate-kun shouts
down from the office above.  His hearing is pretty good.  When he wants it
to be.

    Mai looks just a little...excited?  Nervous?  Anticipatory?  I'm not
sure.  Sometimes this means she wants me to be naughty and sometimes it
means that she's worried about something I'd never think of.

    So I try the breast test.  A quick snuggle shows me she's wearing a
boring bra.  That won't do.  Time for a phone call.  "Be right back!"

    Cell phone...I have one, but I don't use it much and half the time, I
can't find it.

    My infallible instincts, however, lead me to the clothing hamper, where
I find yesterday's jeans, with the phone in them.  It's time for a quick
call.

    "Natsuki-san!" I say when she answers.

    "Oh, hi, Mikoto-san.  How are you?"

    "Mai needs a special bra for tonight.  Her current one is too plain," I
tell her.

    I hear Mai rise from the couch, "I have plenty of bras, Mikoto-chan!
Who are you calling?"

    Who else WOULD I call for underwear?  Natsuki has the best, forget about
the rest.

    Natsuki laughs.  "She should have plenty in her closet by now, you
know."

    "I already know those ones.  I want a surprise," I tell Natsuki.

    "Mikoto-chan, I don't..."  Mai grabs the phone.  "Natsuki-chan, I have
plenty of bras.  I don't know why she's bothering you."

    "Oh, it's a boring night and I don't work for two days, so I could bring
some over, have you try them on for Mikoto-chan," Natsuki says, teasingly.

    "We can all dress up!" I tell her enthusiastically.  I have to admit,
all my bras are kind of boring.  I have some fancy ones Natsuki gave me, but
I have hardly anything to put in them, which really isn't fair.  "It'll be
fun!  You wanna stay overnight with us?" I shout at the phone, so as to make
sure she can hear, since Mai stole the phone from me.

    "But Mikoto-chan, that would get in the way of...I mean..." Mai is
starting to get flustered.  She was fine a minute ago.  Right?  Why is she
embarrassed now?

    "Well, if you really want me to," Natsuki says, almost laughing.

    Mai's face turns red; it's so cute when she does that!  So I kiss her.
On the cheek, since the phone's in the way.

    I'm sure Natsuki must be lots of fun when she's naked.  "Come on over!,"
I tell her, then yell up to Tate.  "Natsuki's going to get naked with us
tonight!"

    There is a moment of utter silence which now descends upon the house.

    Traditionally, such a moment happens just before Akira suddenly ambushes
me or right before Mai knocks the bookcase on herself again or right during
some sports game which Tate is now missing because I snagged the power cord
with my sword or right after Crystal catches me reading her porn.

    My brain quickly assesses which form of doom is coming.  Probably Akira,
who could EASILY have driven up and positioned herself to attack without me
noticing.  Mai isn't near anything that can fall on her, Tate isn't watching
anything, and Crystal took all her porn with her this time.  Ergo, it must
be Akira.

    I jump up onto the counter and look around, seizing the nearby broom for
defense.

    Tate shouts down, "Say WHAT?"

    My keen senses hear Natsuki saying, "I...uh...I mean..."

    Mai says, "We...she...joking...NOTHING, TATE-KUN!"

    Where is Akira?  I can't see her anywhere, but since nothing is
exploding or falling on anyone and there's no orphans in the walls, what
else COULD it be?

    Yet she remains perfectly hidden; she knows I'm on to her, so I try to
act casual, like I'm sweeping.  "Oh my, I'm just up here to get more
leverage as I sweep the floor."

    Mai has no red left to turn.

    Natsuki finally says, weakly, "Mikoto-chan is such a joker."

    "Yes, she's a real space cowboy," Mai babbles.  "She was just calling to
tease you about your underwear.  I'm sorry."

    "It's okay," Natsuki says.  "If you really need any..."

    "No, we're good," Mai tells her.  "We...we're good."

    "What are you all yelling about?" Tate yells down.

    "Just finish your work, dear!" Mai yells up.

    WHERE IS AKIRA?  The tension is killing me.  There's only one choice.  I
pull my cellphone now that I remember I have it, and I call her.

    She answers.  "This is Tokiha Akira.  Good evening."

    "Akira-san, where are you hiding to ambush me?  You win, I can't spot
you at ALL," I tell her.

    Mai mumbles something about sugar.

    Natsuki says, "Okay.  Just call me if you ever need anything special for
a special occasion."

    "Akira?" I ask again.

    "If I tell you, you will find me," Akira says, sounding amused, then
hangs up.

    So it's going to be that way, is it?  I'm going to have to tear the
house apart to find her.

    I sprint off, poking my head into things, trying to find where she's
hiding.  My first search reveals she didn't remove all the plates and
glasses.

    By this time, Mai finishes on the phone and drags me off by my feet.
"I'm sure my sister is not in the house," she tells me.

    I keep wondering how exactly that works.  If my brother marries someone,
will she be my sister?  Are Mai and Tate my big brother's siblings now?

    I mean, we're not actually married, but it's practically the same
thing.  "Mai-chan," I say.

    "Yes, Mikoto-chan?" she asks as she takes me back to the couch.

    "Is big brother Reito your brother now?" I ask her.

    She blinks at me, and then I see the light click on in her eyes.  "Oh,"
she says, then looks a little guilty.  She stares off at the crossed swords
over the fireplace we hardly ever use.  "Yes," she says.

    "You don't call him brother," I point out.

    "Well...I would be in error," she says.  "I mean, I should."

    "He's a very good big brother," I tell her, then kneel on the couch,
hugging her around the neck.

    Then a thought hits me.  "How..umm..."  There's a word.  I can't
remember it.  But I figure out another way.  "So does that make Akira and
big brother siblings?  And Takumi-san would be his brother too, right?"

    "Well, I..."  Mai's eyes cross.  "I'm not sure how that all works."

    "TATE-KUN!" I shout.  "ARE AKIRA AND BIG BROTHER SIBLINGS NOW?"  Just in
case he wasn't listening.

    He wasn't.  "Uh, what?" he shouts down.

    "Akira-san is Mai-chan's sister and Reito-oniichan is her brother,
therefore, they're siblings too, right?" I shout up to him.

    "I have no idea.  You should ask Midori.  She studies history and
geneaology and all that sh...stuff," Tate-kun says.

    I whip out my phone and dial.  There's a sound of explosions.  "Hi,
Midori-san!  Are you having fun?"

    "Loads," she says cheerfully, then shouts, "Dammit, Nao, load the gold
cartridges, not the silver ones!"

    I hear a mechanical grunt, then a whistle and a distant boom and
screaming.  "Should I call back later?" I ask.  I'm missing a good fight!
That's kind of disappointing.

    "Is this important or social?" Midori asks.

    I can hear Alyssa shouting something about gargoyles on the other end.

    "Umm...it's importantly social," I tell her.

    She laughs.  Mai says, "Do I hear explosions, Mikoto-chan?"  She sounds
worried.

    "Tell Mai we're fine," Midori said.  "What's the problem?"

    "Midori-san says she's fine, Mai-chan."  I turn back to the phone.  "So,
if Reito-oneechan is Mai's brother and Akira-san is Mai's sister, are they
brother and sister?" I ask her.

    "When did Reito-san become Mai's brother?" Midori asks in confusion.

    "Same way Akira-san became her sister."  I pause.  "Well, not exactly
the same way, as I'm not Mai's sister."  Now I start to get confused as to
how it all works.

    I hear a great squawk and Nao shouting something about bastards.

    "I think it's up to them whether to regard each other as such," Midori
says.

    Well, that makes sense.  "Okay, thanks!  Good luck with the fight!"

    "Good luck to you too," she says and hangs up.

    "Hey, Tate-kun, are you done yet?" I shout up impatiently.

    All is silent.  This could mean he's in the bathroom, or focused on
work...playing computer games...or ambushing me.  But he normally can't
sneak up on me.

    "Tate-kun?" I shout.

    "Trying to find where I hid my practice swords," he shouts down finally.

    Mai rises.  "I'll go clean the kitchen, then," she says.


    "Mai-chan put them in the rack thing by the back door," I shout up.

    "Oh, right," he says.  "I'll be right down, then."

    I rub my hands in eager anticipation, go and find myself a practice
sword, and head outside to wait for him.

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

    Tate-kun's never been as good as me, but he's one of the very best
fighters I know.

    Which admittedly isn't saying much, as most of the ones I know are
either my students or people with powers who rely on the powers over skill.

    He thrusts for my shoulder and I slide under it and jab him in the gut;
my size has its advantages, and one of them is ducking under things.

    Tate-kun staggers back, and I have to move and kick him to one side so
he doesn't squish the violets that Takumi-san spent so long planting.
Unfortunately, this lets him thwack me in the chest and I roll to one side.

    As he tries to follow up, I flip over him and jab him in the back and
the butt, then jump over his revenge swing and tap his shoulders as I come
down.  He switches grips and brings his sword up at an unexpected angle and
I tangle a leg on it.

    Quickly, I hook my leg around it, so when I fall, it yanks the blade
away.  Really, that was cheating, as I'd cut my leg on a real blade.

    "Damn, you got me," Tate says.

    I rise and hand him the blade.  "Well, in a real fight, I'd be bleeding
from the knee now."

    "True," he said, twirling his blade.  "Want to try another..."

    My phone rings.  "Hold on."  I answer it.  "This is Mikoto," I say.

    "Sensei!  Meiko got liquored up and now she's on a rampage and none of
us can stop her and we're afraid the police will come and take her away,"
the woman on the other end says.  It's my student Natsume, who is very
sensible, but not a very good fighter.  She has skill, but she tends to hold
back.

    "Why is she attacking people?" I ask.

    "Attacking people?" Tate asks, worried.  "Crystal's not in another
fight, is she?"

    "Not Crystal," I tell Tate; he looks relieved.

    "She got drunk to forget her fight at lessons, then some guy was hitting
on her and wouldn't take no for an answer, and now she's on a rampage,"
Natsume said, then sighed.  "I'm never taking her here again."

    "I can come help," I tell her.  "Where are you?"

    "What's wrong?" Tate asks, leaning forward.

    I hold up my hand to him to wait just a minute.

    Natsume gives me the address and I get Tate to copy it down for me; he's
always got something to write on.  "I'll be there soon," I tell Natsume.

    "Thank you," she tells me, half-crying.

    I hang up and get the address.  "I'm sorry," I tell him.  "I have to go
help a student."

    "What's wrong?" he asks.

    I explain it all, and he sighs.  "Want some backup?"

    "I'll be fine," I tell him, then pull him down so I can give him a
goodbye kiss.  "It's my duty."

    "Well, call us if you need us, okay?" he tells me.

    "Of course."  But I usually don't.  Except the time I tried to take
those graduates to...well, now I know what a 'kitty bar' really is.  THERE
WERE NO CATS AT ALL.

    Anyway, time to head out.

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

    I race across town on my bike, heading for the bar.  I've never quite
understood the appeal of bars, as they rarely have tasty food and you can
drink at home without getting robbed.

    As I approach, I try to decide if it is urgent enough to ride my bike in
through the front window.  But probably not, as Tate-kun's afraid we'll get
a lawsuit if I keep doing that.

    So I park out front and rush in, instead.  Meiko is up on a pool table,
a pool stick in each hand.  "I AM QUEEN OF THE MOUNTAIN!"

    Everyone's knocked out or drunk or hiding under tables, except for
Natsume, who meets me at the door, and the bartender, who is hiding behind
the bar.

    "Meiko, this is Sensei!  Stand down!" I tell her.

    She peers at me.  "Sensei?  What are you doing here?"

    "Natsume said you went crazy."  I wave my arms.  "Are you trying to get
our school into a war?"

    "Just 'cause I beat up a few guys from the Ryuugenzawa school doesn't
mean we're at war," Meiko says, twirling her sticks.  She points one at me.
"Didn't they teach you?  Our constitution makes war illegal!  I was just a
self-defense force!"  She belches now.  "Drunken Samurai Style is great!"

    Stupid drunk people, I think.  I take up two cues myself.  "Come on, we
have to get you home," I tell her.

    "Come on, Meiko, don't do anything stupid again!" Natsume says and I
wince.  That's not going to help.

    "I'll show you stupid!" Meiko says, leaping forwards.

    I vault over her and as I pass, grab her with my cues like seizing sushi
with chopsticks.  TASTY sushi with chopsticks.  Though sometimes, I just
grab it with my fingers and stuff it in my mouth and pour some tasty sauce
down after it.  YUM.

    Anyway, so I'm flipping over her and grabbing her, and it throws off her
charge as she goes flipping around and we tumble and I land on her chest.
Which is bigger than mine, which I regret.  But not right now, as it gives
padding for my landing, which knocks the breath out of her.

    I pick her up and sling her over one shoulder.  "Come on, it's time for
you to go home."

    This presents a problem.  If I put her in Natsume's car, she may do
something stupid.  But I can't really carry her all drunk like this and
drive at the same time.  Or at least, it's risky, and I don't want to risk
her.

    For a few seconds, I consider whether maybe we could fit the bike in
Natsume's trunk.  That way, I could ride with her.  But it won't really
work.

    Not much choice except to call in backup.  "Keep her propped up,
Natsume; I'm calling for backup," I tell Natsume.

    She nods, and takes Meiko off my hands.

    I call Natsuki.  "Hi!," I say to her.  "You're not naked with your new
boyfriend or anything, right?"

    "No, I'm not," Natsuki says, oddly nervous.  "Is this about underwear?"

    "No, I need your bike-transporting truck.  I had to go get a student out
of a bar and she has a friend, but I'm afraid if I don't ride with them,
she'll wake up and do something stupid, but I don't want to leave my bike
here.  Please?" I ask Natsuki.

    "Okay, but you owe me one," Natsuki says.

    "That's fine.  You can come eat up our ice cream once we're done here."

    She laughs and I tell her where to find me and she hangs up and comes.

    As I ride with Meiko in the backseat of Natsume's car, with Natsuki
following us in the truck, Natsume asks softly, "Is she your Mai?"

    I can feel my brain melt down.  What is she...how does she...my big
mouth!  "She's my good friend Kuga Natsuki," I tell Natsume.  "We went to
school together.  I would have called Mai-chan, but she doesn't have
anything that can haul a bike around, though I keep telling her we ought to
get something."  I'm talking too much, I realize.  Don't mention getting
naked, I tell myself.

    DON'T MENTION GETTING NAKED.

    "So..." Natsume begins, then shakes her head, then drives in silence for
a bit.  "Sensei, can I ask how old you are?"

    "Yes," I tell her.

    But she doesn't.  Why do people do that?

    "Umm..."

    "Are you going to ask me?" I ask her.

    She looks confused.  "Didn't I?"

    Now I'm confused.  "I don't remember it.  Anyway, I'm in my thirties."

    "You look so young," Natsume said a little enviously.

    "I wouldn't mind looking a little older," I tell her.  And having at
least Natsume-sized breasts.  Which wouldn't match Mai, but then Tate might
get confused in the dark if I was as big as Mai.

    "Have you had many boyfriends?" she asks me nervously.

    "I have a lot of male friends," I tell her.  I met a lot of guys when I
was in the Kendo club, later in my school career.

    "No, no, I mean, like your...Tate-kun."

    Finally, it all sinks into my brain.  What do I say?  I can't
just...Things get around.  I know that much.

    "I've not loved many men."  Hah!  That's totally true yet totally
evasive.  I just have to pretend to be Shiho-san for this.

    "See, there's this boy I like, but I haven't been able to get his
attention," Natsume says hesitantly.

    "Challenge him to a duel," I tell her.  "If he doesn't notice your
skills after that, he's blind."

    "..."

    I'm never sure if I reduce people to silence with my brilliance or my
stupidity or both.

    I hear Meiko stir, but a good rap to the head keeps her out.

    "But Natsuki-san has LOTS of boyfriends, so she could give you better
advice.  I've just stuck to one," I tell her.

    "What does a guy want from a woman?  I mean, besides the obvious."
Natsume asks me.

    I'm confused as to why she is asking me about love; I'm not a love
teacher.  But it is my duty to help my students.

    I rack my brain, trying to figure out what the obvious thing is.
Cooking?  A good sword partner?  Business skills?  The ability to summon a
Child?  No, wait, hardly anyone knows about the last one.  Must be cooking.
Or getting naked?  But that shouldn't be obvious, given you do it in
private.  Right?

    I try thinking about my big brother.  Maybe I can tag this off to him.

    I whip out my phone and call big brother, while Natsume glances at me in
confusion.

    "Hello, sister, how are you?"

    "You have lots of girlfriends, right?" I ask him.

    "Well, yes," he says, sounding confused.

    "Can you tell my student Natsume what you want in a woman beyond the
'obvious'?"  I try to sound knowledgeable.

    "Umm, I suppose," he says, sounding confused still.

    I pass the phone to her, then settle back as they talk.  Really, you
want to ask a MAN what a MAN wants, right?  I could talk about what I want
in a woman, but that probably wouldn't help her.

    We reach Meiko's apartment building around the time that she finishes.
"Did he help?" I ask her.

    She smiles nervously.  "I think so."

    We park and man...womanhandle Meiko out of the car.  Natsuki comes over
and helps.

    "Thanks, Natsuki-san," I tell her.

    "No problem," she says.  "I was kind of bored, anyway."

    "Want to come over to our place after this?" I ask her.  "You won't be
bored then."

    Natsuki looks very embarrassed, though I don't know why.

    Natsume's eyes flicker, and then she guides us inside to take Meiko
upstairs to her apartment.  Natsume bangs on the door and a short, skinny
blonde answers.  I don't know her.

    The blonde sighs, pushing her glasses up her nose.  "Again?"

    "Aika, this is my teacher, Kanzawa Mikoto, and her friend Kuga Natsuki,"
Natsume tells the blonde.  "They helped me get her home.  She's drunk and
cranky again."

    Aika sighed.  "Thank you all.  Would you like to come in for some tea?"

    "I should get home," I tell her.  "But..."

    "We also have cookies."

    "COOKIES!!!!!!"

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

    They HAD cookies, anyway.  I changed that.

    As we're leaving, I say to Natsuki, "Really, if you're bored, we'd love
to have you."

    "I wouldn't want to be a burden," she says as we get my bike down to the
ground.

    "You're never a burden except when you get really drunk and we have to
carry you," I tell her.  "And there's all sorts of things we can do with
four people."  At least in Crystal's porn collection there is.  And I have a
few ideas.

    Her eyes cross.  "I have a boyfriend, you know," she says.

    "Oh, I forgot.  Should we invite him too, then?" I ask her.

    "..."

    "Is that a 'yes' or a 'no' staring at me?" I ask her.

    "He's off on work," Natsuki says, sounding a little lonely.

    "I'm sure he's thinking of you," I tell her.  "If he loves you as much
as we do, I'm sure he can't help it."

    That's supposed to make her feel good, not make her cry, so when her
eyes tear up, I get very confused.  "Did I say something bad?"

    "You're such an innocent," she says softly, wiping her eyes.  "I'm sure
he's thinking of me," she says.  "But it will be a long time, if ever,
before he can love me as much as...you do."  She sounds tired and
frustrated, and I know I've hurt her, but I still can't figure out how,
which frustrates me.  "You're lucky, Mikoto, having two of us, two who
know...you don't have to hide anything from them."  She stares at the
ground.

    I want to comfort her, but now I'm worrying I'll hurt her more.  "Well,
you should come stay with us a while, where you don't have to hide anything
either," I tell her.  "Let it all out."

    She stares at me silently, then says, "Okay.  I'll see you there."

    "Let's go to your house, then we can race to my place," I tell her.
"It'll be more fun that way."

    She cocks her head, then finally smiles a little.  "I'll kick your ass,"
she says.

    "It's a very small target," I remind her.

    "We'll see," she says.  "We'll see."

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

    Racing through the streets, I took a curve too fast and almost wiped
out.  As a result, Natsuki took the lead on me and cruised on past me to get
home faster than I could, though she almost ended up crashing through the
front window again.  She's lucky Mai can't throw fire around the house, or
she would have cooked Natsuki's goose for sure.

    Goose...Goose is so tasty.  Have you ever had goose?  I like it in an
orange sauce, so it's tangy.  Though barbeque sauce can be good.  We visited
the Great Wall about a decade ago and had some REALLY good goose in
Beijing.

    Or was it duck?  I can't remember, but it was unusual and tasty.

    Anyway, I brought my bike to a halt and sigh.  "You win," I tell her.

    She grins a little, then knocks on the door.

    "You don't have to knock," I tell her, then open the door and walk in.

    "I'm home!  I brought Natsuki-chan, so she could let it all hang out!" I
shout.

    The thought suddenly hits me that I've been gone so long, they may have
already gotten naked, and now they may be embarrassed when we walk in
together.

    Of course, it hits me too late to do any good.

    I hear showering noises and dishwashing noises, which relieves me.
"We're home!" I shout.

    Mai-chan comes out of the kitchen.  "Hi, Mikoto-chan.  Natsuki-san!  Did
you two run into each other?"

    "She helped me with a student problem," I tell Mai, taking her hands.
"She, umm..."  I'm not good at explaining emotional stuff.  "She needs ice
cream."

    "She needs ice cream or you want ice cream?" Mai asks, knowing me well.

    "YES," I tell her.

    "Well, you do get lots of exercise," Mai said.  "Okay, let's get some."

    Soon, we're all at the kitchen table, eating more ice cream.  Mai-chan
and Natsuki-san are busy talking about some movie or something, and it hits
me that I need a bath, so I slip off upstairs, letting them talk.

    I stalk up carefully to the shower.  PROBABLY it is Tate.  But you never
know when some woman is in the shower about to be killed by a knife-weilding
psycho whose dead mother tells him what to do.

    I didn't take a shower for a week after that.  Brr...

    Though it's more likely I'll walk in on Takumi-san, and then Akira-san
will go crazy and try to beat me to death with a shovel.  She really fights
well when she goes all monkey-crazy-style.

    I slide into the master bathroom; there is no sign of any knife-wielding
maniacs, and the shadow in the shower looks like an outline of Tate.  "That
you, Tate-kun? Or a knife-wielding maniac?"

    "Knife-wielding maniac," he says, laughing.

    I quickly slide out of my clothes and slip into the shower to
investigate, tackling Tate-kun.  "Die, maniac!" I say.

    It's a joke, of course.  I can recognize his voice easily.

    We wrestle around for a while; while I can CRUSH him with a sword if I
want to, I have to admit he outwrestles me eight out of ten times.  So I end
up upside down with the hot water running down me while he holds me by my
feet, swaying back and forth gently.  "Give up?" he asks.

    "Yeah.  Natsuki-san's downstairs!" I tell him.  "We have to get all
pretty."

    He puts me right side up and begins shampooing my hair.  "How you can
attract so much dirt," he mumbles.

    "Even dirt loves me," I tell him, wiggling as he scrubs.

    "Any news, or just a social call?" he asks, hands still scrubbing.  I
start washing myself to save time.

    "She's feeling kind of lonely because of the family secrets," I tell
him.

    He stops scrubbing and sighs, putting his hands on my shoulders, which
feels very good.  Normally, I'd take this as a signal for naughtiness, but
we have a guest who wants to see us downstairs, so I restrain myself.

    He puts my hair in the stream from the faucet and washes out the soap,
saying, "We're very lucky to have each other."

    "Yeah," I say, feeling a little melancholy for a moment.  "Maybe she'd
feel better if she slept with us tonight."

    I can hear him rub his forehead as I'm trying to balance on one foot and
scrubbing a leg.  "I always feel happy after I wake up with everyone.  Even
though her breasts don't make as good a pillow as Mai's do."

    "Mikoto, there are things which aren't done," he begins.  I can feel a
lecture coming.

    "We don't have to get naughty.  But I think she needs her friends around
her," I tell him.

    "She has a boyfriend," he tells me.  "Who might not understand the
difference."

    "Oh," I tell him.  "Can't I explain it to him?"

    His hands are on my shoulders again, gently kneading my shoulder
muscles.  I wiggle happily at that, though I don't have much to jiggle.

    "I have a feeling that he would probably not understand," Tate-kun
says.  "But maybe the two of us could sleep in your room and let Mai sleep
with Natsuki if you think she needs some company.  Or you two can and I'll
stay in your room."

    I frown at that.  Natsuki-san needs company, but I don't want to make
him end up alone instead.  "Well, we can ask them," I tell him.

    He nods and we both finish getting clean, then head downstairs in
pajamas.

    "I don't know," I hear Natsuki-san say, then gurgling drinking sounds
ensue.  "He's a good guy, but we're both pretty busy.  Especially him."  She
sighs.

    We come out to the kitchen; Mai is having some lemonade, while Natsuki
is on beer #2.  Natsuki takes another swig, then says, "He and Shizuru get
along better than most of my boyfriends do, though.  Oh, hey, guys," she
says.  "Wanna get drunk with me?"

    "I don't think we have enough beer left for that," Tate-kun says, coming
over to sit down opposite Natsuki, while I plop down next to her.

    "So are we all going to pile up in one bed?" I ask Natsuki.  "Or should
Tate and I go to my room and let you sleep with Mai?"

    Natsuki has another beer.  "Hell, I don't know.  I may just sleep on the
floor here."

    "That's not good enough," I tell her.  "It's cold and hard and sleeping
here is not fun at all, not even if your head is in the refrigerator where
the food is."

    Natsuki laughs.  "I can just go on the couch."

    "O...," Mai starts to speak.

    "Well, you can sleep with Mai-chan in the big bed.  It's best and she
has the softest breasts for you to put your head on," I say.

    Tate says, "I'm afraid mine aren't soft at all."  Then he started
laughing.

    "Yeah," I continue, and now Mai and Natsuki laugh.  "Tate-kun and I will
just go to my bedroom."

    CHUG.  "I...okay," Natsuki says softly, looking at me with that weird
look.  You know the one.  The one I can't FIGURE OUT AT ALL.  You'd think
I'd get it by now.  She reachs over and ruffles my hair.  "You're a sweetie,
Mikoto-chan."

    "A big sweetie," I say, smiling broadly.

    We talked a while longer, then went to bed.

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

    Sometimes I'm the first to sleep, usually, really.  But I could feel
Tate relax in my arms as we laid in my bed, with me basically lying on top
of him as he embraced me.  I could hear his heart beating, which usually
lulls me to sleep.

    I could hear Mai and Natsuki talking.  Not well enough to understand
them, but enough to know they were.  It was part of what kept me awake,
wondering what they were saying and whether maybe I should have called her
boyfriend to get his permission for her to crash with all of us.

    Part of me wanted to wake Tate up to talk to him, but he had work
tomorrow morning, so he needed to sleep, really.

    Finally, I managed to drift off to sleep myself.

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

    The next day in class, I was busy drilling everyone when someone began
pounding on the door.  This made me glad I'd switched out the glass door
that used to be there and had it replaced with fairly sturdy wood.  It had
only taken one time of someone breaking the glass to make me see it we
needed stronger doors.

    I run over, hoping maybe someone had come to challenge my students.
Instead, however, it's Akira.  Who is my sister.  I think.  Anyway, I like
her a lot, but you already know that.  "Hi!" I say, hugging her.  "Are you
bored and feeling like teaching?"

    "The Ryuugenzawa school is on its way here to challenge you and your
students.  There was some sort of brawl last night, my sister told me, and
now they're angry  They're on their way." Akira is, as usual, hard to read.
I'm not sure if she is mad, but hiding it, or worried, but hiding it.  She
is hiding something, anyway.

    "Meiko!," Natsume says, slapping her forehead.

    "They sucked," Meiko says flatly.  "We can take them."

    "Mai asked that I assist you if things got out of hand," Akira says.

    "Cool."  I turn to my students.  "This is my sister Akira," I tell
them.  "She is a great master of swordsmanship, so you should respect her as
you do me."

    Akira looks slightly embarrassed.

    "I thought you just had a brother," one of my students, a short, blue
haired boy named Rei says.

    "It is complicated," Akira says.  "You are all about to be challenged by
the Ryuugenzawa school.  I am not sure if this means a formal challenge or
an all-out attack to steal the Dojo sign or a brutal brawl."  She whips her
swords from nowhere.  "But I will help Mikoto-san to protect you."

    "They suck.  We can take them," Meiko says  defiantly.  Her fighting
spirit was good and I approved, though I wasn't so sure she was ready for
this.  On the other hand, even drunk, she'd taken several of them out...

    The students mill about nervously; this isn't going to cut it.  If my
students looked scared when these guys arrived, we were dead already.
"While we wait, we drill.  Pair off and spar."

    "But...," Rei begins, voice wavering.

    "No buts," I say.  "Meiko, I want you to practice with Akira.  Show her
your spirit!"

    Meiko nods enthusiastically.  Her drunken victory had lit a fire in her
at least.  She soon faces off with Akira, who bows to her, and they begin to
fight.

    Meanwhile, I decide to work with Natsume.  I press her back against the
floor, then remind myself to hold back, or she'll become discouraged.  I
don't like holding back but it's an essential part of teaching.  Especially
if I'm sparring with a student.

    'Accidentally', I deliberately slip on the mat to see if she'll exploit
it.  To my delight, she does, lunging to strike my shoulder as I wobble
over, leaving it open.  "Very good, Natsume."

    She smiles a little and I smile back, then go for her legs, knocking her
down.  "Don't relax until the match ends," I tell her.

    She nods and rises.  She needs more power.  Her form is good, but I have
to find something to motivate her.

    There's that boy she has a crush on...I could take him hostage, let her
rescue...no, that went really badly last time I tried to help someone with
their love life like that.  Hmm, maybe I could teach her the secrets of
getting naked with boys...I know a good amount about that.  Assuming it
applies to boys beyond Tate, but surely it does.

    I hear her laugh a little and feel her hit me hard in the stomach and I
snap out of my reverie, extremely embarrassed, finding myself sitting on my
ass, having been knocked down.  "Very good," I tell her.  "You got me."

    "You had a very cute smile," Natsume says, smiling brightly.

    As I stand up, I see Akira and Meiko going at it; Meiko is yelling loud
enough to wake up Tate on a Saturday morning; her moves are sloppier than
they should be, but her power is good.  Akira presses her hard, dodging the
wild blows and forcing her into desperate parries to hold off Akira; Akira
has enough power to hold off Meiko's long blade with just one of her short
ones, then slash at her with the twin short blade in her other hand.  I can
tell she's holding back just enough to push Meiko to her limits.  Very
good.  It's easy to get carried away and push the students too hard.

     Suddenly I remember I'm leaving myself open.  Focus on the fight, I
tell myself.  But Natsume is also watching the fight.  "Your sister is
really good, Sensei," Natsume says.  "Maybe even as good as you."

    I think I'm a little better, but our fights tend to get interrupted by
everyone else or when one of us tags the other, so I'm not sure.  She's
really good, though.  "She's a ninja."  Well, not any more and now I'm not
sure I should have mentioned that.

    Natsume laughs, clearly thinking I am joking.  Whew.  "Ready to resume?"

    Meiko now backs into another student and they both fall down, then start
yelling at each other.  "Hold on."

    I stride over, even as Akira is saying, "In a real fight, you have to
keep an eye out for trouble like that.  If I was trying to kill you, you'd
have given me a huge advantage."

    Meiko starts pouting.  "Yes, but we're not trying to kill each other for
real."

    "But someone else may," Akira begins.

    "She's right," I tell Meiko, helping her up, while Ran (who she ran
into), is helped up by his sparring partner, Arthur (another one of those
kids with weird foreign names).

    And then there is another banging on the door.  They let themselves in,
all twenty five of them, wearing blue gis with a black turtle insignia.  A
turtle?  For martial artists?  Wait, these are...

    The leader is a tall, muscular man who I think probably is big enough to
be four of me at once.  He wears a red bandana around his messy hair and he
yells, "Who's in charge in this hellhole?"

    "That would be me," I tell him, walking over.  "You must be Ryu
Ryuugenzawa, master of the Ryuugenzawa school."

    "Yeah, one of your students attacked some of mine with a dishonorable
surprise attack.  We've come to challenge you to a match.  If we win, you
have to kick her out of your school and we're taking your sign."  He studies
me carefully, looking dubious.  "There's no way you're the master of this
school."

    I smile brightly and point to the picture of me on the wall with my
national kendo trophy.

    He frowns deeply like a man sure he's being conned.  "I don't want to
have to beat up a kid."

    "A kid?  I'm in my thirties!" I tell him.  Looking  young and cute
always seems to cause me trouble with my teaching.  "And what do we get if
we win?"

    "You won't win," he says confidently.

    "Given I kicked the ass of five of your little kids when I was drunk, I
think you shouldn't be so confident!," Meiko says, pointing at him.

    He glares at her and she glares back.  Excellent.  Now I just have to
light a fire under everyone's feet.  In their belly.  Whatever the
expression is.

    "If we win, Meiko and I get to play dressup with you and your boys," I
tell him, hoping he's like Shun, who would throw bets and then laugh when we
dressed him up.  This guy doesn't look half-girl like Shun, though.

    "..."

    My students start laughing; I think they will want to help.

    "I'm not doing something totally gay like that!," one of the Ryuugenzawa
boys protests.

    "You will DO what I tell you," Ryu says.  "Fine.  Sounds good to me."
He folds his arms across his chest like a barrier.  "If we lose to these
idiots, we deserve it."

    It surprises me he said yes so easily.  Unless maybe he is like Shun in
secret...  I eye him carefully.

    "Come back Saturday morning.  My students can be free all day," I tell
him.

    "Agreed," he says.  His students groan and look outraged, until he
stares at them, and they shut up.

    We haggle out a starting time and then he leaves and I turn to my
students, who look nervous, though a few of them are more confident than the
rest.  "Best we double up on studying," I tell them.  "We have to make sure
we win, for Meiko's sake."

    "Would you like me to keep an eye on them?" Akira offers.  "It's best to
have some good intelligence before a fight."

    I did okay in school, with Mai and Tate's help, but I could definitely
use more intelligence, so I tell her yes.

    She nods and heads out.

    "Okay, everyone, let's practice!"

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

    Later, I have dinner with Mai and Tate, crab soup with lots of cream the
way I like it.  Inbetween bites, I tell them the contest.

    Mai nods, while Tate purses his lips and studies his soup as if looking
for something in it, so I take a look as well, but I don't see anything
except for the turnip slices.

    Finally, Tate says, "It seems to me that unless he puts a lot of value
on taking your sign, he agreed to far more penalty for losing than you did."

    "Well, the honor of the dojo is in that sign," I tell him.  "It is very
important.  And while he might be embarrassed, it's only for a little while,
right?  Whereas losing Meiko is forever and losing the sign could take a
long time to get strong enough to get it back."

    "It just doesn't read right to me," Tate says.  "He may think he has
some special edge."

    "He may just be very confident that he won't lose," Mai says.

    We eat quietly a little while, then Mai says, "I have an idea.  Maybe he
believes his men will work harder to train if they fear being forced to play
dress-up."

    "That's true.  It gives his men more incentive to work hard," Tate said,
finally plucking a piece of crab out of his soup.

    "You'll both come watch, right?" I ask them.  I can fight even better
with them watching me.

    "Of course," Tate said.  "Hmm, I could probably take Friday off if you
want me to come help your people train."

    "Really?" Getting him or Mai to take time off work usually requires a
huge amount of effort.

    "I have plenty of vacation time and the Muga deal closes Thursday.  So
my boss can't complain if I take the next day off."  He smiles, plucks out a
turnip slice and tosses it into the air, then catches it, making Mai smile.
"I could use a good workout."

    "That's great!," I say, fighting the urge to grab the turnip before he
can.

    Mai taps her cheek thoughtfully.  "Natsuki's new boyfriend is a
negotiator.  You might want to talk to him, see if he can think of anything
we might not have about your deal with the head of the Ryuugenzawa school."

    "That's a good idea," I tell her.  "I'll talk to him tomorrow."

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

    The next day, I get up early and head off to his office after getting
the address from Natsuki.  It's only when I'm knocking at the door that I
suddenly realize that I probably needed to make an appointment.

    The door swings open as if self-propelled, and inside I find not the
waiting room I expected, but a red-haired woman playing the piano and some
very nice chairs for watching, so I plopped down to listen.

    She plays and plays and plays, an endless ocean of music.  Somehow, I go
from being comfortable in my chair to being curled up on the floor,
desperately hungry with my stomach rumbling loudly.

    "You are hungry," the woman says to me.  "Your stomach begins to drown
out my playing."

    "Feed me," I mumble, trying to stand up and noticing the shadows have
shifted; somehow it is now mid-afternoon!  What happened???

    She studies me, then leads me into the back; we pass an office with a
desk and enter a small area like my office in my dojo, complete with a small
fridge, a microwave, and some plates, cups, and silverware.  She gets out
some hot pockets and puts them in the microwave, while I stare hungrily,
telling myself not to drool.

    Finally, the food comes out and she puts it on a plate for me; I gobble
it down desperately, then bow to her.  "Thank you very much.  I'm Minagi
Mikoto.  Are you Mr. Smith's secretary?"

    "I am his assistant.  He is off on a case, but is supposed to be back by
now," she says.

    "Aren't you going to eat?" I ask her.

    "I am not hungry," she says.  "Do you intend to wait for him?"

    "Until I have to leave to go teach," I tell her.

    She studies me for a moment, then nods and returns to the piano room and
begins playing again, while I sit in a chair and try to not fall asleep.

    I'm still trying to stay awake when Roger Smith wakes me up.

    "You're Minagi Mikoto, right?  Natsuki's friend?" he asks me softly.

    "Yes, I am!," I tell him, smiling and glad he remembers me.  Glancing
over, I see Dorothy sitting silently at the piano, watching me impassively.
You know, she reminds me of Miyu for some reason.

    But that's not important right now.  "I think I may have been suckered
in a deal and Mai-chan thought I ought to consult with you."

    "Of course," he says.  He glances over at Dorothy, who simply nods,
staying at the piano, and then leads me into his office where I plop down in
a nice comfy chair.

    I explain the whole deal to him as he listens to me, looking hard to
read.  I'm not even sure he's paying attention, given he takes no notes or
anything.

    Dorothy changes tunes on the piano, which makes him smile, but I'm not
sure what she's playing now.  Not that I knew before.

    When I reach the end, however, he says, "I agree.  I wouldn't call it a
deadly trap, but I get a clear feeling he is up to something.  Mind you, he
may think you are luring him into a trap."

    "..."

    "One of your students 'accidentally' gave offense to some of his boys
while 'drunk'.  Honor demands he can't ignore that, but now you've snared
him in terms of definite humiliation for his entire school if he loses,"
Roger says, hands folded on the desk.

    I hadn't thought about that.  I'd planned a straightforward challenge.
But he doesn't know me, so what might he think about it?  Maybe he does feel
suckered.  Though Akira may find something out for me.

    "Or he may be very overconfident, assuming no women can overcome him.
You need some good intelligence on him," Roger continued.  "I can gather a
report for you; it's important to know the other side well in negotiations."

    "Could you?" I ask.  "I'd be really grateful."  What  a nice guy, I
thought.  Looks like Natsuki finally struck gold in her boyfriend hunt.
"Why don't you and Natsuki come over for dinner tomorrow night?  You can
deliver the report then."

    He nods seriously.  "Of course."

    I grab his hands and squeeze, then let go, suddenly worrying if he'll
find that too intimate.  "Thank you," I tell him.

    He smiles that broad smile again.  "You're welcome, Minagi-san."

    "Oh, you can call me Mikoto, since you're Natsuki's boyfriend," I tell
him.  "We're all on first name basis ever since...we went to school
together."  Almost slipped up.  He's not part of the secret yet.

    "I wish I was so close to those I went to school with," he said
ruefully.  "I fear I have lost contact with everyone since then."

    "We've tried very hard to keep in contact with everyone," Mikoto said.
"Mai-chan is very well organized and so is Tate-kun."

    "It was nice to meet some professionals the last time I visited your
house, Mikoto-san," he says.

    I get up.  "I had best get going to go teach," I tell him, bowing.

    He rings a bell on the desk.  Dorothy says, her voice somehow carrying
clearly from the piano room, "I am not a trained cat."

    I'm the trained cat, I think, giggling.  Then I force myself to turn
serious in a non-deadly way, offering him a hand.  "Thank you, Mr. Roger
Smith," I tell him in English as seriously as I can, then shake his hand.
"I will look forward to seeing you again."  Then I pray I got it all right.
I did okay in English in school, but I can't say I'm as good at it as
Midori-chan or Yukino-chan or Haruka-chan or Tate-kun or my big brother.

    He looks surprised a moment, and then it's gone.  I don't think I was
supposed to see it; I'm just that good.  Then he smiles more broadly.  "And
I you, Ms. Mikoto.  Good luck."

    "You too!"  And then I'm off.

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

    "Do you really think it would work?" Natsume asks me shortly before
class, catching me off guard.

    I stare at her in confusion.  "Is this a special move?"

    "Asking...a friend to come see me fight?" she asks.  "Guys do seem to
like seeing fights."  She shuffles her feet back and forth.

    OH, the guy she likes.  "Yes," I tell her.  "I'm sure once he sees your
strength...and he'd BETTER see it," I tell her, just a little menacingly.
We certainly can't afford to lose this match.

    She laughs nervously.  "I will do my best."

    "So what's his name, anyway?"

    "Kaoru Frederick," she says.  Then, crimson, she mumbles something about
'Freddie'.

    These weird modern names still make my head hurt.  It's like all the
languages are starting to cross-breed.  Or like I'm back in my high school
English class with the teacher who insisted we all take a English name, then
got mad for no good reason when I wanted to be 'Mark', which I think is a
good name.

    I'm not sure why he laughed so hard when Natsuki wanted to be Nevada,
either.

    Anyway, back to the present.

    "Can he fight?" I ask her curiously.

    "His father is a fencing instructor, I just found out.  And pretty
rich."  She pauses hesitantly.  "But I'm not after his money."

    "His mother isn't a giant red-head with a crazy purple-haired friend,
right?" I ask with a sudden terrible feeling.

    "No, Frederick has black hair like his mother; she's from Britain, I
think," Natsume says.

    The languages ARE cross-breeding, I realize.  "Okay.  I had some trouble
with a fencing school a while back."

    "Anyway, I was thinking...maybe inviting him would be good.  I think."
Shuffle, shuffle.

    I pat her shoulder.  "It should be fine.  Let's practice!"

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

    Later, Tate and I are in the backyard sparring when Tate suddenly flies
into the air with a yelp.  This is enough warning for me to duck low under
Akira's strike and knock her down with a knee blow.

    "I am queen of the yard!" I announce laughing as they both fall down.

    "Hello, Akira-san," Tate says, getting up and helping her up.

    "I have done some scouting, though I also noticed Natsuki's boyfriend
poking around," Akira said.

    Tate goes and gets us some chairs to sit on and we sit down under a
large tree.  "That's odd, seems...oh, wait, Mikoto, did you go talk to him?"

    "Yes.  Oh, and remind me to tell Mai he and Natsuki are coming for
dinner tomorrow."

    Tate nods, then we both turn to Akira.

    "He has a half-dozen very good students, a lot of ones who could handle
a street thug, and a few who are terrible but too stubborn to give up."
Akira frowns at that.  "They seem a waste of time to let them keep
training."

    "Maybe he sees some secret potential," I tell her.  "Some of my students
just take a long time to get it."

    "How are they compared to Mikoto's?" Tate asks, leaning forward.

    "Not quite as good in technical skill, but more spirited.  Probably
because most of yours are women who were taught from birth not to be
agressive," Akira says, shaking her head.  "Unlike you or myself.  I am glad
to see you did not supress Crystal's strength."

    "It's all very strange to me," I tell her.  "They are trying harder, but
I need something to really light them on fire.  Many of them only seem to
really get lit on fire by love, though."

    There was a bit of an uncomfortable silence as I realized my own
statement and we all remembered times past.

    Finally Tate breaks the silence.  "Positive incentive," he suddenly
says.

    "That's true.  Some are better motivated by reward than fear of
punishment," Akira pointed out.

    "Hmmm.  I could promise them a date with Tate-kun...," I muse.
Actually, I'm just teasing.  Though that would likely motivate some of them.

    "..."  Tate stares at me in surprise and I giggle.

    Akira glances at me, then smiles a tiny smile.  "I could ask my husband
to put himself in as a prize as well..." she says teasingly.

    "..."  Tiny wisps of smoke curl out of Tate's ears.

    So I pounce on him, cuddling up to him.  "I'm just joking," I tell him.


    Akira begins laughing softly but her smile is broad.

    "I didn't think, but sometimes you say things without
thinking...uhh...," he mumbles.

    "They'd go crazy for you," I tell him, kissing him softly, quickly.
"But your body is for us, not them."

    He finally relaxes and embraces me; I can feel Akira trying hard to not
notice what we're doing, so I climb back off him to my chair.  "I'm just
being vain, anyway," he said, shaking his head.  "I do want to help,
though.  I definitely will have Friday off."

    "Good," I tell him.  "Maybe I could make some kind of special medal for
those who do well.  Or trophies."

    Tate nods.  "Wanting to win those Kendo trophies was a big motivator for
me back in the day."

    "Teaching secret techniques can be an incentive too," Akira says.  "I
know a few tricks I'd be willing to give away as a prize."

    "Really?  THANK YOU."  I hug her firmly.

    "My old clan will howl if these get out," she says, smiling a little
more broadly and hugging me tightly.

    I laugh too.  We haven't had trouble with them in a long time,
thankfully.  I think they're scared of us.  Which is smart on their part.

    "You want to practice with us?  Or do you have any other secrets to
share?"

    "Let me give you the run down on each of them."

    I end up having to take notes with Tate's help.  It's a lot of people to
keep track of.

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

    "Are you sure you're up to that?" Mai asked me when I told her about the
invitation.

    "Up to what?" I ask.

    She slaps her forehead.  "I have to do extra work tomorrow night for my
presentation the next day, so you volunteered to cook, since Tate is busy
too."  Mai usually does all the cooking as she's a lot better than the rest
of us.  I'd completely forgotten about this.

    "I will give them my very best!," I tell her, trying to be reassuring.

    Mai looks dubious, then says, "Well, you invited them.  So it's on your
head."  She's clearly not happy.

    "I need to improve anyway, right?" I tell her.  "You never get better if
you never practice."

    She softens.  "That's true."

    And in fact, I have a plan already.

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

    "Please!," I beg Akane, down on my knees.  "You have to help me!!!"

    Mai's a great chef, but Akane's the second best of us, maybe even first
on some things.  Her cakes and other baked goods are better than Mai's, I
have to admit.  Which is why she runs a bakery now with her husband.

    "You really need to learn to cook better so you don't have to always
come beg me," she says, waggling a finger as her two younger kids also do,
imitating her.

    Crystal hates them, I know, but I think they're a lot of fun as long as
you keep them away from anything too breakable.  They're good at making me
laugh.  But not right now.

    "I can come mow your yard or something.  PLEASE." I beg of her looking
as pitiful as possible.  I'm good at that.

    She sighs and ruffles my hair and I perk up.  "Okay, I'll help," she
says.  "But you are going to have to be my slave for it."

    "Slave reporting for duty!"

    "And you have to work on learning to cook."

    I really should, anyway.

    "And you get to mow the lawn tomorrow.  And I need help moving the
couch.  And..."

    I am starting to get the feeling I should have asked Natsuki's boyfriend
to come negotiate for me.

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

    Well, there are worse fates than being Akane's slave, anyway.  After I
did a few thousand chores for her, we start doing some preliminary cooking
which would keep until tomorrow or else would have to be done now to be
ready tomorrow, like marinating some meat.

    I am busy chopping up a cabbage when Akane asks, "Mikoto-chan, can you
put the kids to bed?"

    "Of course," I tell her.  "I thought they were old enough to put
themselves to bed, though."

    Akane rubbed her forehead.  "They insist it has to be you," she mumbles.

    I smile.  "Will do!"

    Stage one of putting these kids to bed involves sneaking up on them.
Fortunately, it's pretty easy to get up inside the ceiling of Akane's house
and sneak around.

    I find them waiting for me, each concealed behind some of their toys
with nerf baseball bats.  Their mother spanked them for five hours the time
they tried to use real ones, even though I said it was okay.  I couldn't
find a nerf broom to bring we me, so I'll just have to be gentle.

    "I can't hear her," Katsuhito whispers to Keiichi.

    "Shhh, she'll hear us!" Keiichi replies; he's trying to feign death,
just in case I saw through his cover.  Once again, he is forgetting to look
up.  Most people do.

    I position myself, then drop down on Katsuhito, who howls as he goes
down.  I quickly knock his bat aside, then spin him by the shoulders to nail
Keiichi with Katsuhito's legs as he breaks cover.

    Keiichi goes flying, but Katsuhito twists out of my grip and manages to
grab my legs, slowing my movement enough for Keiichi to pile on.

    We roll around in the mess on the floor, both of them trying to pin me
while all of us laugh and laugh.

    They can't keep this up as long as I can, though.  Pretty soon, they're
both lying around winded, and I get up and throw Keiichi up onto the top
bunk and Katsuhito onto the lower one, hoping they haven't changed that
since my last visit.

    I pull the sheets up as Keiichi splutters, "We'll get you next time,
Auntie."

    "Of course you will," I tell him, kissing his forehead, then I clamber
down to the bottom bunk and give Katsuhito a kiss as I pull his sheets up
too.  "Sleep tight, and don't let the bed demons bite."

    "Tell us a story!," Keiichi begs before I can go.

    I'm ready, though, as I knew he would.  "Once upon a time," I begin.
"There was a hobbit who lived in a hole."

    They settle down and listen quietly.  They like stories about hobbits,
ever since they saw those movies.  I'm not entirely sure what the difference
between a hobbit and a pygmy is, but my stories seem to work for them so
far.

    "Unfortunately, he had delved into an ancient Muvian burial ground, full
of the ANGRY DEAD.  So every day, when he got out of bed, he had to fight
his way to the kitchen to make breakfast, then fight his way out of his
house to ride his pony to work.  But he liked it like that, as the angry
flesh-eating dead kept his mooching relatives away," I continue, pulling out
a chair and sitting on it.

    "How did he keep them from eating the pony?" Keiichi asks.

    "The pony had a stable up on the surface, where the evil dead feared to
go," I tell him.  They notice this sort of thing more than they used to, so
I have to work harder.

    "Where did he work?" Keiichi mumbled, yawning.

    "Bobo was a policeman," I told them.  "So he spent his days cruising
around on his pony, busting people for riding their ponies too fast and
breaking up drunken hobbit-dwarf brawls.  Or arresting people for forgetting
about tricky taxes with weird names.  Or for breaking their sibling's
toys."  I give Katsuhito a look and he mumbles  into his pillow.  He's got a
bad habit of breaking things that belong to his brother.  Who has a bad
habit of accidentally leaving Katsuhito's underwear in the toilet.  I'm not
sure which usually comes first.

    "Today, however, he found out that Elven ninjas had been stealing
cookies from the cookie jar when the Mother Goddess wasn't looking," I
continue and now Keiichi twitches.  "This could only be resolved by finding
and recovering the cookies, followed by beating up lots of ninjas.  LOTS of
them."

    "Look, ninjas!" Keiichi says desperately, pointing up to the AC vent.

    I dutifully pretend to be tricked and look up halfway, just enough so I
also see him throw three cookies across the room, but it can't be proven I
saw it.

    "Someone dropped something," Katsuhito reports, yawning.

    "Look, they left cookies behind!," Keiichi says.  "Look, Aunt Mikoto!"

    "Oh my, three cookies.  I'd better take these to the jar right away," I
tell them.

    "Can you finish the story?" Katsuhito asks, yawning.

    I pocket the cookies to eat later.  "Everyone is very happy when he
brings back the cookies so everyone can share them at dinner the next
night.  So they give him a medal and he goes home to kill more of the hungry
dead so they can't try and steal his dinner when he cooks it.  Good night,
hungry dead."

    "Good night, auntie," they both mumble and fall asleep.

    I turn out the light and sit in the dark a few seconds, watching them
and smiling a little, then head back to help Akane some more.

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

    "I hope they weren't too much trouble," Kazuya says to me as I return.
He's on the couch watching TV while Akane frets over the food prep.

    "No trouble at all," I tell him.  "They're sweet little darlings."

    He looks relieved, if a little dubious.  "Well, I did play baseball with
them for an hour so I expect that helped wear them out."

    I check the TV; it's some show with lots of people yelling, shooting,
and blowing things up.  In other words, my kind of TV show.

    This is why Akane had to come drag me back to the kitchen to finish
helping her.  "Thank you for taking care of the boys.  They really love you
a lot."

    "I love them too," I tell her, smiling as she hands me carrots to skin
and slice.  "You've been a good mother to them."  I wouldn't mind having
kids like that.  Oh, I love Crystal like my own, but I think Akane's boys
have a lot of potential.  And they're a ton of fun.

    Akane turns red and mumbles incoherently at the  marinating beef, then
starts getting out more ingredients.
"Thank you," she finally said, pouring flour into a bowl, then adding salt,
sugar and water to it.  Then she got a bowl out of the fridge and poured an
odd kind of bubbling batter into the mix.

    "What are you making?" I asked curiously.

    "Sourdough bread," she said.

    "What's the bubbling stuff?"

    "A magic potion," she said, smiling a little impishly.

    I put my hands on my hips, then regret it as I smear carrot juice into
my pants.  "I'm not twelve any more."

    "Sorry, I couldn't help it," she says.

    I could tell you the 'magic potion' story, but it's better that be
forgotten for all eternity.  Let's just say if you're looking
for...actually, let's just forget it forever.

    "It's starter.  I'm going to make sourdough bread," Akane said.

    "It looks alive."

    "It is alive, sort of.  Wild yeast isn't all that alive, but it's more
alive than the floor," Akane said.

    I stared at it a while as it sat, mixing, then went back to work.

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

    The next evening, I flit about our kitchen with Akane, having helped her
to bring everything over.  Mai sticks her head in.  "Everything..." she
began.

    I shoo her out.  "You are busy, go work, we have it," I told her.

    She laughs softly and runs in mock fear.

    I study the sourdough bread to make sure it wasn't bubbling, but it had
stopped doing that once it turned into proper dough.  It just makes me a
little wary, though.

    Akane puts out several bottles of wine.  "Looks like you're good."

    I clap my hands.  "Wait, salad!"

    She watches me as I quickly assemble the salads from the big mix we'd
pre-done.  I can follow instructions and cook decently, but I always seem to
have trouble with recipes, except for my trail mixes.  Making salad, I can
handle that too.

    "Okay, you're on your own," Akane said.  "I have to go home and make
food for myself and Kazuya."

    I whip out my wallet and hand her some cash.  "Take him out to eat," I
tell her.  "And thanks for the help."

    She smiles and pockets the cash.  "That's very nice of you," she says.

    "You cook all day, and you helped me cook all this," I tell her,
fighting the urge to stuff salad in my face, as I'm getting hungry.

    She helps me take out the salads to the table, then heads out while I
putter about, getting everything ready.  I really shouldn't be this excited,
but I hardly ever cook and this is far better than any of my other attempts.

    Mai comes in again; she really needs to be working on her presentation,
which is the whole reason I'm doing this, but every time Tate-kun or I cook,
it seems like she can't help checking on us every few minutes.

    She's still dressed up in her suit-dress, so I dressed up today as well;
I don't have a lot of dresses, but I'm wearing an orange chinese style dress
with blue flowers on it, and a blue flower in my hair, over my right ear.  I
wanted to do up my hair with those sticks, but I don't actually have enough
hair to do that, as I keep it pretty short.  Mai comes over and ruffles my
hair and kisses me softly, and I cuddle up to her, just for a moment, then
stand back.  I'm trying to be dignified, which doesn't come easily to me,
but I can do it.  "I think everything's ready," I tell her solemnly.

    "I think so too," she says.  "You didn't have to go to this much effort,
though."

    "Well, Mr. Smith is doing me a big favor," I tell her.  "And you deserve
a nice special meal with friends every so often that you don't have to
cook."

    "You're so sweet," she says softly and kisses me again.  I fight the
urge to cuddle too much.  Best to take no risk of us being naked on the
table when Natsuki-chan and Mr. Smith arrive.

    "Hmm, wait, is Dhuran coming?" I suddenly ask her out loud, thought
rushing to my lips.

    "D...oh, her latest pet," Mai says, frowning.  "You didn't tell her to,
did you?"

    "Well, we have some dog food for emergencies," I tell Mai.  "Dry dog
food pretty much stays good forever, right?"

    "There's an expiration tag," Mai tells me.

    I nod and go check it.  We're good.  "Everything's ready for them to
arrive, then, I think."  I give Mai a gentle shove.  "Go work, dear.  I'll
call you when we're ready."

    She starts to speak, falls silent, studies me a moment, then smiles and
nods and goes back to her work.

    I flit about for a while, waiting for our guests to arrive.  I check the
sourdough twice, but it still looks normal, so I tell myself to stop being
paranoid.

    "No snacking," I tell Tate when he tries to slip into the kitchen.

    "But..."

    "No snacking right before dinner," I say in my best Mai imitation
voice.  Which isn't very good.  But he laughs and turns around.

    "I'm going to go watch TV, then.  I'm all done with my work."

    "Good," I tell him and go watch TV with him.

    We couldn't find anything good on, so we were watching a show on
antiques when the doorbell rang.  I don't like antiques, though big brother
does.  Inevitably, anything I get near which was made before I was ends up
broken, it seems like.

    Just as the doorbell rings, I suddenly wonder if I should have invited
Mr. Smith's assistant.  Probably not, right?  I've never been good at
manners and I didn't even think about it.  Well, there's enough food for
six, if it comes down to it.

    Clothing...I didn't even say anything about what to wear, which Mai
always...

    I swat down my fears and run for the doorbell, trying to get there
before they ring again.  I succeed and open the door.  Mr. Roger Smith is
wearing one of his suits again.  Actually, I've never seen him NOT in a
suit.  A lot of Tate's work friends are like that, though, so it doesn't
really surprise me.

    Natsuki, to my surprise, is wearing a red dress, long-sleeved with green
lace trimming, and a rose in her hair over one ear.  Not a chinese dress
like mine; this is more western style and leaves your body kind of ambiguous
under it, as it's loose.  It looks pretty good, I think.  It also makes me
glad I thought to dress up.

    "Hi, Mikoto-chan," Natsuki says.  "I hope we're not too late.  Dhuran
kept trying to come, and it took me a while to get him to stay home."

    "It's okay," I tell her.  "Mai's still working her butt off."  She's got
a lot of butt, really.

    I then step back, and say, "Come in, come in," and escort them to the
living room (admittedly a short trip) where Tate is.  "Tate-kun, entertain
them for a few seconds while I get Mai."

    Mai seems to appear from nowhere.  "I'm here," she says from behind me,
making me jump.

    "Then let's eat!"

    I drag Mai to the table and sit her down with our guests, then I put
Tate to work helping me serve the food; this makes me feel oddly like Mai,
but that's a nice thing to feel like every so often.

    Once I finally sit down, Natsuki is talking about her misadventures
trying to keep a diva from doing stupid things when she's in danger.  "The
bedtime was the hardest.  She wanted to party all night, but nightclubs are
practically handmade for getting people killed," Natsuki says.  "So, of
course, I go to the bathroom and when I get back, she's pulling out of the
parking lot."

    You know, how exactly do you bodyguard someone all the time without
having to worry about the killer waiting for you to go the toilet?  I still
don't know.

    "By the time I catch up with her, she's dancing with some dark skinned
guy with pale purple hair, while the guy's creepy blonde girlfriend stares
at both of them like she wants to kill Simaya-san.  Fortunately, she was
unarmed and looks can't kill," Natsuki continued, waving her glass around,
wine sloshing inside it.  "So I come in and grab her.  By this point, I was
kind of fed up with her behavior, but I'm a professional, so I ignore her
being an idiot and pull her out of there.  She's busy protesting, and the
guy she was dancing with calls the management before his girlfriend drags
him off, probably for his beating."

    Mai and Tate are laughing, while Mr. Smith looks amused.  I giggle.

    "Now a huge crowd gathers as I'm trying to get her out and she starts
trying to perform, already moderately drunk.  Then a news crew shows up and
she starts yelling about how I'm not her girlfriend at all and everyone
needs to quiet down so she can dance.  That's when the nutjob after her
shows up and tries to stab me, but I punched him out," Natsuki continues,
then takes a sip of her wine and puts the glass down.  "I have to confess
the woman can sing pretty well even when drunk, though."

    The dinner goes pretty well; the food was all as good as I hoped and it
was clear everyone was enjoying it.  And the sourdough didn't cause any
trouble.  We were close to finished when Mr. Smith...Roger
Smith...Roger...he never did say what to call him when I told him to call me
Mikoto...  Anyway, he passed me a folder.  "Your report on the Ryuugenzawa
Dojo," he said.

    "Thank you," I said.

    "We can go over it later, after dinner," he said.

    I nodded.  Best not to get food stains all over it.  Mai-chan just about
killed me when I did that to one of her reports, a long time ago.  I know
better now.

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

    "So this isn't his first challenge to another dojo," I said as I read
over the report as we sat in the living room after dinner.  Natsuki, Mai,
and Tate were half watching TV and half talking on the couch, while Mr.
Roger Smith and I sat over to one side in two padded chairs.

    "Eight other challenges, he won six.  Two challenges were revenge for
old grudges, four came from incidents between his students and other dojos
and two, I could only get contradictory reports on."  Steepling his hands,
he said, "He seems to train his students very hard; I think you will have a
hard fight."

    "Well, I can't afford to lose," I tell him.

    We went over it all, which took quite a while; I won't bore you with all
the details.  "So you think I can take him?" I ask.  I was pretty sure the
answer was yes.

    "Well, reports do show odd variance in your capacities, but yes, I think
you will," Roger says, giving me an odd look.  I expect he's found the
difference between my matches in places our HIME abilities work and those
where they don't.  But of course, he wouldn't know that.

    "Well, you can come watch me tomorrow if you want to see how well I'll
do.  Tate-kun's going to come help me train my students."

    "If I am free," Roger says.  "One of my clients is waffling over whether
we need to meet.  I may send Dorothy."

    "Okay," I tell him.

    "Good luck," he says.  "Do you think your students are ready?"

    "They'd better be ready.  I've got some incentives ready to announce
tomorrow, which hopefully should help them fight harder.  Though I fear we
may have to get defeated and do the comeback from behind thing to get some
of them going."  I grimace.  "A lot of them have skills, but they don't have
fire."

    He studies me for a moment, then says quietly, "Fire can be dangerous.
It's when people are most motivated to fight that they're most likely to
hurt each other."

    "Yes, but I nee..."  I'm cut off by the pain I can see in his eyes.  I
stare, hypnotized, unable to speak, wondering what he went through to cause
him all that.

    And then it's gone as he hides it.  But I can't stop staring.  Finally,
I realize that the others are staring at us.  "Natsuki-chan, come hug your
boyfriend."

    "What?" she asks in confusion.

    "Come.  Hug.  Your.  Boyfriend."

    "I'm fine," he says hastily, but now Natsuki, though she's turned red,
has come over and embraced him from over the back of the chair.  He looks
stiff, but I see him relax a little.

    "I didn't mean to poke a nerve," I mumble.  "But if they don't have
fire, they're going to lose."

    "What?" Natsuki asks.

    "Fire?  What about a fire?" Mai asks from her chair; clearly she can
only half-hear what I said and is starting to fret, which she is good at.

    "Don't worry about it," Roger said smoothly, now taking of Natsuki's
hands with his.  "We had a little disagreement on the role of 'fighting
spirit' in combat.  Nothing worth worrying yourself about."

    "We won't mind if you kiss Natsuki in front of us," I tell him.  They
definitely should kiss.  I can see Natsuki wants to but is embarrassed by
the idea of us seeing her do it.  "I can go kiss Mai and Tate and distract
them if you need me to."

    Roger smiles, while Natsuki's eyes cross.  "Yes."

    I pounce on first Mai, who looks confused, then on Tate, who is
laughing, while they kiss quickly.

    "You shouldn't embarrass them like that," Tate says, though he's
laughing in a way which clearly says he doesn't MEAN it, he's just
pre-empting Mai.

    Natsuki mumbles incoherently.

    "Sorry, Natsuki-chan," Mai says.

    "It's okay," Natsuki says.  "I really shouldn't get embarrassed about
that.  You okay, dear?" she asks weakly.

    "I'm fine," he says, apparently back to normal.

    "We should play a game or something," I announce.  "Before we all have
to go to bed."

    Mai tenses up a little; I'm not sure why, so I jump over and kiss her
again.  "You okay?"

    She relaxes.  "I'm fine."

    "I could go for some poker," Natsuki says.

    "I enjoy poker," Roger says.

    "I'm terrible," I confess.  "My cards reflect in my eyes or something
and I always lose."

    "How about Mille Bourne?" Mai suggests.

    "Mille Bourne?" Roger asks.

    "It's a card game simulating a race of 1000 miles," Mai says.

    "Interesting," he says.  "Sure."

    Tate wins.  Tate ALWAYS wins Mille Bourne, except if Kazuya is playing
and then he wins.  But it's a fun game, even if I did end up out of gas half
the game AGAIN.

    We play until we were all tired, and Natsuki actually did win one.
Eventually, it is time for them to go.  Mai seems a little tense the whole
time we are all working ourselves up to cut the evening off, and I couldn't
quite figure out why.

    Finally, once they leave, I hug her and ask, "Why so jumpy?"

    "Nothing, honey," she says, kissing my forehead.  "Just nervous about
the presentation."

    "She was worried you'd ask them to stay with us and get naked," Tate
says, then laughs.

    Mai winces, then mumbles.

    "Oh, I think they need some privacy tonight," I tell  them.  Mai looks a
bit guilty now, which confuses me.  "Anyway, we all need our rest and don't
have time to get naked, anyway.  You have your presentation, Mai-chan, and
Tate-kun and I have to go exhaust my students tomorrow."

    I soon herd them off to bed and get some sleep.

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

    The front door opens and another of my students, Hayao, comes in, right
as I duck under one of Tate's attacks.  We're sparring while we wait for all
my students to arrive.  Hayao blinks at us, then goes to change into his
gi.  I wave, but this leaves me vulnerable to a shoulder thrust that knocks
me on my ass, though when Tate tries to follow up, I roll to one side and
spring up and over him.

    He turns in time, blocking my blow, then goes for a gut-level stab, but
I jump over it and run up the blade to kick his head, knocking him back,
though he grabs one of my feet and I go down too, wham.

    Wiggling free, I manage to smack his butt and then press my advantage
until finally, I have him pinned down on the ground.  "Hah!  I win!"

    However, Natsume now distracts me by saying, "Is this him?" softly.

    I turn and say, "Yes," only to have him bring up his legs, grab me, and
throw me over to one side.

    But that's okay, because I like fighting and I want my students to see
how good the man I love is.  Even if he isn't quite as good as me.

    Everyone has shown up now and is ringing around us as I launch a charge
at him, aiming high and forcing him to elevate his sword so I can come under
it and headbutt him, then whack him in the side as he staggers back.

    I would have completely had him, except then he trips me and I end up
ramming his stomach with my head.  We topple and roll and I end up on top
with him pinned.  This time, he won't escape.  Unless he starts wrestling,
which could lead to nakedness and I'm not crazy enough to do that in front
of the students.

    But neither is he, so he yields.  "You win."

    I help him up and say, "This is Yuichi Tate.  He's come to help everyone
practice.  He's a strong Kendo champion, so please respect him as you do
me."

    Meiko says, confidently, "I can take him."  I think she's wrong, but at
least she's got spirit.

    I then notice lots of my female students looking at him with hearts in
the eyes, so I rub my forehead.  This may get messy.  But maybe it will
inspire them to do better.

    As I work with my male students, I can see some of them are looking kind
of jealous of the attention Tate is getting; I'm a little surprised myself.
Then again, I don't see him around teenagers he isn't related to much,
either.

    Arthur pokes me in the shoulder with the point of his wooden blade.
"Better pay attention, Sensei."  Is he gloating?  I think he's gloating just
a bit.  So I drive him back with an onslaught that nails first his left
shoulder, then his right, then his gut, then each knee.

    "I am paying attention," I tell him, though he's right, I was being
sloppy.  Just because Meiko and Akiko and...well, at least Natsume isn't
hitting on him.  But she has...well, she hopes to have a boyfriend.  Which I
ought to do something to help her with.

    He looks dubious, but dubiousness won't save him from me.

    After a while of this, it's time to deploy the first of my incentives.
"Okay.  We're going to have some matches so I can identify who is best.  The
top six will each get a secret taught to them by Tate and I," I tell them.
Hopefully some competition between them will help heat up their fighting
without any major bad blood.  And I want to make sure I know who is best for
tomorrow's matches.

    A lot of fights ensue; I won't make you sit here for hours while I
relate them all, though I do want to relate a few highlights.

    I deliberately pitted all my women against men to start with; all of our
foes are going to be male, so I need to know who can handle fighting men.
Meiko pleased me by taking out Yataro very quickly; I was more surprised to
see Natsume doing well as she eliminated Yukichi with a kind of grim
determination.  Arthur took out the unfortunate Shiiko, though, who went off
to pout.

    I went over to talk to her; best to make sure she didn't brood too
much.  "Hey," I said, sitting down next to her.

    "He got that last point while I was distracted," she mumbled, staring at
the floor, tugging on her long red hair.

    "It's okay," I tell her.  "I'm not going to throw anyone out.  But this
is going to be a stiff fight against the other dojo."

    "I'm not really ugly, am I?" she mumbled.

    Oh boy, I never know what to say when my students have this issue.  A
lot of women worry about their looks, but I never have.  Mai and Tate love
me even when my face is covered with jam and I'm shedding bits of spinach
everywhere.

    Don't ask.

    Please.

    Anyway, I reach over and pat her shoulder.  "Do you think I'm pretty?"

    She blinks, then looks rather uncomfortable.  "I...sensei..."

    "Be honest," I tell her firmly.

    "No," she mumbles, staring at the floor.  "You could be a lot prettier,
but you don't even try."

    "But I have an awesome lover anyway," I tell her, patting her shoulder.
"We all get ugly when we get old, anyway."  Then I poke her chest.  "But the
real beauty's inside."

    She mumbles something about cliches, so I continue.  "Anyway, I don't
think you're ugly," I tell her.  "But if you just roll over and die when
people say things to you, you're going to spend your life losing to people
with thicker skins.  Is that what you want?"

    "No, but I..." she begins.

    I cut her off, then pull her to her feet.  "Looks are subject to change,
but you can't fake skill.  If you can kick ass, men will be throwing
themselves at you like crazy." I tell her.  They should, anyway.  Not that I
was looking for anyone else but who I have in all my years of kicking ass.
I got luckier than most people, though.

    "You really think so?" she asks hesitantly.

    A firm, though high-pitched voice now cuts in.  "I'm a mountain of
strength, which is why I have MY pick of boyfriends," the woman says.  "But
Aunt Mikoto here's had the same lovers since high school, so she doesn't
have the depth of knowledge Mom and I have."

    "NATASHA!" I announce, turning and hugging her tightly.  Maybe too
tightly as she falls silent and makes the noises I have come to learn means
someone can't breathe.  I must have caught her off guard.

    Natasha is only one inch taller than me, though she will NEVER let me
forget this, but she looks bigger because she's so imposing and
strong-willed.  Also, her HAIR is a lot taller than me.  She has a huge
amount of red hair that is usually elaborately styled to try to make her
look much taller than she is.  I haven't seen...well, none of us have seen
her father in a long time, but he was only just a touch taller than Shiho,
Natasha's mother.

    "I heard you were going to get your ass kicked by some dojo, so I came
to save you," Natasha says, once I allow her to breathe.

    Natasha's much better than her mother with a sword, probably better than
Crystal.  She's had a lot more fencing style training than Kendo, though.
But she's good.

    She's supposed to be at school, though, unless Rosewood declared a
holiday and no one told me.

    "Aren't you supposed to be at school?" I ask her.

    "Family is more important," she says a little primly.  Then she holds
out a hand to Shiiko.  "Since Auntie forgot to introduce me, I am the
elegant and beautiful fencer, Munakata Natasha!"  She then shakes Shiiko's
hand to the point where Shiiko physically vibrates.  "Also, you shouldn't
give up yet, Tarakata Shiiko, you still have a match in the loser's
bracket!  Just imagine you're fighting the bastard who called you ugly."

    Shiiko and I both freeze a moment.  Did she listen to the whole
conversation?  I knew she was stealthy...I thought I got rid of all of her
and her mother's voodoo dolls of me...

    "I..." Shiiko begins.

    "True Beauty comes from inner strength, not outward appearance," Natasha
says hotly.  I can believe it better coming from her, as she's so pretty
herself.  "Even my amazing good looks wouldn't do me any good if I lurked by
the wall, waiting for boys to throw themselves at my feet.  Instead, I throw
them at my feet myself!  Watch and learn!"

    "Natasha-chan, do you..." I start.

    Too late.

    She strides over to the wall, gets a chair, hauls it to the center and
stands on it.  "As the most beautiful woman present, I am making an
announcement!  I will give the winner of this tournament a kiss if you are a
boy and a makeover if you are a girl!"

    Everyone stops and stares at her, while Tate runs over to me.

    "What if we can defeat you in combat?", one of the guys shouts.

    "FAT CHANCE!" she said.  "But I'll let the top four take a crack at me!
If you win, you'll get a prize!"  Then she winks at them.

    "What the hell is Natasha-chan doing here?" Tate asks me.

    "Taking over," I mumble.

    "If you don't do something, this is going to turn into a farce, like
everything she gets involved in," he says to me urgently.

    The students are cheering and look very eager.  Maybe, just this once,
everything Natasha touches won't turn to disaster.  I mean, no one can make
things go wrong EVERY time, right?  No one got injured that time she helped
me move boards in the garage.  So at least once...

    I'm not being fair.  Most of the time, things go okay, but she does have
her mother's bad luck.  And she IS a good swordswoman.  Is it really okay if
she kisses that many guys, though?  Seems like a recipe for trouble.  Of
which she already has too many.

    "It could be worse," I tell Tate.  "She could have brought her mother."

    His eyes cross and I giggle.  Though really, she's not as bad as she
used to be, except when she gets angry, and then the flames come out of her
eyes.  And Tate hides under the furniture.

    "Also, it means I don't have to pimp you out," I tell him.

    He laughs and strikes a pose, watching the students fight.  "Do you
think they're ready?"

    "Well, getting them to fight with spirit will be the hard part, but I
think they'll rise to the challenge," I tell him, holding his right hand
with my left.  "Especially with Natasha helping."

    Shiiko suddenly speaks, reminding me SHE IS STILL HERE RIGHT NEXT TO
ME.  Now I feel kind of stupid.  "She's your neice?"  Shiiko asked, staring
at Natasha with a kind of awe.

    "Her mother is my younger sister, sort of," Tate says.  Trying to
explain the family to outsiders is always tricky.

    "And you two...since high school?" Shiiko asks hesitantly.

    "Unf," I affirm.

    "Yeah," he says, then kisses my forehead.  I smile a goofy smile in
response.

    "You're lucky," Shiiko says enviously.

    "I know.  M...I'm the luckiest girl in the world," I tell her.  This
would be much easier if I never had to hide anything.  Though I've blabbed
too much here lately anyway.

    "Anyway, she's right.  You've got another match coming up soon before
you're totally eliminated, so I suggest you get ready for it.  You can spar
with Tate or I, if you want to," I tell her.

    She stares at Natasha a little longer, then says, "Alright.  Thank you,
sensei."

    "You're welcome."  And soon I'm kicking her ass.  Gently, of course.  In
an instructional manner.

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

    It surprises me to see Natsume score as number two in the contest; I
guess some people really like makeovers, and while she didn't get the number
one (that was Meiko), I was pleased to see her do so well.  Arthur scored
third and Seito took fourth.  Which meant they all had another match with
Natasha for a prize.  And they were all getting special manuevers from me,
along with number five (Akiko) and number six (Martin).

    Natasha completely takes Seito apart, to my surprise.  I hoped not many
if any of our foes would be as good as Natasha, or we were in trouble.

    Arthur opens with a strong attack, both physical and verbal.  "You only
beat Seito because he's not very tall; I can hold you at arm's length all
day," he starts with.  He has a tendency to talk smack when he's fighting.
Which sometimes works and sometimes not.  "I haven't lost to a woman yet,"
he says confidently.

    Natasha ducks under the thrust at her chest and nails him in the gut,
knocking him back, then brings her sword up, parries aside his sword, and
nails him in the gut.  He manages to get back into a defensive stance before
she could nail him a third time, though.  "There's a first time for
everything," she says cheerfully.  "So Aunt Mikoto's never whipped your
ass?"

    "She's a teacher," he says.  "I wouldn't be the student if I could whip
her ass," he continues, being forced to give ground.  He does have more
reach, but he's relying too much on power.  Whereas, his speed is not good
enough to connect with her and Natasha is very nimble.  If not as nimble as
me.

    For a time, they're silent as they fight back and forth; I get the sense
they're both trying to figure out what line of smack would be most
effective.

    "Finish him!," Shiiko shouts and I laugh.  Someone wants revenge...

    "Is she just toying with him?" Tate asks me.

    "No, he's fighting a pretty strong defense, or she would have tagged him
by now," I tell Tate.  "Even if she errs, though, I think she'll pull out a
win; she only needs one more tag and he doesn't have any on her."

    So of course, he manages to bat her sword aside and this time his
riposte tags her.  Good thing my students weren't listening.

    A few snicker.

    Okay, most weren't listening.

    Natasha falls back in a panic and he charges her and I see he's made the
most fatal of fatal mistakes—NEVER EVER CHARGE SOMEONE WITH YOUR SWORD HIGH
OVER YOUR HEAD.  You're basically asking to be impaled.

    "I have you now!" he shouts.  "Not so tough when..."

    She slides to the side, nails him in the gut for her final point, then
glides out of the way of his clumsy attempt at a blow as he goes down.
"Better learn to tell when someone is faking panic," she tells him.  "Okay,
Natsume-san, you're next."

    Natsume looks rather nervous; Meiko had eliminated Arthur and herself,
but had a harder time of it than that.

    "No fear," Natasha says to Natsume.  "If you go into this fight having
already lost it in your mind, the fight's already over.  If you learn
anything today, learn that."

    I wish I'd said that.  I mean, I have said things like that to them, but
it somehow comes out cooler when Natasha says it.

    Natsume closes her eyes, then opens them looking determined and charges,
yelling something about makeovers.  Natasha looks surprised and Natsume gets
a blow in to her shoulder.  Then Natasha recovers, batting Natsume's blade
aside and poking Natsume's shoulder.  They begin to circle, taking cautious
blows at each other.  I study the fight, trying to figure out if Natasha is
starting to get tired or if she's going easy on Natsume for some reason.

    I glance over at Tate, who is frowning a bit.  "You think she's going
easy on Natsume too?"

    "Maybe," he says.  "She never goes easy on Crystal, but sometimes, it's
easier to be kind to someone you don't know."

    Natsume does have more power in her attacks than usual; I can see she's
very determined.  The two of the circle and circle more, trading blows
cautiously.

    Natasha finally mounts an offensive and pushes Natsume back to the edge
of the mat, finally scoring a second blow, this time to Natsume's head,
before Natsume crashes into her when a dodge goes awry and they both fall
down, with Natsume tagging Natasha's shoulder in the process.

    I separate them, then they start again, with Natasha again on the
offensive.  Natsume's parries are very good  but you can't win just by
parrying.

    Everyone is shouting loudly, yelling about makeovers and kisses.  Arthur
finally shouts, "Crush the shrimp, Natsume-san!  AVENGE ME!"

    Tate and I both laugh, as do many of the students.

    "I am NOT A SHRIMP!" Natasha shouts at Arthur.

    Which leaves her open just long enough for Natsume to tag her in the
gut.

    "DAMMIT!  That punk interfered!" Natasha shouts.

    "You have to learn to ignore everything outside the ring," I tell her.
"It's a fair win, sorry Natasha."

    Natasha fumes, but nods.  "We'll talk once I take out the champion," she
says to Natsume.

    "If you really think..." Natsume began.

    Natasha shook her head firmly.  "Never let others weasel you out of a
win.  You stayed focused and I didn't."  She grimaces angrily.  "It's not
your fault Arthur has diarhea of the mouth."

    "Be nice," I tell Natasha firmly.

    Arthur is too busy laughing at her to take offense, thankfully.

    "Nice gets you walked on," Natasha says.  She turns to Meiko.  "I
understand this whole match with the other dojo is because you kicked
several guys' asses while drunk."

    "Yeah," Meiko says confidently.  "And I'm SOBER now, so you're going
DOWN."

    I make a happy fist.  "Good fighting spirit!" I tell her.  "But Natasha
isn't drunk either, so don't get overconfident."

    Natasha grins, then they bow to each other and charge.  Meiko is on the
assault from the start, forcing Natasha onto the defensive.  This plays to
Natasha's advantage however.  While Meiko scores the first point with a blow
to the shoulder, her attacks have a little more spirit than skill and she
leaves herself open to first a shoulder blow and then a gut blow that knocks
her down.

    However, she rolls back and avoids Natasha's attempt at a finishing blow
and then nails Natasha in the head while she's bent over.

    Now they both circle each other warily, sometimes clashing frenetically,
then falling back.  I'm very pleased with Meiko.  Indeed, everyone's been
trying hard, which is good.  Competition really does bring out people's
fighting spirit.

    "I think Natasha's going to win.  Meiko keeps getting sloppy," Tate
observes.

    "I fear so," I say.  Suddenly I think about her earlier victory and
wonder, just for a moment, if she's trained in drunk fu.  But probably not.
I've never met anyone who could do that for real and I've met a lot of
people.

    I should have given the secret techniques before this match, I realize.
So they could practice.  She might be able to take Natasha with one of my
special techniques.  Too late now, though.

    Natasha begins laughing that unnerving confident laugh of hers.  That's
how she beat Ryu so fast, I think.  Lots of people just unravel in the face
of it.

    Meiko, however, tries to imitate it and Tate and I both laugh, while
Natasha looks rather non-plussed.  Which causes her sword to slip just for a
moment, long enough for Meiko to tag her in the shoulder.

    Natasha stares in shock and Meiko holds her sword in the air.  "I am the
WINNER!"

    "You can't just LAUGH at me to win!" Natasha protests hotly.

    "You tried to do it to me!" Meiko protests.

    "It's MY trick!"

    "MY TRICK NOW!  I don't see your name on it!  HOHOHOHOHOHO!!!!!"

    Once the hairpulling started, Tate and I run over and quickly drag them
apart.

    "It's not fair, Auntie!" Natasha protests as I grappled her.

    "Like you said before, don't let yourself get distracted," I tell her.
"You owe her a makeover now."

    Natasha grumbled something about petards.

    Whatever a petard is.

    I began taking my students away for their secret techniques, one by one,
while Tate gave everyone an inspiring speech I wasn't supposed to know Mai
wrote for him.  He's a good speaker, but Mai's a better writer.  But as I
said, I'm not supposed to realize it, so I won't let him know.

    Once I taught them their secrets, I told them to go home and get to bed
early.  It's going to be a big day tomorrow.

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

    I laid in bed, tossing and turning, so wired and excited and nervous
that I couldn't sleep.

    "Are you okay, honey?" Mai asks me softly.

    "Can't sleep," I mumble.

    "This isn't another nightmare about you being the size of a cat with
Dhuran chasing you, is it?" Tate mumbles, sounding worried and groggy at
once.

    "I just want it all to go well," I tell them.  "But I'm worried
something will go wrong."

    There is a distant thrashing sound, the sound of Natasha in bed.  Even
when she sleeps well, she sounds like her bed is out to kill her or
something.

    It's kind of soothing to know I'm not alone in this.  Tate must feel
really confident; he looks totally relaxed to the point of near
incoherency.  But this is my dojo.  I want it all to go well.

    "I hope Shiho-chan won't be too angry that Natasha-chan stayed over,"
Mai says.

    "Does she even know Shiho skipped out of school?" Tate asks.

    "Wouldn't they call her?" Mai asks.

    "If they noticed she was gone for a while, maybe," Tate says.  "I'm not
sure.  Given how Natasha is, this probably happens all the time."

    For a moment I worry about Shiho suddenly storming the house in the
middle of the night in one of her frenzies.  But surely that wouldn't
happen.

    "Anyway, you two sleep.  I'll just lie here and fret," I tell them.

    They both kiss my cheeks and put arms around me.  "We can't sleep if you
can't sleep, dear," Tate says.

    Mai pulls me over and puts my head on her breasts.  That usually helps
me sleep.  "Here you go, honey."

    I smile a little and fake sleep until I'm not faking any more.

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

    I awake the next morning early to go get a bath and get cleaned up to go
down and prepare for the contest which would start in mid-morning.  However,
I could hear the clash of metal in the backyard.

    I peer out the window, worrying that ninjas were about to ruin
everything.  But I just see Akira and Natasha sparring determinedly.  I
could tell Natasha wanted to avoid making the same mistakes she'd made at
the last practice session.  Good for her.  If my students all had her fire
and determination, I would be sure of our coming victory.

    I get some breakfast and then I leave them a note and head out to my
dojo.

    To my surprise, Meiko is waiting outside, practicing sword forms and
looking a little chilly.  She looked uusually pretty today; probably from
the makeover she won from Natasha the previous night.  "Come in, come in," I
tell her.  "You didn't have to come early."

    She sighs.  "This is all my fault," she says.

    I go to start making some coffee.

    "It's okay.  I wanted something to rev everyone up, anyway," I tell
her.  "I'll make us some coffee, you sweep everything."

    She sweeps methodically while I brew some coffee in my office, then
bring her a cup, which she drinks very swiftly, then goes back to cleaning.
"We're going to win, right?" she finally says.

    "We have to win," I tell her.  "I don't want to lose the sign and I
would rather not kick you out."

    Meiko winces at that, then goes back to work.

    More people gradually drift in and I put them to work drilling.  And
helping Mai set up the snacks she suprises me by showing up with.  I remind
myself several times not to stuff my face in front of my students and mostly
succeed.

    Natsume shows up and I go to see her.  "Is the guy you like coming?"

    "He's supposed to," she says, looking around nervously.

    I pat her shoulder.  "You're going to do just fine," I tell her.

    "I will do my best," she says, then shivers slightly.  "Are you
really..."

    "If we lose, I will do as I agreed," I tell her.  "But I don't intend to
lose.  And neither should you."

    Finally, everyone arrives and is ready to go.  We hustled all the
observors (including the guy Natsume likes, who I thought was kind of cute
but I guess I'm just too old to be impressed by a teenage guy anymore) over
to one side.

    Just as the first wave of matches are about to get underway, judged by
several other local masters we'd roped into helping, Natasha comes over to
me.  "Why am I not on the list, Auntie?"

    "I had to make it before I knew you were here," I tell her.  "Otherwise,
I'd have put you on it.  But I don't want him to accuse me of putting in a
ringer."

    "But..."

    "I'm sorry."  I pat her shoulder.  "I would if I could."

    She grumbles and goes off.

    Wave one of the matches is each of his 25 against one of mine.  We'd
each ranked ours from best to worst to try to make it fair.  I had more than
25, but we wanted to make it eaven.  This gave me a good excuse to cut the
weakest without offending anyone too much.

    I hoped.

    We'd be here until after midnight if I tried to relay all the matches.
I can sum up round one by saying ten of mine survived and fifteen of his.
This was not a good initial omen.

    I watch Kaoru Frederick through Natsume's first match, trying to tell
what he thinks.  Unfortunately, he's rather quiet, so just watching him
didn't do much good, so I go over to him.  "So, what do you think?"

    He studied me carefully, then said very neutrally, "Some of your
students are very good?"

    "Any of them impress you especially?" I ask him.  I'm trying to be
subtle and not just yelling 'DO YOU LIKE NATSUME-CHAN' like I would have a
few years ago.

    "The scruffy blond is good."  I think he means Arthur.  "That one girl
took her foe out in the first ten seconds," he says, pointing to Shiiko.  I
am pretty surprised myself, but she was lower down in the brackets, so her
foe wasn't all that great, really.  Also, it took about thirty seconds.

    "Why isn't Natasha-san competing?" he asks me.

    "You know her?" I ask in surprise.

    He laughs nervously.  "It's a long story."

    I smell trouble.  "How about him?" I say, pointing to Seito.

    "He's going to lose his next match to that tall fellow with the longer
arms unless he somehow speeds up," Frederick says.

    I suspect he is right; now I move to my next target.  "And her?" I point
to Natsume.  Subtly, you see.  So he won't know she's the one I really
wanted his opinion of.

    "She looks unusually pretty today," he says, smiling a little.  SCORE, I
thought.  Rack one victory for Natasha makeovers.  "Normally, she just lurks
around quietly, but she really is going all out."

    That's good, right?  Right?  "Meiko is usually the loud one, true," I
tell him.

    "Yeah, Meiko-san is very strong and pretty and bold," he says with a
shaky voice.

    Dammit, I think.  He's totally got a thing for Meiko and seeing her
kicking Ryuugenzawa ass is ONLY GOING TO MAKE IT WORSE.  And she got a
makeover too, so she's even prettier than usual!

    And, of course, it was my idea to tell her to invite him!  I hate being
racked by guilt.

    Tate saves me by dragging me over to the snack bar, where Natasha is
stuffing donuts into her mouth and spewing sugar everywhere.  "You tell her
to stop," he says.

    I quickly explain the Meiko/Frederick/Natsume situation.  "You must save
Natsume's love," I tell him.

    "..."  He stares at me like I just asked him to swordfight an oncoming
train.

    I suppose I sort of did.

    He wanders off to Mai and Akira while I turn to Natasha.  "Natasha-chan,
if you eat too many donuts, you will get fat."

    "I need energy," she says sullenly.  "And I'll burn it off anyway."

    "Natasha, you're not the only person here who likes donuts," I tell her.

    "Says the person who eats a quart of ice cream a day!," Natasha says.
"Let me eat my sorrows in peace, auntie."

    I really need to get back to set up for the next set of matches.  I tap
Akira.  "Tag."

    As I head over to consult, I see Akira holding Natasha upside down.
Donuts are falling all over.  I hadn't thought of that, interesting.

    My six best from last night (Meiko, Natsumi, Seito, Arthur, Akiko, and
Martin) had all made it to this round, along with Shiiko, Naru, Jiito, and
Robert.  I was going to be very surprised if any of the last four made it
past this round.  Indeed, having to fight multiple foes might well wear down
my best people.  Thankfully, several of Ryu's best had gone down too.

    I frown at his match list.  Some of his better people had been moved
down to take on my worse folk, though not all of them.  Probably intended to
keep them fresher while cleaning out more of my folk.

    Clearly I am a prophet.  Naru, Jiito, and Robert all got blown out
quickly, though to my surprise, a very determined Shiiko takes out her first
foe, and my top six all take out their next foe as well, except for Akiko,
who got eliminated.

    This left us partway through round 2 with six of mine left and nine of
his who hadn't had a match yet in this round.  Meiko, Natsume, Arthur,
Seito, Martin, and Shiiko take a very short break while I go over to
congratulate Shiiko for getting that far.

    "Good job!," I say, punching her arm very gently in the universal code
of martial success.

    She is breathing very hard.  "I don't know if I can win another one,"
she said.  "But I'm trying my hardest."

    "I'm very proud of you for doing this well so far," I tell her,
smiling.

    "I'll do my best, sensei!"

    I go round and congratulate the others, then I consult with Tate.  "Any
idea what to do with the whole, umm, thing with Natsume and Frederick and
Meiko?"

    "I have no clue," he says.  "Though Meiko seems oblivious to any
feelings Frederick may have for her.  Maybe you should see if she has a
boyfriend or a crush on some guy or something."

    I cling to that hope like a life preserver.  Especially as I can see the
way Frederick is watching Meiko.

    At least Natsume is just pouting now.

    Meiko crushes her foe and Natsume scores a win.  Arthur's foe is one of
the men Meiko had beaten in the bar and he taunts the man into frothing
incoherency, then quickly takes him down.  Seito barely scrapes through and
Martin and Shiiko both go down.

    This left four of mine, two of his and three who hadn't yet had a match
in round two.  After consulting the judges, Ryu and I both agree to just
roll over to round 3 with the survivors of both sides.

    I could hear him berating his men who had lost and praising the last
five survivors, especially the ones who had taken out Shiiko and Martin.  I
rally my four survivors.  "You've all done extremely well.  I'm very proud
of you all.  I hope you've been hoarding your secret techniques, as I think
it's about time to use them."

    "We will win!," Meiko says proudly.

    "Maybe we'd better get her and them drunk just to be sure," Arthur says,
but I could see he was confident.

    Natsume looks over at Frederick, smiles nervously, and says, "We'll
win."

    Seito says, "I will do my best."  But I could tell he wasn't as
confident as Meiko or Arthur.

    I breathe in, then out.

    "Then let's go!"  I put my hand out and they all pile theirs on mine.
"Gambatte!"

    I lick my lips nervously, and then everyone gets ready and the final
matches begin.

    Meiko steps out into the field, up against a huge gorilla of a man.
Everyone is cheering for her.  Mostly I'm glad about that, but it's
blatantly obvious...to me, anyway...as to how hard Frederick is cheering for
Meiko.

    A glance over at Natsume shows she has noticed this; she looks extremely
unhappy about it, too.  Dammit.

    Meiko unleashes one of Akira's tricks, luring her foe into overextending
himself and popping him one while his sword is still held low to the
ground.  Unfortunately, on his upswing, he knocks her back on her ass, then
scores a point on her as well.  It quickly becomes apparent that he has way
more power, not that I had any doubt of that.  Most of her blows get parried
or don't hit a scoring point.

    She's also getting worn down from the number of matches she's fought.  I
cling to Mai's arm tightly as I watch; Meiko's definitely running out of
juice, unfortunately.  She scores a second point, but his counter-blow
scores on her and now he begins to press her round and round, until finally,
he basically pressed her sword back into her face mask, knocking her down
and scoring on her shoulder.

    The Ryuugenzawa boys go crazy with shouts of revenge and justice and
cheering the winner, Taiki, as if he was the second coming of Buddha.  I
can't blame them, but it's certainly demoralizing for our boys.

    Frederick rushes over to Meiko and helps her off the field; I look over
and see Natsume looks ready to kill all life on earth.

    I quickly move to position myself to stop her just in case she goes
after Meiko.  Fortunately, she instead strides onto the match ground.
"What's your name?" she demands of her opponent.

    He's a tall but not hugely muscular boy with bright red hair.  "Ryouga,"
he says.  "Hinawara Carlton Ryouga."

    Carlton?  What the hell kind of name is Carlton?  Sounds like an
American cigarrette name to me.  Ugh, they're nasty.  Not that I smoke,
but...

    "My name is Keikawa Natsume, and you are going to die!"

    And then she goes crazy on him.  He was still just starting to move when
she scores her first point on him.  The second point knocks him on his ass.
He gets up, narrowly dodges a blow, scores one point on her, then she
thrusts into his gut so hard he flies out of the ring; he would have landed
on Master Ryuugenzawa if the man hadn't jumped to one side.  A ring out
victory!  Not too common in swordfighting.

    Seito now goes out and loses his match; unfortunately, his foe is taller
with longer arms and once again he loses due to inability to close.

    While he is losing, I am busy keeping Natsume from going over to kill
Meiko for losing.  "It happens to everyone," I tell her.

    "This whole thing is her fault!  And look at him fawning over her!"
Natsume grinds her teeth.

    I wince, feeling guilty; this had been my idea.  "We can settle it
later.  It's not like she knew."

    Meiko tries to lunge past me, but Natasha grabs her shoulder.  "Come
with me, Natsume," she says and leads Natsume off as I feel my stomach try
to find a new knot to tie in itself.  This couldn't bode well.

    Arthur, meanwhile, is also chewing Meiko out, but I stay back out of
that, moving instead to stop this turning into 'everyone stabs Meiko'
night.

    While I ride herd, Arthur now has to move out to face his first foe of
the round.  It is one of the guys Meiko beat up in the bar.  The last of
them still in the game.  "Hi, pussy!," Arthur says.  "Ready for your
asswhipping?  Of course, you can't even beat a girl..."

    "This time, I'm sober!," the man shouts.  Even some of his teammates
laugh, until Master Ryuugenzawa slaps them around.

    He rushes stupidly at Arthur, who scores the first point on his
shoulder, then a second in short succession.  After that, he fights
smarter.  But even though he does score one on Arthur, Arthur finally nails
him in the chest for a third point.

    "Not bad for a pussy," Arthur says.  "Come back any time you want a
beating."

    "I'll show you a beating!" the boy says, then leaps at Arthur.

    Master Ryuugenzawa and I had to both rush in and pull them away from
each other, though not before Arthur had taken some beating.

    "Don't disgrace us like that!," Master Ryuugenzawa berates the boy,
dragging him away.

    I drag Arthur out.  "Women can be as tough as men, and so can cats," I
tell him.  "As you ought to know.  Don't taunt a downed foe."

    "Hey, it let me win the match," he grumbles.

    "It got you beaten up some and now you may lose your next match," I tell
him.

    "I'll be fine."

    He is wrong.  Natsume turns her next foe into paste as she's still
running on a tide of anger.  Arthur, however, is slowed down and hurt by his
beating and loses 3-2 on points.

    I now notice Shiiko is talking to the last boy she beat, who seems to be
trying to figure out how she did it; she looks shy and excited at once and I
make a quick good wish for her.

    Natsume takes apart her third foe as well; I am a little worried, all
that anger can't be good for you.

    This ends the round and she gets a rest before she has to deal with the
last two.

    "You're doing GREAT," I tell her.  I try to decide if I want to ask her
what Natsume said to her.

    Glancing over, I can see Meiko sitting with Frederick.  I make gestures
at Mai and Akira and Tate to block all view of them, but they don't seem to
understand my frantic hand signs.  Aaargh.

    "I'm going to kill them all, then Meiko dies," she says flatly.  "She is
too stupid to be allowed to live."

    I grimace.  "I can't let you kill her.  But you could challenge her to a
match later."

    Natasha says to Natsume, "Remember what I told you."

    Stop teasing me!  I want to know, I think.  But I don't think they will
tell me.

    "Right now, I need my anger," Natsume says.

    "I know," Natasha says softly.  "Good luck, Natsume-san."

    "Thank you."

    The outer doors open and to my surprise, Haruka enters with Yukino, both
of them wearing expensive suit-dresses as usual.  Though shouldn't they be
off work today like everyone else?  Even Mai-chan didn't dress up that fancy
today.

    I bounce over to them as Natsume gets ready; I can see Natasha
approaching them and suddenly wonder if she's up to something.  Haruka is
saying something about the Riviera and someone named Pierre as I approach,
while Yukino lurks nearby.  So I hug Yukino first so as to not interrupt the
pontificating.

    "Anyway, it would be just fine," Haruka says.  "I won't be using the
place then, unless plans change."

    She looks over at Yukino, who is busy having trouble breathing.  So I
ease back the hug and Yukino says, "I will schedule it immediately.  We can
always use the Swiss chalet if we need a vacation spot.  Or the place in
Bombay."

    "I'm sure Pierre can round up some of his younger relatives for you,"
Haruka says to Natasha.

    I try to remember if Pierre is one of her business flunkies or one of
Haruka's boyfriends we always hear about but never see.  Except for George,
which is probably why we haven't ever seen any of the others.

    Poor George.  I'm sure he doesn't still smell like skunk, though.

    Natsume, meanwhile, is beating her next to last foe 3 to 2.

    Everyone turns to watch the match now; her foe is not as good as she is,
in my opinion, but he's not had as many fights as she has.  Goro is middling
in height with short brown hair and scruff on his lips which pretends to be
a moustache.  I'm surprised they didn't make him shave it at school.  He
bows to her and she bows back.

    He goes purely defensive as she unleashes blow after blow; I can see his
strategy—clearly, he is hoping she'll wear out enough for him to
counterattack with her too weak to stop him.  Pretty wise under the
circumstances.  You can't burn your candle at full strength like she is
without wearing out faster.

    I notice Natasha now positioning herself so that Goro can see her.  My
gut tells me she's going to do something.  Probably something that isn't
quite cheating but will nevertheless be intended to turn the tide.  I
appreciate it, but I can't let her do it.

    I head over to her, noticing Haruka going to see Mai and Tate and
Akira.  Yukino is watching the match, one hand up on her glasses, subtly
adjusting them; I wonder if she's got some built in camera she's using.

    I reach Natasha, just as she's gripping the bottom of her shirt.
"Natasha-chan, were you about to flash Goro?"

    "No, of course not with everyone here!," she says in the tone which
tells me I am 100% correct.

    "Because that might be taken as cheating and I want to win honestly.  So
does Natsume."

    Natasha grimaces.  "She just wants to kill Meiko at this point."

    "I trust her," I tell Natasha.  "But thank you for trying to help her."

    Natasha grumbles and I wonder if she was planning to do it with Haruka's
shirt too.  That would certainly distract a lot of guys.

    Natasha simply shouts, "Riviera is GO!"

    Natsume grins like a ferret about to rip out a throat and suddenly stops
moving, causing her foe to be parrying invisible, non-extant blows, then
quickly nails his shoulder, having lured him into a pattern of defenses.
"One!"

    In a sudden moment of worry, I look for bananna peels, but it looks like
Natasha has gotten too old to rely on those any more.

    He falls for it a second time, but then he goes on the offensive,
catching HER by surprise and scores a point.

    The match seems to go on and on; I can see she's getting tired, but so
is he.  My nerves wind themselves more and more into knots.  He scores a
second point, and now I'm really wired.  Drinking three cups of coffee in a
frenzy during one match doesn't help, mind you.

    Maybe...no, stopping Natasha was the right thing.  Better to lose with
honor than win with dishonor.  Plus, someone would have likely taken a
picture.  By evening it would be online and by midnight, Shiho would be
trying to kill me in my sleep.

    I glance across and see Master Ryuugenzawa, watching with arms folded
across his chest.  His look is so utterly impassive I know it's an act,
especially as his left foot keeps tapping frantically.

    I glance at Akira and see she's engaged in some sort of odd miming.  I'm
not sure who she could be signalling, given that everyone's watching the
match.  Other than some member of the other team, but why would she do that?

    Haruka is shouting "FINISH HIM!" over and over at the top of her lungs.
Pretty soon, everyone's shouting either "FINISH HER" or "FINISH HIM."

    And then it hits me, what I need to do.  Assuming he's willing to do
it.  But surely he will. I hope.

    "Frederick," I say to him.  "I need your help."

    He's in the back of the mob with Meiko, both of them looking rather
guilty.  "Yes?"

    "I need you to come up front and cheer extra hard for Natsume-chan.  You
too, Meiko."

    "I think she wants to kill me," Meiko mumbles, staring at the ground.

    "Ditto," he mumbles.

    "Doesn't matter.  And look, if she loses, I have to kick you out,
Meiko."

    Meiko winces at that.

    "And this is all happening because of you."  I try to add a little angry
Akira or Angry Shiho to my voice.

    Meiko now looks like I just poured an entire jar of tobasco sauce down
her throat.  Which I advise you never to do even if you like it, like me.

    Frederick takes Meiko by the hand and shoves to the front, then begins
yelling, "Go, Natsume, Go!"

    Natsume notices this and looks stunned and then Goro makes a go for
another point and I chew my nails.  Well, I try to chew my nails, but
they're short it doesn't work and I bite my fingers and it HURTS.

    Natsume executes a quarter turn, however, and the sword slides right
past her.  Her counter-stroke fails to score a point, but it knocks him down
on his ass as she throws all her strength into it.  As he gets up, she uses
one of Akira's moves and the 'point' of her wooden blade gets in among his
fingers, weakening his grip.  Then she snaps around and his sword goes
flying and her sword flicks up to tap above his heart.  "Point!" she
shouts.

    I collapse in a tension heap.  WHEW.

    Meiko runs out and hugs Natsume.  "You saved me!"

    For a moment, it looks to me like Natsume is going to sucker punch Meiko
in the gut, instead she says, "I saved you so I can KICK YOUR ASS MYSELF."

    Frederick, who was starting to approach them, now backs up.

    Natasha sidles over to me.  "Can I help you play dress-up with them?"

    "Of course," I say benevolently.  "I bet Haruka-chan will want to help
too."

    Natasha smiles an evil smile.

    Master Ryuugenzawa strides over.  "Damnation, most of your students
sucked, but the best were pretty damn good."

    "I know," I tell him.  "Ready for your makeovers?"

    I glance at Natasha and then wonder where she was hiding the bandolier
of lipsticks she is now wearing as she goes over to Haruka.

    "Yes," he said.  "I will get even for this later."

    "Good, I can use something to help push my students to work harder."  I
smile at him and he looks somewhat confused, which makes me smile more.  A
good rivalry makes everyone stronger, as long as it stays reasonably
honorable.  This is just what we need, I think.

    The dressup session is quite enjoyable.  FOR US.  Though I notice
Shiiko ends up getting the boy she'd been talking to earlier to help her
braid her hair.  Good for her, I thought.  A Romeo and Juliet scenario will
add to the spice of the school rivalry!  And she seems so happy.

    Natsume and Natasha work together; it is a little disturbing to see the
way they smile in unison.  Haruka and Yukino pitch in to help; I can tell
Haruka is vastly enjoying herself.

    "I'm sorry, Sensei," Meiko says to me.  "I made a mess of things and
Natsume-san had to save us and now I think she wants to bury me at sea."

    "Well, you should apologize once she calms down.  Or you can settle
things with a duel.  But really, you fought well."

    She glances over at Frederick, who is now talking to Arthur and Tate.

    "And you got a new boyfriend even if you stole him," I tell her, half
aggravated but half-knowing he hadn't really been anyone's boyfriend for her
to 'steal' him.

    "I didn't!  I..."  She sighs.  "Sorry, sensei."

    "It's okay.  Just remember, you owe not getting kicked out to
Natsume-san in the end.  So treat her well."

    "Yes, sensei," she mumbles.

    "All's well that ends well," I tell her.  Things didn't go as well as I
planned...okay, squeaked out of that one by the skin of my teeth, but this
is what I wanted, a good rivalry.  They will be back, but we'll be ready for
them.

    The doors fly open and Shiho strides in, accompanied by her latest
boyfriend, a huge American guy, six foot three with muscles on his muscles.
"Alright, who helped my daughter skip out of class?"

    Her eyes sweep across the room, while Natasha hides behind Natsume.

    "You!"  She points at Mai.  "Your wicked daughter is a bad influence on
my sweet Natasha!"

    "Hey, Crystal DIDN'T SKIP OUT OF SCHOOL," Mai says angrily.

    "Honey dearest loveums, can you go grab Natasha for me, dear?" Shiho
coos to her boytoy.  I'm not sure how she survives getting naked with men
who typically weigh 3-4 times as much as her, but she always seems to have
these giant boyfriends.

    Natasha takes off running, even as I move to intercept Shiho.  "It's
okay, Shiho-san.  She was training me with me and helping me with this
tournament, I really couldn't have done it without her help."

    With that, Shiho suddenly deflates.  "Well, of course.  She's an
invaluable resource."

    Mai sputters behind me, but I make the 'let me handle this' sign.

    "So please be gentle with her.  She told me she shouldn't, but I talked
her into it," I say.  She really has been a big help.

    "Okay," Shiho says.  "I..."

    Haruka comes in.  "Does she really have next weekend off?  She wanted to
borrow my beach house on the Riviera to take a friend of hers to, in order
to cheer her up."

    "Actually, I think she meant her next break, the summer one," Yukino
says.  "Haruka-chan."

    "Oooh, I've been wanting to see the Riviera again," Shiho says.  "I
haven't been since poor Tobias died in the baccarat incident."

    Tobias actually faked his own death with my help to get away from her,
but that's another story.

    "I..."

    "We could make it a big family vacation with some friends," Yukino
said.  "I'm sure everyone wants to meet your boyfriend, anyway."

    Haruka suddenly looks very nervous.

    Mai says, "I really would like to."

    Tate nods.

    I can't blame her for hiding her boyfriends from us, especially after
George.  I hope he still doesn't hate all of us.  Though I couldn't blame
him if he did.

    "I'm sure Natsuki will bring her boyfriend and...Yoshino-chan, are you
between boyfriends?"

    "Yes," she says, adjusting her glasses.

    Hmm, a few of my students might be good...but they are kind of young...
"Well, I have some..."  for once I catch my mouth in time.  "I know
Haruka-chan likes her men muscular and dumb, but how about you?"

    Haruka stares at me, jaws open, while everyone else tries to force
themselves not to laugh.  Shiho begins to laugh and laugh and laugh, until
Haruka whacks her in the head and they start having a totally undignified
fight until Yukino and Tate pull them away from each other.  A pretty poor
quality fight.  They both need more combat training, really.  I could do
much better than that, drunk.

    "I...umm...kind of like redheads who are outgoing and friendly and
knowledgeable about science and the humanities," Yukino babbles.  "And
strong."

    Hmm, time to put Mai and Tate to work finding her someone; most of the
people I know our age are experts at hitting people or part of the family.

    But there's plenty of time to plan for that.

    "Let's go out for dinner," I tell them.  "Hmm, even better, I'll order
pizza for everyone; my students deserve a nice dinner too.  Mai-chan, I put
you in charge of organizing and negotating the order."

    Mai smiles and begins circulating through the mob of makeovers, while I
go make sure I can afford to pay for it all.  Luckily, I can, so soon we're
stuffing our faces.

    And I'll stop here, because where better to stop a story than delicious
food?  No better place at all, in my opinion.  See you!
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://www.chez-vrolet.net/pipermail/ffml/attachments/20090113/fc8446c4/attachment.htm 


More information about the ffml mailing list