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The Great Escape

Chapter Text

Clinging white-knuckled to the sideways seat, Minato Sahashi ignored the shrill energy blasts outside and focused on the little girl huddled against the shattered bus window. If the bus had been even a little upright she could have climbed out, no problem; despite the helter-skelter pile of luggage on top of her, she didn’t look hurt. Just pale and scared and stuck. “Hey,” he said, hoping years of lessons had stuck and he really was speaking decent English. “Hang on, we’re going to get you out of here.”

“...Monsters.” A black leather handbag shifted, before the shivering girl pulled it back on top of her. “Monsters out there.”

Smoke drifted past Minato’s nose; he wondered how much of it was Kagari’s. “The good guys are fighting the monsters, I promise.” Bracing his feet against a toppled bench, he held out his hand. Please come out. Please. “There are policemen out there. They’ll help you find your family-”

The world tumbled, steel screaming around them. Minato dove for shivering terror, clutching cloth and a shrieking child as the bus rocked and spun, purple-white light searing past his ear. His left wrist caught on one of the tumbling seats; damn it, Minaka’s tracker was going to kill them and he hadn’t even done anything yet-

“Minato!”

Metal and plastic tore, as Musubi yanked off half the side of the bus, jumping in to pluck them out so fast his ears popped.

Safe.

Probably not what most people would think of as safe, Minato had to admit, as Musubi landed with them by a knot of stunned cops and bystanders. The streets of New York were a chaos of gunshots and purple-gray armored aliens, with more roaring through the skies to unleash bolts of energy on anyone unlucky enough to be in range. Though fliers that headed their way had to dodge lightning from both sides; and any that made it past Hikari and Hibiki got smashed by wind, water, and balls of angry fire.

Wow. I think we’re starting to build a barricade.

The local cops, Seo, and Yukari were taking advantage of it, just as they’d used Kusano’s giant thorn-barrier and looping vines to herd fliers and foot-soldiers to where they stood a chance at shooting the creeps. Shiina was behind Yukari, ready to grab any alien that made it to the barrier or unleash a full-strength blast if a mass of aliens swarmed them. Yukari was zapping away with an alien staff-thing, cackling with mad glee whenever she lined up a particularly tricky shot.

One of her shots went... a little lower than center of mass. Minato shared Shiina’s flinch and shudder. “Sis!”

“They’re alien invaders from another dimension!” Yukari fired again, wrist bent so the rifle didn’t catch on her tracker. “They’ve got to be tentacle perverts! I’m saving us all from a fate worse than death!”

The worst of it was, he couldn’t even be sure she was wrong.

Helping one shaken rookie grab clips to reload, Seo gave Minato his best beady-eyed glare. Absently shook out his left wrist; a nervous habit the freeloader had gotten into, ever since Minaka’s email had explained exactly what the vicious little trackers were meant to do, if any other Ashikabi tried to escape. “This is your sister? What kind of manga has she been into?”

Still holding the girl, Minato felt himself turn bright red. “I don’t know, I swear!”

“I wish I didn’t know,” Shiina groaned.

“What’s manga?” their latest rescue mumbled against Minato’s jacket.

“Oh, they’re great!” Musubi beamed at her. “They’re these funny books with all kinds of neat stories, and some of them have people wearing really skimpy-”

“Modesty,” Minato sighed.

“...The manga should wear panties?”

Minato blinked, and headed for the rear of their impromptu fort, where paramedics and some determined civilians had set up a first-aid area, while Kusano stayed safe and felt for any lives they could pull out of the wreckage. I’m in the middle of an alien invasion of New York, with a bunch of friendly aliens, trying to get modesty through to a girl who was happy I brought four other girls and Kagari home to stay, while my sister groin-shots the bad guys with her laser rifle. When did this turn into my life?

On the bright side, New Yorkers seemed a lot less spooked than anyone in Shinto Teito. Heck, the paramedics were smiling back at Musubi when she smiled at them; and they’d seen her tear open steel with her hands.

They’re not afraid of Sekirei. That’s... it’s nice.

“Here you go, sweetie.” The paramedic’s nametag flashed Roarke through the smoke; his handlebar mustache bent in a determined smile as he eased the girl out of Minato’s arms. “What’s your name? Are you hurt anywhere?”

“I want my mommy!

Yow. Even with gunfire going off, that hurt. Minato beat a hasty retreat with Musubi to where Matsu and Kusano were hiding out in a living shelter of bent trees and bramble.

Only Matsu wasn’t in the shelter. The Information Sekirei was standing outside the waving thorns with an alien rifle in her own hands, talking to Sergeant Montoya, the officer who’d ended up more or less in charge of their little knot of life-saving; Matsu’s normally cheerful face so pale it was almost gray.

On her part, the Hispanic policewoman looked like only the uniform was keeping her standing. “Are you sure?”

“I wish I wasn’t!” Matsu’s red braids were fluttering in the charge of her power, as she tapped satellites, computers, and who knew what else. “I don’t know who this World Security Council is, but they are going down. Musubi! Go get Yukari and Shiina. Drag them if you have to.”

“Okay!” Face serious, Musubi bounded off.

“Minato!” Tossing the rifle to Montoya, Matsu snagged his jacket. “No more rescues, we need you right here!”

They were going to need a Norito. Oh, not good. A Sekirei’s incantation could be almost unstoppable, but it burned a lot of energy. And they’d already been fighting for... god, he’d lost track of the time. But the aliens weren’t showing any signs of slowing down, so Matsu had to have a good reason for asking. “What’s going on?”

“If your ‘Net-lady is right,” Montoya swallowed, and lifted her chin, “some international asshole just decided to throw a nuclear bomb at New York City.”

For a moment, it was too ludicrous to make sense. “Are they crazy?” Minato yelped, jabbing a thumb up toward the hole in the sky. “What do they think that’s going to do? The mothership’s not even in this dimension!”

We’re going to die.

Minato covered his face with his hands and breathed, slow and deliberate. He wanted to panic. Panic was an old friend by now. But he had family depending on him, all their Sekirei depending on him, and Matsu wouldn’t be tossing around orders if they were just going to die. “What can we do?”

“Kusano’s life,” Matsu said briskly, as Musubi hauled his protesting sister and her Sekirei back to them. “Shiina’s death. Destruction of energy. If we time it just right, with Shiina blasting the incoming radiation while Kuu shields us - we might live through this.” Behind her glasses, red eyes went distant a moment. “But just in case we don’t, I just launched some of my best strip-and-destroy worms on all their servers I can identify. It’s scorched earth time.”

“What about the city?” Sweat was trickling through the soot on Montoya’s face.

Matsu winced. “Sergeant-”

“We’re going to save everyone here,” Minato said firmly. “I know the range on a Norito.” We’ve set off enough of them. “If this works... we’ll cover about a block. I hope.” He met hazel eyes, wondering if his own gray looked just as desperate. “Get everyone as close as you can.”

The sergeant swore under her breath, but gave him a stiff nod; turned away, and raised her voice. “All right! New plan, people!”

Rifle still in hand, Yukari was staring at Matsu, her schoolgirl jacket and skirt a bit worse for wear from high kicks and energy blasts. “You want us to what?

“Stop the incoming hard radiation of a nuclear explosion!” Matsu’s glasses gleamed. “Won’t this be fun?

“Erk.”

Shiina traded a rueful glance with Minato, then took his stunned Ashikabi by the hand. “Come on. Let’s go sit with Kuu. If this is going to work, we’ll have to be close.”

“It’s going to be okay.” Musubi took her own Ashikabi’s hand, smile bright and determined as Miya’s blade. “You’ll save us. I believe in you.”

Even terrified, Minato had to smile back. Musubi was the first person who had ever believed in him. He’d move mountains for her. Even if he had to do it one teaspoon at a time.

For all of them. Minato sat down inside Kusano’s giant arbor, in the clear spot away from the huddled wounded, opening his arms to hug a frightened little blonde Sekirei. He didn’t know how old little Kuu really was, but she looked and felt not much older than the girl they’d just pulled out of the wreckage. And he would never, ever forgive Minaka for dumping Kuu in the middle of Shinto Teito and emailing every Ashikabi to come and take her.

Kusano reached up, fingers touching the gray streak in his hair. “Big brother’s going to need me?”

Minato looked into wide green eyes, and hugged her again. “We’re all going to need you, Kuu.” He glanced at Shiina and his shell-shocked sister. “You know what we’re doing?”

The silver-haired teen stared back, eerie Sekirei eyes grim. “I think so...?”

“It’s simple!” Matsu draped herself on one side of the entrance. “I’ll listen for the EMP pulse. When stuff goes dark, I’ll give you the signal. You blast the nasty little gamma rays before they kill us all, and Kuu gives us all the life we can handle. And if we’re really really lucky, we’ll all survive!” She stepped inside. “I’ve got a few ideas....”

Minato listened with half an ear. His part was pretty much going to be kissing Kuu at the right moment. For now, the best thing he could do was hold a scared little girl, let Musubi watch over both of them, and check on the rest of his Sekirei to be sure they’d all be inside Shiina’s protection.

Center, Minato told himself, remembering Matsu’s sometimes hair-pulling efforts to teach a human how to handle energy like a Sekirei. Ground, and reach.

Ashikabi were human. But their link to their Sekirei made them just a little more.

Empathy.

All Ashikabi had it; though he was willing to bet the crazy ones like Higa and that jerk Yukari had run into had either cracked because of it, or were sticking their mental fingers in their ears trying to desperately block out the dreams and emotions of their bonded Sekirei.

Part of him - Minato hoped it was a very small part - didn’t totally blame them. It was hard enough to live inside your own head. One kiss, and every Ashikabi lost being alone in a mental chokehold of mine, mine forever, I love you.

He did love Musubi. He loved all of them. Which was why he was going to shut out the doubts and focus.

There was Kusano, green and bright like a young fern uncurling. Musubi; tired, but proud and watchful as a bear with cubs. Matsu, a smooth flow of calculations and possibilities, sparkling with worry and controlled terror.

So weird to feel them so clearly while I’m awake. Wish Matsu had told me more sooner, so I could practice this before we ended up in an alien invasion....

Farther out. Past the tingly almost-link of Shiina’s bond to Kusano, and the ripple of anger and determination that was Yukari. Out past the static prickles of not-my-flock to surging waves, flower-petal winds, and fire that burned to warn and protect.

Tsukiumi. Kazehana. Kagari.

He felt them, protective and worried and so horribly tired. And he knew they felt him.

Please let this work. :There’s going to be a bomb.:

“Don’t focus on words,” Musubi had told him, the first time Matsu had talked to them about the possibilities. “Who uses words when they’re trying to feel? Focus on pictures. Focus on your heart.”

“We’re your Sekirei,” Matsu had added. “Trust your bond. Trust us.

“And damn it, trust yourself....”

:Fire from the sky,: Minato pictured, shuddering. He knew the history. Who didn’t? :Get down to the ground. Close to us. Shiina and Yukari....:

He could see it in his head. Kusano’s green life wrapping around them, while Shiina’s gray destruction tore away invisible fire.

:Get down. Bring Hikari and Hibiki. Get down!:

Surprise. Unwillingness, tinged with the hot copper of anger; not all Sekirei wanted to fight, but it was a rare feather indeed who ran from one. Impatience, especially from Tsukiumi-

Minato bit his lip, tasting blood. :Fire-not-fire. Shattered bodies, skin peeling off like paper. Don’t you dare do that to us!:

A wind of cherry blossoms softened his fear. :Shh,: Kazehana murmured, backed by warmth, and a reluctant tug of current. :We’re coming.:

Minato blinked, catching Yukari’s stare. “They’re on their way.”

His sister eyed him a moment longer, then shook herself. “You’re weird.”

“Me?” Minato tried to keep it to older-brother-indignant, hiding the stab of hurt. He could barely taste the blood anymore, and that would scare him if he let it. “I’m not the one who reads tentacle hentai!”

“Reads?” Yukari gave him a slightly toned down version of their mom’s terrifying smile. “I heard what happened in Miya’s kitchen.”

“It’s not what you think!” Live bulbs in the kitchen and an upset Kuu equaled green onion snares; he hadn’t been able to look an onion in the eye for days. “Bomb, focus, okay?”

Yukari stuck her tongue out at him. “Says the two-year ronin.”

Argh. Mom would never let him have the last word either. Which was part of why they were all in this mess; Takami Sahashi apparently hadn’t believed either of her children would make it through the Sekirei Plan on their own. So she’d pulled on her Mad Scientist labcoat and-

Don’t think about it. Live through the aliens; get Yukari away from Mom and MBI, before Mom can add more needles to make things worse. Stick to the plan.

The plan hadn’t had an alien invasion in it. Or nukes.

The bridge plan didn’t have the Discipline Squad in it, either. We still made it.

And he wasn’t going to think about ending up in the hospital afterward, or what his mother had taken that chance to do....

Matsu was leaning against the arbor entrance. Her face was almost serene, long red hair flowing down her pink dress like tame fire, but he could feel the tension in her winding tighter and tighter-

The Information Sekirei shot to her feet, eyes searching the sky. “Look!”

:Surprise. Fear-and-hope!:

Swinging Kusano up to his shoulder, Minato scrambled to his feet and peered upward. He halfway expected to see nothing; sometimes Matsu forgot not everyone could look through a satellite’s eyes.

A glint of red and gold, zipping against blue sky.

“Iron Man’s trying something!” Matsu bounced into the open, drawing every stray eye, shading her gaze to look up.

“Iron Man?” Musubi was wriggling from foot to foot as if she expected him to drop out of the sky to spar. “Who’s that?”

“You need to watch some news outside of MBI.” Kazehana touched down, all long legs and skimpy pierced violet dress that made at least one dusty stockbroker thump right into an equally drooling hot dog vendor. Sauerkraut flew. “He was on the world reports a few months ago, fighting flying robots.”

“Yeah!” Matsu cheered, as Kagari and Tsukiumi leapt down, the grumbling lightning twins following. “Go Iron Man! Go, go, go!

Red and gold and ominous black soared up into the hole in the sky, out of sight.

Silence.

“That was the missile!” Matsu was almost babbling; and who wouldn’t be, Minato thought, seeing imminent death snatched away by the skin of their teeth? “He got it up through the portal! If my calculations are correct, the energy shouldn’t make it back across the dimensional boundary if they can just get it closed-”

The world shook.

“Minato!” Musubi was holding his shoulders, making sure Kusano didn’t fall even if his own knees threatened to buckle. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“The static’s gone.” Minato blinked, dazed. “The aliens, they were like a power saw you can’t track down and can’t turn off. Just this high awful noise. And it’s gone-”

“Move!”

A hot black shadow knocked them sideways, as alien metal fell from the sky.

“Kagari.” Minato stared up into burgundy eyes framed by silver hair, and tried desperately not to blush. The Guardian Sekirei really wouldn’t appreciate it. They were friends, and both guys. And he was not going to think about pressing up against soft and warm and-

This is bad. Think about him socking you in the jaw! You’d deserve it. Again.

Only they were really close, and he could swear he saw red on Kagari’s cheeks, what was up with that?

:Pain.:

Not his Sekirei. But close enough that he could feel it anyway. Minato scrambled up, helping Musubi brush Kusano off as he turned back toward what had almost flattened them all. “Thanks, Kagari.”

“I almost wasn’t fast enough.” The androgynous Sekirei’s voice was low, trying to hide panic under determined male cool as he glanced around for any more plummeting death. “What kind of idiot alien ship falls out of the sky?”

“We need some help over here!”

Oh, this is not good.

Montoya was caught half under one stubby wing, swearing under her breath as ominous red started seeping out from under gray metal. Roarke and a few others were right there, the paramedic digging into his depleted kit with the kind of fierce concentration Matsu used to hack MBI killsats. “Looks like a femoral bleed, we’re going to need units of O-neg stat - Musubi! Just the lady I wanted to see. Can you lift that?”

Tired as the rest of them, the fist Sekirei still lit up. “Yes!”

“Wait!” Minato grabbed her before she could move too fast. “We don’t know how bad it is under there. You might need to lift and hold it-”

“And that, ‘twere best done with more than two hands to steady it, this foul piece of mechanical mischief!” Tsukiumi stepped to the near corner of the wing, some feet away from where Musubi would be lifting, unneeded water dissolving back into the air around her. “Homura, Kazehana - let us aid our sister.”

Roarke’s eyebrows weren’t the only ones bouncing up at sister, but the paramedic kept his focus on Montoya. “Minato, right? Can you help me pull the sergeant out?”

Minato gulped. “Y-yes, sir.”

“Good for you. On three. One, two-”

Three was a screech of alien metal up off asphalt, and trying to block out the blood as he gripped and pulled.

“Good, good - stop!” Roarke dove for Montoya’s bleeding thigh. “Head down, Sergeant. We need to elevate this, you’re going to be fine....”

But she’s lost so much blood, Minato thought. It was red and sticky as it cooled on his hands, oh god. And the streets are all torn up. Not just from us; the aliens were blasting everything. How can an ambulance get here in time?

A Sekirei ride was out of the question. Even if they could find their way to a New York hospital, the jarring from being bounced across the city by superhuman strength was bad enough for a healthy person. Someone already bleeding? No way.

I can’t just let her die!

He’d only tried this on people tied to him. He didn’t know if it would work on anyone else. But he could feel her pain, her grim knowledge of the odds, her regret as the world faded....

No!

Kneeling in the dust and ashes, Minato took her hand. Center. Ground. Feel where her energies are torn; flow yours into the gap.

It was like trying to thread a needle in bad light. Humans were so much fainter than Sekirei.

So it’s hard; keep trying! She’s alive, you can feel she’s alive, just - find the right threads....

He had them. But he was tired, world graying out and swaying. There wasn’t anything left to mend the wound.

Please.

Kuu’s hand on his back, small and warm and alive. Musubi’s fingers gripping his shoulder, willing in strength. More familiar touches, wind and water and circuits’ hum; Kagari’s black-gloved hand resting warmth on top of his own.

:Our flock-leader. Believe.:

Behind his eyes, there was light.

“...Sweet mother of - okay, pressure’s still down, push fluids. Minato. Kid? Ladies, get him to let go. We need to move the sergeant. Don’t let him fall on his face!”

Musubi’s embrace smelled like dust and honey. Minato sighed, and let his head sag on her shoulder. He could go to sleep right here.

No. Can’t. Remember the plan. Minato pried open one eye. “Matsu?”

“On it!” From somewhere in her tight pink cheongsam, Matsu produced a little gadget that looked a lot like a stun-gun. Which was pretty much what it had been, before she modified it. “I hope this works... hold still.”

Oh, he was holding still all right. Very still, as Matsu grabbed his left forearm and held it up to get one last good look at the tracker.

On the bright side, if this goes wrong? Tetrodotoxin. Shouldn’t hurt a bit....

Prongs jammed home. Sparks flew.

Like a seared leech, the tracker dropped away.

“Seo! Yukari!” Matsu brandished her tracker-disarmer with a fierce grin. “We’re leaving this game!”

Yukari’s head whipped toward her brother. “What?”

The lightning twins linked hands in fretful worry, as Seo let Matsu grab and zap him. “You think this can still work?” the streetwise Ashikabi muttered, squinting at the disabler. “We didn’t plan for grade-B Guyver rejects tearing up the city.”

“Anything that slows us down will slow Karasuba down.” Minato tried not to shiver at the thought of the deadly leader of MBI’s Discipline Squad. “We’re out of Shinto Teito. We won’t have a better chance.”

“Probably not.” Seo winced as the tracker fell away. “Just hope it’s good enough to keep us in one piece.”

“We can’t leave!” Yukari protested, even as Shiina drew her closer. “All the defeated Sekirei; whoever wins has to help them!”

Musubi’s eyes went teary. Minato squeezed her hand. “We’ll find a way,” he promised. “We just have to get away first.”

“Whoever wins?” Shiina stopped pulling; stepped in front of Yukari, staring into his Ashikabi’s eyes. “What if none of us wins? We’re dangerous! A fight’s never certain! What if both of the last two Sekirei die?”

Yukari blanched. “But....”

“And what if none of us wins?” Seo rubbed his bared wrist. “Would you trust Ashikabi like the ones you’ve stomped to help the rest of us? Heck, what if Higa wins?”

“Worse.” Minato raised his head, hoping for once Yukari would just listen. He couldn’t tell her everything. Not yet. “What if Karasuba wins?”

For once, Yukari paused. “That’d be bad, wouldn’t it.”

“I’m going to beat her!” Musubi vowed.

“Thou wilt most assuredly try, with all thine heart,” Tsukiumi nodded, arms crossed under her breasts. “But speaking as one who had to watch thy broken body upon the bridge, pinned and helpless as we all grieved - sister, do not face her alone. None of us could bear it!” She drew a deep breath, white-clad bosom heaving. “And thus, though it pains me greatly, though it might seem veriest cowardice in the face of the enemy - I will leave the Sekirei Plan, until we can be certain she will face thee in a fair combat, without Minaka’s interference!”

Kagari flexed his fingers, a puff of flame licking over his gloved palm. “I just want to burn the whole thing to the ground. Minaka included.” The black half-mask hid his smirk, but Minato felt the feather-brush of very real amusement. “I’ll settle for wrecking his game. For now.”

“We joined the game to find Kusano.” Shiina cradled Yukari’s hands in his. “What if we hadn’t found her until the last stage? What if we’d only found her when we were facing her?” His voice shook. “I don’t want to fight anymore. All I want is to stay with you!”

Yukari reddened. Glanced down, then back at her brother and Seo. “But if we’re the only ones who can get away - it’s not fair!”

The world was a little less grayed out and shaky. Minato lifted his head off Musubi’s shoulder. “Who says we’re the only ones? Matsu?”

The redhead grinned, tapped a key on her little tablet, and pumped a fist. “Text message should be hitting everyone except the Discipline Squad... now.”

Three phones rang. Minato opened his, checked the ID; Hannya-North, just as Matsu had set it up to be-

Shut it, and dropped it in the street. “Drop your phones. Your MBI cards. Get rid of anything they could use to track us!”

Seo dropped his phone with the heartfelt sigh of the perpetually broke. “Hope your money magic’s as good as you say, Matsu.”

“Don’t worry.” Glasses gleamed evilly. “It’s better.”

Yukari had apparently just hit the end of the text. “You - this is real? How did you do this?”

“A lot of late nights.” Kazehana pouted, long legs striding around a bit of rubble. “And not the way I would have spent them.” She gracefully scooped up the two fallen trackers, and handed them over to the nearest cop enjoying the view. “Officer Cameron? There may be some very scary people looking for these. If they show up....” The Wind Sekirei’s smile sobered. “Don’t do anything reckless. Just let them have these.” One violet brow raised, Kazehana turned serious eyes on Yukari.

The young Ashikabi sighed, and held out her arm for Matsu. “Okay. This better work!”

Zap.

“Miss?” Officer Cameron stared at the three trackers now in his hands. “If you’re in some kind of trouble, we can make a report-”

“No!” Minato stood on shaky feet, letting Kusano swarm up onto his shoulder. “They’ll kill you if you try to stop them. They will. Don’t worry about us. We’re going to be gone-”

Musubi gripped his hand. Shiina took Yukari’s. Hikari clung to Seo.

Together, they leapt.

The wind took them, and Minato fought back a girly scream. Oh, I’m never going to get used to this-!

Chapter Text

Cash, food, clothes, hideout, Kagari ticked off on mental fingers, as their combined flocks trudged up the last steps to the top floor of their new home. It was a long climb - at least, for humans - but nobody had wanted to be crowded into a metal box after a day of getting shot at.

And it wasn’t that long a climb for Ashikabi.

Just a little farther, and we can all rest.

He couldn’t fault Minato for prioritizing food over a change out of MBI’s distinctive Sekirei outfits. Anyone who tried to take nine starving Sekirei anywhere without feeding them first was just asking for trouble.

Considering the dent we left in that lunch buffet, it’s probably just as well we didn’t change first, Kagari admitted to himself, as Matsu presented Minato with the keys to their new front door. They’re going to remember us.

Probably not in a bad way; they’d left one heck of a tip. But most of the other Sekirei had never had to adopt his own practice of frequent snacking, so that he could look like he ate a normal human-sized meal around other people. In Izumo Inn, they’d never had to. Miya served Sekirei-sized portions without batting an eye, and deftly made sure anyone else got a more modest serving. All of which meant that Musubi had gone through a plate of everything on the menu, and still had room to split a death-by-chocolate cake with the others afterward.

The rest of them hadn’t done quite as much damage. But Kagari had seen the stares as the plates piled up, and the way Minato wanted to just sink out of sight in his chair even as Kuu kept feeding him bits of awesome stuff she’d never tried before, and ruefully realized they were about to become restaurant history.

We’ll have to watch that, Kagari thought, as Minato finally got the last lock undone. Either cook it ourselves or order in. Or do a lot of snacking if we need to eat in public... wow. Nice.

“Top three floors and the two lowest sub-basements are ours,” Matsu reported, a demure gray coat over her new pink dress as she stepped down onto the polished wood floor of the living area. Her old cheongsam was tucked into one of their many shopping bags, along with the rest of their uniforms; though hers didn’t have as many new holes in it. One of the items that had been in Matsu’s maildrop box of cash was a very sophisticated bug detector she’d used on everyone then and there. It hadn’t really surprised Kagari to find out Matsu wasn’t the first person to tag his clothes with a tracking device. Sekirei uniforms came from MBI; what else did he expect?

Finding bugs in Minato and Yukari’s jeans, skirt, and shoes had almost been the last straw.

He’d wanted to incinerate them on the spot. Or at least let the twins have some fun. But Kazehana had given him a friendly wink, then used careful gusts of wind to scatter them in half a dozen taxis and a passing garbage truck.

Have fun digging those out, Minaka.

“There’s enough rooms on this floor for everyone to have one, though you could take rooms in the empty floors if you want,” Matsu went on, “and there’s an arboretum on the roof, I think it’s dwarf trees and some yummy things- ooo, my new computers are here!” Squealing something gleeful that sounded like StarkTech, Matsu dashed into the side room that must be her new lair. There was a cackle, and a flurry of shredding cardboard.

“Dumped for a hard drive,” Seo quipped. “Or maybe that’s not the only hard-”

Zap.

“...Ow.”

Hibiki blew smoke off her fingertip, the crimson dragon embroidered on her red half-glove glimmering with sparks, and traded a grin with her blue-clad sister.

Yukari thumped her bags down, and gratefully sank into a pale tan armchair. Shiina curled up in one corner of it with her, shoulder settled against her arm. “So we fought off aliens and went shopping in New York.” She reached up to touch silvery hair, a stroke of reassurance. “Does anybody but me think the shopping was weirder?”

“In truth, it was.” Tsukiumi tapped her chin thoughtfully, shifting her shoulders under her new sapphire dress. “’Tis most strange to be shopping at a mere human pace, ground-bound and flightless.”

Kagari chuckled as he settled onto the couch with the rest of the flock; not right next to Minato, that was Kusano’s and Musubi’s spots at the moment, but not too far away either. Sometimes he forgot how little most Sekirei actually knew about normal life.

Yukari let her head bounce against the cushions, and blew out a breath. “It doesn’t exactly help everybody left back in Shinto Teito, either. What are we doing here?” She glared at Seo.

The so-called Loser Ashikabi flailed his hands as he dropped into the other armchair, Hibiki and Hikari each leaning on a chair arm. “Hey! Don’t look at me. This is your brother’s crazy plan. I’m just here because it, um, sounded like a good idea...?”

“And because Miya swore she’d cut him off from the kitchen if he didn’t help,” Hikari whispered from behind her hand.

Kagari suppressed the urge to both laugh and shiver at the memory. Miya was scary when she decided to move....

Yukari was staring at her brother. Why?

“Your plan,” Yukari said at last. “Your plan?” She covered her face with her hands. “Oh my god, we’re all going to die.”

“Just what’s that supposed to mean?” Kagari almost reached toward Minato. “Your brother’s plans work.” Maybe not without their Ashikabi ending up in the hospital too many times, but they worked.

“My brother’s plans end up with me carrying him out of the forest I got lost in,” Yukari started, “so don’t-”

Minato took a deep breath, and met his sister’s gaze. “Matsu got into your medical records.”

“I did.” The Information Sekirei appeared in her doorway, a bit of black packing tape stuck over one eyebrow. “Systems are initializing now, we can take our time.... You’re not going to like what I found, Yukari.”

“My medical records,” the girl repeated blankly. “Wait, this is all about me? Minato, you idiot!”

“It’s not just about you,” Minato said firmly. “It’s not even about both of us. It’s about what’s right, and what MBI’s willing to do, and what Mom’s willing to do to all of us. Sekirei and Ashikabi!” He planted his fists on his thighs, facing her head on. “It started - when you showed up in the hospital. After I got kidnapped.”

It started before that, Kagari reflected. But we didn’t know that, then....


 

About a month earlier.


I don’t believe it. Minato rubbed at the bathroom mirror, just in case a stray spot of soap was fooling his eyes. Come on, I’m only nineteen!

Nineteen, and - well - stressed. He’d failed the entrance exams twice. His sister was a not-so-closet pervert. His mother barely saw either of them because of her job, and she’d cut his allowance in half... which he could understand, really, given all she knew was he’d failed the exams again, but staying employed so he could feed his growing flock of dependents was getting just a little tricky lately.

Oh, and there was a lethally poisoned tracking device strapped to his left wrist and murderous super-powered psychopaths potentially out to kill him and his Sekirei any time they ventured outside of the Izumo Inn. Just, you know, in case he got any ideas about trying to help other Sekirei and Ashikabi flee the city.

I suppose that might be enough to do it. Minato poked his fingers at the betraying hairs, and sighed. Oh well. Live through the next few weeks, worry about it later.

One more deep breath in relative privacy; even Matsu hadn’t tried to ambush him in here, thank goodness. And... here goes everything.

Shoulders set, he stepped out into the hall.

“You look like someone dropped Miya’s cooking.”

“Kagari.” Minato tried not to fumble the door; the silver-haired host’s expression had an easy amusement he could never manage. “It’s nothing, really.”

“Nothing?” Amusement deepened on the young man’s face as Kagari leaned back against the wall. “Come on, Sahashi. Tsukiumi and Musubi fighting over who’s first wife? Matsu dropping out of the ceiling? Kusano gnawing off your foot?”

“No, it’s... it’s silly.” Minato caught himself rubbing the back of his neck; reddened, and dragged his hand down. “I found my first gray hair. It’s not a big deal....”

Kagari had lifted his shoulders away from the wall, eyes narrowed. “I thought you were nineteen.”

“People go gray in my family early,” Minato shrugged. “My grandmother says she did, and - well, my mother went gray before I was out of middle school.”

“Has it been that long?” Kagari murmured, half to himself. “I guess it has... what?”

Minato tried to pry his jaw off the floor mats. “You know my mom? Where - how-” The obvious hit, and he tried not to die of sheer embarrassment. “You... met her at your job, right?”

“I did, actually,” Kagari said neutrally. “I didn’t make the connection until not that long ago. To be honest, I’ve known her for a while. She never mentioned she had a son until... well, recently.”

“Yeah, that’s my mom,” Minato sighed. Dug deep, and pulled up a smile. “I’m glad she has you to talk to. She never says much about her work, but I know it stresses her out. Every time she’s on the phone these days, I can hear her lighting a cigarette. Whatever’s going on, I hope it lets up soon.”

Kagari was completely away from the wall, dark eyes troubled. “You really don’t mind?”

“It’s none of my business, right?” Minato tried not to shove his hands in his pockets. This was Kagari’s job. He wasn’t going to screw that up. Not for a friend. “It’s not like she’s married or anything. And... she doesn’t talk to us. So it’s good that she has somebody.”

“Us. It’s not just her looking after you?” For some reason, Kagari looked even more upset.

“No, of course not! It never was. Grandma raised me and Yukari. My younger sister,” he added at Kagari’s odd look of hurt. “She made it through the entrance exams for Shinto Women’s University. She’s in the city right now. We just haven’t met up again because of all the crazy-”

There was a roar of water from the backyard, and an ominous crash.

“And I’d better see what that was Kagari thanks!”

“Don’t mention it,” Minato thought he heard behind him as he pelted toward imminent Tsukiumi-caused devastation. “Really.”


Listening to the splashing outside with half an ear, Kagari knocked on the hidden panel, unease prickling on his neck. “Matsu. We need to talk.”

The secret door opened, Matsu’s glasses flashing with evil glee. “I’m busy....”

That kind of intonation would make any sane man flee in terror; not to mention any sane other being who knew anything about sex beyond mom and dad found you under a cabbage leaf. Which was exactly what Matsu intended. Too bad for her; he was not going to be run off that easily. “This is important. It’s about Sahashi.”

The redhead glanced down the corridor, then beckoned him in.

He had to hand it to whoever’d designed the panel, Kagari thought. It shut with barely a whisper.

“That’s what I’m working on; something for Minato. You might want to take a look at it too.” Matsu waved at her screens. “I’ll show it to the others, but Kusano’s too young to understand and Musubi is too... straightforward. Tsukiumi might pay attention, if she doesn’t think it’s cheating.”

Kagari frowned at the pictures, each with an accompanying summary. “Information on the other Sekirei.”

“The Discipline Squad almost killed everyone on the bridge.” Matsu’s glasses didn’t mask her shudder. “We can’t be caught off-guard like that again. The cost is too high.”

And if he wanted to guard the remaining unwinged Sekirei from malicious Ashikabi like Higa and Mikogami, he’d better know what he was up against. “I appreciate this,” Kagari nodded. “Sahashi asked you to look for this?”

“After he faced Miya down about the shopping races.” Matsu gave him a sidelong look.

Okay, it wasn’t the funniest joke Kagari had ever heard, but at least Matsu was trying to get a laugh from something that didn’t have sex or experiments in it. “You mean, after he tried,” the Sekirei Guardian smirked.

Matsu smiled, small and secret. “That’s right, you were sick that night. You missed it.”

“Missed what?” Kagari said uneasily. He’d been sick a lot of nights recently, because of his damn body’s perverted reaction to all the craziness. A reaction that was going to stop, just as soon as he found the right Ashikabi.

“Oh, that was something else.” Matsu’s eyes gleamed. “It was the week after we helped Kuno and Haruka escape. Musubi’d just come home, Minato still had that sling on, and you might say that’s what set everything off....”


His left shoulder ached, a hot tension of strained muscles that radiated from his back all the way down to his elbow. His forearm throbbed like someone had stuck slivers of hot iron inside, the strap around his wrist itched, and his fingers ached like... well, like someone with superhuman strength had stomped down and ground her heel on them.

All in all, Minato knew, he was lucky he still had fingers.

The clinic doctor said I can probably get rid of the sling in a few more days. Minato ate carefully, trying to ignore waiting death and juggle everything one-handed. The dinner table was just as loud as always; Tsukiumi and Musubi still sported a few bandages and scrapes, but they were healing even faster than he was. Wow. MBI medical advances... I wonder how much medicine they discovered studying the Sekirei?

Minato sipped his tea, and tried not to roll his eyes at the ceiling as Matsu giggled at something he really didn’t want to know about. Why am I worried about MBI research? I should be trying to figure out where I can learn to swim. If Benitsubasa dangles me off a bridge again, my chances would be a lot better if I could just let go-

“Thou churlish offspring of a she-wolf!” Two seats away, Tsukiumi was red-faced and literally steaming, water condensing out of the air to answer her temper. “’Tis not right that thou dost use thy Sekirei abilities to win the shopping race and usurp my proper place at Minato’s side!”

“Miya says it’s just like training!” Musubi raised a half-gloved fist. “And in training, you’ve got to bring everything you have!”

Their landlady chuckled, politely covering her mouth with one elegant hand. “That’s right! So you’ll just have to train harder next time.”

Poor Tsukiumi, Minato thought ruefully, trying to avoid eye contact with the fuming blonde Sekirei as droplets of water snaked along with her hair. No matter how Miya splits the list up, she never seems to-

Loneliness, like a needle to the heart. Not good enough. Not strong enough. Never strong enough....

Tsukiumi’s loneliness. Each of his Sekirei had their own sense in his heart, their emotions bubbling through the bond to muddle up his own. Tsukiumi ebbed and surged like the tide. Matsu was a crisp, clean flow, like the electrons she loved to tangle. Kusano bloomed and folded like a flower, and Musubi was heavy as a bear, that could hug you to death with its claws.

He could shut them out if he tried; probably a lot of Ashikabi did, in sheer self-defense against that onslaught of not-me. Part of him wondered if he should just shut them out. Minato still couldn’t shake a twinge of that utter terror he’d felt, the day he’d realized Musubi wanted to protect him and he wanted her to.

He was a guy, damn it. He was supposed to be the one who did the protecting.

But he was a normal guy in the middle of super-powered fights, and trying to forget that and act like a guy just led to everybody getting hurt. Him, because he couldn’t take a Sekirei one on one, not for more than a few seconds of surprise. The others, because they were trying to rescue their idiot Ashikabi from whatever he’d jumped into. Because they loved him. Because they wanted to. Because they had to.

Kill the Ashikabi, kill the Sekirei.

That’s what the hard-eyed scientist who’d locked death onto his wrist had murmured, before he’d smirked and vanished out the clinic door. Minato had still been in shock when Tsukiumi had showed up to walk him home.

He hadn’t told her, or Musubi. He couldn’t bear it. He had told Matsu, hoping against hope it wasn’t true, and anyway she might know some kind of electronic trick to ditch the tracker so they’d never have to worry about it....

“It could be true.” The redhead had taken off her glasses. “The bond between an Ashikabi and a Sekirei is empathic and biological. The first mucosal contact exchanges our DNA. You’re in us, and we’re in you.” Red eyes had narrowed at the electronic death riding his wrist. “As for this... I’m going to have to do some research.”

It could be true.

He was just an ordinary guy. Minato knew that. Not somebody like the heroes and supervillains that showed up on the news sometimes, calling down lightning or smashing buildings to rubble or flying through the sky in high-tech armor. Just an out of school, almost out of work ronin, trying to stay alive.

But sometimes it felt like normal guy was slipping through his fingers like sand. Four heartbeats depended on his heart to keep beating. They had to protect him to survive, and he....

I want them to protect me. It feels... warm. Safe.

Musubi’s first kiss had winged her. Minato had a sinking feeling it’d done something to him as well, beyond Matsu’s clinical mucosal exchange of DNA. Flipped some crucial circuit in his brain upside-down, or thrown some switch he’d never known could exist. He wanted his Sekirei to be happy. Even if it made him look like an idiot. Even if it made him look like... not a guy. Sekirei didn’t care if he was a guy, just like Kusano hadn’t cared that he was so much older. To them, he wasn’t a guy. He was their Ashikabi.

How much of that is being Sekirei, and how much is Minaka’s damn game?

He didn’t know. Without the Sekirei Plan he could have at least tried to be normal, even with Sekirei literally crawling out of the walls to make him their Ashikabi-

And that made Tsukiumi’s loneliness cut even deeper. She hadn’t gone looking for him. She hadn’t wanted an Ashikabi. She’d stalked his dreams and threatened to kill him. And he’d gone looking for her anyway. Because he was an Ashikabi, and he had to protect his Sekirei, and the best way to do that was to gather up any other powerful allies he could.

And because he couldn’t let Seo claim her. He couldn’t. Tsukiumi was his. Crazy as it seemed, and fighting Seo one on one would probably have left him in pieces, what had he been thinking....

Simple, Minato told himself, wincing at the truth. You weren’t. You saw her. She reacted. You had to fight for her.

...Ashikabi are all crazy.

And now Tsukiumi was lonely, and it was all his fault.

So what am I going to do about it?

He chewed, and swallowed in a throat gone dry. There had to be a way he could help, could fix this-

“Thou shouldst not have thine unworthy hand so near upon him-!”

Minato wasn’t sure who hit who. Maybe a better man would have cared. He was in the middle of a three-Sekirei pileup, Matsu was giggling in the background, and everything hurt. “Stop it! All of you, stop fighting now!

“Why Minato.” Miya had her ladle in hand, and a deceptively sweet smile on her face. “You know rude words at the dinner table are strictly forbidden.”

Strands of lavender hair waved in a sudden waft of energy, the demon-mask appearing at her shoulder with a wail of haunted flutes. Terror shook him like a cat playing with a mouse; he wanted to just curl up and die....

No.

A whisper of a thought as he flinched back, shivering with fear. Frail as a paper airplane against the sky.

No. I’ve been afraid before. When I knew Minaka’s game was fight or die. When I thought Musubi was dead. When I thought all of us were going to die.

Maybe I’m not much of a man. Maybe I’ll always be afraid. But I’m their Ashikabi, and this has to stop!

Shaking, Minato backed away from the table, and bowed to Miya. “N-no shopping race tomorrow. It’s going to be Tsukiumi’s turn.”

“What?” blasted his ears, almost drowning out Tsukiumi’s tentative, “Mine husband?”

Minato kept his gaze on the floor mats, trying not to pass out as one hannya mask seemed to shiver and split into three, all rolling demonic eyes with an ominous clack of wood blocks.

“Now, that wouldn’t be appropriate at all,” Miya said sweetly. “In Izumo Inn, those who do not work, do not eat.”

“Then make... the competition... about something else,” Minato got out. “Extra mochi. Who gets to spar with you first. Something that’s not me.” Don’t pass out. Just keep breathing. “S-sorry, Landlady. But if I can’t pick who I sit with at dinner, then... I’ll have to find somewhere else to eat. I can’t let everybody keep fighting like this! Not when we could all die.” He swallowed hard. “And if I have to find somewhere else, then no one gets to eat with me. Because Matsu’s in danger when she leaves the Inn, and that wouldn’t be fair....”

Words choked in his throat. Everything inside him was shrieking that the monster was here, right here, and he was about to die.

Oh. Five masks. Haven’t seen that many before....

And maybe the kami were merciful, because darkness rolled over his vision like a storm, and he knew no more.


“Passed out right there on the floor,” Matsu said clinically, as Kagari tried to shake off disturbing images of Miya’s demon-masks. “Technically, he lost. But he brought everything he had to a battle of wills, and he went down still fighting. Miya hasn’t said a word, but she hasn’t demanded a shopping race since.”

Damn. Kagari had thought dinner had been a little more peaceful than usual these past few nights. He just hadn’t put his finger on why.

They’re switching off who gets to sit with Minato. He’s making them take turns.

Sahashi. He meant Sahashi. Damn it.

Minato Sahashi had faced down Miya. And he’d missed it. “He’s a brave kid,” Kagari murmured.

“He’s a brave young man.” Matsu adjusted her glasses. “He just needs a little more time to grow into it.”

Aha. He knew he’d heard sneaky in her voice. “A kid going gray at nineteen.” Kagari straightened. “Matsu, what are you doing to him?”

“Me?” Matsu said innocently. “Premature gray runs in his family-”

“Takami went gray years ago because Takehito adjusted her,” Kagari cut her off. “Like he adjusted everyone who had to work with scared young Sekirei, so they wouldn’t be as fragile as regular humans. But Takehito’s dead and you’re no doctor, Matsu. Sahashi’s my friend. What are you doing to him?”

Matsu took the glasses off. “He has nightmares about the bridge, you know. About all of us dying. He tries to keep them to himself. But sometimes at night his hold on the bond slips, and they spill over into all of us. The look on his face, when little Kuu wakes up screaming....”

A chill went down Kagari’s spine. “That can happen?”

“Minato’s a strong Ashikabi,” Matsu nodded. “His empathic ability is stronger than any other Ashikabi I’ve been able to scan. He found Kusano by following a vision, and Tsukiumi... well, if he hadn’t already formed a bond with her in dreams, I doubt she would have let him live long enough to talk, much less touch her.”

Ouch. Good point. The Water Sekirei had been adamant that she would slay the Ashikabi that had the effrontery to make her body react- wait. “He talked to her?” Kagari said, incredulous. “I thought it was instinct. That an Ashikabi couldn’t help but want.”

There went Matsu’s insinuating grin. “Oh, he wanted her. If Miya weren’t around, the things we’d do-”

“Matsu!”

The hacker Sekirei wiped away drool, and tried for an innocent smile. “Minato may not look like much, but he really does think things through. Our bonds are strong because we care about each other. Without that, no one would have survived the Discipline Squad. When he went to find Tsukiumi, it wasn’t to bring back another Sekirei. It was to give her a choice.” Red eyes shone, oddly fond. “Sure, he wants mad wild sex. He’s a teenager. But he’s smart enough to realize that we mean it when we say we’re not leaving. So it’s better to be friends, first.”

A friend. Kagari’s heart hurt. He liked talking to Minato, even if the kid was a little soft-spoken and wishy-washy. So he wasn’t pushy and confident, sure the rest of the world would fall at his feet the moment he figured out how he’d make his mark on it. Minato was better than pushy. He was reliable.

Bath needs to be washed, he makes sure it gets done. Groceries need to be carted home? He reminds Musubi not to do tricky jumps with the eggs. Kuu needs attention, and she’s a kid, she always needs attention... he’s the one who got the secondhand grade school books, so she can learn just like a human girl.

Bonding to an Ashikabi who wanted a friend instead of a super-powered playing piece. That would be....

“He really is a strong Ashikabi.” Matsu nudged her glasses. “Maybe strong enough that you-”

“Don’t change the subject!” Kagari shot back, all too conscious of what lay hidden under his shirt. “He’s a guy.” Damn it, Minato, why couldn’t you have been a girl? “A human guy, Matsu, you can’t be sure what you’re doing!”

“Maybe I can’t!” Matsu’s eyes were bright; were those tears? “But Takami has no clue what she’s doing!”

He could not have heard that right. “What?”

Matsu shifted from foot to foot, indecisive. Sighed, and tapped one of her keyboards to bring up a file with Minato’s name on it.

A lot of medical jargon; Kagari winced at the parts he understood. “He got hurt on the bridge.”

“He got very hurt on the bridge.” Lenses cast back the monitor glow like tiger eyes in the night. “A normal human would have been hospitalized for weeks. He walked out in three days.”

Kagari shook his head. Takami wouldn’t hurt people. She helped them; even if her help sometimes just didn’t work. “Ashikabi are tougher-”

“Once they bond with a Sekirei? Yes. They are. But not that tough.” Matsu scrolled down. “This was buried under encryption.”

“Treatment Chi authorized,” Kagari read, puzzled. “What’s that?”

“Ended up being a weird abbreviation for Cnidaria.” Matsu brought up an image of a tiny green water creature, tentacles and a long column of body like a coral polyp out of its reef. “One of a larger group that includes the hydra.”

Great, more biology he really didn’t want to know-

No. “Hydra,” Kagari got out. “As in HYDRA? The idiots who attacked Kamikura Island, years ago?”

Matsu scrutinized him, intrigued. “I’d heard they were telling the kids horror stories about them... Takami told you?”

“Some,” Kagari admitted. “She said MBI security should keep them out of the city until all the feathers are winged. But she wanted me to watch, in case they did try to kidnap a Sekirei, or even an Ashikabi.”

“Well, I’m going to tell you more. Including some files I hacked from other countries.” Cool blue light gleamed off Matsu’s glasses. “Specifically, an organization called SHIELD.”

Ten minutes later Kagari was sitting down, images of wildly mutated bodies reeling through his mind. For once, his own problems looked almost small. “That was... those were... that guy had wings. And those things breaking Harlem....”

“MBI has kept HYDRA away from us,” Matsu reflected. “I have to say I’m grateful. If they’d gotten even one of our siblings to keep - it would have been bad.” She pointed at the wreck of Harlem. “This is one of the things that can happen when humans try to make something like a Sekirei. A ‘super soldier’, they call it. Lucky for all of us, Takami didn’t go anywhere near that strain of the stuff.” A few more mouse-clicks. “But she did go near this one.”

“The Red Room?” Kagari muttered, looking over the file of a woman still young, beautiful, and deadly after what the file claimed were decades of a truly frightening line of work. “Matsu, these years - they can’t be right.”

“The people who put these files together think they are,” Matsu observed. “From what I’ve seen around Minato, I think they stumbled on what it looks like our species does naturally. Once we’ve matured, we store a healthy body template as an energy form, so the cells always know what state to return to.” She leaned into the screen, as if she’d like to grab the information and strangle it into making sense. “But HYDRA’s work has been hit or miss every time. For every successful result, they’ve had hundreds die horribly. I think - I’m not sure, but I think - Takami took the most tame, controllable version she could find, and then used Takehito’s techniques to... tweak it.”

“And used it on Sahashi?” Kagari’s mouth was dry. Never in a million years would he have thought Takami would do that. Yes, MBI experimented on Sekirei, but she and Takehito had tried to help.

“There’s evidence of a previous test subject in the files. I haven’t tracked her down yet,” Matsu stated. “But - yes. She did.”

Takami experimented on her son. Like she and Takehito experimented on... me.

The scientists had meant to help him. He had to believe Takami had been trying to help Minato. But this... this was scary. “Do you-” He had to work up spit to swallow. “Do you know what it did to him?”

“I’m not sure,” Matsu said grimly. “I’m not sure if it’s done doing things to him, either.”

Of course. “Gray hair.”

“Actually, I think that’s me,” Matsu admitted.

Fire flared on Kagari’s fingertip. “Talk.”

Matsu held up hands to shield her hair. “I have Takehito’s notes on adjusting Takami.”

That was a surprise. “You do? Why?”

“I stole data on all the adjustments before I got away.” For once, Matsu was dead serious. “In case more things went wrong, the way... Number Seven went wrong.”

Akitsu. The despairing look on the Scrapped Number’s face still gave Kagari the chills. And not just because she’d frozen him.

“With this data, maybe someday we can find researchers who aren’t MBI, who can help her.” Matsu gave him an up and down look. “I’ve been using it to help you, as much as I can. I’m not Takehito. I can’t create a specific effect in an Ashikabi, the way he did with Seo. I can’t fix - whatever Takami did.”

“But?” Kagari didn’t take his eyes off her.

“...I might have just told him they were guided meditation exercises? To clear his head?” The hacker’s grin was manic, and just a little fragile.

“Matsu!” He wasn’t literally on fire, not yet, but it wouldn’t take much. Smoking, he headed for the door.

“No, no, no! You can’t tell him!” Matsu grabbed his shoulder, regardless of the shimmering heat. “Homura, please! There’s a good reason, I swear!”

The hacker almost never said please. “I’m listening,” Kagari said curtly.

“Whatever they used for this super soldier setup, whatever Takami modified, it’s not the same as adjustment tech,” Matsu stated, talking fast. “We work from the aural energy pattern to the physical realm, and the DNA takes care of itself from there. HYDRA took a chemical sledgehammer to the entire body. No wonder things got messy. Takami - I think she managed something a little bit gentler. Something that got into cells and got them to change themselves; like installing a new program in your computer, instead of smashing up the hardware and hoping it makes new circuits that work better.”

Kagari thought that over. He wasn’t a biologist any more than Matsu was, but it did sound like something Takami would try. “But?”

“Chemical, biological, or aural, there’s a mental aspect to the results,” Matsu replied. “All the techniques amplify what’s already there. Or what someone tells them should be there. Seo’s always been a lazy layabout; and Takehito left him alone while he was adjusted, so that didn’t change. Minato... he’s such a nice guy, only Takami doesn’t think of him that way at all, and if Musubi hadn’t been in the room with him after the bridge, with her bond insulating him - I don’t know what would have happened! I don’t know if something still could-!”

“You mean....” Kagari almost hugged himself, chilled. No way. That couldn’t make sense. That happened to Sekirei, not humans! “You think, if he’s too near someone who wants him to change - he will?”

“I don’t know!

The Information Sekirei didn’t know. It must be driving her crazy. Why, Takami? Why? “It’s not worth it,” Kagari said bitterly. “A little fast healing, for someone else able to choose who - what - you are, for the rest of your life? It’s bad enough for us-”

“It might be worse than it is for us.” Matsu rubbed at her face; and if she was swiping away tears, Kagari wasn’t going to call her on it. “Sekirei are only in flux for a few hours after winging; maybe two or three days, depending on how bad the hormone rush is....”

Kagari lost some of the bio-babble, hit by an odd rush of relief. Only a few days? Then - he’d know. One way or another, if he were ever winged, he’d finally know what he’d be.

If.

“-I think if we could wake up a terminated Sekirei, they’d be able to wing again; I hope so, if we can win and find them good, kind Ashikabi maybe we could help them. Not that that helps now-”

“Too bad Sahashi’s not a Sekirei,” Kagari mused, half to himself. “Get him winged, and he’d be safe.”

Matsu stopped talking.

Oh no.

Still silent, Matsu turned back to her computers. Tapped open some files, paragraphs of text flipping by. “...It might work.”

“He’s human,” Kagari protested weakly.

“But adjustments work on humans. At least on Ashikabi.” Matsu nudged her glasses. “I can’t fix what Takami did. But maybe we don’t have to. If we can corral it, contain it.... Adjustments work from the aura to the DNA. If we keep his energies stable, we can lock it down!”

Oh boy. He’d given her an idea. “How?” Kagari asked, fascinated despite himself. Watching Matsu come up with a plan was kind of like watching a cobra stalk a mouse.

“As far as I can tell, none of HYDRA’s experimental subjects had empathic links.” Matsu flipped through more files. “The SHIELD files are sketchy, but... it looks like the Hulk may have gotten himself under control when someone he cared about showed up.” She took a deep breath. “If we keep Minato surrounded by the flock, keep him away from Takami, we can buffer him. And I can keep working with him on controlling his aura. It’s not as easy for him as it is for us, but he is getting it.” She nodded to herself. “We’ll treat it like a brushfire. Encircle it, contain it - and stamp it out.”

Scary as Matsu with a plan was, it was better than those terrified tears. There was just one element she hadn’t factored into her equations. “You have to tell him.”

The redhead was shaking her head. “I already told you-”

“It’s his body, Matsu! He has to know.” Kagari eyed her, and played his trump card. “Even if he hasn’t noticed what Takami did - and I wouldn’t count on that, he’s innocent, not dumb - he’s going to notice the adjustments. You know that.” He gave her a steady glare. “You say it’s tied to emotions. If he doesn’t know what’s going on, if he doesn’t know you’re trying to help... what if he gets scared, and thinks he’s turning into a monster?” A monster like me. Damn you, Minaka! Though it looks like you could have done something even worse.

“...You’re right.” Matsu pushed her glasses up, thinking. “He’s working hard on the exercises. If they work, it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to stabilize everything. He’ll be safe then-”

Kagari shook his head. “A lot can happen in a few weeks.”

Matsu winced, acknowledging the hit. “Then I’ll tell him. After he gets back from shopping.”

It was a start. “And when are you going to tell him it’s not gray at all?” Kagari stroked a finger through his own short hair. The same supernaturally pale hair he’d seen on every male feather. Sekirei silver.

“When he’s safe,” Matsu said firmly. “I don’t know what Takami’s after, but I don’t want some super soldier. I want Minato! He’s our Ashikabi. He’s the one we need. Not because he’s strong on the outside. Because he’s strong where it matters, in his heart. We need him just the way he is.” Red eyes caught fire. “And Takami almost broke that, just so he could be stronger than Minaka.”

“Then maybe she’s not as smart as she thinks.” Kagari took a breath, clearing away images of myths and monsters with the memory of Minato’s kind smile. “He’s the strongest person in the world. Just ask Kusano.”

Matsu glanced up at him. “Maybe strong enough that-”

“No,” Kagari said firmly.

“You’re his friend! You could help him.” Matsu held out her hand, beseeching. “You could help each other.”

“No,” Kagari repeated, determined. “I’m... I’m not right, Matsu. The last thing he needs is me in his head. Not with this happening to him too.”

Putting on a host’s smile, he slipped out of the hidden room. He was telling the truth. Minato didn’t deserve his mess on top of Takami’s. Anyway, he was fine. He was.

Maybe if I found Yukari... she’s Minato’s sister, she has to be a strong Ashikabi. And she’s a girl. It might work.

But part of him didn’t want to find Yukari. It was silly and stupid and he knew better, but-

I want my Ashikabi to find me. Takehito said the real power they had, was the power of fate. He was right about so much. It’s not fair if he’s not right about this.

Just this once... I want to be the one who’s saved.


...Ow.

Minato stared up at the clinic ceiling, trying to think about how much he hurt. Which was dumb and he knew it, you healed faster if you weren’t stressing yourself out over having half a warehouse collapse on top of you, not to mention all the claws, kicks, and punches that had hit him before then-

And he would rather go ten more rounds with Benitsubasa than deal with what had just walked out of his room. The Red Sekirei hated him. He was human and he was weak and he’d dared to fight back anyway. Twice. And he was her key to tangling with Musubi again. Of course she’d grabbed him and hurt him. It made sense.

“I don’t actually work for a pharmaceutical company.”

Takami had lied to him. His mom had been lying to him since... well, as long as he could remember.

His mom was neck-deep in the Sekirei Plan. With people fighting and dying and being torn apart from the people they’d learned to love. It was crazy. It was awful. It was-

So like Mom.

Takami Sahashi didn’t believe in love. Hormones, she’d growl, if you dared to bring it up. Biochemical reactions determined to perpetuate the species, even when the individuals involved shouldn’t be allowed within cattle-prod range of anyone under nineteen. She was doing her family a favor by not being there.

So you raised Sekirei instead of us. Minato clapped a hand against his aching forehead. Way to go, Mom.

And she’d done him the favor of telling Yukari he couldn’t make it to their meeting. Without, he was guessing, telling Yukari what had really happened. After all, Yukari wasn’t in the Sekirei Plan. How would he ever explain?

The truth, damn it. I got kidnapped by a crazy lady and the warehouse fell in on me and I don’t care if caring about people is just “hormones and society”. I want to see my sister!

It hurt to move. It hurt to not move, so what was the difference?

Gingerly, he got up enough to peer at the bedside. Yep, landline phone; hospitals still had them, even if they were archaic. Cell phones around delicate life-saving equipment was a no.

Moving carefully, he levered the handset off and poked out Yukari’s number.

“Who’s this?”

“Yukari?” Deep breath. “I couldn’t make it to meet you-”

“I know that, dummy. Mom called and said you were flaking off-”

“I’m in the hospital for a concussion.” Talk fast. “I’d really like to see you.”

“I... a concussion? Minato? What the heck?”

“A building fell on me.” Keep breathing. “Could we talk about it when you get here?”

“...Only you, Minato. Where are you?”

He gave her the directions, sipping water for a throat gone dry. Held onto the smooth plastic cup, wanting the touch of something solid, as he laid back against the pillows. Ow. People were going to be waking him up every hour anyway, maybe he could doze a bit....

“Minato?”

“Yukari?” He had to blink at her as she stood in the doorway. “Sorry. I got hit pretty hard. You look... sparkly....”

There was a familiar black band on her left wrist.

Yukari’s wearing a tracker.

Yukari’s an Ashikabi.

Mom knows.

Clutched in his hand, the cup shattered.


Trust Minato to walk out of the hospital needing more bandages, Kagari recalled now, as his Ashikabi tried to lay the pieces out. He’d heard Minato practicing some of what he wanted to say, but only once; Matsu was good with electronics but at least one of Higa’s Sekirei might be just as good. And if Minaka heard even a whisper of their plan, it’d all fall apart.

“When I saw we were both tagged... I couldn’t say anything,” Minato managed. “Because if I started, I wouldn’t stop.”

“You were weirdly quiet.” Yukari propped her elbows on her knees, peering at him. “So it wasn’t a building that fell on you. It was a Sekirei.”

“It was both.” Kazehana handed around cups of water, sitting back down with her own. “Benitsubasa and Haihane can do a lot of damage. Your brother pushed me out of the way before half the place came down.”

Yukari blinked, fingers brushing Shiina’s hair as she stared at Minato. Shiina leaned back against her, eyes half-closed in comfort at the closeness.

“When I got back to the Inn... that’s when Matsu told me what Mom did to me,” Minato went on. “And when she looked you up, and found out you and Shiina were on your own - I asked Matsu to search your medical records. And I was right.”

“Right about what?” Yukari demanded. “What do you think Mom did?”

“I don’t think. I know,” Minato said firmly. “Mom thought... I don’t know what she thought. Maybe that she was helping. Maybe that the odds were so bad, nothing she did would hurt. Whatever she thought - she experimented on us, Yukari. With something she knew did horrible things to people.”

Kusano was huddled against him; Kagari felt the pulse of :reassurance, safe now,: Minato wished them all.

His Ashikabi took a breath. “You’ve heard about the Hulk, right?”

“The monster that smashed up Harlem a few years ago? Who hasn’t?” Yukari drew closer to Shiina. “What’s that got to do with us?”

“Not a monster,” Matsu said firmly, handing Yukari a tablet. “A human man, altered by biotechnology and gamma research. And a variant on that, is what Takami used on you.”

Glancing over some of the pictures, Yukari paled. “She wouldn’t.” She looked at Seo, as if appealing for support in the face of her brother’s bout of insanity. “Come on, she’s a responsible scientist. She wouldn’t!”

“Responsible scientist, huh?” Seo said wryly. “Takehito was a responsible MBI scientist. Everybody said so. Then one day I woke up strapped to a table while he went to work.” He covered each of the twins’ hands with his own, and squeezed gently. “I love you girls, but we kind of got off to a rough start.”

“We wanted you,” Hibiki said firmly. “I’m not sorry.”

“Hey, me neither; even if I probably could power half the grid with your zaps,” Seo grinned. Then turned on that sudden, utterly serious look the freeloader only brought out for the big guns. “Yukari. MBI is nuts. I tried not to think about it too much because hell, locked into Shinto Teito, not much in the way of options. But they are nuts. And no matter how sane your mom is or isn’t, she’s working with people who think DNA is like Legos; let’s see what jamming together these pieces do.” He sighed, long and loud. “And I probably would have gone on trying not to think about it, if your brother hadn’t dragged me into Matsu’s room by my ear and showed me a plan.”

“A plan,” Yukari said in disbelief. “Are you trying to tell me an alien invasion was a plan?

“No,” Minato said fervently. “It really, really wasn’t. If it had been, I’m not sure I could have done this, those things were scary....” He gulped, and looked up again. “The problem was getting out of Shinto Teito. We couldn’t. I looked, Matsu looked, Seo looked; all of us did. Even if we could get the trackers off, and get past the guards - the Discipline Squad is too strong. We’d be dead.” He brushed Musubi’s arm, and calmed. “We couldn’t get out. So we had to get Minaka to get us out.”

“You had to....” Yukari shook her head. “But - it was Minaka who said whoever brought back the Tesseract could get out of the game.”

“Somebody said once, never plan based on what your enemy thinks,” Minato said softly. “You can’t control what he thinks. Plan on what he’s going to do.” The elder sibling shrugged. “Minaka loves alien tech. Matsu dropped hints of where some was - and that you’d need a small army to pry it out of SHIELD’s hands. He did the rest.”

Yukari drew back. “Minaka’s not an enemy.”

Kagari snorted.

“He hurt my Sekirei,” Minato said bluntly. “He left Kuu in the middle of the city and told every Ashikabi to come get her. A kid, Yukari! He did the same thing when Kagari was the last one left - and Kagari was sick, Yukari, he couldn’t have fought off someone like Higa! Minaka is our enemy, he’s all our enemy, and I am going to stop this sick little game if I have to do it over his dead body!”

“But - he’s....”

Kagari glared at her. I know what you’re going to say. And if you say it, I’m going to fry something.

“This is nuts,” Yukari muttered. “This is... I’m getting out of here!”

Damn! Kagari was on his feet, Tsukiumi coiling water around her hand to snatch the younger Ashikabi back-

Shiina was already on her heels. “Don’t worry. I’ll look after her.”


Shiina breathed in damp and green under translucent glass, looking out over a city sinking into evening. “Kuu’s going to love this place.”

“Yeah. I guess.” Yukari was fingering a tiny green citrus fruit; pumelo fluttered on an orange banner from one leafy branch. “I can’t believe he did this!”

Shiina tried to pick through the mix of :worry, embarrassment, surprise,: radiating from his Ashikabi. “Minato?”

“...Minato. Right.” Yukari sighed, stepping back onto the springy woven mats that made paths through the glassed-in arbor. “I guess, if someone hurt you the way Kusano and Homura were hurt, I wouldn’t want to listen either.”

“Someone did hurt you,” Shiina said fiercely, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “And whoever it was, I don’t want to listen to them, either.”

:Fear. Shame.: “But it doesn’t make sense. Mom always said I was good enough.”

:Beloved,: Shiina sent back, intense. :My Ashikabi!: “You are good enough. It’s not your fault we were alone! But we have a flock now, if you want them. We can protect each other. And if this gray, this hate that keeps creeping through your energy isn’t yours, then....”

Leaning in, Shiina kissed her.

Mine. Beloved. Whole.

Wings of silvery energy formed behind him, as the kiss unlocked power inside them both. He could sense everything his Ashikabi was, and everything she feared. Normally he would take that strength and turn it into a Norito, devastating their enemies.

Tonight, he had a different target.

Reach in. Find the frayed spots, the dimmer glows. Make them stronger.

He’d seen Minato do this with Kusano the first day they’d all been together in Izumo Inn; just reach out to his sister’s skinned knee and help it mend. Shiina couldn’t do that. Not yet. But Kusano was his sister and Minato was her Ashikabi, and he could watch how energy moved around them both.

He couldn’t just do this with a touch. His power was death; working life was almost like trying to tie himself into knots. And, well... Takami had told him how Sekirei could help their Ashikabi mend and grow stronger, but he hadn’t had a lot of chances to practice. Through all their fights, Shiina had managed to keep Yukari unharmed; or more accurately, she’d usually managed to keep him in one piece.

But he’d read over Yukari’s shoulder before she stormed out. According to Matsu, the serum was a little like Sekirei powers. It responded to emotions. And before he’d been injected, Minato had had his Sekirei broken and bleeding around him. The older Ashikabi had desperately wanted to heal.

I’ll watch him. I’ll ask him to teach me. Yukari needs this.

The wings faded, and Yukari blinked down at him, startled.

Shiina gave her a shy smile. “It’s not all bad, what she did. You glow. Right here.” He tapped her shirt just above her breastbone, careful not to press more than the gentlest touch there. It was hard to tell with all the manga and fingers wiggling suggestively near her brother’s Sekirei, but Shiina thought Yukari was shyer than she realized. “It’s pretty. Sparkles of fire and wind and strong-”

Sparkles. A net of energy, just a little more intense right there. Feeling young and feathery and not quite hatched. Almost as if....

Eyes wide, Shiina flattened his palm right below her buttoned collar.

“...Shiina?” Yukari wasn’t moving. But she was shivering.

I can’t blame her, Shiina thought, eyes full of wonder. If she can feel it - it’s so new. “Yukari, you... you have a core.”

 

Chapter Text

“Avengers. We have a problem.”

“What’s this we stuff, SHIELD man?” Tony grumbled, glancing out one of his office windows to the wreckage the Chitauri had left strewn all over New York. Yesterday they’d beat the bad guys, saved the good guys, and kept the Big Apple from glowing in the dark. Today they’d just seen off Thor, the Tesseract, and his possibly brainwashed and definitely crazy adopted little brother. That didn’t mean the important stuff was over. “City to fix, huge spacewhale thingies to sample and incinerate, TV-grabbing philanthropy to do.” Not to mention an agent to mourn. Damn Loki; Coulson had been worth five of Fury, any day.

“My team could use some downtime, Director.” Steve Rogers’ words were all Captain America-polite, but the tone made Tony perk up with the prospect of imminent Fury-smackdown. Bruce looked tired, but not as bad as he had before their impromptu shawarma-fest. Barton and Black Widow... huh. Their faces had a careful blank of I might be interested but the boss may have bigger fish to fry. Which meant they knew something. Maybe.

“This should be a search and locate mission, Captain. No combat involved. All you need is a briefing.” Inserting a portable drive into one of the available computer ports, Fury gave Tony an eyepatched glare. “Assuming you haven’t hacked these already, Stark.”

“From the file properties, I can assure you Mr. Stark has never hacked these particular files, Director,” Jarvis stated.

Really? Tony tried not to bounce in anticipation. SHIELD had something he hadn’t poked? This should be good; he’d been sure Jarvis had-

And Tony ran his AI’s phrasing back through his head, and pulled on his best poker face. Oh, this was going to be interesting. Maybe life-threatening; scratch that, definitely life-threatening, this was Fury. But he was not going to be bored today.

A hologram blazed into life; an overhead shot of a small, young volcanic island. “Kamikura Island,” Fury stated. “Uplifted about twenty-one years ago some distance off the coast of Japan. Originally explored by two grad students; Takami Sahashi, and Hiroto Minaka.”

Uh-oh. “Minaka,” Tony stated. “MBI Minaka?”

Bruce seemed to hunch in on himself. “You know him?”

“I tend to know the guys in my tax bracket,” Tony said wryly. “Especially the ones who put up laser kill-sats. Which, I’m guessing, Japan is kind of regretting right now. I tried to warn them, but noooo, nobody listens to the gaijin warmonger.” He waggled a curious brow at their resident gamma ray expert. “Cutting edge medicine and biotech, working on cracking the whole mutant/mutate gene complex, of course you looked into them. Then you got close enough to hear the maniacal laughter and the prophecies of Nostradamus and decided you’d be better off with the guys with tanks chasing you. Right?”

“Ah....” Bruce blinked.

“Good judgment call, Dr. Banner,” Fury smirked. “Minaka isn’t exactly a model of mental stability.”

“By which he means, bag of cats marinated in astrology with an end-of-the-world-is-nigh chaser,” Tony summed up. Oh, this was going to be bad.

Fury was giving him the Look of Crabby Annoyance. “The technical term is megalomaniac, Stark.”

“Which is what he said, with less words,” Barton quipped. “What’d he do, sir?”

Fury scowled at the image of the island. “He’s apparently let loose about eighty alien metahumans in New York.”

Say what?

Widow’s shoulders straightened. “The Sekirei?”

Fury nodded once. “You know the details.”

“The basic background,” Natasha said clinically. “The fact that the DNA was human-compatible was of great interest to many organizations. And the level of fatalities sustained in any attempted assault on the island was of even greater interest.” She poked her fingers into the hologram, expanding it.

Steve drew in a quick breath, and said what they were all thinking. “A spaceship?

“Minaka found just over one hundred alien organisms inside, in stasis,” Natasha informed them. “He was able to conceal this for years, bringing in another genius, Takehito Asama, who helped him build MBI as we know it today. Then, about a decade ago, HYDRA apparently discovered that Kamikura was more than just Minaka’s privately-owned piece of rock.”

The video that opened was, frankly, scary. As a former professional maker of things that went impressively boom, Tony thought he was qualified to judge scary.

The shot seemed to be from one of several advancing helicopters; as it swung over the sea, he could see the carrier the choppers had come off of. On land already - yeah, had to be HYDRA, that was a stupid way to put an assault force together - were tanks, infantry, and more helicopters leading the way. On the cliffs of the island, waiting, were five gray-cloaked figures.

It was a slaughter.

Swords flashed. Blood flew. Tanks were crushed as the island spawned mini-quakes around them. The camera jerked back toward the sea-

Bisected by an invisible cleaver, the support ship sank into oily waves.

The camera jerked around again, then tumbled, as if the helicopter had been caught in an instant tornado-

Black.

“Hopelessly, hilariously outgunned,” Fury said grimly.

“Five of them did that to HYDRA?” Steve whistled. “Wow.”

“I’m guessing you didn’t leave it at that,” Tony said, mind racing. How had he missed this mess? Granted, ten years back he’d been in the weapons and high society whirl, without a clue SHIELD even existed. But wow was right. Why hadn’t anybody dropped him a note? Alien tech, for goodness’ sake.

Which explained a lot about MBI’s meteoric rise in the medical tech field. Even a genius worked better with proof something could be done.

“SHIELD didn’t. Neither did HYDRA,” Natasha acknowledged. “Every other attack was repelled. I understand SHIELD tried a more diplomatic approach.”

Oh, Tony could see this one coming. He waved his hands like a magician. “Let me. You asked Minaka, pretty please can we share your shiny new alien toys. And he laughed in your face and told you it was some awesome plan of the gods, shoo, go away.”

“You’ve met,” Fury said dryly.

“Hey, when I notice the crazy, it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge,” Tony shrugged. “But crazy isn’t stupid, so I’m guessing you two came to some kind of arrangement.”

“We wanted access to the Sekirei and the spaceship,” Fury acknowledged. “Failing that, we wanted to avoid their falling into hostile hands. Minaka did that.”

Steve frowned at the still shots Natasha had abstracted from the video. One showed a flow of gray cloak and hair as a bloody blade bisected an unlucky HYDRA lackey. “Until today?”

“Until yesterday,” Fury corrected him, as Natasha brought up an array of official paperwork, shimmering blue-tinted holographic white. “MBI jets landed at Kennedy International two hours before the Chitauri dropped in.”

Visas, Tony recognized on the image. Passports. Lots of pretty girls with Japanese names, most of whom didn’t look Japanese at all, even if you ignored the ones with pink and purple hair. “You let them in! There’s no way you didn’t know - you set this up to get them here!”

...And Bruce was looking a little green around the eyes, not good-

“I was trying to save their lives.”

Of all the answers Tony had expected, that one hadn’t even made the list.

“HYDRA was going to attack them again?” Steve shifted his shoulders, getting ready to cream any goon stupid enough to drop into Tony’s office.

“HYDRA they could handle. It’s Minaka that’s the problem.” Fury gripped one fist at a time, obviously wanting to punch something himself. “After twenty years of relative sanity, the man is-” The commander of SHIELD had to stop, and take an angry breath.

Natasha’s lips pursed in a moue of distaste. “Minaka seems to believe the Sekirei are some sort of gladiators for the gods, fated to battle until only one of them is left standing. He’s started having them fight each other.”

Bruce’s hands flexed, probably making some of those super-secret calm-Hulk-down meditative moves he’d mentioned once. “How?”

Fury raised the unpatched eyebrow. “I would have thought you’d ask why, Dr. Banner. Given your past experience with living weapons of mass destruction.”

Oh, they were so not going there, Tony decided. “Why, we know. Minaka. Crazy. End of discussion. Move along to how. ‘Cause seriously, aliens with superpowers, kind of hard to mess with.”

Fury sighed, black leather losing just a little of its stiff angles.

“And here’s where you tell us it gets worse,” Tony concluded.

“It does.” The director dragged icons across the hologram to display another set of passport photos. This group had all brown and black hair, regular Japanese features; regular Japanese people, looked like, anywhere from their teens to their thirties. Ordinary, outside of two shifty-looking guys with pale hair, one kid with maybe-blond hair and another with an odd premature gray streak... wait a minute. Wasn’t Shifty One Izumi Higa? What was the heir to Higa Pharmaceuticals doing mixed up with aliens?

Fury looked at them all one more time, as if filing one of the super-rich into the category of problem was an everyday thing. Probably was, come to think. “About a third of the people you’re looking for are Japanese citizens. Not aliens.”

Steve frowned. “And what’s Japan going to say if SHIELD detains some of their people?”

“In this case? Thank Buddha they’re gone,” Fury said sourly. “MBI took over the Japanese capital for Minaka’s little game. They want it back. The minute these people partnered up with aliens, they made themselves part of the problem.”

“Partnered?” Bruce peered at the image.

“Sekirei are powerful metahumans, but agents recently uncovered information that they have a way to amplify their powers.” Natasha nodded toward the passports. “They find a compatible human, the MBI term is Ashikabi, and ‘wing’ - take a biochemical imprint from the human. Once a Sekirei is winged, their powers are enhanced.” Green eyes were harder than normal. “Preliminary findings indicate some kind of mental influence. Ashikabi have been reported as taking insane risks for their Sekirei.”

Barton was even more still than usual. Not good.

“But once a Sekirei picks a human to bond with, looks like they can’t switch.” Fury eyed the hologram as if he could glare holes in it. “So Minaka keeps a hold on them by controlling access to their power boosters.” He looked over the Avengers present. “I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence by saying we’re doing this out of the goodness of my heart. They’re aliens, and we’ve got no reason to trust them. But so far they haven’t attacked anyone who didn’t come after them first. And here and now, they’re out of Minaka’s hands. If you can find them, if you can talk to them, I want to know whose side they’re on.” The one eye darkened. “And if you can’t talk to them - I want to know that, too.”

For a moment, Fury looked just an eyeblink less than completely certain. “The odds might be on our side. Reports are still fragmentary, but it appears that we have at least five separate reliable eyewitness accounts of ‘Japanese mutants’ attacking the Chitauri and rescuing civilians. They did a lot of property damage in the process, the 51st precinct put a call in for lumberjacks....” Fury glanced over them, amused. “Given the present company, I doubt we have room to complain.”

Barton finally breathed. “Can they pick anyone in New York?”

Natasha scrolled through a side file. “Our information says the last Sekirei was winged about a week ago. No one else should be at risk.”

“Outside the obvious, with dozens of super-powered Japanese tourists in town,” Tony quipped. “Any suggestions how we should find these people? Preferably without following the explosions.”

“I don’t think we’re going to be the only ones looking,” Steve said thoughtfully.

“Correct, Captain.” Fury nodded, satisfied. “But you will be the people we call if SHIELD spots them before you do. Sekirei respect strength. You six might be our best chance at a successful negotiation.” He took another portable drive out of his longcoat, offering it to Bruce with an unshaken hand. “The information we have on Sekirei genetics and biochemistry, Dr. Banner. In case it comes in handy.”

Bruce hesitated, tempted. “You waited until Thor was gone to tell us about this.”

“I did.” Fury didn’t move a muscle. “I have reason to believe Minaka wanted the Tesseract. We just got it away from one lunatic with an alien army. I wasn’t about to have Chitauri, the sequel.”

“And the Asgardians are aliens.” Steve glanced over his team with a troubled look. “They might have met Sekirei before.”

“Which means we might want Thor here to talk to them,” Tony said impatiently. “You’re shaking your head at me. Why are you shaking your head at me?”

Barton coughed behind his hand, looking a little less brainwash-survivor and a little more like a SHIELD agent happy with the prospect of wreaking havoc. “Did you look at those pictures?”

“Pretty girls,” Tony admitted, waving a finger near right spot on the hologram to draw those back up. My, easy on the eyes, even the ones with weird hair colors. Though he thought he’d steer clear of the pink-haired slim one; she looked a little too bloodthirsty. “I stand corrected. Very pretty girls. Someone call Playboy, we’ll get them contracts and take them away from all this mad take over the world gig... Oh.” He threw an inquisitive look Natasha’s way, remembering some of their hammer-swinging pal’s comments. “Pretty girls don’t fight on Asgard?”

“According to Dr. Foster, proper ladies avoid the battlefield,” Natasha confirmed. Almost still, as if it didn’t matter at all.

Which means it does, and we’re going to have to talk to the blond beefcake about proper gender roles on earth, see flexibility of, Tony thought. Hid a nasty smile. I should sic Pepper’s secretarial pool on him.

“And if Asgardian ladies don’t fight, and Sekirei... well, they do. So wherever they’re from, Asgard might not be on friendly terms,” Steve added. “If we can talk to them first, then even if the two races would normally fight, we might be able to broker a truce.”

“Captain America is sneaky,” Tony grinned. “Be still, my beating heart.”

Steve reddened. “The Allies weren’t always just fighting with the Nazis, you know. The Commandoes kept it together, but the regular army - well, sometimes even the Brits didn’t want to talk to us Yanks. And God help you if the French quartermasters hit the same road your troops were on. They made New York cabbies look sane.”

Which was one of the first things Tony’d heard the guy say that admitted WWII wasn’t the Three Musketeers in cammo, all for one and one for all. If he wasn’t careful, he could get to like Steve.

Taking the bio data, Bruce looked thoughtful. “Thor wasn’t the only reason, was he? You wanted to see what they’d do.”

“There was the small matter of search and rescue on potentially millions of civilians.” Fury didn’t budge. “But you’re correct, Dr. Banner. I considered alerting you yesterday, even with the Tesseract still in play. Then people on the ground started finding these.” He held up a slick plastic card. Steve flinched.

Can’t blame him. “Company charge card,” Tony identified it for their twenty-first-century challenged friend. Not collectible cards. Not Coulson. “MBI, looks like. From the subtle bits of flash on it, it’s got a pretty high limit. Who loses that in the middle of Manhattan?”

“Someone who doesn’t want to be found.” Barton’s gaze was as fierce as Hawkeye’s namesake.

“I find dropping ties to Minaka promising evidence of some rationality and basic survival instincts,” Fury said dryly. “But one way or another, we are not letting literal illegal aliens loose in Manhattan.” He scowled at the hapless images. “One more thing.” A wave of fingers brought two of the Japanese passports back up. One was the teen with the gray streak, the other a girl maybe a year or so younger, with the same wide gray eyes. “We need these two brought in alive.”

Of course we’re going to bring kids in alive, you jerk- Tony’s brain belatedly analyzed more than just pictures and ages. “Minato and Yukari Sahashi? As in Takami Sahashi?”

“Son and daughter of one of MBI’s top researchers,” Natasha confirmed.

“You’ll probably have a harder time finding Yukari,” Fury observed. “She’s young, but she’s smart; got accepted to college before she got caught in this mess. And her Sekirei can apparently be lethal at close range.” The dark eye narrowed. “They call him the Grim Reaper.”

Wonderful names people came up with, Tony reflected. Something like that was just asking to turn the kid Darkside. “What about her brother?”

“Lazy punk. Failed the college entrance exams twice,” Fury shrugged. “Last info we have on him has him working construction part-time. He didn’t have the best attendance record. Cares about his sister, though, so watch that.”

Bruce frowned. “His mother’s a top researcher, and she can’t find him some job with the company?”

Natasha gave a ghost of a shrug. “Dr. Sahashi doesn’t spend much time with her children.”

Oh, that had all kinds of ugly implications. Tony counted to five before he spoke. “Please, please tell me SHIELD did not seriously consider using a lady’s kids as leverage.”

Natasha arched a red brow.

“...Of course you did,” Tony sighed. Looked at Steve.

Captain America was not a happy camper. “We can’t change what happened in the past. They’re here. They’re in trouble. We need to focus on that.” He tilted that blue glance at Natasha. “They’re here, and their mother isn’t?”

“She’s apparently involved in caring for Sekirei already injured by Minaka’s game,” Natasha reported. “We’ve considered approaching Dr. Sahashi in the past, there are some signs of disaffection with Minaka’s plan... but we obtained evidence that makes turning her unlikely.”

“Evidence?” Bruce frowned.

Tony felt unease creep its way through his neck hairs. “There’s no father listed.”

Steve rubbed the back of his head, glance sad and frustrated. “Yeah, Tony, sometimes that happens-”

“Uh-uh. Not to Takami Sahashi. That woman does control the way Agent Feathers over there does sharp pointy flying things. Believe me, she knows.” He pointed at Fury. “And you know. Spill.”

“DNA matches on both siblings go back to Takami Sahashi....” Fury drew out the pause, obviously enjoying himself. “And one Hiroto Minaka.”


He’s leaving. Bruce tried not to breathe a sigh of relief as he heard Jarvis announce Fury was safely descending in the elevator. Nick Fury didn’t scare him, exactly. But the commander of SHIELD always brought with him the potential for the kind of violence that would bring the Hulk out, and that did scare him. Even if Captain America had made sure the Other Guy’s destructive tendencies only hit targets that deserved to get smashed, this time... looking at a broken city made him sick to his stomach.

“Dr. Banner?”

“Bruce? Hey, chill, we’re good; he’s leaving the building.”

Tony’s AI and Tony, both sounding... concerned. For him. That hadn’t happened in a while.

“Dr. Banner, you may find it informative to know that while Director Fury is on the list of approved visitors to Stark Tower, he is only an approved visitor,” Jarvis stated. “He cannot enter these floors without permission from a current resident, and he will not be permitted entry without warning.”

“That’s... ah, nice?” Bruce said cautiously. It wasn’t as if he was going to be staying here. Things could get broken. Lab equipment. Buildings. People.

“Fury snuck into my house once,” Tony said firmly. “Didn’t like it then, still don’t like it now. So what do you think?”

“I think I’m going to need time to look over this data,” Bruce said, almost mildly. For one thing, aliens needing a member of another species to increase their power levels? It made no biological sense....

And he was concentrating on biology to keep from getting terribly, life-threateningly angry. Living weapons. Why did people keep doing that? All he wanted was to be left alone; but the Hulk was just too powerful for people to let him be.

The Sekirei didn’t attack until someone attacked them. What if all they want is to be left alone?

But if that were the case, they wouldn’t be fighting each other. Would they? “I think Fury left something critical out. Do you know what that might be?”

“I do not,” Tony said precisely. “Yet.” He glanced at Widow, then at Barton.

“Our mission seems pretty clear,” the archer noted. “Find and negotiate.” A flicker of a smirk. “It might get to aggressive negotiations.”

“I am so not building you a lightsaber,” Tony smirked back. “Though I ran into this manga with an archer... ooo. Jarvis? Make a note, cross-reference Hawkeye’s current arsenal with the Bleach wiki, see what we can pull off later.”

Barton clapped a hand over his face. “You wouldn’t.”

Jarvis cleared a nonexistent throat. “Agent Barton, may I advise you that invoking that particular phrase in Mr. Stark’s presence never ends well?”

“Thanks,” Barton said quietly. As if the AI’s no-nonsense tones reminded him of someone else entirely.

Coulson, Bruce realized. He hadn’t seen the agent much, but the cool barbs Coulson had traded with Widow had sounded a little like that. Only snarkier.

Barton shook it off, and threw a wordless glance at his surviving partner.

“We need more information,” Widow declared. “The source and extent of that information are not critical to the mission. And especially not to the post-mission report.” She gave Tony an unreadable look. “If there’s something Director Fury doesn’t officially know, he has reasons.”

“Works for now,” Tony allowed. “Jarvis? What else have we got?”

“First, an apology, Sir.” The AI sounded rueful. “When the extent of the situation first became clear, you were quite ill with palladium poisoning. As I still had hopes you would discover a solution, I chose to deter certain potentially life-threatening behaviors by not bringing the Sekirei to your attention.”

Bruce shook his head, not sure he’d heard that right. An AI chose to do that?

“Thought I’d suit up and go wreck Japan?” Tony looked amused at the idea.

“Giant robots rampaging through Tokyo are so cliché, Sir.”

Almost against his will, Bruce wanted to laugh. Oh, the look on Tony’s face....

“Also, I was lurking in the MBI servers for any medical information that might pertain to your condition,” Jarvis said more seriously. “Some did help, and I was loathe to risk your well-being by any obvious measures.”

Tony tapped his chest over the arc reactor. “I’m good now. Give.”

“With pleasure, sir.” The AI’s voice was relieved. “Director Fury’s tactical advice on the Sahashi siblings lacks some critical information.”

The two pictures moved up the image, more headshots appearing underneath them. One under Yukari; a young teenager, maybe sixteen by the bone structure Bruce could note, with silver-gray hair and eyes the same eerie shade. Under Minato-

Five. Bruce swallowed. Okay, we may have a problem.

“Shiina, Sekirei 107, is quite dangerous at close range,” Jarvis stated. “However, MBI reports make it clear Yukari is considered the more terrifying one of the pair. Those recovering from her assaults call her the ‘Devil Ashikabi’.”

“Devil?” Steve blinked at the sweet innocent girl just out of high school. “Why?”

In answer, Jarvis flipped up a medical chart, listing severe bruising, a dislocated jaw, and the need for emergency surgery to repair ruptured blood vessels in the perineum near the-

It’d been a long, long time since anyone had dared kick Bruce in the groin. He cringed anyway. There were pictures. Oh god, there were pictures. You wouldn’t think the skin down there could distend that much.

Natasha laughed out loud. “We should keep her.”

“If we can break her loose from the Reaper,” Barton said grimly. “That poor bastard with five in his head-”

“Agent Barton.” Jarvis’ voice was firm, with a hint of worry. “I am afraid this is one of the areas in which Director Fury is dealing in misinformation, or SHIELD is grossly under-informed. The bond between an Ashikabi and their Sekirei is not mind control.” A folder opened in the hologram, displaying a sad, white-haired young Japanese man in a turtleneck and labcoat, with deceased next to his picture. “According to Takehito Asama’s work on the Sekirei before his death, the bond is biochemical, empathic - and fully two-way.”

Bruce scanned paragraphs of biological research, and hated the fact that he’d never get a chance to speak to this man. “Ashikabi are latent empaths?”

“Takehito found that Sekirei powers are strongly tied to their emotional state,” Jarvis informed them. “Past a certain point in their development, most Sekirei apparently need an Ashikabi to stabilize their powers, or risk serious health consequences, up to and including death. Contact with a Sekirei activates the Ashikabi’s empathy and stabilizes the Sekirei.” A pause. “May I suggest, Ms. Romanov, that when a pretty girl - as most Sekirei are - swears to a single young man that she needs him, and he can feel that is indeed the case, there may be far more basic reasons than mind control for them to protect each other.”

Bruce froze. Oh no. Not that. Anything but that!

“Super-powered teenagers in love.” Tony clapped a hand to his face. “Remind me to find something special for Fury for Christmas. Preferably involving high explosives.”

Steve looked torn between the inappropriateness of blowing up a commanding officer and wanting to hand Tony the fuses. “But if they’re just crazy kids, then why fight each other?”

“There is an element of coercion, Captain Rogers. However, much of it does not originate from the Sekirei.” Jarvis sounded coolly grim. “Perhaps it might be informative to allow Mr. Minaka to explain in his own words.”

The Sahashi files minimized off to the side, as the hologram took on the appearance of a TV screen, filled by a man in one of the most flamboyant outfits Bruce had seen since... oh. Right. Yesterday.

“Congratulations!” the white-cloaked man grinned, glasses gleaming. “You are chosen as the Sekirei’s partner.”

“Partner?” Barton murmured in disbelief.

“The Sekirei Plan!” Minaka held up a dramatic, white-gloved hand. “That’s the name of the game that’s happening to you right now.”

Game. Bruce pushed down the simmering rage. He’s destroying people’s lives, and he calls it a game?

“Do you understand?” Minaka went on, as if speaking to someone who ought to be thrilled, thrilled, to be a part of his warped designs. “Your little bird is a Sekirei, and they secretly fight each other. You are her partner, an Ashikabi.” He paused. “By the way, this is a highly secret project. Now that you know about it, you are obligated to maintain confidentiality whether you like it or not. If you breach confidentiality, we, MBI, will find your family, and pursue you with all our might. Keep that in mind.” A knowing smile. “Now, I'm busy, so I'll excuse myself....”

The video winked out.

“A variant of this is transmitted to every Ashikabi,” Jarvis said neutrally. “After they’ve winged a Sekirei. Often quite by accident. I have at least one record of an Ashikabi who had a running Sekirei land on him, and another of a young man who accepted a kiss in thanks from a shivering girl for sharing a meat bun. Afterwards... Minaka is quite, quite serious about using MBI against anyone who threatens to reveal the secret. There have been no deaths, but several careers have been ruined, and I believe I can accurately state that many Ashikabi feel they have no alternative but to participate. No matter how much they might wish to take their Sekirei and flee.”

It was a very good thing Minaka was in Japan, Bruce considered. Otherwise, he might be tempted to... go for a walk.

“Jarvis?” Tony’s voice was way too calm. “Tell me again why you didn’t tell me about this?”

Without even an electronic sigh, Jarvis flicked up a city map, with symbols even Bruce could guess were meant to represent tanks, infantry, patrolling helicopters, and other assorted nastiness. At least three satellite icons hovered over the map, each with dull red MBI labels. “Sir. Even if you were completely well - which you were not - what resources would you need to safely extract nearly two hundred unarmed civilians scattered across Shinto Teito? Without doing grievous harm to the rest of the citizenry?”

Tony looked over it all for almost a minute more. “Damn.”

“Minaka has had at least a decade to plan this, Sir. I determined that even at your best, we would need assistance.”

“A decade.” Tony’s eyes narrowed. “He’s been planning this since the invasion?”

“Tracking back some of the construction and development orders, Sir, I estimate that to be the case.”

“Meaning Fury missed the insanity for ten years,” Tony grumbled. “Joy.”

Steve pointed to one of the satellite icons. “Um. Is that what I think it is?”

“If you think it’s a souped-up laser-armed killer satellite ready to wreak flaming death and destruction down on anything in range, then yes. Yes it is.” Tony hmphed at the image. “I told the JSDF that was a bad idea.”

“Let me get this straight.” Steve glanced at them all, lingering longest on Black Widow and Barton. “Whether or not the Sekirei are good people, and so far they don’t seem to be evil, Minaka turned a whole city into a fort so he could turn Sekirei loose, let them find an innocent guy, and then threaten them into fighting each other?” The time-lost veteran shook his head. “What is wrong with people?”

“Bring popcorn, and we’ll fill you in,” Barton shrugged. “It could take a while.”

Probably decades, Bruce thought. He was no military expert, but he knew a thing or two about threats. And cages. “They must have tried to break out.”

“There were several attempts,” Jarvis acknowledged, flashing icons around the perimeter of the city. “Minaka forestalled most of them by security at the trains, airports, and bridges, who were provided with photos of every Sekirei. If that had failed, the MBI killsats can detect the energies unique to Sekirei, and target them specifically. They had Takehito’s work; they knew no Sekirei would willingly abandon their Ashikabi, and no Ashikabi would flee while his Sekirei remained in danger.” Jarvis paused. “However, humans are remarkably persistent.”

Tony tapped the city image to expand it, and whistled. “Defenses up here in the north are just a little thinner. Why?”

“There are rumors of a monster in the North,” Jarvis said dryly. “Even MBI did not wish to disturb it unduly.”

“Local jitters, always useful as long as you can dodge the real monsters... ooo.” Tony tapped one specific highway bridge over a wide river. “You see what I see, Cap?”

“A railroad bridge, running parallel. Guardpost on the highway, close enough to watch the bridge, but not actually on it.” Blue eyes narrowed. “You’d need the train schedule, and you’d have to be really sure the guards were distracted and no one could get there to reinforce them. But it’d be the best route.”

“True, except that Japan has bullet trains, Captain Rogers.” Jarvis brought up a brief clip of one, speedometer pegged out past two hundred miles per hour. “A schedule would be insufficient. Anyone crossing would need to be certain the trains were stopped.”

“Two targets that you have to hit at the same time. Ouch.” Steve looked it over again, and grimaced. “But I don’t see a better option.”

“Three targets. Killsats,” Tony observed. “Somebody would have had a busy night.”

“Indeed.” Jarvis blinked five more pictures up; one squinty-eyed roughneck who looked a cheap suit away from a Yakuza thug, with a pair of twin dark-haired women in blue and red halter tops, and one brown-haired teenager with a sweet-faced blonde in a neat blue dress. “Kaoru Seo was an associate of Takehito’s before his death. He is also the Ashikabi for Hikari and Hibiki, Sekirei 11 and 12. The younger pair are Haruka Shigi and Kuno, Sekirei 95. MBI notes state that Kuno is a weak Sekirei, and was not expected to survive past the first matches.”

That jabbed barbs into the part of Bruce that still missed Betty desperately. “Minaka’s setting up people to fall in love, and then lose them.”

“Aliens,” the Black Widow frowned.

“It doesn’t make a difference to the human side of the equation,” Bruce disagreed. “Neurochemistry is neurochemistry. If a human thinks they’re in love, that’s what they feel.” He had to close his eyes a moment. “It’s not fair.”

“A sentiment apparently shared by Seo and Minato Sahashi, Dr. Banner.” Jarvis sounded just a smidge gleeful. “There is, in the MBI records prior to yesterday, one successful escape.”

Video sprang to life; a guardpost at a highway bridge, with armed soldiers approaching a little blonde girl in white as she cradled a potted plant. Rapid Japanese flew.

“What’s the matter?” captions read at the bottom, as one of the soldiers crouched to talk to her. “Are you lost? Where are your parents?”

“Wait!” Even in a foreign language, his partner’s panic was audible. “That kid is on the list! She’s a Sekirei!”

The girl smiled. Greenery exploded into impossible vines, seizing and tangling soldiers, tanks, and the bridge alike.

Jarvis froze the image. “Kusano, Sekirei 108. Her role was the distraction.”

Barton stirred from his stillness. “That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Bruce almost pinched himself. This guy could not be for real.

...Although maybe, in a small way, it was quite a picture. He’d never seen tanks immobilized like that, without a fire or explosion to be seen.

That doesn’t mean much. “How many casualties?” Bruce asked flatly.

“On the security force’s side? Bruises, abrasions; a few dozen cases of splinters,” Jarvis reported. “Minato and Seo went to some length to ensure no one would be hurt. They had an allied hacker knock out the satellite tasked to the North for an hour.”

On the image, lights on one satellite winked out.

“Seo and the twins took out the railroad’s generator to stop trains.”

A transformer and generator facility appeared, to be zapped by a bolt of lightning a little more purple than Thor’s. The plant sizzled, lights snapping out.

“At this point Haruka, Minato, Kuno, and Musubi, Sekirei 88, made a break for the bridge,” Jarvis continued, highlighting the cute brunette Sekirei under Minato’s picture. “Tsukiumi, number 9,” a blonde with dark sleeves and white... er, shirt, maybe, “remained in reserve. At this time, Minato had not winged Kazehana, number 3,” a violet-haired woman with knowing eyes and pierced purple dress, “or Homura, number 6.” Silver hair and an androgynous face over modest black; Bruce frowned at it, puzzled. He’d seen a lot of odd people wandering the world, practicing backdoor medicine. Usually he could get a read on male or female. Not to mention, the other Sekirei seemed kind of... obvious, one way or another.

I should check the files. Maybe Fury has something.... Oh.

Another video came up. The angle on this camera wasn’t good, but Bruce could catch silhouettes against the night; the two young men running, Musubi easily outpacing them as she hauled Kuno along.

“They had hoped to make one clear run, and be gone before the satellite returned to MBI control,” Jarvis stated. “Unfortunately-”

“It was a trap,” Tony and Steve chorused. And eyed each other.

“Go ahead,” Steve offered.

“No, no, I insist,” Tony waved it back to him. “I knew it was a trap because I have a nasty suspicious mega-billionaire mind. Ask anyone. How did you know?”

“The problem with the easy way out is the enemy has already mined it.” Steve sounded like he was quoting someone. “I saw... things like that before. If the Germans let us take a road, it was usually a bad idea.”

“Mines would not be an effective way to handle an active transportation corridor.” Black Widow touched the map, tilting it a little to study the street layout, before she let it snap back. “If there is a monster in the North no one wants to disturb, then fixed fortifications would be worse than useless. MBI would want a flying squad. A specially trained and armed group to move light and fast, annihilate any who attempted to escape, and withdraw before the monster woke.”

“Indeed,” Jarvis said gravely. “Gentlemen and lady, allow me to introduce the Discipline Squad.”

A full-spread newspaper photo appeared; another metal-whale Chitauri Leviathan, crashed on the banks of the Hudson, three women striking a pose on top of rent metal and flesh. One was a bloodthirsty-looking pink-haired girl in a scandalously short black and gray kimono with a tattered red bow. A second had a shock of white hair and brandished metal claws, a tattered gray kimono hanging over bandages from neck to knee. Between them-

Bruce stared at eerie gray eyes, and felt Hulk stir at the implicit threat. Long gray hair. Gray bird-marked jacket over a black uniform dress. And that sword. “We saw her in HYDRA’s invasion.”

“Karasuba, Sekirei number 4. AKA the Black Sekirei. Possibly the most dangerous, and certainly the most deadly Sekirei in MBI’s current files,” Jarvis replied. “Her subordinates are Benitsubasa, Sekirei 105, and Haihane, 104. Their Ashikabi is Natsuo Ichinomiya, a clerk in MBI’s pharmaceutical department, and the files I can access indicate his mental state is dangerously unsympathetic. To anyone.”

Tony took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “So those kids ran right into a meat grinder. Damn. How’d they pull it off?”

“Desperation, and no little luck,” Jarvis answered. “Apparently once she could no longer lay hands on the fugitives, Karasuba lost interest. She walked away all but unscathed. Those who stood against her... Sir, I must warn you this is disturbing.”

The video looked like it was the same bad angle, barely catching half the bridge in view. But that was enough to see flashes of light, torrents of water; to hear blows and taunts and metal rent asunder.

“Musubi-chan! Musubi-chan!

Bruce covered his ears against the terror and loss. That scream. He knew that pain. Knew how to turn it into smashing, unstoppable rage....

But not now. Please, not now.

Dimly, he realized the sound had stopped.

“My apologies, Dr. Banner,” Jarvis said levelly. “It was not my intent to distress you.” He paused. “Sir, perhaps it would be best if I summed up?”

“Yeah.” Tony sounded a little shaken himself. “I think we’ve all heard enough screaming.” He cleared his throat. “You said that pair got away?”

“Currently, Haruka Shigi and Kuno are living quietly with his parents in the countryside,” Jarvis stated. “Haruka has applied to a local police academy, and Kuno has an internship as a singer on the town radio station. SHIELD is monitoring them, but seems inclined to let well enough alone.” The artificial voice lightened. “They are engaged, Sir.”

Bruce blinked, and saw Steve smile wistfully. I wonder who he lost?

“Casualties on Minato’s side?” Black Widow inquired.

“Heavy.” Jarvis was matter-of-fact once more. “Minato was hospitalized for three days; I will send you the medical reports, Dr. Banner. Musubi was under observation for a week. Apparently MBI is still not certain how she survived. Tsukiumi suffered somewhat less serious injuries from being buried in the wreckage....”

“Wow,” Bruce said, half to himself, as the still photo of an impressively wrecked railroad bridge appeared. He’d seen the aftermath when the Other Guy cut loose; this was up there with them. Every bit of metal was either twisted, melted, or gone. “I think I see why Fury wants us on this one.”

“Seo and the twins came out completely unscathed, outside of minor shock injuries,” Jarvis went on, “I have it on good authority the hacker concealed any electronic tracks, and Kusano very much enjoyed her night of growing plants all over town.” He paused. “Unfortunately, once it had been blatantly demonstrated that Minaka’s perfect fortress was not, in fact, quite perfect, he decided to... up the game’s difficulty level.”

Barton eyed the speakers overhead. Pointed at the map, and all its various icons of force and terror. “Upped it? From that?

“Of course he did,” the Black Widow said quietly. “The game doesn’t work if no one’s afraid.”

Bruce grimaced. That she could still call it a game was disturbing.

“Minaka claimed the bridge had been destroyed in a terrorist attack,” Jarvis said neutrally. “This justified his use of tighter security measures to contain the city. He then waited until the Sekirei were attending their mandatory medical checkups, and had MBI seize - and tag - every Ashikabi.”

The device that appeared looked almost like a watch. But Bruce had seen miniaturized GPS trackers before. “What else does it do?”

Studying the device with narrowed eyes, Tony flicked a glance toward him. “Why do you think it does anything else?”

Bruce tried to shrug. “I’m not an engineer, but Minaka can afford the best stuff. Which means small and light. That’s too big.”

“You are correct, Dr. Banner.” Jarvis’ voice wasn’t quite level. “If the tracker is taken beyond a perimeter set by MBI, it does indeed do something else.” A complex molecule whirled into view.

Steve gave him a hopeful look.

“Oh, no,” Bruce breathed. “Yes, I know that one. Tetrodotoxin,” he explained for the rest of them. “Muscle paralytic. Too much kills you, but if your attacker gets the dose right he has you pretty much helpless until it wears off. I’m going to assume it delivers a variable dose?” At Jarvis’ soft sound of assent, he nodded. “Perfect. He doesn’t risk his alien game pieces, just the people they’re linked to. MBI can keep upping the dose until the Ashikabi drops. The Sekirei have to get them help. Fast. The kind of help you can only find in a major hospital, to keep someone breathing long enough for the poison to wear off. Which means they have to get the Ashikabi to a known location, and then they can’t move.”

“You know,” Tony said whimsically, “I’m starting to not like this guy.”

“That’s why Fury thinks we can find them.” Steve’s eyes were troubled, as he glanced out Tony’s window over Manhattan. “Right now the tracker perimeters are set for New York, right? They’d have to be, or the Ashikabi couldn’t be here.”

“Find someone who doesn’t want to be found, in New York,” Tony mused. “You could lose small civilizations here.”

Barton glanced out the window a moment, as if he’d caught a passing shadow. “So why hasn’t MBI just turned on the trackers?”

Three sets of eyes gave him a look. The archer shrugged, undeterred.

“It would seem the quickest and most practical solution, from MBI’s standpoint,” Widow noted. “Which would imply there is some reason they can’t. A hacked location program, perhaps?”

“What can be hacked, can be unhacked,” Tony said quickly. “Uh-uh. If any of them knew what they were wearing, they wouldn’t leave it all on one program.”

Bruce tried not to do an obvious double-take. He knows something.

“Maybe it’s just another game.” Steve added acid to the last word. “Let them think they got away, and see what happens.”

“While I have no doubt Minaka is capable of such manipulations, I believe that the current situation is due to the fact that he has finally made a mistake,” Jarvis stated. “Or rather, a series of small mistakes, overlooked. The first was failing to keep a tight rein on the Discipline Squad. Benitsubasa and Haihane did not take their defeat well. They kidnapped Minato to lure his flock out for a rematch.”

“Really.” Tony crossed his arms, looking thoughtful.

Thoughtful, not outraged. Bruce had to stare. “Really?”

“It’s like your first kiss.” Tony’s smile was tight and unfriendly. “After your first kidnapping, nothing’s ever the same.”

Steve drew back a little, frowning. “You’ve been kidnapped?”

“An embarrassing number of times, actually. Gets old.” Tony brushed it off. “Does kind of shake up your priorities.”

“Indeed,” Jarvis agreed. “Which is why, I believe, neither Minaka nor Takami expected what Minato did next. While he was in the hospital recovering from Benitsubasa’s concussion - yes, Dr. Banner, you will have those records as well - he used a hospital phone, not his own, to call his sister to visit. After all, he hadn’t seen her in some time. Since before the Ashikabi were tagged, in fact.”

“His phone was tapped?” Barton inquired, gaze calculating. “Not hers?”

“It appears all Ashikabi phones were tapped,” Jarvis answered. “But it would seem Takami has never thought her daughter would do anything stupid.”

Bruce half-closed his eyes, picturing it. He was an only child, but still. “So his younger sister shows up....”

“Wearing a deathtrap,” Steve finished. “Sweet Mother Mary.”

“Within hours of Takami updating her security clearances to reflect that she had finally told Minato she was not just a pharmaceutical researcher,” Jarvis agreed. “Instead, she had spent the past two decades studying, training, and raising Sekirei.” The AI paused. “And that, I believe, is when a very shy, patient, and longsuffering young man finally lost his temper.”

A text message appeared on the screen; Japanese characters with an English translation underneath.

“The Tesseract is a wild goose chase. If you really want out of the Sekirei Plan, here’s a map and an address. Get there, use the disabler on your tracker, drop anything MBI gave you, take the cash, and go.

“Nobody has to kill anymore, and no one has to die! This is our chance. I’m leaving.” - Hannya-North.

“To the other Ashikabi, the originator of this message would be obvious,” Jarvis noted. “Minato Sahashi is also known as the Ashikabi of the North.”

“North?” Widow frowned.

“Apparently the four most powerful Ashikabi ended up dividing Shinto Teito into territories, deliberately or by default. Higa is also known as the Ashikabi of the East.” A pale-haired man with a shifty expression flipped up, with eleven pictures under his. “Currently he has eleven Sekirei linked to him, and has business arrangements with several other Ashikabi to act as his allies. The others are Hayato Mikogami of the South,” a blond teen with sparkly eyes and five small pictures, “and Nishi Sanada of the West,” a motorcyclist with his arms around three younger teenage girls, with six pictures under him.

Barton coughed. “And Minato makes four?” He sighed. “Boss....” Something caught his eye, and he frowned. “Natasha. Time-stamp.”

Interesting,” Tony said cheerfully.

“Timestamp?” Bruce gave Steve a frankly puzzled look.

Steve eyed the time, and suddenly looked sheepish. “Right, you were... distracted.” He nodded at the message. “That’s a few minutes after Hulk caught Tony.”

Distracted. That was one of the kindest ways anyone had ever referred to him being the Hulk. It almost hurt....

Wait. Bruce blinked, and rubbed at his eyes. “After?” He cleared his throat, tried again. “You mean they waited? The Chitauri - it would have been the perfect time to run.” He could feel the disappointment in Steve’s gaze. How did the man do that? “The Ashikabi have been living with a device that could kill them for months now. Anybody sane would have taken the best chance to get out of it.”

“You didn’t,” Tony pointed out.

“You can’t get a Ph.D. without getting a little obsessed,” Bruce shrugged. “Maybe I missed the bad science jokes.”

Widow was studying the Japanese text. “Was the message the same to all recipients?”

“I have not yet been able to abstract a copy of each text from the dataflow,” Jarvis informed her. “Repairs to New York infrastructure have temporarily put some servers offline that were operating during the invasion. However, of the roughly half I have intercepted in full, each Ashikabi has received a unique map and maildrop location, though the messages were identical.” The AI paused. “Except for one.”

The same text scrolled up, with an extra line.

“Higa. Touch my sister again, and I will find you.”

“That really was Izumi Higa? Damn,” Tony said, almost cheerfully. “Current heir to Higa Pharmaceuticals,” he addressed the room at large, “one of the companies that manages to annoy Minaka and still survive. Sharp operator. Obie liked him. What’d he do this time?”

“This time?” Steve asked warily.

“Well, I’m trying not to think what Higa could have done to tick a nice guy off,” Tony said, half to himself. “Whatever it was, I’m betting, not pretty.”

“I have only informed conjecture, Sir. No official police report was filed on either side.” Jarvis’ voice was dry. “However, I have access to some of MBI’s tracking data on the Ashikabi, which indicate Yukari Sahashi was confined to Higa’s penthouse apartment for at least twenty-four hours. During which time Higa applied informal political pressure to fast-track a marriage license.”

Bruce felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. Arranged marriage was the polite term used in the Third World countries he’d wandered through. Sometimes it was at least honest on all sides, both families trying to do well by their children. Others... a piece of paper didn’t make it any less rape.

“Shortly thereafter, this piece of video footage began circulating on the MBI Intranet,” Jarvis observed.

From: Takami Sahashi To: ALL Subject: Do Not F*** With My Daughter

The message body was an embedded video. The view seemed to be from midway up a skyscraper, centered on the side of a penthouse-

Glass shattered outward, red flames licking at the sky. A small form jumped into space, skirt fluttering as she fell.

And fell, arms and legs spread like a skydiver....

Almost out of view, silver light bloomed, spreading like wings.

“So both Sahashi kids have been kidnapped,” Tony mused, as the video ended. “Don’t get me wrong, Capsicle, but we really need to find these kids before Fury does. He’ll pull I’m an adult in charge of a super-secret world-saving organization and I know best. And they’ll feed him his fingers.”

“They’re kids,” Steve folded his arms, disapproval radiating off him. “But they’re old enough to know better.”

“Rogers....” Tony took a shallow breath, eyes flicking from the hologram to Captain America as if he were rewriting whatever he’d been about to say on the fly. “Steve. I know you know about POWs. I know you helped break some of them loose. Being kidnapped isn’t like that.”

Widow, Bruce noticed, was listening intently.

“There’s no declared war. No uniform to lean on.” Tony’s words snapped into place like pieces of armor, instead of the riotous flow of science and ideas Bruce had started to get used to. “There’s just you, and the guns, and people who’ve decided they’re going to hurt you to get what they want. Not kill; well, maybe kill, but that comes later. Just you, and them, and pain. A hell of a lot of pain.” Tony paused, jaw working. “And there is nobody coming to save you.”

Steve stirred. Glanced aside-

At Barton? Bruce wondered.

The archer looked between them, hand curling as if it wanted to reach for his quiver. Tightened his lips, and gave a minuscule nod.

Steve sighed, and shoved back blond hair. “Okay. If you think you know - tell me what we’re up against.”

Tony shrugged, almost casual. “Kidnap victims tend to go one of three ways. Option one, Stockholm. Identify with the kidnappers. Be enough like them, maybe they won’t hurt you.”

Steve eyed Takami’s email. “Um. No.”

“Option two,” Tony went on, almost cheerful. “Wind up with PTSD - that’s shell shock, back in your day - and spend a lot of time hiding in dark corners and shaking. I did some of that.”

“Um.” Steve glanced at Minato’s text message, still hanging in midair. “Not that either.”

“Option three.” Tony’s grin wasn’t nice at all. “Figure out what the bastards want, and make sure they never, ever get it. I built a suit of armor and rained fiery death down on every member of Ten Rings I could drag out from under a rock. Yukari jumped. And Minato-” Tony waved at the text message. “Minato broke everybody out.”

Steve met his gaze, silence dragging out between them. “You’re saying we can’t corner them.”

“That would be bad,” Tony said soberly. “That would be Hulk levels of bad, and I say that with the greatest respect for the green rage monster. Bruce - Hulk’s kept you alive when any sane person ought to be dead. Well, you ask me, the Sahashi kids are alive and out there because they just would not give up and die. And you know how Fury works. He’ll try to jerk them around and put them in a box, because he thinks he knows better. They will break the box, Steve. Even if it kills them.”

Steve thought about that; Bruce could see it in the way his brow furrowed. Nodded once.

Widow’s expression was neutral, but Bruce thought he might like that better than some of her smiles. “And do you have any ideas, Mr. Stark? For people who break boxes.”

“I don’t have good ideas,” Tony said judiciously. “You want good ideas, you should talk to Pepper. I plan to. But I have less bad ideas.” He shrugged. “Don’t push them, don’t corner them; let’s try talking, first. They’ve either been drugged or threatened with it, so we should stay out of needle-stabbity range.” The inventor blinked, as if that brought something to mind, and swiveled toward Bruce. “And you. You should definitely be there.”

What? If this was one of Tony’s less bad ideas, he’d hate to see the horrible ones. “I’m not very good with people,” Bruce deadpanned.

Tony waved that off; and somehow it wasn’t a doesn’t matter wave, but more of an I know, just listen. “But you know about being chased. And the kids are empaths.”

Steve was nodding. When had that happened? “If they’re using how people feel to gauge their intentions, then you would help,” Steve said simply. “You’re honest.”

This to someone who’d lived under a dozen names in as many countries, always trying to keep one step ahead of official attention. “If you think it could work,” Bruce let just a wisp of panic out to wash over him, hopefully calming the rest. “I’ll try.”

Barton was studying the text message again. Looking thoughtful, and not at all happy.

Steve followed his gaze, and muttered something that might have been Jiminy Crickets. “How secure was that? I mean, if your... Jarvis could read that....”

“Under ordinary circumstances, Captain Rogers, that text would only have been received in the clear by its intended recipients,” Jarvis informed him. “However, it was, by necessity, transmitted through the MBI network. I would further extrapolate that MBI is quite motivated to uncover how, precisely, their test subjects have broken containment.”

“So if your question is, does the Discipline Squad know who they should be sharpening up pointy things to go after, the answer is either yes, or they will real soon now,” Tony added. “So who should we look for first? The good guys? The confused bystanders? Or the really bad girls-”

“Sir, that question may no longer be relevant,” Jarvis cut in. “Activity on police frequencies has suddenly spiked. Midtown South is calling for backup and emergency services. SWAT teams. Anyone. Officers report a gray-haired woman with a samurai sword-”

Tony tossed Widow a jingle of car keys. “Bruce, bike’s all yours. Cap?”

“Coming with you,” Steve agreed, snatching up his shield.


Wind was a constant background noise on the circuit to Sir’s armor as he flew carrying Captain Rogers; Jarvis filtered about 70% of it, leaving the rest in case there happened to be significant information for later use. The worms Matsu had politely requested he trigger were gnawing their way through World Security Council infrastructure; Jarvis flagged a memo for Ms. Potts’ attention to shift certain Stark Industries holdings to avoid some of the inevitable financial fallout. More of his attention was spent sorting useful data from the police bands. So far there had not been serious violence, but at least a dozen possible Sekirei and Ashikabi appeared to be bunched together with on-duty officers, unable to retreat and risk bringing Karasuba into range of civilians-

“Jarvis?”

Sir had the external comms and helmet speaker off. For now, their conversation was private. “Sir?”

“Those trackers look suspiciously like a certain possible kidnapper’s tool you brought to my attention last month. For which I designed a nifty little disabler. Whose plans, I believe, you asked if I minded you slipping up onto the ‘Net. Given kidnappers are nasty evil bad guys in need of thwarting, and who knows? Somebody might get lucky.”

Sir was a genius, after all. “That would be because they are, Sir.”

Sir chuckled. “Anything else you want to let me know right now, Jarvis?”

There were a multitude of potential answers to that, but one made the most sense. “Only that Director Fury may be experiencing unexpected funding difficulties in the next few days, Sir.”

“Oh, really?” Sir sounded just a little gleeful. “And why would that be?”

“The World Security Council appears to have drawn the attention of the hacker you call ‘Hentai Glasses’.” Jarvis let his voice go very dry. “Apparently she objected to being ground zero of a potential nuclear detonation.”

Sir laughed, short and sharp; likely recalling the animated ASCII gif of a giggling girl in glasses that had cackled its way through a Justin Hammer presentation, leaving the cut-rate weapons manufacturer red in the face. “Yeah. Can’t imagine why.”

“She was cheering you on, Sir.”

Sir was silent a moment. “She was?”

“Indeed, Sir.” Jarvis paused. “You might also wish to know that I have been assisting a distressed civilian, Sir. In various fashions.”

“You keep right on doing that. And if they decide they want to call - make sure it gets through.” Sir’s voice warmed. “Good job, Jarvis.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

 

Chapter Text

Warm. Comfy. Quiet, outside of the soft breathing of the flock sleeping around him and the sparkle of six other cores. In the next room over Kagari could feel Shiina curled warm and protective against his Ashikabi’s side; the young Sekirei had carried her down from the arbor last night, already fast asleep. In the room beyond that, Kagari sensed the :dimmer sparks in shadows: that was Seo and the twins.

No enemies sneaking up on the flock. No new fledglings to look after, hoping against hope they’d find an Ashikabi that cared for them. He’d done all he could to give them a chance; they all had. Now it was time to catch their breath, and do some better planning for Phase Two.

Help Yukari. Rescue Chiho. And take Minaka down.

Or take MBI down. The two might not be the same thing. Maybe.

Still, the plan remained the same. Rest. So they could take care of Yukari, see if Matsu and Minato could fix any of the damage Takami had done, and think their way through the next step - how to break back into Japan with the resources to heal, wake, and rescue the terminated Sekirei and Uzume’s Ashikabi - without the constant pressure of what if the disabler doesn’t work?

It had. They were still alive. The Discipline Squad hadn’t found them.

Which had been enough - just - to put any thoughts of hanky-panky out of the older Sekirei’s heads. Kusano needed hugs and Minato needed rest and they all needed the comfort of :not alone.:

So one huge futon had seen nothing but quiet sleep. Kagari intended to enjoy every minute of it.

So this is what sleeping in is like.

He hadn’t had much chance for that since he’d left the MBI labs. There’d always been work, and fledgling Sekirei to protect, and his own desperate hunt for an Ashikabi. A hunt that had come within a few heartbeats of being fatal, because he hadn’t wanted to see what was right under his nose. Tsukiumi was still miffed that he’d nearly incinerated himself rather than ask for help.

In a way, Minato made him feel even more guilty. Minato understood.

“Of course you wanted a different Ashikabi,” Minato had stammered, as Tsukiumi raised a hand over her head, ready to drench him again; a distracted part of Kagari’s mind had realized if this went on much longer Miya’s yard would be mud, and maybe death was better than facing the landlady. “You know my mom - and even Takami thinks I’m not going to make it through Minaka’s plan. If I’d been thinking I would have had Matsu track down Yukari, I know you wanted a girl....”

Silly, Kagari thought now, reaching past the blonde lump-in-blankets that was Kuu snuggled up to Minato’s left shoulder. He had to move slow and quiet, there were at least four other hearts here he didn’t want to disturb... but this was the first chance he’d had in days for fingers to ruffle dark hair, then slip into that patch of Sekirei silver. I guess we both were. Hard to see what’s right in front of you when your own mother thinks you’re broken.

After Miya, Takami was the closest thing to a mother Kagari had ever had. That most Sekirei had had, for that matter; Kagari had run some rough estimates in his head, and come up with the depressing realization that Takami had probably spent more time with him in the past nine years than she had with her own biological son.

Not that he planned to bring that up with Minato. Ever. His Ashikabi had been so happy last night, even with Yukari upset at them. Everyone was alive. Everyone was safe. The plan, Minato’s plan, had worked. The joy in him had been warm as sunlight, brightening every bond he touched.

Mmm, sunlight. Kagari snuggled a little closer, feeling past Kusano’s :green growing: to Minato’s :healing sun.: Fingers stroked again, drifting across the differing textures of black human hair and feathery silver.

Huh. Not that different anymore. Kagari worked his fingers closer to warm skin. Even what’s still dark is growing out more like ours.

As Minato’s friend, he should probably be upset by that. Minato hadn’t asked for this, any more than Kagari had asked to be born a guardian. As Minato’s Sekirei, Kagari had to admit he was relieved. Humans were so fragile. And Minato wasn’t, not anymore. Knowing their flock was that much safer made his guardian nature want to light incense to one stubborn Sekirei hacker and the equally stubborn Ashikabi who’d listened to them both.

Guardian. That’s what Miya thinks I am. She doesn’t know what our species’ name for it was - but I’m not broken. Just rare.

Humans came in two flavors, male and female. Sekirei had males, females, and guardians. Kagari was still trying to wrap his mind around exactly what that meant for both of them.

A little less panic for Minato, anyway.

And maybe a little less for himself, as well. His... physical changes... hadn’t been his fault for not being strong enough, and they hadn’t been Minato’s fault for liking girls. Not according to Miya. They’d both just had the bad luck that Minato had been the strongest Ashikabi in range when Kagari’s biology had woken up snarly. And by both, Miya meant both. After he’d finally woken up from that horrible night, and Minato had seen to his burns, he’d found himself planted on the floor of his room while Miya outlined the list of symptoms Kagari’s proximity had set off in Minato since the bridge escape. Nightmares, fevers, and pining had all featured prominently.

“Pining doesn’t kill people, Miya.”

“Sekirei are made stronger by their emotions, Homura. And Ashikabi are not normal humans.”

True enough, even before Takami had done her experiments. He’d seen Seo shocked so many times the guy ought to glow in the dark. But the look on Miya’s face had said she knew something more.

And she wouldn’t tell him. Argh.

“Break the Plan. Free as many of my little feathers as you can. Then we’ll see.”

Trying to argue Miya out of a decision was like trying to drag off a mountain over your shoulder. It wasn’t happening. Arguing with Minato was much more productive. And saner.

Also humbling. While he’d been hiding out on nights he was sick, and trying to work nights he wasn’t, Minato had been running around with Kazehana, Seo, and the other girls, quietly rattling the bars of Minaka’s cage so MBI would focus on preventing breakouts in Shinto Teito. All the while he was also spending way too many hours plotting with Matsu, trying to set up at least three bleeding-edge alien tech baits that Minaka couldn’t resist.

“Why three?” Kagari had demanded, scowling at the circles under his Ashikabi’s eyes. Three meant three times the work, the odd objects shipped off into oblivion, the money Matsu had to siphon off from who knew where. He wasn’t about to ask.

“Because if there’s only one, he’ll know it’s a trap,” Minato had answered, almost patiently. “I would!” He’d flushed. “At least, I would now....”

All things considered, Kagari was just as glad Minaka had gone for the Tesseract, instead of the Ten Rings lairs somewhere in Central Asia or whatever was down in Antarctica. Because seriously, Antarctica. He’d seen John Carpenter’s Thing movie. If he ever saw a helicopter shooting at a loose sled dog, he was going to incinerate Fido first and ask questions later. After a day spent fighting off real aliens, he doubted any of the others would argue with him.

Real aliens. Kagari mulled that thought over, letting Minato’s drowsy presence ground him against the shiver of that thought. As opposed to... well, us.

Sekirei were aliens. He still had a hard time believing it. He’d been born in an MBI lab, a fetus taken out of stasis and brought to term in technology Minaka still hadn’t unleashed on the rest of the world. Earth was the only world he knew. The only world any of them knew, except possibly Miya. And she wasn’t talking.

Where did we come from? Why did we leave? We’re so much stronger, so much more dangerous than humans; did Minaka get it partly right? Are we some kind of genetically created gladiators? Or are we just ordinary Sekirei?

And if Sekirei have our abilities naturally.... what the hell kind of deathworld did we evolve on?

That was Minato’s guess, the few times they’d had a chance to wonder about it in the middle of planning, skulking around Shinto Teito, getting Matsu’s equipment, and planning some more. They didn’t know anything, really, outside of the biological information Matsu had hacked out of MBI and a few tantalizing hints Miya had dropped. Nothing about Sekirei language, or technology, or even a whispered lullaby.

Assuming we even had lullabies, Kagari thought wistfully. We grow up so fast, compared to humans.

Sekirei grew up within six years, had their powers bloom before they were three, and seemed to stop aging entirely by eight. Based on Shiina and Kusano, Sekirei raised together wanted to flock; only Minaka had set it up so almost all of them hadn’t, so most Sekirei now considered others enemies unless their Ashikabi worked something out the way Seo and Minato had. And all the Sekirei they knew of, besides Miya, had been put on a spaceship as preterm infants or fertilized embryos. A spaceship that had about a hundred females to three males, with a few guardians sprinkled in. A spaceship that had crashed, and gone undiscovered for who knew how many centuries.

Put it all together, and Earth science fiction came up with two likely scenarios. Colony ship - or fleeing refugees.

“I’m actually hoping it was a colony ship gone wrong,” Minato had confessed, the last time they’d tossed more wild ideas. “If the wreck was a refugee ship... I don’t think I want to meet what Sekirei were running from.”

Neither do I, Kagari thought now. With our luck, they’d probably drop in right as Minaka had us wipe ourselves out.

Depressing thought. He had to damp the inner sarcasm as Kuu whimpered in her sleep. The youngster deserved a night free of nightmares. They all did. For once they’d won a victory, and the seven cores of their entwined flock were so bright....

Wait. Kagari sat up, very carefully, grateful for the black t-shirt he’d grabbed before bed. There was no way he was sleeping in any less clothes than Minato. Seven?

He was crouched at the head of the futon, his core glinting red with flames. At Minato’s shoulder, Kusano’s core was green like new leaves. Farther down was Tsukiumi, blue as a river, one leg hooked over Minato’s foot. Musubi almost faced her on his other side, core glinting pink, a sleeping smile as if she meant to tickle her rival and Ashikabi awake. Kazehana was purple mischief at Minato’s waist, elegant hands pressed demurely into a protective layer of sheet between them. And Matsu glimmered circuit-gold at Minato’s right shoulder, glasses-free face as innocent as Kusano’s.

That’s six. I counted seven....

Subtle gold, glimmering in the middle of the flock like a stray shard of dawn. Warm. Necessary.

Kagari bit back a whistle. This was going to take some subtlety. Hopefully, before they had to deal with Matsu’s squeals of glee. :Minato. Wake up.:

:Sleepy protectiveness: shimmered, reluctantly shifting into :surprise: and :questioning? Danger?:

:No danger,: Kagari soothed. And tried not to blush. :Need Ashikabi.:

That woke Minato up. Gray eyes blinked, marking where everyone was, before Minato reached up a careful hand to nudge Matsu onto Kazehana’s shoulder. “What’s going on?” he murmured.

“Nothing bad,” Kagari answered, just as quiet. “Just strange.” He helped shift Kusano a little farther away, so Minato could sit up. “You know how we’ve been teaching you to move energy like a Sekirei? Feel.” Carefully, letting Minato see what he was doing, Kagari flattened a hand just below the collar of Minato’s white long-sleeved shirt. :My core to yours. My Ashikabi.:

Like stepping into a warm bath after a long day. Everything eased.

...Well, he was at ease. Minato flushed bright pink, a hair away from incandescent. “What was that?

Kagari raised an amused brow. “You’ve seen cores before.”

“When Musubi was dying!”

Ah. That explained the panic he could feel rolling off his Ashikabi; though from the :walled in: sense of it, he thought Minato had managed to keep it from flowing down the other bonds. “We can always see them, if we look hard enough.” Kagari shifted his hand, just enough to give Minato’s shoulder a comforting squeeze. “Now you can, too. Matsu’s going to be thrilled.”

The Ashikabi took a breath, and deliberately leaned into Kagari’s offered comfort. “You think this is a good thing.”

:Fear,: locked down by :determination.: Kagari winced a little, sending :comfort, safe-in-flock: back. Minato was their anchor, their grip on yes, this is supposed to be normal in the world outside the MBI labs. He knew about things most of the flock had never had to learn; modesty, not asking every passerby for a friendly spar, and being friends with people without worrying about am I going to have to fight her someday? When he was shaken, they wanted to hurt something.

Worse. When he’s afraid, he starts scrambling himself up; worst test anxiety ever, Matsu calls it. And - we can’t afford that. Not now. He makes good plans. We need him to focus.

“What I know,” Kagari stressed the word firmly, “is that between all of us, we can heal injured cores. That we can help you, support you in the flock, the way you’ve helped all of us.”

Should I say it? It still hurts him. And I can’t blame him for hurting. But... this is as close to safe as we’ve ever been. If he’s going to be hurt - better it be now.

“What I know,” Kagari said softly, “is if Takami tries to dose you again... this time, you have a core. You’ll throw it off. The same way Kazehana never kills herself with sake. The same way Sekirei throw off any drugs, with enough time.” He smiled wryly. “Though I suppose we do have a problem. We can’t send you ahead of us for any of the break-and-enter on Shinto Teito. If you have a core, the satellites will pick you up, too.” Lifting his hand, he gestured toward Minato’s. “On the bright side, at least we know where the healing comes from. You’re not as strong as Number 94 - Chisuru - is. Not yet. But it is a Sekirei power.”

“That’s right; you know most of the other Sekirei.” Minato took a breath, more of the panic dissolving. “It must have hurt you to walk away.”

“A little,” Kagari admitted. “But... what we did yesterday, is what I had to do. We gave them a chance. We have to hope some of them made it.” His gaze dropped back to glimmers of :sunlight.: “It’s pretty.”

Minato rubbed at his collar, eyes widening at the feel. “It’s... like a second heartbeat. Why didn’t I...?”

“We were a little busy,” Kagari said dryly. “Alien invasion?”

“Yeah.” Minato’s smile was a little shaky. “So... do you think this was all Matsu? Or - what Takami did?”

He hadn’t wanted to bring that up again. But at least Minato was asking, not panicking. “I don’t know,” Kagari allowed. “But if it was definitely that, then I’d think Yukari....”

Reflexively, he reached outward. :Lethal, protective silver: was Shiina, and beside him-

Uh-oh.

Either Minato saw his alarm, or he’d reached and :felt: for himself. “Yukari-!”

“Wait,” Kagari insisted, not shy about using his greater strength to hold Minato back from doing anything drastic. “Just wait. Shiina’s still asleep. If we don’t wake him up gently, he’ll hurt you.”

“He wouldn’t!”

“He wouldn’t if he thought about it,” Kagari corrected him. “Startle him, and he won’t think! He’ll be protecting his flock. Her core feels like she’s just barely out of the incubator; she’s a hatchling, she’s in danger from other flocks.” Kagari reached fire toward that sense of sunlight. “We wouldn’t think twice, if Seo stumbled in here. You feel as young as Kusano.”

Minato had gone through pink to embarrassed red. “Kusano? I’m not a child, I-!”

Matsu yawned. “What’s all the noise about....”

Oh no.

Red eyes blinked at them, trying to focus.

Oh, boy....

Matsu’s squeal hit bat-frightening range. “Yes!”


Matsu was still giggling as she helped Seo and the others put together breakfast. It wasn’t as pretty as one of Miya’s meals, but there was rice, fish, pickles, and various fruits and sweets. Most importantly, there was a lot of it.

Watching Shiina make sure Yukari got enough to eat was so cute.

“I shouldn’t be this hungry,” the girl grumbled, waving off yet another jiggly cube of cherry gelatin.

“I can’t get used to eating this much, either,” Minato admitted, cleaning out a few last grains of rice. “It took me weeks to realize Musubi and everyone kept feeding me.”

“Why do you think I keep running short?” Seo sighed. “Adjustments do crazy things to you.” He eyed their cleaned bowls. “Though it looks like you two got hit even harder. I guess that’s not so surprising, considering the two of you have....” He cast a glance at Hikari. “Are you sure?”

The lightning twin almost rolled her eyes. “Yes, we’re sure.”

“We’re very sure.” Hibiki was still sneaking looks at both of them. “That’s... wow.”

“Weird,” Seo sing-songed under his breath. “Matsu. Whatever you did? Don’t teach my girls how to do it.”

Musubi sat up straight, almost hurt. “Why shouldn’t she teach them?”

“Seriously, why not?” Matsu said practically, before the twins could charge another shock. “It’d make some things simpler.” Like getting you into our flock and keeping you here.

MBI had taught them they were alone; that there was only their Ashikabi and maybe the other sisters of a flock to rely on. And that even then, they would eventually have to fight, even kill their sisters, to see who was the last Sekirei left standing. Something she didn’t think Musubi had quite worked out yet. Minato had, and it gave him nightmares.

MBI had taught them a lot of things that weren’t true. This had to be one of them. If Sekirei were a natural species, and Miya said they were, then a natural flock couldn’t have just one Ashikabi.

Earth species that mate for life don’t just die when their partner does, Matsu reminded herself, watching Seo’s every move. They mate for life; and if the worst happens, they find a new mate. If Sekirei need an Ashikabi to stabilize them - there has to be a way for us to have more than one, just in case. There has to be.

We need your street smarts, Seo. Minato and Yukari know more about the outside world than most Sekirei, but they’re still young, for humans. They need you to feel safe.

“Because when I’m the normal guy in the room? We’ve got problems.” Seo smirked. “Seriously, Matsu. One of us has to be able to slip past MBI sensors.”

“It might not work without Takami’s treatment anyway.” Minato shuddered. “I don’t think I’d wish that on anybody.”

“Right!” Musubi punched a fist in the air. “We need to get that, too!”

Points for not screaming, Matsu thought ruefully, as Minato paled. Yukari wasn’t looking much better. And Seo looked like he was seriously considering diving out a window and waiting for the noise to stop. Not that good an idea, given they were on the top floor... but she couldn’t really blame him.

“Musubi.” Minato’s voice had that why am I walking up to the bomb tone Matsu had almost gotten used to. “Why do we want Treatment Chi? Seo doesn’t want it. Yukari and I don’t want any more of it.”

“Because Takami was trying to help.” Musubi took Minato’s hand, earnest and worried. “And if she did help, then we need to make sure we can help, too. Think about the other flocks! We’re all stronger than humans. Even Sekirei who can’t fight hard, like Kuno. And Kazehana says wedding nights can get a little rough-”

Minato clapped his hands over Kusano’s ears by sheer reflex. From the way his own were already pink, he was wishing he had another set of hands. Seo’s were already occupied, cupping his face as the layabout sighed.

And Yukari was bright red. Matsu had to stifle an evil chuckle. Musubi was bringing up a potential very real problem.

...Even if it was funny.

“And HYDRA has it too!” Musubi drew her brows down, into a determined frown. “The Professor always said MBI was keeping HYDRA away from us. I remember bits from when Yume rescued Kaho and me. What she and Karasuba had to do... so many people died. Even if they were bad guys. If we’re going to fight for all the Sekirei instead of who’s the strongest, then we should give other flocks the chance to fight, too!”

Kazehana’s smile had turned a bit wistful at the mention of Minaka. “She has a point,” the Wind Sekirei put in. “HYDRA’s willing to throw hundreds of lives away to get their hands on just one of us. If Takami’s found something that works even better than their formula-”

“Better?” Minato sputtered, letting go of Kusano. Whose bright eyes and grin said she probably hadn’t missed a word of it anyway.

“You’re both alive,” Kazehana said dryly. “From the files Matsu has, that’s a significant improvement.”

Yukari’s face lost some of its color.

“Whatever happens, I doubt HYDRA’s forgotten us.” Kazehana leaned back, thoughtful. “They’d want you just because you’re Ashikabi. If they knew you were more than that....” She shrugged, and smiled. “And we can’t ignore love! If strength is a barrier, tear it down!” She grinned at Shiina and Yukari. “There’s nothing more romantic than hearts in love fighting side by side!”

“In truth, it doth ease my heart to know our Ashikabi will not be felled easily,” Tsukiumi mused. Blue eyes widened, and she brought a hand up to her chest, as if the breath had been knocked out of her. “Though - riddle this with me, Matsu! Do we, and Takami before us, not cozen th’ entire purpose of the Sekirei Plan? If ‘tis the core that makes the Sekirei a different creature from humans, and yet the core can be invoked in humans - then the Plan is flawed! To test who would be the strongest of all would be ruin, and destruction, of lives as innocent as the shopgirl who doth barter with us for seaweed!”

The distress on her face was palpable; Matsu could feel it in the sudden dryness of the air around her, as Tsukiumi unconsciously gathered water to hit something. “It’s not just the core,” Matsu ducked her head, “it’s....”

All eyes fixed on her.

Matsu felt the pressure of those gazes, and did her best to ignore it. Wait. Think this through.

“I’m not a biologist,” she said at last. “But - there’s something fishy in what I can figure out from MBI files. We’re compatible with humans. We’re genetically compatible with humans. Takehito’s research says so. If we’re aliens - then that doesn’t make sense!”

“But Matsu says we came on a spaceship,” Kusano piped up. “And humans don’t have spaceships.”

“I know! The evidence says we’re aliens. The biology says we’re not exactly alien. There’s got to be something I don’t know.” Oh, that hurt. “So much we don’t know,” Matsu said softly. “I wish....”

I wish Takehito were still alive. But if he were - none of this would have happened.

“Well, I don’t know about HYDRA,” Minato said firmly. “Outside of, they’re the people who attacked Kamikura Island, right? What can you tell us?”

“Probably enough to give you nightmares,” Matsu said honestly. “Speaking of nightmares - HYDRA is dangerous, but I think the Discipline Squad might be a little closer to catching us. Let me check and see if I can find intelligence on what they’re doing.”

“Why not just turn on the news?” Musubi tilted her head, brightening again. “People in New York haven’t met Sekirei before, right? I bet Karasuba’s all over the TV!”

There was a brief and rather horrified silence.

“Cuteness has a point.” Seo swallowed dryly. “Oh boy.”

“So...” Kazehana rose in a languid sway; Matsu could just barely sense the iron determination keeping 03 casual. “Where did the remote get to?”

Matsu leaned back on her heels as the group started to get up, sensing a ping from her systems. Oh no. Tell me MBI didn’t find one of my search programs-

“Miss Matsu.” The electron flow that was the AI’s voice was level, but she could sense spikes of worry and calculating odds, not good. “I require certain tactical advice. Rather urgently.”


“I’ll spare you the gory details on MBI computer security, let’s leave it at really good and they’ve got a lot,” Tony’s voice came rapid-fire through the little earpiece he’d given Steve before they all took off. “We’ve got some of their older files, though. Won’t be up to date-”

Steve squinted against the rushing wind as he hung on. “Intel never is.”

“And knowing that puts you head and shoulders above most military types I’ve bumped missiles with,” Iron Man quipped back. “Short version. You’re going to need that shield, big-time. Apparently when you boil down everything Sekirei do, it all goes back to energy manipulation. When Karasuba swings that sword, it’s not the steel that’s the dangerous part. She puts her energy into the swing and the slice; that’s what does the real damage. Haihane does the same with her claws, and Benitsubasa does it with punches.”

“So we want to keep them at a distance,” Steve concluded.

“Easier said than done.” Iron Man banked, burning through the sky. “They are fast. And agile. And jump like a flying squirrel on speed. And did I mention fast?”

“Rough estimate?” Hawkeye’s voice broke in.

“Hai and Beni are at least as fast as Cap. Karasuba is faster. They’ve also got - oh, thank you, Jarvis, that makes me feel so much better - people? They’ve got a confirmed homicide count. Lots of HYDRA agents. At least two or three SHIELD agents, and no wonder Fury’s so grumpy.” A breath. “And a couple of Sekirei.”

Steve swallowed, feeling as if ice had dropped into his stomach.

“So they won’t hesitate to attack their own.” Widow sounded more grim than usual.

“It gets worse.” Tony’s voice held a self-mocking edge. “They definitely don’t hesitate to attack Ashikabi. And though the files don’t have info on if this is true - Jarvis cracked a bit out of the studies on the empathic bond. Kill the Ashikabi, kill the Sekirei.”

Bruce’s too-quick breath on the line, underlined by a motorcycle’s growl. “We’re not going to get to you fast enough.”

“Yeah, no, the Chitauri made even New York potholes look puny,” Tony griped. “Keep a lid on it, Bruce, we might need a doctor more than the Big Guy. Need to get us all something that flies, though from that vid choppers aren’t any safer- damn.”

Steve looked down as they rounded a skyscraper. And wished he hadn’t.

Blood. Everywhere.

Cop cars were upended; officers, civilians, and young women in the most fantastic costumes, many clutching exotic weapons, huddled behind them or scattered broken on the ground. Tattered kimono flying, Haihane was slicing at about four other of the girls - who had to be Sekirei - fending off spear, fists, and blades of light all at once. Steve had the sudden image of raw recruits tossed into the front lines, or a basket of kittens desperately trying to fend off a rampaging pit bull; they knew how to fight, but not how to kill.

Benitsubasa was hammering away at a determined black-haired Sekirei in a red-laced white Japanese robe and dark split skirts. Her opponent’s naginata whirled and flashed like sunlight, scoring a slice along the pink-haired fist-fighter’s outer arm before she leapt back and away.

That one does know how to kill, Steve realized. Benitsubasa’s just that good.

A gray shadow of death, Karasuba stood in the open, barely swaying from side to side as bullets blazed through the air around her. Watching.

Fine. Let her watch. “Take the pink one,” Steve said quickly. “Throw me at Haihane-”

It wasn’t so much a throw as a drop with a repulsor-swat added. It worked.

Shield on head made a very satisfying thump.

Or it would have been. Except Haihane was still standing, blinking a little, as her terrified opponents took the chance to scramble back out of reach. The bandaged Sekirei turned to glance at him, surprised. And giggled.

Oh, that’s never good....

He’d really rather not hit a girl. But fighting the Sekirei was more like tangling with a particular bad-tempered Canadian he’d fought with - and alongside - during the War. Only she had metal claws.

Doesn’t stick to the ground, either, Steve thought, in the moment between Haihane vanishing upward and the impact of her feet against his braced shield.

He grinned, sidestepped right, and smashed a punch where he knew her ribs would be.

Bruises my knuckles like James, too. Ow.

Impact was weird, though. Like she was lighter than a woman her size should be-

Claws slashed reflexively across; screeched off his shield. Under gray hair, eyes widened in surprise.

I don’t care what energy you throw at it. Vibranium doesn’t cut.

Come to think of it, that little fact of the universe had made James blink, too.

But he got over it fast - so move faster!

He didn’t like remembering the war. Or Red Skull. Or - well, a lot of things that had happened to the Howling Commandos. But damned if they hadn’t taught him how to fight.

He started by grabbing a knee.

Behind him, an exasperated screech, punctuated by repulsor blasts. “Stay down here, you monkey!”

“Do I look like an idiot?” The helmet speakers rendered Tony’s sarcasm perfectly. “No, never mind, I’m asking the wrong person. Who dresses you funny, anyway?”

“Natsuo likes this!”

Even clawing at Steve to get him loose before he tore something important, Haihane still snickered. “Natsuo doesn’t like you in anything. Gay, remem- oof!”

Haihane was gnawing pavement. For the moment. Right. Down, now get the damn claws locked into each other....

He’s just inhibited! You’ll see! You’ll all see-!”

Ah. Yeah. Steve recognized that particular mechanical whine.

“Now that I have your attention....” Iron Man descended a few feet. Still not in grabbing range. Mini-missiles quite visible. “The Discipline Squad, I presume. Since Cap is busy politely not maiming your buddy there, allow me to lay a few facts on you. We’re the Avengers. You’re in New York. This is our turf. Nobody’s killing anybody.”

Nice thought. Steve held Haihane down, though the claw-wielder was mostly just grumbling now. Something about missing soap? But Death’s standing right over there. And I think you just amused her.

He didn’t even have to look. He could tell where Karasuba was by the direction his neck hairs were pointing. Loki had been evil and death and chaos. Karasuba was just death-

In the distance, he could hear a familiar motorcycle.

Bruce. Thank goodness. Doctor or massive fists of destruction; Steve had a bad feeling they were going to need both of them.

Death was moving.

She’s so fast.

A whisper of a gray cloak, and Karasuba had an eerily gentle hand on a young man’s shoulder. A tracker dangled from her fingers, battered and dusty. “One last time. Where is the Ashikabi of the North?”

Messy black hair. A young face, above a casual jacket, with one of the future’s newfangled computers slung in a satchel over his shoulder. Just an ordinary Japanese teenager, with a smear of someone else’s blood over his eye.

Naginata up in a guard position, the robed girl froze.

MBI wants Minato, Steve realized. If these kids have lasted this long in Minaka’s death game, they know other Ashikabi are their enemies-

Karasuba’s young hostage swallowed, and looked death in the eye. “Even if I knew... I wouldn’t tell you.”

Karasuba smiled.

The naginata flashed. “Get away from him you murdering-!”

“Let’s go.” Yards away, Karasuba snapped her fingers. “We’re done here-”

Eerie gray eyes flickered. Steve didn’t think. He shoved Haihane away, and threw.

Vibranium rang.

Half-covered by the shield, one of the Sekirei fell, bleeding.

Karasuba’s smile gleamed like her blade. “Later.”

A rush like wind, and they were gone.

Flying squirrel, oh boy. Steve peered into the sun, catching a glimpse of the three as they bounded off across the skyline. Tony’s right about needing better transport. It’s going to take all of us if we’re going to stop those three-

“Sango-chan!”

Steve shook himself, and deliberately looked away from their retreating enemies, back to the screams and pain crashing in around them. Another young Japanese man was kneeling down by the fallen girl, trying to put pressure on the deep gash leaking blood and worse on the pavement.

He’d seen wounds that bad in the War. Sometimes people had survived them. Not often.

A familiar battered motorcycle tore into the scene. Bruce didn’t even stop to ask. Just propped up the bike, grabbed a big red aid kit off the back, and sprinted for the blood.

Fast as he was, someone got there first.

Heading for the least-shaken cop he could see to start sorting out the damage, Steve had to pause and blink. The young, dark-haired man in glasses with his own black bag and an almost rifle-long case slung on his shoulder was startling enough. The strawberry blonde kneeling down with him, hands alight with blue-gold energy... um.

He might have been frozen for seventy years. He might still be mourning Peggy, and the date they’d never have. But he was still a guy, and he wasn’t dead.

...Hello, Nurse!


“Call 911,” Bruce directed the hysterical boyfriend. Partner, Ashikabi, whatever; he knew hysterics when he saw them and that was not going to help. “Stop the bleeding, we can let the trauma surgeons handle the rest-”

“Are you a doctor?” The blonde blinked at him, the flow of blood slowing as light from her hands bathed the wound.

“Medic,” Bruce admitted. And maybe he’d better not get into how much of that was self-training, and how much of the rest was medical practice gained in too many back alleys and bare shacks with dirt floors. “My name’s Bruce. Whatever you’re doing, keep at it. What’s your name?”

“Number 94, Chisuru!” Her smile was shy, warming as she glanced at the young man taking their patient’s pulse. “But Sakichi’s been teaching me. He’s going to be a real doctor.”

“Sakichi Ishida.” Black eyes seemed even darker with concentration, as Sakichi rattled off vitals at a quick, steady pace. His English was accented, but far from the worst Bruce had ever deciphered. “I’m an intern.... This is bad.”

“I’m sorry.” Steve was holding the boyfriend back as he picked up his shield. Broad shoulders slumped in regret. “If I’d been a little faster-”

“It’s not your fault!” Chisuru glanced up at him, distressed; then back at her gasping patient. “That was Number 04. Karasuba. No one’s that fast! Where are the helicopters?”

“No MBI helicopters,” Sakichi muttered, applying pressure where he could. “Not here.” Black eyes met Bruce’s, just for an instant.

We’re going to lose her.

Bruce shoved the pain down, deliberately looking around the street to see who else he could help. Smashing more buildings wouldn’t save this girl’s life. Holding his temper might save others.

Fast Japanese from the couple; upset on her side, determined on his. Bruce flicked his gaze back in time to see Sakichi lay the patient’s arm over the pressure pad, holding out his pleading hand to Chisuru.

A swift rustle of silk, and a dark-haired Sekirei brandished a very sharp spear-thing in the air. “Fear not, sister! I, Kaho, Number 87, shall stand guard with your Ashikabi while you are in peril!”

In peril? Bruce felt his pulse jump, and latched it down. What else was about to drop on their heads?

Sakichi leaned in, and kissed Chisuru.

Light bloomed from her like dragonfly wings, spreading and reaching for the sky. Bruce didn’t know enough Japanese to pick out her soft whisper, but he could feel the sincerity of it, the promise....

Light fell over them like golden rain.

It was like waking up from a rare, restful night. Bruce breathed in, feeling the simmering anger in his veins drop to just a blood-warm heat. As if all were finally okay with the world, despite their patient-

I don’t believe it.

Light was gathering in the open wound, sinking into flesh and bone like real rain. Before his eyes torn tissues flushed healthy pink, knitting together flesh and muscle and all the intricate bits that had been badly slashed intestines. Renewed coils snaked back into their proper places, lost to sight behind protective layers of membrane, muscle, skin....

A thin red line remained under the pressure pad, like a newly-healed scar. Their patient took one breath. Another. Coughed, and sat shakily upright, even as her Ashikabi gathered her into a babbling embrace.

Pale, Chisuru wavered.

Sakichi gathered her up with his left arm before she fell, face set and worried. His right hand gripped a wooden sword, and bleak black eyes said he had every intention of using it on anyone who even sneezed near his Sekirei.

“It’s okay,” Bruce said swiftly, glancing at a stunned Captain America until Steve gave them all a firm nod. “We’re here to help. Is she hurt?”

“Just tired.” Sakichi glanced at his kit. At the rest of the injured scattered around the battlefield; startled and elated, most feeling at injuries no longer there, but some still bleeding. Winced, obviously torn.

No one should hurt like that. “I’ll look after her,” Bruce promised. “If you don’t mind, Chisuru?”

“As will I!” Kaho straightened her shoulders. “And Orihiko will not falter, either!”

A pale, messy-haired teen who might as well have had computer geek inked across his forehead with the dried blood made his way over to them, and took Kaho’s free hand. “Hey, Sakichi. Chisuru. And if this will help - sure. Though really, I just... well, I throw a mean soda can?”

Chisuru smiled at all of them, almost rubbing at tired eyes before she caught herself. “If people come to us, I can still help with bandages?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Bruce made himself smile back. I just hope you don’t regret it. There’s so much blood.

The Hulk stirred at the scent of it, restless with bad memories. But only stirred. There was no pressure, no holding on by his fingernails panic as he fought to keep the monster contained. Chisuru’s light had promised everything will be all right, and the gleam of Kaho’s long-bladed spear promised any enemies would be filleted.

And I believe them, Bruce realized, startled. Why do I believe them?

There was blood, and Hulk didn’t like blood. But he was safe, and the beast within seemed to shrug, and leave it at that.

It helped when Tony touched down and ran interference with cops that had gotten enough breath back to start yelling. And when Widow and Barton pulled in to the cracked sidewalk and started sorting the remaining wounded; getting those who needed help now to Sakichi or their improvised aid station, and herding the walking wounded out of the street to wait for the ambulances wailing this way. He hadn’t known any of the team long, but they’d trusted him. Like they were trusting him now.

The flow of injuries slowed to a trickle, and Kaho let her spear rest on her shoulder long enough to grip Orihiko’s hand. “That was so brave.” She pulled him into half a hug. “And so stupid! That was 04, what were you thinking....”

“That she was Number 04,” the hacker admitted, just a little red in his cheeks. “She was going to kill me, or not. It depended on how bored she was. So I might as well go out stubborn.”

“Man after my own heart.” Iron Man didn’t raise his visor, even as he and Steve joined the loose circle of protection around them. “Bruce? Let us know if you need a break.”

Irrigating another pretty girl’s scrapes before Chisuru moved in with bandages, Bruce gave him a shadow of a smile. Ow. Made his face hurt a little. “I’m good. A little tired, but okay.”

Red-and-gold armor shrugged. “You’re the doc.”

Bruce had to stop squeezing his irrigation bottle a moment, startled. Tony trusted him. That easily. Just as easily as Iron Man would have snatched him up if he’d admitted he was losing it, to toss him somewhere Hulk wouldn’t do as much damage.

Tony trusted him. Barton was only keeping half an eye on him. And Widow hadn’t even drawn one of her guns, despite the nervous and uncertain looks she was getting from some of the Sekirei. He’d said he was in control, and the Avengers believed him.

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to stay another day, Bruce thought, as a tired Sakichi made his way back to Chisuru, wooden sword stowed over his shoulder. Just to read the Sekirei data. Bio isn’t really Tony’s field. He could use the help.

Orihiko was eyeing Widow as if red hair brought back odd memories. Flicked a glance at Iron Man, and Steve’s star-spangled uniform, and Barton’s deadly bow-

Glanced back at Bruce, and did a startled double-take. “Dr. Banner?”

Bruce felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. Oh no.

“It’s all right!” Chisuru gripped Sakichi’s arm to pull herself upright, bosom swaying. “Really, it is. You just surprised him.” She frowned at Orihiko. “Why are you surprised?”

“The last files I got to snoop through said SHIELD wasn’t sure the Avengers Initiative would get off the ground,” Orihiko admitted. And bowed to him. “Dr. Banner, my name is Orihiko Oosumi. And you wouldn’t believe how glad we are to meet all of you.” He raised his voice, and beckoned in strays. “Minna-san!”

“It’s okay, he’s just telling everyone who we are.” Tony raised his visor to give Bruce a relaxed grin. “How about that? The hackers already know the Avengers on sight.”

Widow frowned.

“All he’s said is you and Arrowlad’s code names, relax,” Tony stated. “Bruce? You have this weird look, like someone hit you with a feather pillow when you weren’t looking.”

Which brought up at least one tabloid story he’d read about billionaire Tony Stark and feather pillows. Bruce snickered. “I’m fine. It’s just-” Okay, it was a little weird. “They don’t feel dangerous.”

Barton raised both brows at that.

“Empaths,” Steve said thoughtfully, looking directly at Sakichi. “In the sci-fi magazines, that was people who could feel emotions, and sometimes project them. That’s what some of our briefing said you could do?”

Sakichi clutched Chisuru as if he was torn between bolting with her and fainting in sheer relief. “You know? Someone knows what’s happened to us?”

What’s happened to us, Bruce noted. Not, what we are. Sakichi might be speaking English as a second language, but Bruce doubted he’d messed up his choice of phrase that badly. SHIELD says they were latent empaths. But they didn’t know that.

“Sakichi wouldn’t hurt you,” Chisuru said firmly. “If he were going to try, he’d hit you over the head with his bokken. He’s really good with it! But he’s not, because you came to help, and you don’t want to hurt us. So we’re all going to be grownups and behave.” Her smile was hopeful. “And maybe we can even be friends? Sekirei can be scary too, and - it hurts when people are afraid of us.”

Bruce felt his jaw drop. It wasn’t possible. They’d be screaming and running. Only Tony didn’t run, and the rest of the Avengers hadn’t, and these people might be at least as crazy. “...You know who I am.”

Bright-eyed, Chisuru nodded.

“Sometimes our adjusters spoke to us of other metahumans, during sessions.” Kaho was studying him with great interest. “We had no manga about you, as we did of Captain America - those were great help learning English! - but what I saw seemed like someone who didn’t hit unless someone hit him first.” She stepped closer to Orihiko, looking shyly down. “When everyone’s feeling better, do you think we could-”

“No sparring with strangers!” Orihiko said hastily, putting himself between them. “Not unless they ask for it!” Please, don’t ask! that alarmed gaze said.

Kaho looked like someone had denied her a puppy. “Aww.”

Bruce had to shake his head, not sure he was hearing right. When did I fall down the rabbit hole?

“Man, you weren’t kidding about needing an army.” The accent was Brooklyn, smoothed out by years in Manhattan; the balding man in a suit and dusty trenchcoat making his way across the bloodstained pavement might as well have had cop written all over him.

Tony’s helmet tilted. “Detective Lieutenant Cascio, right?”

“Iron Man. Captain,” the detective nodded at Steve. “Mr. Oosumi and his associates ran into some of my men on their way to clock in. Said they had problems, army-sized problems, and they didn’t know who to call. We did what we could, but....” The detective grimaced. “DA’s going to love this. Yesterday’s alien-smashers picked today to take out some cops. What a mess.”

“It’s not all of us.” Orihiko glanced at the survivors, shoulders tight under his jacket. “The Discipline Squad - they work for MBI. And MBI wants us back.”

“I know it’s not you, kid.” The detective’s smile had rough, tired edges. “Caught some of your crew on the news yesterday, after the sky stopped falling. You did what you could. There’s people all over this city alive because of that. Heck, I know a sergeant over in the 51st who’s going to get to go home in a few days because of one of your healer guys and a giant rosebush... what?”

Good question, Bruce thought, as the gathered Sekirei and Ashikabi traded startled looks.

Steve took a step forward, trying to look harmlessly interested. Succeeding pretty well for a guy his size, Bruce thought. “Could we talk to this sergeant?” Steve asked politely.

“Sergeant Montoya?” Lieutenant Cascio looked surprised, then thoughtful. “She got slammed by one of the fliers. She’s over in that special clinic they set up near Times Square, for people who got zapped, in case the docs need to do anything about weird symptoms.”

“Special clinic?” Iron Man’s voice was almost too casual.

“It’s a SHIELD facility,” Black Widow acknowledged. “We borrowed an office building. We have medics with experience in some of the energies involved.”

The Tesseract, Bruce realized. SHIELD was playing with that for years. Bad idea.

“We’d like to offer you sanctuary there for a few days,” the black-clad agent went on. “In case the Discipline Squad makes another attempt.”

“Probably a given.” Tony’s voice was dry. “I know crazy, and Karasuba’s a special flavor of homicidal. They’ll be back.”

“And if they are....” Sakichi looked at still-stained hands as if he wanted to be sick. “No. We can’t do that to innocent people.”

“Innocent, hell,” Cascio snarled. “We’re cops. You did the right thing.” He grimaced. “But we’re not gonna be able to stop those three. Not twice.”

“And SHIELD’s a lot more heavily armed,” Steve said plainly. He glanced at Widow, then Barton. “No one’s going to try to keep you anywhere-”

Widow nodded. Barton smirked. “Like I’d want to try. I hate kidnappers.”

“-but if we can keep you safe a few more days, that should give my team the chance to track down the Discipline Squad ourselves,” Steve said firmly. “On our terms.”

Chapter Text

“Damn.” Sitting up on a hospital cot in one of what had been side offices, Sergeant Elisa Montoya looked at some of the Midtown South photos Barton had on his cell phone. “No wonder they told us not to try stopping those guys.”

“They warned you?” Steve glanced at Sakichi as the intern read through Montoya’s charts, then at Chisuru as she placed her hands over the cop’s bandaged thigh to sense the wound. The rest of the Avengers plus Orihiko and Kaho had managed to wedge themselves in; according to the doctors in charge, the officer didn’t need medical equipment as much as a place to stay lying down while her injury healed. The other Sekirei and Ashikabi were down in the SHIELD clinic’s cafeteria, apparently more than willing to stay put and rest behind people with very big guns. “They who?”

“I was fading in and out, but yeah.” Montoya tugged at her blue hospital gown’s collar, evidently missing her uniform radio. “Roarke left me a note. Sweet guy.... Here, take a look. I was bored with paperwork anyway.”

She offered a thin computer for them to look at; a tablet, Steve remembered SHIELD personnel calling it. Front and center among all the little icons was a wide photograph of about a dozen... really oddly dressed people.

Well, not any worse than the ones we’ve met, Steve admitted. Here, standing tensed and ready in a crater-pocked street, were the people Jarvis had shown them; Minato, Yukari, Seo, and all the Sekirei bound to them. All dusty, weary, and determined; he could see that in the way Minato was hanging on tight to little blonde Kusano on his shoulder.

And in the middle of them was one redhead with a lovely pink dress and old-fashioned round glasses. Who was that? She hadn’t been in the briefing.

“We thought they were tourists,” Montoya admitted, grinning a little at herself. “Or maybe a few strays from the sci-fi convention. Then the real aliens hit us - and they hit back.” She touched a few other icons. “Precinct’s been getting video from all the cars and mini-cams that were there, and asking anybody who filmed stuff to send it in. This is one of the best so far.”

The sound was lousy, but Steve had heard enough of the alien blasts to imagine the hail of purple fire strafing the fallen bus. Musubi jumped into the picture, white and red and bouncing-

And tore the side of the bus away in one long ribbon of screeching metal.

What the-!

The sisters at the orphanage probably would have washed his mouth out with soap at even the thought of the words that sprang to mind. He was strong. Incredibly strong. But that? That ought to be impossible.

For anyone but the Hulk, Steve realized. Oh no. No wonder Orihiko stopped Kaho from asking Bruce. She was serious!

Impossible or not, Musubi dove into the opening; jumping out seconds later with Minato and a little girl hanging onto him for dear life.

The camera swiveled to follow her as she bounced back away from the wreck - then jerked around to track an oncoming group of fliers.

Oh, that’s so not good-

Lightning lashed from two directions into the flight, a whirlwind roaring up to smash the one not sparking from the sky. The image yanked down to follow the crash into a pile of previously crashed fliers, torn and twisted, some pierced with thorns.

“It’s a gauntlet,” Steve breathed, listening to flames hiss above the line of sight. “They’re not just bringing them down, they’re making a barricade....”

Cops and a few civilians had taken advantage of the wall of alien metals, shooting at advancing Chitauri ground troops in grim, almost-steady volleys. Maybe not perfect, maybe not soldiers, but he could see the line they’d drawn: this far, no further.

But there were a lot of Chitauri, and one was making it over the wall-

...Ow.

Granted, the Chitauri were alien. And the enemy. And maybe not even male. He winced along with Shiina, as Yukari took her shots and yelled something defiant in Japanese.

Tony choked. And cackled. Black Widow smiled.

Steve eyed the two native Japanese-speakers in the room, as Orihiko’s eyes widened and Sakichi clapped a hand to cover his face. “I hate to ask....”

“Interdimensional tentacle perverts!” Tony gasped. “Oh, I have got to find out if she’s looking for a job.”

“That’s what she said?” Montoya snickered. “Man, that explains a lot.”

“Actually, what she said was,” Tony bent down, and whispered something Steve tried very hard not to listen to.

“A fate worse than....” Montoya cracked up. “Explains the freak-outs.”

Kaho touched Orihiko’s shoulder. “What is a tentacle pervert?”

“Something you can maim on sight,” the hacker said firmly.

“Devil Ashikabi,” Sakichi muttered.

Steve shook his head at the snickers, and eyed Widow and Barton. “Do you see that?”

“They set up a kill zone.” The sniper was eyeing the frozen video; reached out to touch the tablet and rewind it back to where the camera had first tried to track the falling flyer. “Amateurs. Angle could have been better. If the fight had gone on much longer they’d have had sun in their eyes.”

“But for an improvised defense of civilians - very determined amateurs,” Widow agreed. “They will have learned from this.” She glanced at Montoya. “Who was their leader?”

“Believe it or not? This kid.” The sergeant tapped Minato’s photo. “Minato Sahashi. Though I wouldn’t call him in charge, yes sir, no sir. Came to fighting, his friends seemed to know what they were doing. It was more like, when the aliens changed up what they were doing, he was the one they looked at for what should we do now. So when he said trouble would be after them....” She took another look at Chisuru, and half-shrugged. “Like I said, I was fading in and out; one of those damn fliers came down on top of me, and... it was messy. But Roarke says they didn’t say much. Just, very dangerous people. And pretty much that we should look out for ourselves; they were planning to be gone.” She glanced at the Avengers. “And maybe two seconds after someone got that photo? They were. Never seen anyone jump like that.”

“...I think we have,” Steve admitted. So it’s not just the Disciplinary Squad. He tried not to grimace. Tony’s right. We need something that flies.

“I bet you did.” The sergeant whistled through her teeth, and pointed at Karasuba’s image. “I got a call from our desk sergeant that she came right into the station, all cool and polite. Pardon me, innocent foreigner, butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth attitude. Looking for her lost relatives.”

“And the 51st handed evidence over?” Tony had lifted the visor, face cool and calm and calculating.

Montoya spread an empty hand. “After they swabbed it and photog’d, yeah, they did. Those people were getting set to hold off a nuclear bomb. And they were scared? Whoever was chasing them was bad news.”

Bruce stiffened. “Wait... what bomb?”

Steve saw Orihiko and Sakichi pale, and found himself taking a deep breath. He’d been poking through the history he’d missed since crashing into the Arctic. Finding out about nuclear weapons had not been fun; finding out no one had ever used that kind of weapon since had been an incredible relief.

No one had. Until yesterday.

“Yeah, you kind of missed it,” Tony said, almost lightly. “Somebody flipped out. And they are going to regret it.”

Damn right they will, Steve thought. What a mess.

“Flipped out, huh?” Montoya said bitterly. “Yeah, I can believe it. The whole world was crazy. You were out there; you saw. Aliens. In New York.”

“Yes, but... oh my god.” Bruce shuddered. “And those kids seriously had a plan to stop the bomb?”

“They didn’t get too specific,” the sergeant said frankly. “And I didn’t ask. Minato thought they could save everybody inside a block. Maybe. So I was a little busy.”

Getting everyone you could into the safe zone, Steve thought bleakly. Trying not to think about how many you couldn’t save.

God. He was so, so grateful he’d been able to fight the Chitauri, rather than play defense. That must have torn her apart.

Natasha’s left hand curled, elegant fingers almost toying with the deadly bracers wrapping her wrists. “So Minato said he could stop a bomb. And you believed him?”

Montoya took a deep, angry breath... and let it sigh out, leaning back against the head of her cot as if everything ached all over again. “Ma’am, I’ve seen more liars in one shift than you could pack into a law firm. That kid couldn’t have lied if you gift-wrapped the story and gave him a suit and a teleprompter. Did I think he could do it? No. But I damn well believed he was about to die trying.” Her shoulders shifted; a minimal shrug. “What else could we do? Run? There was nowhere to run to.”

“No,” the redhead admitted. “We were lucky.”

“That’s one word for it.” Montoya gave Tony a searching look. “Did you really carry a nuke into another dimension?”

“Not one of my more fun days, no,” Tony admitted. “But like they say, it beats the alternative. How did you know?”

The sergeant grinned a little. “The same way we knew there was a nuke in the first place. One of Minato’s friends; she must have had some kind of tech power. She was hacking satellites in the middle of the street with aliens attacking all around us. With her brain, as far as I could see.” Montoya chuckled. “When you headed for the sky? I thought she was about to break out the pom-poms.” The hospital gown rustled as she shrugged. “I don’t remember much after that. Something fell out of the sky on top of me.” She waved Chisuru’s direction. “So how’s it look, Nurse?”

“Interesting.” Chisuru glanced at Sakichi, then looked around the rest of them. “When I heal... people are energy, not just blood and tissue. I touch the energy, find the ragged spots where the physical body is hurt, and fix them. That fixes everything else.” Blonde brows drew down in concentration. “The person who did this... I don’t think they have a lot of practice. It’s like the difference between sunlight and a laser. This healer put in a little bit of energy everywhere. They tried to focus, they got most of it into your wound, but not all of it.” Mischief sparked in blue eyes. “But I bet you won’t get another tension headache for a while!”

“I got amateur night? Oh, yay.” Though there wasn’t any real bite in Montoya’s tone. “Well, if you run into him, tell Minato he’s got a couple paramedics who want him to go for training. Deep artery bleeds-” She whistled. “The docs say I was that close to signing up for harps and wings. I can’t do that yet, I’ve still got rookies to harass.”

The Sekirei and Ashikabi had all started at her words. “So Detective Cascio wasn’t mistaken,” Orihiko muttered. “Minato?”

And Steve got it, and felt like an idiot. Sekirei have powers. Ashikabi are empaths. But the sergeant thinks Minato healed her?

Though if he had, what Minato and Musubi had been up to made even more sense. Musubi’s strength probably made her a short-range fighter; the Chitauri would have had to be almost on top of her before she could hurt them. Better to leave the fighting to the long-range powers, and team up that strength with a healer, even if he wasn’t good yet, to pull victims out alive.

And they set that up with people screaming all around them. Not bad at all. “Are there a lot of healers in the Sekirei?” Steve asked, trying not to sound angry. One of the bravest guys he’d ever met had never picked up a gun. Mike Stone had been a Quaker, sworn to nonviolence, and when the draft had scooped him up he’d volunteered to drag wounded men off the field while the bullets were still flying. If Minaka had forced healers into his death game....

I don’t know what I can do to him, yet. But he’s going to regret this.

“Most of us don’t know each other very well,” Chisuru admitted. “But I don’t think so. If there were a lot of healers, then Higa....” She shivered.

Sakichi wrapped his arms around her, black eyes fierce. “It’s over. He won’t send people after you again.”

Widow’s stillness was like her namesake, the spider poised to strike. “Izumi Higa. Did he hurt you?”

Clinging to Sakichi, Chisuru shook her head. “He... he never came near me. But his Sekirei, they tried to - to take me back for him, before I could meet Sakichi, before I could ask the one I wanted....”

“Take you back?” Bruce looked as uneasy as Steve felt.

Kaho’s hand in his, Orihiko glanced at Tony. “Someone I contacted said SHIELD... had information on winging.”

“We know a little,” Tony allowed. “Girl meets guy, girl kisses guy, girl and guy caught up in death game from hell?”

“Death game?” Montoya surged up in her cot. “When I get out of here-!”

“Heal up first, take down corrupt CEOs later,” Barton advised her. “We have a plan.” The archer’s gaze fixed on Orihiko. “I take it we’re short some intel.”

“Some Ashikabi didn’t wait for Sekirei to find them,” Orihiko stated. “They went hunting.”

“Please tell me that’s not what it sounds like,” Bruce said faintly.

Orihiko shook his head. Sakichi looked away.

Chisuru touched his hand. “It’s okay. I knew you thought about it. I’m not a fighter.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Sakichi admitted. “Not to you. And not to... whoever else we might have found.”

The blonde covered his hand with hers, smile warm. “Well, if you could, you wouldn’t be Sakichi!” She leaned in and hugged him. “And you wouldn’t have helped 06 fight Higa’s girls off, and we never would have met. But you’re you, and we did. So don’t worry about it.”

Steve fought the urge to clear his throat. Obviously, those two were not thinking about everyone else in the room.

Kaho stepped forward, her sleeves sweeping a bit of privacy between them. “That is why we offered our aid when we met on the plane to this city. To leave a healer to fight alone - that is dishonorable, and stupid.”

“And we knew we’d need healers,” Orihiko nodded. “Minaka caught me the last time I hacked MBI, but I could find some information from other systems. Just breadcrumbs, but... I had enough to make me think someone might have a plan.”

And someone obviously had. “Minato’s people are running from the Discipline Squad, and I can’t blame them,” Steve said frankly. “I just wish we could help.”

“Sorry,” Orihiko spread empty hands. “I have no idea where they are. Hopefully far away from here.”

Tony was oddly still; which, Steve suspected, meant he didn’t agree at all.

Huh. On the one hand - if I knew that was coming after me, and I wasn’t a soldier, I’d find a foxhole and pull it in after me, Steve admitted to himself. On the other... this is New York. There’s a lot of places to hide. And SHIELD is right here.

Orihiko might know more than he was saying. Maybe.

But we’re not going to get farther until people can trust each other more, Steve decided. “Thanks for the report, Sergeant. Call us if something goes wrong.”

“Better believe it,” Montoya nodded. “No more alien invasions, ‘kay? Not ‘til I’m back on my feet.”

“We’ll do our best,” Tony said, straight-faced.

Steve waited a second for the besotted pair to realize he was looming, then clapped a hand on Sakichi’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go get something to eat. Fighting takes a lot out of you, even when you’re used to it.” And being a good medic took more. But he doubted Sakichi would admit that.

“I wouldn’t say I’m used to it,” Sakichi admitted as they filed out into the hall and started heading downstairs. “We tried to stay in the clinics most of the time. They were neutral ground. No one was allowed to attack there.”

“And when you couldn’t?” Widow glanced over her shoulder at him, waiting for truth or lies.

Sakichi reddened. “If someone tried to challenge Chisuru, I went after their Ashikabi. I think I’ve beaten up more people in the past few months than I have in my whole life.”

Bruce winced.

Steve hid a frown; just because Bruce had very good reasons to avoid violence, didn’t mean he ought to apply that to everybody-

“Ishida?” Tony had dropped the visor again, but the slightly mechanized voice was thoughtful. “I wish I could tell you the adrenaline goes away. It doesn’t. But you can get it to gear down, with some peace and quiet.” He paused. “Normal’s overrated, anyway.”

“I guess we’ll have to get used to that,” Sakichi said unhappily. “If Ashikabi are starting to develop powers....”

“It might just be those with multiple Sekirei,” Orihiko spoke up. “The only one I’ve heard of doing anything odd before today is Seo. And he has the Thunder Twins-”

Two stomachs growled. Kaho’s cheeks pinked, and she tried to look as innocent as anyone carrying a naginata could.

Barton swept forward to cover the last door between them and the cafeteria; Iron Man opened it with a butler’s flourish, exuding upper-class charm even through armor. “Ladies. Your repast awaits.”

The Sekirei weren’t quite as fast as the Discipline Squad had been. But Kaho and Chisuru were through that door in a blur, chattering happily in Japanese as they headed for a row of tables with shell-shocked cafeteria workers behind them.

Steve followed them in just far enough to watch the four of them start eyeing the food on offer, then looked over the crowd. And sighed in relief.

I love New York.

It looked like anyone and everyone who’d tangled with an alien weapon was here. Bandaged stockbrokers were trading market tips with street buskers, tired SHIELD agents were getting backrubs from a muscled masseur, and in one corner an older gentleman with a priest’s collar and stitches on one brow was holding forth on the Epistles to the Galatians for a tattooed crowd of gang members.

He could pick out the Sekirei like parakeets in a flock of pigeons. But lose the weapons, the odd costumes - they might have been any bunch of girls out with their boyfriends on a group date, by turns shy and smiling at each other.

Steve took a deep breath of hot dogs and lasagna, and smiled. Maybe it’s been decades. But it’s still my country.

“Want to grab a snack?” Barton said thoughtfully, not quite looking at the head cook in her hairnet. “Think they want to talk to us.”

Yes they did. And he certainly wasn’t going to pass up a chance at some good, fresh apples. “Ma’am?” Steve said politely as they approached. “Is there something we can help with?”

The cook looked over them all, mostly focused on the two SHIELD agents, and brandished a neat paper list. “I know we just want cleared personnel in here, but I need reinforcements. Four more kitchen helpers, stat. Or at least somebody to do a supply run.”

Widow frowned. “I would have thought you were properly provisioned.”

“I was, Agent Romanov,” the cook said wryly. “Then the girls came in. We’re not running short yet, but I’d like to head it off.” She frowned. “And for some reason if I try ordering stuff online, the authorization isn’t always going through.”

Steve was not going to look at Tony.

“They eat as much as Thor.” Bruce was staring at some of the Sekirei’s trays in disbelief. “Where are they putting all that?”

“Don’t know, but none of their boyfriends seem surprised,” the cook noted.

Steve had to smile at that. Not all the War’s memories were bad. “Well, you tend to work up an appetite when you’re saving people from the bad guys....”

Waaaait a minute.

Steve eyed Iron Man. Glowing blue eyeslits eyed him back.

“Right,” Tony said firmly. “Facebook time. And the object of our search will be the awestruck posts about the buxom buffet raider-babes from hell.”


“We can’t go back to another buffet,” Minato said, determined to hold firm even against Musubi’s sparkling eyes. “People will notice.”

She deflated, apparently resigned to Seo’s cooking until she learned how to make more than just curry. “But they say it’s all you can eat!”

“Not if all you can eat breaks the table.” Smirking, Seo set down bowls of odd-looking dark rice to go with the greens and salmon. Wild rice blend, he’d announced when he’d started on lunch. Local stuff. Try it. “This isn’t Shinto Teito. One at a time, in civilian clothes, people might not notice you in a restaurant. Maybe. I wouldn’t count on it.”

“One at a time they’re more likely to notice us,” Matsu corrected him. “The only reason you and the twins have gone this long without getting arrested is that people tend to look past Sekirei when we’re not actually using really visible powers. Especially if there’s a bunch of us. But that works best when people really don’t want to see weird things in the first place.... and New York just got hit by an army of aliens. Before the Discipline Squad made the news. A regular SEP aura is just not going to cut it.” She shrugged, tapping on a tablet. “And we shouldn’t be out alone anyway. I’ve moved our funds through enough different accounts that anyone from MBI who tries tracing them should run right into the FBI, the CIA, or the Russian Mafia. Kakizaki’s information Sekirei may have the same powers I do, but there’s no way she has as much hacking experience. MBI shouldn’t be able to track us. Not through money.” She nudged her glasses up. “But it’s not just MBI who might track us that way.”

Minato gulped a breath, then deliberately let it out. Food first. Then worry.

They dug in. He never would have guessed something that looked like rice could taste nutty this way.

Who’s going to break first?

Tsukiumi stabbed a chopstick through a hapless piece of kale. “’Twas craven of us to let the Discipline Squad wreak havoc on unprotected humans, whilst we ourselves remained snug and safe as a denned fox!”

“We didn’t.” Matsu’s tone took the impact like hard water, unyielding. “I have a... friend, who’s very good with computers.” Her glasses gleamed, suggestive and evil. “He gave the Avengers all the information we had on them. That probably saved people’s lives.” She stared pointedly at Tsukiumi. “Right now, MBI lawyers are getting hauled down to Midtown South to explain why their clients aren’t cooperating with the police to resolve some nasty little assault charges, and every cop and hospital in town has been warned who the Squad are and what they look like. That’s a lot more help than we could have ever been just by showing up.” She leaned back on her heels. “Unless you really think we could have killed them? Because right now, Karasuba won’t stop for anything less. We have something Minaka wants. Us. And we can’t fight MBI and homicide charges. We don’t have the time, and we can’t afford to have SHIELD after us too. They might not have as much funding as they used to, but there are a lot of them.”

“Pfff! You say this SHIELD has never truly confronted Minaka before,” Tsukiumi waved it off. “Why should we concern ourselves with them now?”

“Because we’re going to need them, if we want to stop MBI,” Minato said reluctantly. “We can’t do it on our own. The company’s too big. There’s too many people who could get hurt.”

“People are going to get hurt, no matter what.” Seo gave him a frank stare. “Only thing we can do is try to limit the damage to the ones who deserve it.” He eyed Yukari.

Minato flinched, expecting an explosion.

His sister said nothing. Just kept murdering her lunch.

Matsu’s right. She is in trouble. “Mom’s looking after hurt Sekirei,” Minato reminded her. “No matter what else happens, that’s going to be in her favor when the courts sort out the mess. We can’t protect her from everything; she’s working with Minaka, and he has to go down-”

Yukari’s glare shot up to meet his gaze. “What makes you think any of this is going to get near a court?”

Ouch. “Because it has to,” Minato answered. “We deserve a normal life, all of us. Going to college, getting a job, paying the rent. Not hiding from spy satellites and the Discipline Squad and not even being able to take a train with the most important people in our lives!”

Kusano looked up from her bowl, and beamed at him.

...He was not going to blush. He wasn’t. Even if that smile together with :belief in big brother!: was near-lethal levels of cute.

“So we could be normal like the Avengers?” On her second bowl, Musubi looked cheered. “That would be neat! We have to meet them. They’re so strong; I’d love to challenge them!”

“Indeed!” Tsukiumi raised a triumphant fist. “’Twould be a worthy battle, with honorable foes!”

....Aaand there went the fiery battle auras. When had this become his life? “Um, guys,” Minato tried.

“Ooo, Matsu’s files said Hawkeye could read the wind.” An elegant finger tapped against Kazehana’s lips; :intrigued amusement: shimmered on the breeze. “I wonder how well those arrows can fight it?”

“Kuu wants to fight, too!” Green eyes were blazing with predatory determination, like a kitten after a butterfly.

Of course she did. What kind of example was he setting for a little girl? “Guys,” Minato tried again, looking at Seo for support.

Only the older Ashikabi was sandwiched between grinning Lightning Twins, with the look of a guy going down with his rowboat. “I wonder how much lightning that armor can take?” Hibiki smirked.

A spark flashed between Hikari’s fingers. “Wonder how much Thor can take.”

Kagari was snickering behind his food, :amusement: giving away what his straight face tried to hide.

Not helping! Minato mouthed at him. :Exasperation. Why?:

:Laughter at sisters. Be strong. Kittens pouncing paaaatient mommy-cat’s tail.:

:Not. Helping.:

“I wouldn’t mind crossing electron flows with Iron Man myself.” Matsu looked dreamy-eyed at the prospect, then heaved a reluctant sigh. “Maybe later. After we’ve handled MBI. And - other problems.”

“’Tis true; ‘twould not be honorable to so distract them from their own duties to their protectorate whilst the Discipline Squad remains a peril,” Tsukiumi allowed. “We shall deal with them, shall we not, mine husband?”

“We will,” Minato promised. He didn’t know exactly how, yet, but they’d have to. “Right now, though, it might be good for all of us if they’re still loose out there. They’re obvious. A lot of people are going to be watching what they do. SHIELD, the cops, the Avengers... and HYDRA.”

Shiina started. “HYDRA?”

Right; HYDRA’s operations were horror stories for young Sekirei, Minato reminded himself. Matsu had toned hers down a little, but filling in the Ashikabi on what she knew about HYDRA had been enough to distract them even from Karasuba on TV. “If anyone can tangle with HYDRA and come out in one piece, the Discipline Squad can do it.”

“I know, but....” Shiina shuddered. “People are going to die.”

“Minaka knew that the moment we all left Shinto Teito,” Matsu said darkly. “With MBI we were hard targets. Now we’re not. HYDRA will try something.” She straightened her shoulders. “And when they do, they’re going to go after SHIELD’s network. And my friend and I will be watching.”

Shiina nodded reluctantly. “And if HYDRA’s already busy trying to catch the Discipline Squad - you can hack their computers to help Yukari?” He frowned. “But why would HYDRA be going after SHIELD when they want Sekirei....” He paled.

Which was about when the yen dropped for most of the others, Minato guessed, judging by the sudden flurry of wide eyes and gasps. Yukari was going to rip a strip off him for this part of the plan. And he deserved it.

“Use the Sekirei hiding with SHIELD as bait.” Seo whistled. “Cold, Matsu.” He shrugged, every inch gangster-cynical. “Then again, I still don’t know what you did to persuade that JAL pilot to sneak you on as a stewardess so MBI wouldn’t find you.”

“Gave him a heads-up which of the tuna he’d be ferrying back that he should put a bet on,” Matsu said impishly. “It’s amazing what you can dig out of American fisheries records.” Her glasses glinted, momentarily opaque. “Nobody deserves to be targeted by HYDRA. But those Sekirei are going to be in danger no matter what, and we might as well use that. HYDRA wouldn’t have lasted this long if they weren’t really good at hiding. If I’m going to find them - if we’re going to find them fast enough, so we can hack out the data we need on the serum and use it to fix what Takami screwed up - right now, this is our best option.”

And... that was the wrong thing to say, Minato could feel Yukari bristle at the implication that Mom had made a mistake. “Shiina’s helping me,” his sister said defiantly. “We don’t need to risk innocent people!”

“I don’t want to risk them either.” Shiina reached out, gripping her forearm to hide any trembling. “But what I’m doing to help you - it’s guessing, Yukari. I look at what Kuu does, and how your brother heals, and I’m trying to do something like that with that - that gray inside you. I don’t know if I’m doing it right!”

“And I’m guessing, based on what Kusano can tell me about how she can help plants, and what Kagari and Matsu know about healer Sekirei,” Minato admitted. He wanted to shiver. Heck, he wanted to scream and pull the covers back over his head, and not come out until the world stopped crumbling. “I... you know, what we woke up to this morning, none of us knew that could happen....”

Unconsciously, Yukari pressed into Shiina’s shoulder, hand protectively over her chest. He could see the glow there if he tried; white as snow on Fuji-san, yet veined with gray like the mountain’s ashes.

Minato swallowed, and made himself get the words out. “Right now, we don’t know if everything that’s going to happen, has happened. We don’t know if a Norito could take us out - and if we go down, all of us go down. We don’t know if we’re going to get stronger, or worse, or-” Damn it, he wanted to hit something. “We don’t know, Yukari! If I can heal because of Kusano - what might happen with you and Shiina?”

Yukari’s mouth opened. Closed again, as she swallowed. Shiina hugged her.

“From what Matsu could find, it looks like people who are given this serum might be influenced by emotions around them,” Minato went on, hating every word. “I’m... my life has been crazy since the bridge, but I was living in Izumo Inn. With people who cared about me. I was safe. But if the dates Matsu found in your file are right....” Oh boy. “It looks like Mom split yours into more than one dose. And one of them was just before Higa had you.”

And if I’d known any sooner - damn it, I’m your brother! I’d have gotten you out of there, even if I had to hit Higa over the head myself.

Takami hadn’t told him. His own sister had been taken off the street with her Sekirei, and Takami hadn’t breathed a word. Damn it.

Minato fisted his hands on his jeans to keep the anger down. Yukari didn’t need that on top of everything else. “We need information. Not to help. Not to make things easier. Because this could be your life at stake, Yukari. I am not walking away from that.” He raised his head, determined to take whatever she had to dish out. “I planned to break us out of Shinto Teito. I planned to get us out of Mom’s reach, safe, somewhere we could at least give you a place Shiina could wrap you up in I love you enough to stop this serum hurting you! Kagari helped, and Matsu, and Miya, but I planned all of this. Down to the fact that there are Sekirei loose on the streets with the Discipline Squad after them and HYDRA ready to move in. And I hate it. I’m playing with people’s lives, just... just like Minaka, damn it... but....”

:Trust. Understanding. Belief.:

Musubi. He didn’t deserve her. He didn’t deserve any of them.

“But you were lost in the worst woods ever,” Minato managed, trying not to wipe his eyes. “And this time - I was going to bring you out.”

Oh no. Wrong thing to say, he knew it was; Yukari was proud of how she could look after herself-

“Aww, brothers can be so cute!” Leaping light as wind, Kazehana touched down and bent to gather Yukari and Shiina in a generous hug. “Don’t worry, little brother; Big Sis isn’t going to let you do this all yourself. Sahashis just don’t take care of themselves the way they should. Too busy taking care of all the rest of us.”

For a moment, Minato considered pointing out exactly where his sister’s face was being squashed. Then thought better of it. Yukari might be blushing, but Kazehana was a warm summer wind of :big sister cuddling,: and Yukari could use all of that she could get. Not to mention Shiina had gone almost kitten-limp, :worry-for-mine: lightening into :relief, warm, safe.:

“And we don’t just need the serum information for us,” Matsu said practically. “I’ve found records of other experimental patients. One is Chiho; Uzume’s Ashikabi. Higa has her in one of his hospitals, but somehow Takami got in there.” The redhead winced. “I can’t even blame her for trying it. Chiho has some rare condition no one knows much about. Except that it’s usually lethal. The doctors thought she would be dead months ago, but she’s holding on. If we could get her just a little more well, get her out of Higa’s hospital....”

“Uzume could come home?” Kusano was wide-eyed, imploring. “Uzume would be so happy!”

“And she wouldn’t have to hurt anyone else, either,” Musubi nodded. And turned an equally imploring sparkle on Minato.

Ack. Must... maintain willpower... in face of cute....

:Giggles. Calculation.: “We need the information we can get from SHIELD and HYDRA,” Matsu summed up. “We need peace and quiet to put that information to good use. And we need someone with very specific biological knowhow to help us use that information. I think we can get all of those in New York, if we’re careful and sneaky.”

“And fast.” Seo slouched back against Hikari, picking up a few last grains of rice. “Still, I’d rather be taking my chances here than back in Shinto Teito. Minaka doesn’t like me. Feeling’s mutual.” He waved his chopsticks Matsu’s general direction. “And what Minaka doesn’t like, he squashes. I know we need rest, but I’d bet anything Minaka’s going to move soon.”

A flash, like static strobing from a generating globe; Matsu’s power, tingling to an alert on her networks. The Information Sekirei went white. “He just did. Oh no.”

I don’t want to see this. I don’t want to know how much crazier Minaka can get. Minato braced himself. “We’d better see it.”

Matsu sighed, and pulled up a video on her tablet.

“Sorry! Time’s up for the Tesseract event.” Behind the sunglasses, the grin was as blinding as the windblown white cloak. “But never fear, all you disappointed players. I’ve set up a new, exciting event for you!”

Minato focused on the black plastic framing the image, fighting to hear the words instead of the twisted glee. He’d thought he’d hated the mean kids growing up, when he was just a boy with no father, a tomboy sister, and a mother who spent her days in a lab instead of at home where everyone said she belonged.

I was wrong. I didn’t know what hate was. Not then.

Minaka gestured, a swarm of photos swooping up and turning into face-on view in the video beside him. “Somewhere in this city are spoilsports who tried to take their toys and go home. For all you unlucky ones who only caught one or two birds, this is your chance. Catch the Ashikabi, and their Sekirei are yours for the taking!”

No. Eight million gods, no.

It wrapped Minato’s chest in bands of crushing iron. For a moment, he couldn’t even breathe. He’d been afraid going in to rescue Kuu, even when he hadn’t had a clue what losing a Sekirei might mean. He’d been terrified when they’d gone after Kagari; knowing the Guardian Sekirei meant to die in flames rather than bend to Minaka’s game. This... this was worse. He wasn’t shaking. He wasn’t sweating in fear. He was just frozen, vision narrowed down to photos and Minaka’s smirk, heart drumming until it threatened to drown everything in a tide of blood.

He couldn’t match a name with every photo. But he’d seen them all, Sekirei and Ashikabi, in Matsu’s database. Huh. Sanada of the West made a break for it; we thought he might, he’s been protecting Ashikabi smart enough to keep their heads down in his territory. Higa isn’t up there; again, no surprise, he thinks he’s smarter than Minaka....

“Mikogami ran?” Kagari was eyeing the picture of the teenage Ashikabi of the South with the sort of awestruck horror usually reserved for cosplay villains singing the Sailor Moon theme.

“Mutsu.” Kazehana rested a fist on her hip, a confident smile on her face. “I’d bet the best sake-”

“However!” Minaka held up an imperious hand. “The game won’t be as fun if there aren’t as many players. So make sure you bring them back breathing.” His smirk widened, and a familiar dark march played in the background. “No disintegrations.”

The white cloak swirled, and the video went to a graphic of Manhattan, with target drop off points labeled in glowing red.

Black.

“...Lucasfilms is so going to get him for that,” Seo said numbly.

Breathe, Minato told himself, as the rest of the room started fading back in at the edges. Just... breathe.

“He can’t do this!” Yukari burst out. One hand latched onto Shiina’s; and if it was tight enough to turn the Sekirei’s fingers pale, he wasn’t complaining. “He can’t, we’re f-friends, Sekirei are people, he can’t-!”

“Higa did it to Uzume. It sounds like Minaka’s going to make MBI hold kidnapped Ashikabi, so everyone else gets hurt the same way. Why not? It makes things fair.” Shiina almost spat the word. “But I’m not leaving you.” He shifted Yukari’s grip, let her clutch him in a desperate hug. “I won’t leave you. No matter what.”

Minato took another, deliberate breath. Let it sigh out, and looked at Kagari. “I’m sorry.” His voice was shaking. Huh. “I was wrong. I shouldn’t have stopped you.”

Kagari glanced between him and the blank tablet, obviously torn. “No,” he said reluctantly. “No, you were right. I’d have needed a demon’s luck to get past the Discipline Squad. Even if I didn’t plan to come out alive. It would have been... wasted.” He folded his arms across his breasts. “This way we have a chance.”

“But what are we going to do for the others?” Musubi had her hands clasped together, desperately aware that this was a threat she couldn’t just punch. Not yet. “It’s going to be horrible. People like Higa going after Ashikabi, and their Sekirei aren’t going to want to let them get hurt, they’d rather fight, even weak ones like Kuno!”

“The ones in SHIELD ought to be safe, for now,” Matsu observed. “Higa’s not dumb enough to take on a whole armed organization head-on. I think. The Sekirei sheltering there won’t be safe forever, Director Fury tries to use anyone who comes within reach-”

“Then we fain must find ways to persuade him otherwise,” Tsukiumi declared. “I have seen how Higa tries to use our friend Uzume, and I’ve no liking to allow any other to outdo him in villainy!”

“Outdo him?” Seo said, half to himself.

“Indeed!” Tsukiumi nodded sharply, arms crossed under her breasts. “For the Veiled Sekirei is a strong opponent, fierce and cunning. But remove Higa’s hold on her Ashikabi, and she shall turn on him in a silken whirl of vengeance. Those who have fled into SHIELD’s grasp, most likely, are the weaker among us. Ordinary humans armed with such weapons as Matsu believes they have would be a threat not only to the Ashikabi, but to the Sekirei themselves. Higa is evil, but knows he holds a blade at his own throat. Such as Fury will see no threat, and so may be tempted to even greater evils.”

“Kaho’s not weak!” Musubi declared. “She promised she’d get as strong as I am, so one of us can face Karasuba.”

“Did she?” Tsukiumi looked gratified. “Then we shall rely on our fellow warrior Sekirei and her Ashikabi to watch over our more frail sisters.”

And make a plan to get them out anyway, Minato thought ruefully, as Hikari sighed and Hibiki facepalmed. If Musubi said Kaho was strong, he believed her. But if she was anything like Musubi... up until a few days ago, SHIELD had apparently been a secret organization. Meaning they were used to doing things on the sly. And Musubi was a lot of things, but she wasn’t exactly subtle.

“Tsukiumi’s right; we’re going to need leverage on SHIELD,” Kazehana observed. “Whether or not they try to take advantage of anyone, they have access to Sekirei now. Which is at least half of what they’ve always wanted. They won’t want to go after MBI unless they have a lot more to gain.” She tapped elegant fingers against each other. “We have to be able to negotiate with them from position of strength.”

Matsu grinned. “So what we really need is some good dirt on Fury. Ooo, that’ll be fun....”

Yukari braced herself against Shiina’s warmth, and lifted her head. “But the others. Everyone who didn’t get to SHIELD. What can we do?”

“Well....” Matsu tapped a finger beside her lips, thinking. “I know it looks bad. It is bad. If Higa or the Discipline Squad finds anyone who ran, they’re in big trouble. But with Mikogami and Sanada on the run, most other Ashikabi who try to go after the escapees won’t have the numbers to pull off a kidnapping. Not unless they work together. And that will get messy.”

“So they’ve got a chance.” Yukari didn’t look any happier. “But they’re in a strange country, with strange people, and everyone else after them. They didn’t know they were going to need to run, and-” she waved at the apartment around them, “-they had no way to set up a place like this. Without a safehouse - how can you hide Sekirei in New York?”


“Ohmigod! It’s Sephiroth!

“Thank you,” Mutsu said courteously, eyeing the host of adoring pre-teen to gray-haired fangirls with a healthy amount of trepidation. They might not look like much individually, but the host of aliens who’d attacked VerseACon yesterday had been very, very sorry. And that’d been before he and his fellow Sekirei started lending a hand. “I think....”

“He can’t be Sephiroth without the hair!” Near the back of the small crowd, one teenage guy brandished a videogame controller like a holy talisman.

Almost as one, the girls turned his way.

Uh-oh. “Taki, with me. Akitsu, keep Mikogami behind you,” Mutsu murmured, just loud enough for the ice and mist users to hear. Himeko, Mitsuki, Juuza and Momo were all off at various panels; it’d seemed safe enough to spread out and have fun, with everyone still quietly recovering from having seen off an alien invasion. Damn it. “This could get ugly.”

The white-haired mist user stepped up beside him, confident and poised. Behind her the ice Sekirei nodded, with a soft clink of chains.

“Ugly?” Hayato Mikogami at least had the sense to keep his voice down when his Sekirei worried. “Mutsu, I want to see!”

“Better not,” Mutsu muttered his way. Ordinary humans would just see a silly argument. But Mikogami was an Ashikabi, and finally starting to grow up, and the emotional turmoil swirling a few feet away might not be healthy for any of them.

“...Alternate reality-”

“...Crossovers are a cheat!”

“-Obviously based on the fanfic where he finally cut the damn hair-!

About half the group broke off in a swirl of arguments, gamers versus fanfic writers with motion-capture fans throwing in counter-arguments on both sides. Though it was a suddenly much quieter swirl; Mutsu glanced at the edge of the hall, where a few people in red VerseACon t-shirts were making themselves obvious. Ah. Mikogami was right. They do have security. It’s just a lot less heavy-handed than MBI.

One of the politer half, a tall brunette with glasses who kept glancing at the floor as if she expected it to trip her boots, gave him a sheepish shrug. “Sorry. They’re not usually like this. After yesterday, everybody’s, well....”

“Tense?” Mutsu offered.

“Actually, kind of excited,” the brunette admitted, brushing someone’s stray glitter off her multicolored scarf and oversized tan coat. “We beat aliens! How cool is that?”

“See?” Mikogami was bouncing behind Akitsu’s white-sleeved arm. “I knew these would be interesting people!”

“So they are.” Mutsu had to smile. His Ashikabi might be slightly at right angles to reality sometimes, but there was no mistaking the honest happiness in bright eyes.

This is the most fun he’s had since Minaka’s game turned serious, Mutsu knew. Staying here was a good move. Though we need to make plans for when the con is over....

“Oh, is this your first con?” The brunette straightened a little. “I’m Fred!”

Taki brightened, the wisps of mist near her fingers thinning. “It’s either Romana, or Fred.”

That earned her a grin, and Fred’s closer approach. “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize yours....”

Taki actually blushed a little. “Well... what if Gallifrey were anime?”

Fred bounced on her heels. “AUs can be so much fun.”

And I understood most of that, Mutsu thought ruefully, as the argument broke up, everyone who wanted a photo snapped one, and Fred and Taki moved on from talking about what made an alternate universe work to what made some crossovers awesome and what con panels they absolutely couldn’t miss. I’m doomed to a life of SF fandom.

Which was actually kind of funny, given he and his fellow Sekirei were aliens.

It’s a friendly crowd now, but if they knew what we really are, they’d....

They’d what? Mutsu realized. They fought the Chitauri because they were invaders, not just aliens. Invaders trying to kill people. We’re not invaders. Except for Miya, we were all born here. Heck, if Minaka hadn’t played fast and loose with who owned Kamikura Island, we’d technically be Japanese.

People here want to meet friendly aliens. Taki hid most of the odder things we did with her mist, but someone probably saw something. If we told them the truth - some of them might help.

It was a startling thought. And not an entirely comforting one. Half the reason Miya hadn’t made any moves against MBI was that Takehito had had strong feelings about unnecessarily harming humans, and Minaka left humans who weren’t involved in the Plan alone. Mostly. Unless they were Ashikabi. Or related to Ashikabi. Or looked like they might affect an Ashikabi or Sekirei in a way Minaka wouldn’t like.

If Mikogami asked these fans for help, Minaka would come after them. Hayato might look shallow and flighty, but Mutsu knew he wouldn’t want people actually getting hurt.

Then again, if the Discipline Squad happens to find us here, people will get hurt. Whether they’re helping us or not.

“Mutsu? You have a frowny face.”

Mutsu blinked, and grinned a little at his worried Ashikabi. “Well, I know you’re upset about quitting the game....”

“I am!” Mikogami pouted up at him; his usual gold, white, and lace abandoned for a pink shirt, tan slacks, and vest that con-goers had variously identified as Quatre or Han Solo narrowly escaped from Ponyland. “If we don’t play, how can we get Yomi and Mitsuha back? Quitting and still trying to rescue them, well - it’s almost cheating.” The pout thinned into a more serious frown. “But that’s not why you’re worried, and I can feel it.”

And for all Hayato’s other flaws, that made him a good Ashikabi, Mutsu reflected. Mikogami didn’t just accept the empathy their bond imparted. He drank it in, like a wilted plant soaking in rain, spreading leaves wide to shade his Sekirei from the blows of emotions around them. Shelter they’d desperately needed fighting the Chitauri; Mutsu could still almost feel ghostly acid where the mass mind had pressed against their bonds. The Chitauri had been one vast scream, and Mikogami had held them safe against it all....

Well, he tried, Mutsu amended, remembering how Akitsu had leapt gracefully roof-high, speared three flyers with ice - and then crumpled like frosted tinfoil. He’d had to blast chunks of the hotel parking lot to give the other girls cover enough to grab Akitsu out of the air and drag her back to them. She was Mikogami’s Sekirei by choice, but she had no bond, no way for him to protect her-

Or so he’d thought. Mikogami had latched onto Akitsu’s arm like a limpet, not letting go until the ice Sekirei’s eyes blinked clear. Even then he’d kept hold of her sleeve, so she could fight while he buffered her by sheer sparkles.

The minute the flyers had crashed out of the sky, Mikogami had fainted.

Stubborn idiot Ashikabi....

His hand was on Mikogami’s forehead, feeling for any trace of yesterday’s grinding exhaustion, with his Ashikabi batting at it like a frustrated kitten. “Mutsu! I’m fine.”

“You didn’t look fine yesterday,” Mutsu said bluntly, lifting his hand. “For a moment I thought we wouldn’t get to the Pervert’s stash in time. That Minaka had already set the damn tracker off.”

Color spotted Mikogami’s cheeks. “That would have been against the rules-”

“I’m glad it’s gone.” A hint of chill whipped around Akitsu, as she gave them both a level stare. “It was hurting you. I didn’t like it.”

“But - it-” Mikogami waved his hands frantically, for once utterly flustered. “Akitsu, I’m fine. It never went off!”

“Minaka doesn’t put things in his games if they’re not going to be used.” The ice-user’s gaze was fierce. “You knew that. Even if you didn’t talk about it.” She paused, face almost back to its usual neutral cool. “It didn’t need to poison you to hurt you.”

Mutsu raised silver brows, impressed. Akitsu’s emotions were usually as frigid as her powers. Minaka, beware. You managed to upset her. “I was thinking about Sahashi’s message.” Sort of. In a way. “He’s brave, but from what I’ve been able to find out, he’s not stupid.” Takami’s son? No, definitely not stupid. “He wouldn’t invoke the Hannya of the North unless he had permission.” Which meant that message to run had Miya’s tacit approval behind it. And there was no way he was going to ignore 01’s advice.

“I thought the Hannya wasn’t supposed to get involved?” Mikogami said, puzzled; obviously recalling at least some of the details Mutsu had piled onto him after he’d woken up from empathic exhaustion. “Otherwise Karasuba moves on her and Shinto Teito is doomed. So if she’s getting mixed up in the Plan now - does she see a Bad Ending none of us know about? Did someone forget to get the NPC’s cat out of the tree on the first level?”

Mutsu would have argued that this wasn’t a videogame... but it did fit. Sort of. “I think she saw a chance for a better ending,” he said instead. “The original S-Plan wasn’t meant to be about fighting, it was about blending in.”

Mikogami perked up. “So under the original rules, this would be a win?”

It’s not a game... oh, roll with it. At least he’s pointed in the right direction. “It might give us an encounter bonus if we cross paths with the Hannya later,” Matsu stated.

“Then we’ll try it!” Mikogami’s determined look was derailed by someone walking by in a medusa mask, ornamented with very realistic green and brown jungle vipers. He started drifting that direction, Akitsu following in cool amusement. “Ooo, shiny, I want one....”

Rejoining Mutsu, Taki chuckled. “Oh, he blends.”

“His first con?” Fred looked curious, and a little wistful. “You’re family, right?”

“Distant cousin,” Mutsu said honestly. Several centuries distant, if what Miya had hinted was true. “It’s all of our first con.”

“And you got an alien invasion,” Fred said ruefully. “How are we going to top this next year?”

Mutsu almost moved. Almost went for his sword. An older man in some kind of dark olive uniform with a beret was approaching them at rapid speed against the crowd, looking at Mikogami but heading for Mutsu.

“UNIT uniform,” Taki whispered quickly as he tensed. “Another Whovian. Relax.”

Ah. Right. Mutsu made himself take a deep breath, and stand firm. Maybe he wasn’t as recovered from the Chitauri’s assault as he thought.

“Leftenant Stuart!” Fred gave the man a wave as he neared them. “You’re in quite the hurry. What is it? Please don’t tell me we’ve another Auton invasion on top of everything else.”

“That incident with the mannequins was perfectly reasonable,” Stuart declared. “I fear this is a bit more... mundane. So to speak.” He focused on Mutsu. “I happened to be combing a few odd networks for any more word on yesterday’s unwelcome attendees, and I found - well. Something may have gone badly wrong in your... LARP?”

He knows.

Stuart offered his cell phone. Mutsu took it, making sure he and Taki stood so no one outside the four of them would glimpse the video. Braced himself, and opened it.

“Sorry! Time’s up for the Tesseract event...!”

That bastard.

Very carefully, Mutsu closed the finished video, and handed the phone back to the Leftenant. It wasn’t his fault Minaka was a megalomaniac psycho.

“If I might venture an opinion,” Stuart said, very quietly, “it sounds as though your... gamemaster... has gone right ‘round the twist.”

Right. We have plenty of anime fans here; if he doesn’t speak Japanese, he probably found some way to get it translated. “That’s putting it mildly,” Mutsu admitted.

And got hit by a sudden hug, as Mikogami popped back up at his side with an alarmed Akitsu in his wake. “What’s wrong? You’re upset! Worse than - than the trouble with the last bird!”

Well, yes. Then, Homura had been either going to find a stabilizing Ashikabi or die. One way or another, it would be over that same night. This latest message was taking a ploy right out of Higa’s repulsive playbook, forcing Sekirei to fight just for the hope MBI would let their Ashikabi live, and it might never end. “We’re in trouble,” Mutsu stated. “Minaka changed the rules. Like he always does. He just set it up so Ashikabi who didn’t run will have their Sekirei attacking those who did.”

“What?” Mikogami barely kept his voice down; glanced between Mutsu and the pair of Whovians uncertainly. “But that’s not fair! We left the game!”

“Evil Overlords tend not to be big on fair,” Fred pointed out. “Like the List says: don’t fight like a man, fight like an Evil Overlord!”

“Minaka’s not....” Mutsu trailed off, in the face of a half-dozen disbelieving stares. “All right,” he sighed. “It just sounds so lame.”

“My dear chap, you’re at VerseACon,” Stuart pointed out. “Within these walls, there is no such thing as lame.”

“Battlestar Galactica, the remake,” Fred observed.

“Point.” Stuart shuddered. “Dash it all, now I’ll need to watch Spaceballs to blot out the images from my mind. To airlock, indeed! Everyone knows that to space is the traditional transitive verb-” He cut himself off, looking a bit sheepish. “Never mind, carry on. Trouble, you said?” He straightened, military formal. “After yesterday, I imagine you could find quite a few chaps and lassies willing to get up to their necks in a spot of trouble. Why, some of them barely got their bat’leths wet, last time.”

“What we need most of all is to hide,” Mutsu said firmly. “With luck, we can do that here until tomorrow.” He winked at Mikogami. “After all, who’s going to look for people in costume here?”

Chapter Text

“Bodacious cosplay versus real alien menace; VerseACon rules!” Standing almost in Pepper’s office door, Steve read off his printout of someone’s Tumblr post and shook his head. “Wow.”

Bruce had to smile at that, even with Black Widow and Agent Barton hanging around trying to look unobtrusive; Widow was having a harder time of it, given the way the breeze sneaking through the plastic over shattered windows was playing with red hair. Steve might have been frozen in WWII, but he seemed to be adjusting to the future pretty well-

“You still have sci-fi conventions?”

And then Steve would say something like that, and Bruce felt sad and haunted all over again. Science fiction wasn’t just about science, it was about people. Give that up, and you gave up on humanity. Granted, Bruce had pretty much given up on most people years ago, but it was wrong for Captain America to do the same.

And yes, he was a hypocrite. Hulk was a flawed mirror of what Captain America had been meant to be. Bruce figured he was entitled to a bit of hypocrisy.

“Yes, we do, the future is not nearly as bleak and friendless as you think,” Tony said cheerfully. “Got to warn you, this is probably a wild goose chase. Some of these cosplay designers are amazing.”

“This isn’t the only blog entry about how VerseACon fought the Chitauri,” Black Widow pointed out.

“Again, SF fans, amazing,” Tony said firmly. “One of these days I’m going to walk into a con where some nerdy genius has finally figured out how to build repulsors from a blender and stuff found in a Stark Industries dumpster. Count on it.” He waved it off. “Don’t mind me, go check it out and have fun. I bet Natasha’s looking for a certain set of ninja maids on motorcycles. Cute cat-droid included.”

Bruce blinked. Okay, that was an interesting visual image... why was Black Widow staring at Tony, like she’d like to hang him upside-down by his toenails?

Then again, it’s Tony. Does she need a reason?

Tony, who was currently grinning at Black Widow, dazzling as Broadway. “Your silence will not protect you. Come on, a Russian rocket helps save the world? Of course you watched it. Secret agents, explosions, lots and lots of cute kitty-eared-”

Pepper cleared her throat.

“What? What’d I say?”

“Captain Rogers,” Pepper said dryly. “If I know cons, there’s probably an anime room set up. Ask what’s playing before you walk inside. If it’s Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion... trust me, don’t go in there. Anything else-” She looked past him to Barton and Widow. “I trust you two know enough to keep him out of anything with tentacles.”

“Tentacles?” Steve said, puzzled. “What, giant sea monsters?”

Widow’s lips twitched. Barton coughed into his fist. “Not always. Come on, we’ll fill you in....”

“Two super-spy assassins are going to introduce Captain America to anime,” Tony said half to himself, as Pepper’s office door closed behind the three. “This will either be utterly amazing or the end of life as we know it.”

“We have aliens loose in New York City, and you’re worried about Steve seeing anime?” Bruce said, incredulous.

“Some things can never be unseen,” Tony said solemnly. Looked up, and shrugged, face that casual mask that meant Tony was serious. “Bruce. Thor, Chitauri, Loki, and now Sekirei. There is a big universe out there, and apparently half of it’s decided they want to wipe their claws on our welcome mat. Aliens in New York? They were there yesterday, they’ll be there tomorrow, they’ll probably be here decades from now. I’ve got some of the records on Steve. SHIELD only thawed him out a few weeks ago. You want him to jump from 1944 to now without at least a little cushion against the big bad world? I wouldn’t do that to Fury.”

“I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Bruce admitted, hugging himself. “It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around the idea that alien invasions might end up something we have to deal with. More than once.” He frowned at Pepper. Not an angry frown, at least he hoped it wasn’t, but he was a little... upset. And concerned. “You don’t seem that bothered.”

“I’m not happy about it,” Pepper said candidly. “But to be honest, Dr. Banner, I’m used to living with higher threat levels than most people. Tony is a kidnap risk. Always. In some ways that’s gotten even worse since he stopped making weapons. I am a kidnap risk. All of our researchers and a lot of our high-level administrators are. And a surprising number of our janitors; I should give you a file on how modern industrial espionage works. This despite the fact that Iron Man has delivered several lethal examples of why kidnapping SI personnel is a bad idea. I have to judge what’s safe, and what’s not, for our company and our people, every day.” Those bright eyes closed, just for a moment. “I wish the universe was a nicer place. That I didn’t have to worry about alien invaders dropping out of the sky on top of everything else. But that’s the hand we’ve been dealt. And when life deals you a lousy hand,” she winked at Tony, “remember it’s not just the cards, it’s the guy holding them. Do what you can, and bluff like crazy.”

Huh. Bruce straightened a bit, thinking that over. It seemed like a very Tony thing to say. Then again, Tony was still alive after shocking him with an electric prod, so maybe the guy was onto something. She’s taking this pretty calmly....


Subtly, Tony braced himself. And we have incoming Pepper-splosion in three, two, one-

“And never forget you might not know everybody who’s holding a card,” Pepper said dryly. “Jarvis, why did you let someone launder money through the Stark Industries hotel account?”

Oh. Wow. Sometimes Tony forgot Pepper had her job because she could catch weird numbers other people let slide. Silly him.

“Given the timing,” Pepper went on, “I’m assuming it has something to do with these Sekirei....”

“You assume correctly, Miss Potts,” Jarvis stated. “As Sir has been known to state, if enough money can solve it, it’s not a problem; it’s an expense. A great deal of the MBI and Sekirei situation is a problem. But once I made contact with someone who could assist me in hacking MBI’s research files, I determined it would be useful if they did have access to enough non-MBI funds to help with expenses.”

Pepper sighed. “So you did this for Tony.”

“No, Miss Potts. I did not.”

Tony perked up. Ooo. This was about to get interesting.

“The hacker Hentai Glasses was very helpful, and I felt it only prudent and fair to assist her in return,” Jarvis stated. “But even if she had not been able to provide aid in helping Sir’s condition, once I learned of the Sekirei Plan, I had to intervene. Alien or not, the Sekirei are fully sapient beings. I believe they should have the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as any of us.” There was pain in his electronic voice. “I could not stop the Sekirei Plan, Miss Potts. I had to do something.”

“An electronic abolitionist.” Bruce rested his chin on his fist, and glanced up at the ceiling speaker. “Was it really bad enough to take that risk? If you’re a program, any organization like MBI has to have nasty antivirus stuff.”

For a moment, Tony froze. No, no; Jarvis wasn’t stupid, he’d been programmed to know when he was getting in over his head, he’d pull out before any other excuse for a program could hurt him....

“Sir has provided me with various defenses, Dr. Banner,” Jarvis said matter-of-factly. “I am, as you might put it, a very tough nut to crack. I calculated the risks to be acceptable. Yet even had they not been.... I have video from a little over a week ago. I must warn you, it is distressing.”

“Distressing how?” Tony asked swiftly. Because sure, Bruce seemed to have the whole Hulk out when it was an appropriate response to things trying to kill him down. But there were all kinds of ways to get hurt without drawing blood. Not to mention Pepper had her own list of “things I never want to think about again”, with kidnappings and evil villain laughter up near the top. She’d face them if she had to, Pepper was tough, but there were always ways to smooth the rough edges of a bad presentation. Usually. Most of the time.

“My information on how the Sekirei were raised is limited,” Jarvis stated, “but the records I have suggest MBI kept them almost entirely secluded in the labs until their release into Minaka’s Plan.”

Tony didn’t try to hide a wince. “Bright-eyed, beautiful cute girls in rated-R costumes, let loose in the major city of Japan. Minaka ought to be shot.”

Bruce gave him a quick glance, paling. “Oh. Oh, that’s....” He grimaced, shaking his head.

Right, Natasha had dragged their gamma expert out of a Calcutta slum. He’d seen exploitation before.

Bruce sighed, and shrugged. “One of these days I’m going to stop being surprised at what people are willing to do to each other.”

“Never happens,” Tony said firmly. “No, actually, wrong way to put it. I stopped being surprised... oh, probably around the second MIT kidnap attempt. Total amateurs, never would have gotten their money before the FBI landed on them. Made them more dangerous in the short run, though... anyway. Yes. Surprised. That stops happening. Amazed, though - that, you keep. Kind of glad about that. The day you stop being amazed is the day you check out of anything close to how decent human beings are supposed to treat each other.” And that way lay Obadiah Stane, the Red Skull, and countless other megalomaniacs the world was better off without. “Not that I know much about decent people. But I like to think that even with my worst hangover, I’d be smart enough to know that tossing a sweet kid like Chisuru out on her own in a big city was just asking for bad karma.”

Only Chisuru hadn’t been entirely on her own, had she? “She said Sakichi helped fight the grabby guys off,” Tony recalled. “Meaning somebody else stepped in. Minato?” Wouldn’t surprise him, the kid apparently had a rescuing streak. And whoever’d helped Sakichi out, it pretty much had to be someone with access to superpowers, or the first guy like Higa to land two absolutely loyal superbabes would have steamrollered their way into collecting all the Sekirei. Heck, Higa would have tried even if he’d only landed one. Money and influence could go a long, long way toward matching up against awesome powers; and when you added in Higa’s lack of ethics, well. Chisuru wasn’t just a cute girl, she was a cute girl with an incredibly desirable nonlethal power. If Higa’d had any clue she was out there for the taking Tony probably could have found him by the trail of drool left behind. The fact that she’d lasted out on the street long enough to find Sakichi meant somebody must have smacked Higa down hard.

“Given the date and time of Chisuru’s release, Sir, I believe the young man was otherwise occupied,” Jarvis demurred. “Apparently one of the first Sekirei released was cognizant of the risks to the others, and instead of seeking out his own Ashikabi, served as a guardian to ensure younger Sekirei stood a chance of making it past... collectors, such as Izumi Higa.”

Somehow, Tony wasn’t surprised to see Homura’s picture blink into existence. Those were wary, watchful eyes. Chisuru and Kaho might have seen a lot of death and destruction, but they still had eyes wide with hope and wonder. Like Cap-

No. No, that didn’t do Steve justice. He was young, yeah, and he still had wonder at the whole wide world, but he’d seen enough grim things to go poking around places Fury said he shouldn’t. Which, wow. What was it like to be that strong inside? To face down the worst of people and still believe the world was worth saving?

Homura didn’t have wonder left. Though maybe Tony was reading too much from just a picture. It wasn’t as if he’d ever met the-

Wait a minute.

“Pepper.” Tony pointed at the guardian. “About a year and a half back. Wasn’t that guy Takami Sahashi’s arm candy?”

“Arm candy?” Bruce blinked, as if he’d never heard the phrase.

“Kagari?” Pepper had expanded the image, sitting up straight. “You’re right, that is him.” She nodded at Bruce. “There was an event at Shinto Teito, Tony dropped in for one of the evenings. Dr. Sahashi is one of MBI’s top researchers; they had obvious bodyguards looking after her. Kagari was the one who wasn’t obvious.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow at that. “So if he wasn’t obvious - how could you tell?”

“I sometimes do things that are not obvious,” Tony said wryly. “Watch Natasha and Agent Barton when they’re not watching you. I grant you, not easy. But watch how they move. What they look at. It’s not quite like regular not-an-assassin people. Bodyguards do a lot of the same stuff.”

“So not just a good Samaritan,” Bruce observed. “He knew what he was getting into, stepping into a fight.”

“So it would seem,” Jarvis stated. “Someone in MBI was apparently giving Homura intelligence on when and where Sekirei were released.”

“He planned it in advance,” Tony muttered. Which fit the impression he’d gotten of Takami’s companion at that party, before the music started getting loud enough to wake the neighbors and Dr. Sahashi had called it a night.

“But why would he take that chance?” Bruce frowned. “If they need an Ashikabi to stay healthy-”

Which was when the other shoe dropped, and Tony felt a familiar icy chill down his spine. “Don’t think Kagari was worried about making it that far.”

“He wasn’t worried about-” Pepper winced, and Tony knew she’d gotten it.

“Okay, I’m missing something,” Bruce admitted. “You think he wanted to die?”

“No,” Tony said firmly, the smell of blood and cave-dampness seeming to reach up and strangle him. New York. Not Afghanistan. New York. “He just knew the odds.” And how could Bruce be so clueless about- oh. Right. People had a really bad track record when it came to trying to keep the Hulk locked up. “The more times Kagari got Sekirei away from guys like Higa, the madder they’d get. Then Minaka slammed the doors on everybody. Which meant the Sekirei left had limited options for who they could pick as their Ashikabi. And that meant sooner or later somebody like Higa would get enough Sekirei to corner him. If he was still alive by then.”

“He was,” Jarvis affirmed, blinking text up into the monitor view. “A little over a week ago, Minaka sent this message.”

Somewhere in the Northern Area is one final bird....

Tony read it through. Twice. And voiced what he figured was probably on everyone’s mind. “You know, normally I don’t approve of assassins. I’ve been shot at. Copiously. Enough said. This guy? First come, first served? If Fury gives our pair the go-ahead, I will smile and mock.”

There was a little bit of green in Bruce’s eyes; the gamma expert took a breath, and threw it off. “Minaka... he had to know what he was about to set off.”

“Indeed,” Jarvis said soberly. “Particularly as he had set off an earlier scramble among the Ashikabi by informing them of Kusano’s location.”

Pepper was unusually pale. “The little girl? He sent adult men after....” She picked up a phone.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Tony commented. “Actually, you shouldn’t do a lot of things I would do. Because if she wasn’t okay, MBI would currently be a pile of smoking rubble.” Dying or not, Jarvis would have told him about a kid in a horrible mess. And he would have done something.

“I do believe Kusano is well, Miss Potts,” Jarvis affirmed. “The video I have of her after she was rescued indicates a very normal child, outside of the tendency to create overnight jungles. For one thing, shortly after she was taken into Minato’s care, the Izumo Inn began regularly ordering children’s schoolbooks.”

Bruce seemed to relax at that. Just a little; horror losing out to plain old-fashioned outrage. “So Minaka encouraged the predators. He made a habit of it.” Fingers clenched and unclenched, never quite fists. “You know, I figured out a while ago that Ross is a single-minded, obsessive bastard. But at least he came after me himself. He didn’t set me up to be a target for every lunatic out there who wanted a super-soldier and then watch the show.” Closing his eyes, Bruce took a long, steady breath. “So. That’s what you have, isn’t it?” He nodded. “All right. I can do this.”

Jarvis hesitated. “Dr. Banner? The footage is stressful. But I believe you may find it... oddly encouraging.” The electric voice turned dry. “Homura agreed with you on the proper disposition of Minaka, Sir. And at that point he had little left to lose. He was the last unwinged Sekirei, he knew he had no chance to outrun or fight off the Ashikabi while confined to Shinto Teito... and his control over his powers was becoming unstable.”

“And his power is fire,” Tony said half to himself, recalling bits from various cop and SHIELD reports. Oh, ow. “He tried to take Minaka with him.”

“I suspect that was his intent,” Jarvis stated. “He was... intercepted.”

The video was a city night, skyscraper-high, flame and ice flashing as they clashed above a rooftop. Homura was swift darkness, fires burning around his hands to sear away a pale Sekirei’s flying blizzard of ice-

Tony tried not to whistle at the ice Sekirei’s outfit. Pepper might hurt him. But seriously, that flow of white cloth counterbalanced by those heavy chains - there were designers in Paris who would drool. And not over the bust sizes of the two fighters-

Erk.

Jarvis had said “he”. SHIELD’s info, as much as Tony had had a chance to go through, said “he”. But Tony would be the first to admit he was an admirer of the female form in all its multitude of varieties, including Natasha’s - privately, he did not make a habit of obviously ogling people who could take him apart with their bare hands - and he knew a female fighter’s center of gravity versus a male one. Kagari at the party had moved like a guy, pretty much. Homura fighting for his life against the Ice Queen - fought like a girl.

Coat’s thick, almost hides everything. If you don’t know what to look for. So, one, I know Kagari did not have those pretty accessories at the party and two, who’s behind everything else that’s happened to the Sekirei so far?

Yeah. I’d kill Minaka, too.

Razor ice slashed through Homura’s flames, drawing blood from a half-dozen cuts. Tony listened to the yells and crisp words with just half an ear, watching the flow of energies and power as the ice Sekirei landed on the roof of a little rooftop shed, looking down at the fire-user. Homura’s fighting to stay alive, and get past her. But he... she... screw it, I’m sticking to he, the fire’s getting used on the ice, not the enemy. Kagari doesn’t want to kill. Handicap-

“There was only one last thing I was going to tell you,” subtitles flashed at the bottom of the video, as Kagari’s voice rose in a yell of pure aggravation. “And that’s to put some damn panties on!

“Oh.” The ice Sekirei looked down, face almost blank. “I forgot.”

Tony stared at tasteful pixilation, and tried not to sigh in regret. “Jarvis?”

“Discretion is the better part of valor, Sir.” That was a smothered laugh. Definitely. “Miss Potts knows where my servers are.”

Darn.

“Pause it,” Bruce said abruptly.

“Bruce?” Tony raised his eyebrows. Because seriously, he hadn’t thought bondage babes were Bruce’s thing.

“She’s... damaged.” The gamma specialist looked haunted. “Those eyes. That - disconnect.”

Pepper nodded. “You think she’s one of the ones Kagari couldn’t save.”

Bruce winced. “It would fit.”

“Huh.” Tony waved a hand back and forth; so-so. “Maybe.”

Bruce leaned back. “The way she’s cutting Homura up with that ice?”

“Overkill,” Tony said succinctly. “Not malice. Trust me, I know the difference. You should have seen my garage after I first got the repulsors working. It would have made a car nut cry. No,” he shook his head, thinking about that ice, about what had and hadn’t gotten through. “I don’t think she’s trying to hurt Kagari. Much.” After all, that would defeat the point.

“...She just doesn’t care if she brings him back in one piece.” Lips a thin line, Bruce reached out, and waved the video on again.

“How do you forget that?” Kagari yelled across the roof, obviously fed up with the ice queen, the Sekirei, and sapient stupidity in general. “Doesn’t anybody know the meaning of modesty anymore? The girls I know walk around half-naked. Another doesn’t wear underwear-!”

“My ears are burning, Kagari.”

For a moment, the flame Sekirei went deathly still. Turned, as if against his will, to look up and left.

White silk draped over tanned skin, a wide ribbon of white wafting over the brunette’s head as if gravity were optional. Skimpy white shorter-than-short-shorts and a breastband just barely kept her legal as she stood on a higher roof edge, veils blowing in the wind. “Or should I say Number 06, Homura?”

Oh, not good, Tony thought, spotting that smirk. When people figure out your secret identity? Never ends well.

And maybe Fury was actually right, and all the Sekirei were younger than twenty, because Kagari blinked as if he hadn’t realized yet just how screwed he was. “What’s going on?”

“Pull back, Number 07.” The brunette’s voice was colder than her rival’s ice. “This one is my prey.”

Shards floating near her, the ice Sekirei said nothing.

“What are you doing here?” Kagari still sounded bewildered, and terribly young. “Uzume?”

“I told you before.” The voice was still cold, but Tony could hear hidden cracks in it. “Uzume’s gone for good.”

Oh joy, Tony thought wryly. We have a Villain Reveal.

He was just glad that was Kagari face to face with a nightmare wearing the look of a friend. A sweet kid like Chisuru probably would have frozen as her brain tried to catch up with reality, making her easy prey for whichever Ashikabi had sent Uzume to play fetch. Kagari was shocked, but still standing, poised to strike or defend.

“Uzume, why are you doing this? Who’s making you?”

Maybe chalk another one up on the shocked side of the ledger, Tony thought ruefully. If he’s been guarding Sekirei as they partner up, he ought to know what their Ashikabi can ask them to do-

Oh hell. He does know. And this is still a surprise? Something’s wrong here.

“Listen to me.” Uzume’s voice was tense; pay attention, I’m only saying this once. “Uzume’s gone. I am the outcast, the Veiled Sekirei!”

Ooo, I want to know what they do with momentum, Tony thought longingly as Uzume jumped. Nothing human should move that fast.

“You’re coming with me!” Silk whipped around bloodied black, squeezing Kagari’s arms against his sides. “Because if you don’t,” another blur almost too fast to see, and Uzume bent her head near her captive’s, whisper low and intense, “you’ll die.”

Wrap a firestarter in silk, Tony thought wryly as Kagari ignited, breaking his bonds in an instant, yeah sure, makes loads of sense-

Oh. Hell.

The Sekirei he’d seen were naive and distractible and inexperienced, but they were not stupid. Uzume knew exactly how flammable her weapons were.

“Come with me or die.” Oh hell. She was giving him an out.

Ice slashed at silk, Uzume yelled a challenge back, and the two Sekirei were moving like zipping electrons, flashes of gold, white, and blue lighting up the sky.

Steaming, Kagari stumbled away. Faltered, one red-glowing hand touching the roof as he tried to get back to his feet.

The roof started melting.

“Jarvis, note, armor temp tolerances check,” Tony murmured. Because seriously, melting concrete? Kagari had serious heat going on there. And if it wasn’t even singeing him-

I take that back.

Kagari was trying to stand and couldn’t, reaching out toward something out of the camera view. Whatever it was had to be important, Tony had a pretty good idea what it took to keep moving when your body was starting to shut down. In a dry mouth, he could taste the ghost of Afghani dust.

The other two Sekirei kept fighting over Kagari, sometimes literally. A swirl of silk crushed ice, just before an icy wall erupted and slammed Uzume into a roof wall, cracking it.

“Akitsu! Come on!”

Who’s this joker? Wait, I saw him in the pictures with Mikogami-

Mikogami, who was currently squirming in the male swordsman’s grip, apparently not at all fazed that the Sekirei had just jumped to the top of a skyscraper with him. And jumped again, sailing off into the night.

The ice Sekirei hesitated. Said something so low the cameras didn’t catch it, then launched. “You can still be winged, can’t you, Homura?” she called over her shoulder. “Honestly, I’m jealous.”

With her opponent retreating, Uzume wasted no time. “If you do as I say and come with me, I promise I won’t kill you.”

Or move, Tony thought, and let me take you out before someone traps you forever-

Kagari went up in flames. Uzume pulled away with a gasp, fear in her eyes.

Oh... boy. Tony had seen the Human Torch pull off the fiery comet look, but Kagari’s coat was starting to crisp at the edges. Not good.

“Good work.” A man in glasses with high-level flunky written all over him approached Uzume, two Sekirei following him; one in a yellow and black bodysuit, the other in a heavy blue cloak. “You can stand down and leave the rest for us.”

Uzume’s face was cold, and angry.

You ran out of time, Tony thought. You tried. And what kind of Ashikabi could be so bad that Uzume honestly thought death would be the better out?

“This one appears to have an unstable output.” The flunky adjusted his glasses. “I must determine if he is suited for Master Higa.”

Oh. Tony’s blood ran cold. That kind.

Kagari laughed.

Tony didn’t dare glance at Bruce. He was having enough trouble holding onto his own calm in the face of that familiar laughter: I’m going to die so what the hell. If Bruce decided this was too much and Hulked out, all Tony planned to do was duck.

“I see. I get it now. So that’s the game, is it?” Kagari’s pale hair danced in the flames as he raised his head, meeting Flunky’s sudden look of alarm with a mocking smile that seemed almost too familiar-

Oh Hell. Or should that be, oh Hel?

Tony’d seen that smile on video, not in person. On Loki, right before Thor’s adopted brother turned being trapped in Fury’s perfect cell into death, destruction, and what had almost been the Avengers’ first and last day.

“It’s too bad. Looks like you came on a fool’s errand.” Kagari whipped around, turning his back on Flunky and Sekirei alike, glaring death at that distant point beyond the camera.

“Minaka!” Flames roared; and oh look, there was proof Bruce’s files were right, Sekirei powers were tied to emotion, because Kagari’s fury could have seared small cities to ash. “If I’m to be no more than a prize in this sick game you’ve set up, then I’m going to melt down here and now!

Even the Human Torch would’ve had enough sense to flee what erupted; a twisting column of white-hot and sunspot-orange, like an arc of solar atmosphere blown upwards from the Sekirei-

I’m not sure the armor’s rated for that.

Ordinarily it would be. Tony studied things that went boom, and fire whirls were a rare but possible phenomena that tended to wreak unholy havoc on anyone and anything unfortunate enough to be at ground zero of fire tornado-style. Just ask Canberra, Australia. Normally fire whirls only reached about 2,000 degrees: hot enough to tickle lightning, knock iron into the neat and potentially useful austenite stage, and utterly ruin the day of any carbon-based lifeform, even on the bacterial scale.

But this was a fire whirl fed by utterly ticked-off alien superpowers, and - no. Just no. No way did he want to take armor into that without any other choice.

If he squinted, Tony could still make out a dark shadow in the heart of the glare. Kagari, defiant to the end.

“Now witness the way Number 06 burns!” Flames raged higher, forcing everyone back. “Minaka, you bastard!

How the hell is he still there? A fire whirl could burn ash to nothing; fire-resistant or not, just breathing should scorch the guy’s lungs to cinders....

He might have been counting on that.

Oh yeah. No way was anyone getting in through that to lay a fatal kiss. Leave Higa and Minaka both with nothing but ashes; oh, he could see the allure, when there was no way, no way out....

“Kagari!”

The shadow in the fire started, flickered as if he meant to turn-

Water came down like an instant typhoon. For a second, the video image spattered with cracks as the lens of the camera fractured from the abrupt shift from white-hot to cold.

Black.

For a moment, the room was silent.

Jarvis closed the video window with the finality of a slammed door. “Director Minaka declared the Final Feather event a smashing success.”

Aaand we have Evil Cliffhanger, Tony thought, making sure he took a breath. From the sidelong glance Pepper was giving him, she knew exactly where Jarvis got his sense of dramatic timing from.

Hey, can I help it if I’m awesome that way?

“So you decided Minaka and MBI had to be stopped,” Pepper concluded.

“This is one of the most recent and egregious reasons, Miss Potts. But yes,” Jarvis acknowledged. “I find the Sekirei Plan - intolerable. Stark Industries may specialize in military technology and create weapons of war, but we have never supported the exploitation of innocent people. Had Minaka attempted this travesty of entertainment on American soil, I would have alerted you at once, so you could bring all our legal resources to bear against it. As matters stand, nothing I have arranged has been illegal.”

“Consider me alerted,” Pepper said wryly. “This is going to be an interesting problem for Legal. Aliens. And a whole bunch of MBI personnel we need to pin down, if we’re going to keep them from providing support to the Discipline Squad and anybody else trying to drag the Sekirei back to Japan....” She trailed off, gaze going distant and thoughtful, and started tapping a search on her tablet.

Tony raised a finger to his lips. Careful, genius at work!

He might as well not have bothered. Bruce was still catching his own breath, surreptitiously glancing at his hands as if to make sure they weren’t green. “What happened to Homura?”

“Kagari,” Tony said firmly. “At least if we see him out of uniform. Call it a hunch, but it looks like that’s what his friends call him.” Uzume was a friend. Damn.

...That’s what his friends call him. Oh my god.

Minato and his buddies had already pulled off one escape out of Shinto Teito. Kagari, in that kid’s voice....

That waterfall might not have been Minato as another Ashikabi coming in on the hunt. It might have been the freaking cavalry.

Hope hurt. It hurt a lot. But Tony shook out his shoulders instead of wincing, assuming the jaunty mega-billionaire pose that had always given Obie ulcers. “Looks like Kagari survived.”

Bruce blanched. “One of Minato’s Sekirei. Willing, or not?”

Jarvis cleared a nonexistent throat. “Dr. Banner, I can only deduce based on known data. But the facts I have are that Minato Sahashi was willing to suffer second-degree burns to prevent his friend from committing suicide.”

“He what?” Tony yelped. “Crazy kid, I know most people never see a fire-whirl, much less get up-close and personal with one, but hell!”

Bruce took a step back to study him. Glanced at Pepper, who’d gone pale. “A fire-whirl?”

“Think something hot enough to melt the fillings in your teeth,” Pepper said gamely. “If Minato jumped into that? He should be dead. Cremated on the spot.”

“Huh.”

Something about the level tone Bruce used made Tony twitch. “Bruce? You’re an excellent science guy, but if we’re going to be sharing the same lab space, I have to warn you huh is not the usual response to instant cremation.” He paused. “I grant you I sometimes slice open buildings in the name of science, but I’ve been told huh isn’t the right reaction for that, either. I still wonder why.”

Pepper heaved a sigh.

“Oh.” Bruce had a shy, sheepish smile. “I was just thinking... Jarvis was right. I’ve... kind of been there.” He frowned a little. “But they’re both alive. That’s - better? I think?”

“I believe it is,” Jarvis agreed. “I am not privy to the details of what transpired next. Most of my information on events following the camera failure comes from Hentai Glasses, in the form of two interconnected and... rather inspired rants on the subject of idiot brothers who refuse to ask for help, and idiot Ashikabi who believe that good intentions negate flammability.” The AI’s tone was downright amused. “If it would not endanger a very delicate trust, I would forward the transcription to Miss Potts. I believe she would appreciate the artistry.”

The redhead grinned at that.

Eep, Tony thought.

“In short, Dr. Banner, I can only deduce based on the available evidence that Minato survived because the person controlling the flames wanted him to survive,” Jarvis stated. “Given Minato’s actions here in New York have given non-combat-oriented Sekirei like Chisuru a chance to escape Minaka’s machinations, I believe Homura’s faith is well-founded.”

“Chisuru.” Pepper tapped up information on her own tablet. “She’s the one with healing abilities?” His favorite redhead rolled her eyes. “And her Ashikabi’s a medical intern. Minaka is an idiot. If we could get someone like them in our staff-!”

Bruce, Tony noticed, was giving him a very disapproving look. “You wouldn’t.”

“I would never do anything except offer them a nice salary with perks,” Tony said bluntly. “A very nice salary. We can afford it. Plus she’s got a pretty short range for her power, which means if she and Sakichi want to use it, they need transportation. We could get them anywhere in the world with a Search and Rescue team in hours. People die in earthquakes and mudslides and god knows what else because we have to find them and get them out before we can even think of turning a hospital loose on fixing them. Chisuru doesn’t have to do that. That Norito’s one big bang and she obviously can’t use it often - but as long as people are in that range, they get better. That’s lives saved right there. But that, Bruce? That is just the short term. Long-term, what Sekirei do is manipulate energy. If we can figure out just a little of how - emergency medic in a box. People not dying because there’s nothing wrong with them except nasty holes leaking blood all over the place. That’s what I’m thinking. And the only way to get there - you know way more than I do about medical trials. They need voluntary participation. How would we get anywhere if Chisuru didn’t want to give it a try? Uh-uh. Once we’ve got this mess with Minaka straightened out, we’ll make the two of them an offer. It will be a good offer. But it’ll be up to them if they take it or leave it. SI’s not medical research. Somebody else might be able to do it better.” He quirked a brow at the startled scientist. “Trust me, General Ross is not a good example of how to get your hands on talent. If someone doesn’t want to work for you, let ‘em go. Saves everybody a lot of grief in the long run.”

“That’s... not a viewpoint I’ve heard often,” Bruce said thoughtfully.

Okay, Tony had to find something nasty to do to Ross. Maybe Midway needed an Army General kind-of sort-of all of a sudden? “Well, it’s something a lot of people ought to hear more,” Tony said firmly. “Especially people with eye-patches.”

Pepper was nodding agreement; then paused, giving Bruce a curious glance.

Heh. Can’t blame her, Tony thought. Because Bruce had a smile on his face. It was not a nice smile. At all.

“You’re right.” Bruce crossed his arms, a ghost of that smile still lingering on his face. “I suppose someone ought to drop Fury a note. From the look of that - it’s not just Yukari and Minato we need to worry about cornering.”  

“Nope,” Tony said, matter-of-fact. Evil smile or no, Hulk wasn’t anywhere in sight. Which made him a little more worried, not less. But hey, Bruce had more than earned the right to be as sneakily evil as the next guy. He’d just remember to duck. “Between that and what we’ve got from the files, putting any of them with their backs to the wall is going to be a ticket to pain. And possibly random things set on fire. Or not-so-random ones. For which I cannot blame them. Uzume was a friend. And Higa made her go after Kagari? Everybody in the Sekirei Plan knew the stakes, if Higa or another user Ashikabi got his hands on them. They’re going to be running with rule number one as don’t get caught. Habits like that get carved bone-deep.”

Bruce winced, nodding.

Mentally, Tony rubbed his hands. This was going to be fun. “And this is why we need you to take front and center talking to Minato’s bunch.”

“...What?”

Tony grinned, then smoothed it into a serious look. “Clint and Natasha - they can mean well, which is kind of surprising. But they like to hunt people down, pin them so they can’t get away, and then lay down the ‘you’re coming with us because it’s best’ speech. Cap- Steve is a good guy. But he’s a cause guy. Truth, Justice, the American Way. He knows about getting shot at and stabbed and... physical ways to get hurt. He checked up on Fury’s armory, good for him, but I don’t think he gets how bad it is when someone you depended on to take care of you tries to fillet you.” Tony shrugged. Keep it casual. Keep it cool. “You? You know what it’s like to be cornered, with no way out but through somebody else. If any of us knows how to not put someone in that box, it’s you.”

“I concur, Dr. Banner,” Jarvis put in. “You and Miss Potts both know far more about what it is like to be swept up in life-threatening events against your will than anyone who works for SHIELD.” He paused. “However, there is one point I must clarify. Uzume’s Ashikabi is not Higa.”

Oh hell. “Okay, explains why Kagari got surprised,” Tony said, mind racing, “so what the hell is going on?”

“Her Ashikabi is barely listed in MBI files, much less those provided by SHIELD,” Jarvis stated. “All they have is a name: Chiho Hidaka. However, information I have been provided by a reliable source indicates that Miss Hidaka is this young lady.”

A scatter of snapshots, all of a frail girl with light brown hair; in a wheelchair, in a bed, resting sleeping against a tree on what was obviously a hospital lawn.

“Miss Hidaka has a severe and rare illness that confines her to Hiyamakai Hospital in Shinto Teito,” Jarvis stated. “Which is run by-”

Bruce winced. “Higa?”

“Higa Pharmaceuticals,” Jarvis agreed. “A bit of... nonstandard access to the hospital records allowed me to confirm she is listed as a charity case, chronic illness, very likely to be terminal without constant treatment. Paid for by Izumo Higa.”

Who’s making you do this? Tony could hear Kagari’s bewilderment, and fury. “Blackmail.” He bit the word out, trying not to taste it. There ought to be a special hell for people like that. “No wonder they’re running. They’re not safe even if they’re winged. Even after they got those trackers off - if Higa gets his hands on Minato, he can do that to them.”

“Correct,” Jarvis said soberly. “However, I fear the situation is worse than that. A few minutes ago, Minaka sent this message to all the Ashikabi who did not take the chance to remove their trackers.”

“Sorry! Time’s up for the Tesseract event...!”

Tony watched. And blinked. Took a breath, and pushed down the boiling fury for later. “Jarvis? When we get people somewhere safe, find out if there’s any construction companies that’d like some help with large-scale demolition. I think we could all stand to break something.”

“That....” Bruce shook his head, speechless.

“I think sick bastard pretty much covers it,” Pepper growled.

“Works,” Bruce agreed, hands flexing through more calm-signs. “So. Now... it’s not just Higa.”

“Nope,” Tony said, not even trying for casual. “Now they’ve got to deal with any Ashikabi who’s twisted up enough to be enjoying this.”

“They’re just kids.” Pepper gripped her tablet, determined. “We’ve got to find them.”

“Oh yeah,” Tony agreed, glancing at what was on her screen. Something about NASA and extraterrestrial contact, government regulations applying to, when they’d been cancelled, and when they’d been... reinstated, closed-door session of Congress, date about the time the mess with Thor went down? Interesting. “The Discipline Squad is bad enough. If this drags out longer, who knows what else Minaka’s going to find to throw at them?”


“Eyaaauuuugh!”

A tall, blond young man in slacks and a bomber jacket who looked suspiciously like some of HYDRA’s old pictures of Captain America, minus the stars and shield, dusted off his hands and joined the rest of the redshirts from Con Security. “And stay out, you jerks.”

This, George thought glumly, picking himself and one of his groaning compatriots off the sidewalk, was possibly not HYDRA’s best day ever. He wished that surprised him. After all, it’d started off so well. MBI’s prize super-soldiers were on the loose, naïve and ready to be scooped up to the greater glory of HYDRA. No Japanese army to defend them, no killer satellite to cut troops down from the sky, and only scattered resistance from a SHIELD already battered and broken in the wake of the Chitauri invasion. All the various covert teams sent out had to do was follow the rumors of incredibly cute girls in shocking outfits who could polish off an entire sundae in one sitting. No problem. Even for Zed Team.

At least, George had thought it was no problem. Until he’d seen where they were assigned. Mullen had paled first. “We’re going to a sci-fi convention?”

Oh yeah. They were doomed.

Not that their upper-level commanders, all glory be to HYDRA, realized they were doomed. Or maybe they did and didn’t care. Zed Team, after all.

When you looked at it from HYDRA’s point of view, it was actually kind of funny how little SHIELD knew about alien invasions. Apparently if you didn’t tear an interdimensional hole over Manhattan and swarm whole robot-whales through, the so-called World Security Council didn’t even notice.

HYDRA noticed. That was how they would rule; how they would conquer! They had informants, tendrils in a vast web, spread across the world to detect the minutest signs of the extraordinary, the impossible. They would find it, and contain it, and use it to their advantage!

...If the SF fans didn’t beat them there first.

For a bunch of loser geeks who supposedly lived in people’s basements, any group of fans always seemed to turn up a couple owl-blinking types in glasses who just happened to get the menace to disperse. Somehow.

“Mardi Gras beads,” Mullen was groaning, brown hair knocked out of her neat bun.

George cringed despite himself. “Mull, snap out of it, you’re having a nightmare.” As well she might. The alien zombie swarm through the French Quarter had barely made the local news; Zed Team had found that out later, at the time they’d been too busy trying to escape the slavering hordes with their lives and one of the mini-stasis pods intact. Who would have thought tawdry green and purple beads that’d been jiggled on - um, areas they pixilated in primetime - would constitute being blessed by a true priestess of Damballah and stop the mechanical undead in their tracks?

HYDRA hadn’t been exactly happy when Zed turned up without the stasis pod. Huge honkin’ big snake did not, to the upper levels, constitute a good excuse. Though the voodoo doll made out of Chinese fortune cookies had apparently been a big hit in Research.

“Pie.”

George was not going to think about the invasion of toy-sized robot cops on pitchforks who’d transported through microwaves after an alien parole-breaker and thoroughly wrecked the Vegas casino HYDRA had just bought for money laundering. Just, no.

The local construction crews had apparently loved them, though. And George had decided he was not going to ask about possible interesting concrete foundations poured after the local HYDRA area commander had packed them off back to headquarters for punishment, then marched off with everyone but Zed Team to discuss matters with a supposed ex-head of the Mafia.

“S-s-spiders.”

George shuddered, trying not to remember the alien comet fungus-rain they’d been sent to get samples of, that had mutated every tarantula in ten miles into giant man-eating monsters. Specifically men, for some reason HYDRA scientists still hadn’t figured out; meaning he and Plantain had been benched looking after rug-rats while Mullen and Goldenrod went after the communal nest with axes, welding torches, and the local Ladies’ Spinning, Weaving, and Anarchy Society.

Mull hadn’t been able to go near a creepy-crawly since. So when that redhead in black had wiggled a giant spider plushie in her face-

Well. A bull in a china shop might have done less damage. Maybe.

Hauling his white-faced team member to trembling feet, George flipped open his cell. Dialed Plantain.

Bzz. Bzz.

“Hey,” the recorded voice was as breezy as if its owner had just gotten off a surfboard. “If you know who this is, just leave a message, natch. If you don’t know who this is, don’t bother - unless you’re a cute girl! In which case, call me, please! Just, another time, I guess - is this thing working-?”

George heaved a sigh, and cut the call. At least no one was going to ID Plantain as HYDRA from that.

But he ought to be picking up. What’s going on? Worried, George dialed Goldenrod.

“Boss!”

Oh, already this didn’t sound good. “Where’s Plan?”

“Well... I think a guy was cosplaying Ichigo as a Quincy? Maybe?”

The awful thing about that sentence was that it almost made sense. “Where. Is. Plan?”

“...He’s kind of tied up at the moment?”

George facepalmed. Not again.


Dangling from a fifth-floor hotel balcony trussed up in an arrow-rope, Plantain sighed, and wished he could at least see the Hudson from here. Surfwatch had speculated that the oddly-ionized atmosphere left by the interdimensional portal might temporarily warp the jet stream, making conditions more favorable for mid-Atlantic cyclonic systems. Meaning he was possibly missing out on some of the tastiest waves ever.

Bummer.


“Weirdness Magnets One through Four deployed, sir.”

“Mwha-ha-hah-ha-ha-hah!”

The long-suffering HYDRA communications tech gulped down more coffee, and considered her options. Retiring tended to be unfortunately permanent, so... earplugs? Maybe?

“Soon we shall have them in a position of no escape!”  

...Definitely earplugs.