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Diabolical Styles

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And so it begins. A beginning, we are reliably informed, is a very delicate time. And so we must carefully choose the moment when it begins - a difficult problem, when there are so many possible moments from which to choose only one. Or so it seems. But in truth, the correct moment was chosen long ago. There could only be one moment when this story could begin.

No, that's not true either. While that is the moment, there are others when the story could be said to have begun as well. They are moments every bit as valid as the moment chosen.

There was the moment, a few short years ago, when a girl looked around at the filled seats of an arena, containing more people than she had ever to that point seen, and wondered aloud if this was all the people in the world ... only to be told that, no, it was not even the full population of the city where she lived, much less that of her nation, much less that of the planet on which she resided. It was that moment when she began to realize the immensity of her universe, and her own insignificance. And from that realization would grow something truly astounding.

There was the moment, a few short years before that, when a woman, seated in a beautiful garden and patiently painting a portrait, dropped her brush as she listened to a news report declaring that there had been an attempted assassination of an Empress, and that she had been rushed to a hospital and was expected to make a full recovery. She knew that more of that statement was a lie than the announcer did, and her lovely face twisted in a mask of fury. She never picked up the brush. The masterpiece she was painting would be forever unfinished.

There was the moment, shortly before that, when a woman of the British isles stared at the results of a home pregnancy test, learning that what she had believed was a brief interlude and a midsummer night's fling would be far more consequential than she expected. After a few moments of panic, she got up from the bathroom floor to walk to the telephone and call her lover to give him the good news. In an interesting reversal of expectations, he was happier about it than she was.

And further back, before that, there was the moment that a car came to a stop on a road on a rainy day, and a tutor looked out from the window to offer one of his students a ride home, his eyes not quite hiding a predatory gleam that the girl in question somehow missed. Or, perhaps, chose not to see.

And further back, before that, there was the moment when, two thousand million years or so ago, two galaxies were colliding, or, rather, passing through each other -

But perhaps that is too deep a background.

Instead, we begin at Mahora Combined High School, on the first day of the new school year, 2005, in class 1-D. Thirty students, roughly evenly divided between boys and girls, are introducing themselves as is the standard practice. Some are paying more attention to this than others. Some know their fellow students, and have varying degrees of interest in them. And being teenagers, a good proportion of them are thinking about sex - either sex that they have had, or sex they want to have.

Not all, though.

And one of them stands up and announces, as she has so many times before, "I am Suzumiya Haruhi. I have no interest in ordinary humans. If there are any espers, aliens, time travellers or sliders in this class, please come talk to me."

And another one, hearing this, takes some vague comfort in the fact that there's at least one person in his class who will have an even harder time making friends than he will.

It's an introduction, of sorts. Perhaps I should introduce myself, as well. I -

No. On second thought, I'll let you figure out who's holding open this window on another world, as someone once said. But I will give you a hint -- I appear in this chapter ... sort of.

Two weeks after that first day of classes, Hasegawa Kodaka's gloomy expectations about the likelihood of his making new friends had proven entirely correct. He'd actually nursed some vague hopes that here, at this school that seemed to be filled with students from all over the world, things would be different. But they hadn't.

And it was so, so massively unfair! That Yuuki kid had hair just a bit darker than he did, and nobody thought he was a thug. The little bastard actually seemed to be making friends with Sawanaga and Itou, while Kodaka was still a pariah. It didn't make any sense.

(Well, it might have made more sense to him if he'd realized that Yuuki Rito's friendship with Sawanaga Taisuke and Itou Makoto was actually a rather shallow one. Rito wasn't actually all that comfortable with either of them, though he wasn't aware that they viewed him as a loser who made them look better by comparison. Another fact that might have improved Kodaka's understanding of his circumstances: his status as a pariah had less to do with the color of his hair than it did with the perpetual scowl on his face. Said expression, to be fair, had come about after years of being teased and taunted about his hair, so there was a connection, just not the one that he thought. Kodaka believed that his facial expression conveyed the message that he took things seriously, when in fact it conveyed an attitude best described as 'verging on homicidal'.)

At least he could, just like he'd figured he would, take dubious comfort in the fact that he wasn't the only pariah in his class. In addition to the Suzumiya lunatic, whose seat was now just behind his after they'd moved out of alphabetical order, there was the other Yuuki in his class. She was apparently a cousin of some sort to the boy Yuuki, though he'd never seen them speaking, just like she'd never been speaking with anyone else. And then there was -


He'd been thinking all this while stomping (or, as he viewed it, walking with a serious gait) down the hallway back to his classroom, where he'd forgotten one of his books, and just as he was thinking about one person in particular, he'd arrived at the doorway to the class and heard that person's voice. Except that he wasn't sure that it was really that person's voice. It sort of sounded like her, but she'd never sounded so cheerful and upbeat.

And it sounded like she was talking with someone, and he'd just been thinking that she never socialized with anyone.

So, like anyone (or at least, anyone with extraordinarily poor social skills) would do, Kodaka slid the door open just a notch to see (a) whether it was really the person whom he thought it was and (b) with whom was speaking in such friendly terms. It soon became apparent to him that the answers to those questions were, respectively, (a) yes, it was in fact Mikazuki Yozora, though he'd never seen the girl who spent most of her time frowning at the world looking so cheerful, and (b) she was talking to nobody.

Literally, nobody. She was chattering away, as girls (he believed) were wont to do, but there was nobody else there. Abruptly, a terrible thought occurred to Kodaka, and the stress which that thought provoked in him sent a tremor up his arm to the hand that was holding the door open, such that it pushed it open even further.

Abruptly, the sounds of girlish chatter ceased.

Kodaka thought, remarkably calmly. I'm doomed.

(He was right, incidentally.)

The cheerful look was entirely vanished from Mikazuki's face, replaced by a hostile, suspicious glare that was entirely focused on Kodaka. (It was not all that different from his own perpetual scowl, but Kodaka was in no position to appreciate that. I am, though.) He decided that the best way to handle the situation was to act as though nothing was wrong, march into the room towards his desk, get what he'd come back here to get, and then -

"Hey," she said.

Of course no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy, does it?

"You were listening to me, weren't you?" she said in a tone which spoke eloquently of death.

Now it seemed to Kodaka that the best option was to lie his head off. "Nope," he said, with complete sincerity. "I didn't hear you talking to ghosts. Not a word of it."

"Ghosts?" she said, anger dissipating in a wave of sheer incredulity. (Is that a word? It is now.) "You think I'm talking to ghosts? Are you as crazy as that Suzumiya wench, or do you think I am? There are no ghosts, and if there were I certainly wouldn't talk to them! What kind of a loser talks to ghosts?"

At this point it would be traditional to switch perspectives to one Asakura Kazumi and Aisaka Sayo, so that one of them could sneeze. Unfortunately, the one of them who is capable of sneezing, as she possesses a functional pair of lungs, was at this particular moment in the grip of orgasm, and so could not sneeze. Really. True fact.

"Okay," Kodaka said, trying to salvage his plan and make a discrete retreat from this uncomfortable situation.

"I was talking to my friend," Mikazuki elaborated on her defense. "My air friend."

Kodaka paused, and, because some forms of social conditioning affect everyone, even when they know better, repeated what she had just said. "Air friend?"

"Yes, my air friend," she repeated what he had just repeated. (Re-repeated? Whatever.) "You know, like an air guitar." She proceeded to drop down from the window sill where she'd been seated, assume the stance and begin strumming with her left hand while her right pressed down on the chords, all the while making noises that, at least to her mind, resembled a throbbing base line. "Dun-dun-dun, dun-dun!" is a reasonable onomatopoeia.

"Ah," said Kodaka, now terrified beyond rational thought. "That's interesting. Well, gotta go!"

"Okay," Mikazuki said with a sigh. "I realize that sounds crazy."

"No!" Kodaka lied. "Not at all!" he lied some more.

She wasn't really listening, though. "But this is the best friendship I've ever had. No chance of betrayal or abandonment. And you have no room to talk about my not having any friends besides this one!" she added as she started walking towards him.

"I didn't say anything like that," Kodaka observed. Clearly, lies had done him no good, so he swore right then and there to always tell the truth. (This was a lie, of course.) "I didn't even think it," he added as his fit of honesty continued.

"But you're thinking it now, right?"

"Well, yes," he admitted. Honesty was not helping either, clearly.

"So tell me, Kodaka, I know that you stalk though the corridors of this school friendless and alone, but was this always the case?" she asked. "Did you have friends at your previous school?"

Kodaka was too startled by how nice it felt to be called by his personal name, rather than his family name, to really give his next words a lot of thought. "Well, no. I hung out with some people, and I guess we were friendly, but I don't really think we were friends."

"Hah. Well. Maybe that's good enough," she said, looking away.

"No," he said. "I want ... I want real friends."

She continued to look away. "Uh huh," she said. "Got any bright ideas for getting them? Bribery won't work, by the way. I've tried."

Deciding to ignore that rather frightening statement, he stammered out. "Well ... I mean ... I could join a club or something. I should probably do that anyway, so I don't stand out so much."

"Oh that's great," she said, tones laden with sarcasm. "Imposing yourself on some people who already have a hobby in common, just because you want friends. That's sure to impress them."

"Well, you never know until you try," he said, at last feeling the door behind him as he continued to back away from her. "And I could always start up a new club. I'm sure the paperwork isn't too much of a hassle. Or something. I dunno. Anyway, have fun with your air friend."

And then he was gone, out of the room, leaving her alone.

Or rather, alone with the air.

"You know what, Tomo-chan?" said Mikazuki Yozora. "That's not a bad idea at all. I'm glad I thought of it."

The rest of the day, after Kodaka's narrow escape was thankfully much more mundane. Escape, leave school, walk to the small house where he and his little sister resided (in dramatic contrast to the dormitory housing of most Mahora students), spend the evening cooking for her and dealing with her weird delusions (a few years too early to be diagnosed as "eighth-grader syndrome", and having a much more interesting cause), bathe with her, do homework, then go to bed.

(Mundanity is in the eye of the beholder.)

He entertained some vague hopes that the next day would be just as mundane as all that, even though he was aware that his own decisions - specifically, his decision to make friends by joining a club - meant that it probably wouldn't be. Aside from that, he was also worried about how to go about doing so. While the first week or so of school had been filled with people trying to recruit for various clubs, he hadn't really been paying attention at the time. Now that things had settled down, he found it somewhat difficult to recall which clubs had seemed interesting.

Despite what he'd said, the notion of forming his own club didn't really appeal. While he could do that, he knew that his new club would have to get a few members in order to become official ... and he had no confidence in his ability to get those new members. No, despite what Mikazuki had said, he'd have to find a club whose activities interested him and hope that shared interests led to friendship. It should work. Probably.

But which club, he wondered as he entered homeroom early. Which club?

And then he saw, in her usual seat right behind his, the answer to his problems. If rumors were to be believed, Suzumiya Haruhi had joined just about every club that they had on offer, for times ranging from a half-hour to a full day. Whatever her reasons for quitting them, she must have picked up a lot of information about them.

Sliding into his desk, Kodaka hesitated a moment, before turning around to look right at the girl. She was staring out the window with her usual expression of discontent, spoiling what even he had to admit was a rather pretty face. "Um, Suzumiya-san?" he began.

She grunted a response which he took as permission to continue speaking.

"Well, you see, I've heard this rumor about you -"

"Yes, I'm dating a sophomore guy, and have been for the last two years," she said, with the air of one repeating oneself, and without a glance in his direction.

"Oh," Kodaka said. He hadn't heard that rumor. For lack of anything to say, beyond an admission of that, he instead said, "Is he an alien?"

Now Suzumiya was looking at him, and he really wished she wasn't. "What are you, twelve?" she asked. "Of course he's not an alien. If he was an alien, do you think I'd need to announce that I was looking for aliens? I'd have found them, obviously. No, he's not an alien. I hoped he was an alien, or something else out of the ordinary, when he transferred here late in the school year, but it turned out that he was just an ordinary guy."

"Oh," Kodaka said. He was oddly conscious of the fact that this was probably more words than Suzumiya had said to anybody since the school year began. "Then ... why are you still dating him?" He wasn't sure where the question had come from.

"The sex is adequate," she explained, looking away.

"Oh," Kodaka said. Now this was territory he absolutely positively definitely did not want to explore. There was no option except to jerk the conversation onto the rails he'd wanted to follow in the first place. "Actually, what I'd heard is that you've joined a lot of clubs, and -"

"They all suck," she said. "I tried the mystery research club, and they actually ran away from the chance to investigate some of the attacks last year. I tried one of the paranormal research clubs, and they turned out to be a bunch of occult freaks and perverts. I mean, I'm not bothered by that sort of thing, but that's not what I'm after. All the clubs in this place suck. I hoped things would get better when I got to high school, but they haven't."

"Oh," Kodaka said, bidding his hopes for useful intelligence a fond adieu. "Well, sorry to hear that. I guess the best option would be to make your own, then, for the sort of thing that you are after." It was almost an afterthought, uttered just before the rest of the class made their way in, and he turned to face the front, glad the awkward conversation was over.

And so not seeing the way that Suzumiya Haruhi was staring at the back of his head for the rest of the day.

His life grew more complicated around lunch.

"Hasegawa-san?" said a polite voice from his side.

Kodaka snapped his head up from where he'd been resting it against his desk. It couldn't be. But it was. A girl was talking to him without any provocation on his part. And not just a girl. But the girl. Asakura Ryoko, the incredibly popular, beautiful girl who'd been the class' majority pick for class rep. And she was smiling.

Okay, that last bit wasn't all that impossible, since she always seemed to be smiling. He'd heard that she'd had a solemn look on her face once, but he hadn't really been paying attention on that occasion.

But compounding the implausibility, she wasn't alone. Standing just behind her were those two girls, a blonde - Momioka, he thought - and her petite, pony-tailed glasses-girl friend - Sawaka? No, Sawada. And they were smiling at him, too. What was going on here? Had he been selected for some sort of human sacrifice?

"I heard from Sawada-san that you were having a conversation, earlier, with Suzumiya-san," Asakura said. "Is that right?"

No, no, it was worse than a human sacrifice! "Ah, well, sort of," he said, glancing behind him. Of course Haruhi wasn't there, having departed as soon as the lunch bell rang, no doubt engaged in some strange errand. They probably wouldn't have approached him if she was there. Curse you, Haruhi!

"She never talks to anybody!" Momioka said, which probably didn't need to be said, since everyone present was well aware of that. "I guess being a Yankee must give you a lot of nerve!"

Now, that, Kodaka decided with a look at her hair, only slightly darker than his own, was distinctly unfair. ((Given that she did in fact have a lot of nerve, it actually wasn't.) Before he could protest that he wasn't a Yankee, or say anything in his own defense, though, Asakura was talking again.

"Well, however you managed to do it, you managed to have a civil conversation with Suzumiya-san. I would really appreciate it if you could keep doing that, so that she'll have at least one friendly associate in class. I think that would be a good step in helping to turn her into a happy classmate."

Kodaka just stared. What the hell?  How was associating with him supposed to do that?

"Which would be great!" enthused Sawada.

"'Cause she's hot!" added Momioka, smile taking on an edge.

Now he blinked, as he tried to understand why another girl was describing Haruhi as 'hot'. Beautiful, he could see anyone saying, but 'hot'? "Ah, well," he temporized. "I'll s-see what I can do." It wasn't like he could refuse a polite request from the class representative, was it?

"Thank you so much," Asakura said, smiling. "Until then, if we ever need to get a message to Suzumiya-san, we'll pass it through you, all right?"

Apparently, he'd not only become Suzumiya's sponsor in Friendless Jerks Anonymous, he was also her manager. "Right," he temporized. "Um, excuse me, I need to, um, excuse me," he finished weakly as he stood up and edged his way out of the room.

Shaking his head as he walked down the hallway towards the washroom, he mused that at least things couldn't get any screwier than they already had.

And then someone grabbed him by his tie and started dragging him towards the stairwell.

It was a moment before he realized who was dragging him, and another moment in which he was too baffled by the sheer strength of the small girl who was doing it to offer any comment. Then there was the moment of sheer horror in which he was being pulled up the stairs and unable to draw breath because the tie was pulling tight around his throat like a noose. She finally came to a halt in front of the landing's window, letting go of his tie and whirling around to shove a piece of paper in his face.

"I did it!" proclaimed Mikazuki, with a snarling smile of triumph.

Kodaka was desperately loosening the tie and taking deep breaths, so he couldn't immediately respond. When he did, he naturally came back with a wheezed, "What?"

"I did it," she repeated, perhaps a little less savagely but a bit more smugly. "I went down to the administration and established a new club." She emphasized this by shaking the paper she was still holding up.

He blinked and took a slightly longer look at the paper, which was, he now saw, emblazoned with the school's logo and a header reading "Club Registration Form". Looking a bit further down, he read the new club's name.

"The Neighbors Club?" he read aloud.

"In the spirit of Christian fellowship, we shall strive to be good neighbors to each other, growing closer to each other each and every day," she recited the club's statement of purpose, written just below the name.

"I can read, you know," he told her.

"I wasn't sure."

Swallowing that not-terribly-subtle burn, Kodaka looked from her face to the sheet. "Christian fellowship?"

"What?" she asked. "They're rebuilding that big-ass church, aren't they? Plenty of nuns all over the place. Christianity is clearly big here. Plus, the administration wouldn't want to seem like they were restricting our freedom of religion."

The sheer naked cynicism nearly overwhelmed him, and he let out a long breath. "Well," he said at last. "You've clearly thought of everything. I hope you and your fellow good neighbors have lots of fun together."

"You're joining," she said.

"... I'm what now?"

"You're joining," she repeated. "It was your idea, after all, so I put you down as one of the charter members." She pointed out his name under the list of members, consisting of three names, one of which was Mikazuki's own.

He stared. "You can't do that."

"No, it was easy, see?" She pointed out his name again. And mimed writing it.

He struggled to find something to say to that, something that expressed his objection. But the words would not come. Staring at the list, all he could say was, "And, and who's this person?"

"Last member of the Literature Study Club. I talked her into letting us use her club's room for meetings, so of course she's joining too. Her club's going to be disbanded when they review things and find out it has only one member, after all. You've got to have at least five, you know."

"And you've got three -"

"We've got three. For now," she corrected. "We'll get others."

"Okay, no. I'm not -"

"You said you wanted to join a club, right?" Minazuki said, just a bit sharply. "So you could make friends. So here's a club specifically for the purpose of making friends. What is the problem, here?"

"Well, I don't know, maybe I could -"


"I haven't even said what I was going to do," Kodaka growled.

"You're going to talk about making your own club, right? Sorry, nothing doing. The secretary told me that the school allows for a limited number of non-specific clubs, like this one, every year. And guess who's got two thumbs and filled the last available berth?" She pointed at herself with both thumbs. "This gal."

Suzumiya Haruhi stormed out of the administration's offices swearing like a sailor. As this was not a terribly uncommon occurrence, all that transpired was that one of the secretaries made a discreet phone call once she was out of hearing range.

Sensing the certainty of his defeat, Kodaka sighed. "Okay. Fine. I'll go along with this ... Neighbor's Club." He looked at the sheet again. "You even found a faculty advisor, too. Is this guy a foreigner?"

"Negi-sensei? Yeah, I think he's from Wales or something."

Huh. He had the vague notion that Wales was right beside England. That was interesting. "Well, I guess we've got a club, now, Mikazuki -"

"It's Yozora, Kodaka," she said.

He blinked. Not only did she use his personal name, she was insisting that he use hers? That was ... odd. But then, he was coming to realize that this was a very odd girl.

Be that as it may, he supposed that he shouldn't be completely surprised that she insisted on showing him the room that she'd found for this club, immediately. While initially grateful that she allowed him to walk at his own pace rather than be dragged like he had been before, Kodaka started to get nervous once he realized that the club room was (a) not in the same building as their classroom and (b) not in a building in the same general area as the building in which their classroom was held.

"Um ... you know, maybe we should wait until after class to go there," he said as they walked briskly across the campus.

"Don't be ridiculous," Mi- Yozora said, without looking back at him. "We need to claim the classroom quickly in case the Literature Club realizes what we're doing and acts like a bunch of dogs in the manger by reforming."

"Dogs in the -" He set that aside for the moment. "But, we might be late getting back to class?"

"So?" she said, again without a backward glance.

"We'll get in trouble," he said. "People already think I'm a delinquent, and -"

"Don't be silly," she said, holding up a hand as though to wave off his concerns. "You're going to your club, right? You can't be a delinquent if you're going to your club."

Kodaka was fairly sure that wasn't how it worked. But they finally arrived at the building in question, an older, semi-abandoned one that wasn't actually too terribly far from the one where they had class. If they hurried, they'd probably be back before bell. Probably.

Entering, they headed up the stairs to the second floor, and then Yozora threw open one of the doors. "Behold!" she proclaimed.

Kodaka beheld. Specifically, he beheld a rather small room with a table, some chairs, some shelves with books on them set against one of the walls and a coat rack on the other, and a petite girl seated at the tables staring at a computer screen while wearing a set of bunny-eared headphones.

"Nice and cozy, don't you think?" Yozora said, strolling in.

"Is that -"

"Ah, right. Member number three. Hey, Yuki," she said, waving at the girl.

Said girl made no response. This was perhaps to be expected, given her complete immersion in whatever it was she was doing on the computer. With a faint bit of curiosity, Kodaka glanced over her shoulder and discovered that it was some sort of fantasy role-playing game. Lacking interest in the subject, he turned back to Yozora. "Yes, very quaint," he said. "Now let's get back to class."

"What's the rush?" she asked.

"... the rush is a complete lack of interest in getting lectured about cutting class."

"Eh, it'll happen whether you're interested or not," she said dismissively. "Anyway, first I want to show you something." She proceeded to start opening her uniform jacket.

"Oh, hey, wait a minute," Kodaka said, backing away.

"What?" Yozora asked, looking genuinely perplexed as she pulled a piece of paper out of the jacket's inside pocket, then unfolded and held it up for him to see. "I made a photocopy and put it up on the school bulletin board."

What small poise he'd managed to regain instantly fled as he stared at the childish drawing of ... a large number of people (and, um, not-people) holding what looked like mushrooms - with little arms and legs - and smiling broadly under a rising sun which was also smiling and holding a mushroom. With writing underneath.

"What the crap is this?" he asked.

"It's our recruiting poster," she said. In response to his wordless gaze of disbelief, she elaborated. "I decided to draw that song, you know? When I'm a third grader I'll make a hundred friends and we'll eat onigiri on Mt. Fuji?"

"That's supposed to be onigiri?" he asked. "Why did you give it arms and legs?"

"Because it's cute," Yozora replied, clearly starting to sound exasperated.

"Okay, setting that lunacy aside -"

"Hey, lunacy?"

"What's with this message? It doesn't say anything about what this club is supposed to do. It's just ... I'm not even sure what to call it."

"Read it diagonally," she said, sounding cross.

He did so. "... who the hell is going to notice this?"

"Anyone who does notice it is going to be just the sort of person we want in this club!" Yozora proclaimed.

The door, which they'd closed behind them, swung open once more. "Recruiting friends?" said a voice.

Standing there, breathing rather heavily in the fashion of one who has run a marathon while radiating almost incandescent fury, was Suzumiya Haruhi. Her eyes didn't so much wander around the room as dart from place to place, finally settling on Yozora.

"Recruiting friends?" she repeated.

"That's right," Yozora said tightly. "You wanna make something of it?"

From the look on Suzumiya's face, it seemed fairly clear that she did. But she drew in one more deep breath, and regarded her calmly. "I want to join."

"Rejected," Yozora said without hesitation. "Kodaka, would you kindly get rid of this wench?"

"What did you just call me?"

Right at the moment, Kodaka couldn't imagine anywhere he wanted to be less than right here. And that wasn't easy, because he could imagine a lot of very unpleasant situations. "Uh, Yozora," he said. "Didn't you say that anyone who could figure out the hidden message was someone you'd want in the club?"

"I say lots of things," Yozora replied. "She doesn't count."

"Why not?" Kodaka and Suzumiya asked in rough synchrony, though using very different tones.

"Because of th- the way that she's obviously up to something!" Yozora exclaimed, somehow changing course mid-way through the sentence. She glared at Haruhi. "You are obviously up to something, wench!"

"You did it again," Suzumiya said, more amazed than anything else. "What do you mean I'm up to something?" she asked a heartbeat later.

"You're up to something!" Yozora repeated, just a bit angrily.

"Repetition is not explanation!" Suzumiya answered just as angrily.

Yozora made a few false starts, before she finally pointed a finger at the other girl. "You said on our first day that you don't have any interest in ordinary people."

"Yes, that's right," Suzumiya agreed.

"Well, there you go, then. This is a club that's all about becoming friends with ordinary people, so you wouldn't have any interest in it!"

"Oh yeah?" Suzumiya sneered. "You really think ordinary people are gonna figure out that daft secret message?"

"She has a point there," Kodaka observed.

"Don't encourage the wench!" Yozora yelled at him. Then back to Haruhi. "So anyway, you are obviously scheming to come in here, take over our friendly association of friendship and, within a couple of weeks, turn it into something weird like a group to look for aliens and espers and time travellers and, and whatever that other thing you were looking for was -"

"Sliders," Kodaka supplied.

"Don't encourage her!" Suzumiya yelled at him. Then back to Yozora. "You are a paranoid little girl, you know that? I would never even consider what you're suggesting." (Which was true. She'd had a much more long-term strategy in mind, taking most of a month rather than a couple of weeks. Clearly she was going to have to draw it out even longer to avoid attention.)

"Sheah, right," Yozora sneered. "Anyway. As president for life of the Neighbors Club -"

"You're what now?" Kodaka interjected.

And was completely ignored. "- I am officially rejecting your petition for membership."

"Objection!" Suzumiya cried, holding up a swirly tipped finger. "School regulations officially state that the officers of a club may not unilaterally reject any petition for membership without the consent of a simple majority of the existing club membership!"

"You actually read the school regulations?" Yozora asked, jaw dropped.

"I have a lot of spare time!" Suzumiya snapped.

"Well, fine," Yozora growled after a moment. "Hand poll. Let those who wish to accept the petition for membership of this wench raise their hands." She proceeded to glare murderously at Kodaka.

Kodaka flinched beneath the stress of her regard. The last thing he wanted to do was raise his hand under these circumstances. And come to that, didn't she already have a boyfriend? What did she need with more friends? So really, the smart thing to do would be to keep his hand lowered.

And yet.

He remembered how Asakura had asked him to do what he could to help Haruhi, and the warmth of the girl's smile. So, with a sigh of certain doom, he raised his hand.

"Uh huh," Yozora said, nodding, still glaring a look that promised death to all traitors. "How sweet. One for, one against, president breaks all ties, so -"

"You need to count again," said Suzumiya.

"What are you talking about, there's me, him and -" Yozora broke off. Slowly, she turned.

Nagato Yuki had not looked up from her computer. But her hand was raised all the same.

"She's wearing headphones," Yozora said dazedly. "How does she even know what we're talking about?"

"Two for, one against," Suzumiya said with an obvious smirk.

"Welcome to the Neighbor's club, Suzumiya -" Kodaka started to say.

"It's Haruhi," the girl interrupted. "If you're going to call her by just her name, you can do the same for me. Now about our recruitment efforts - the poster has its points, but I believe we can do better with something ... moe."

Haruhi, as she would insist on being called, did not have a chance to elaborate on what she meant by that. With the membership situation resolved, Kodaka's earlier anxieties about being late for class returned in full. "Well, now that that's settled, we should really get back to class!" he said, clapping his hands and smiling broadly.

"Wow, you have got to do something about that grimace," Haruhi said, staring at him.

"It looks like you're in incredible pain," Yozora said. "As though from a stick up your ass, for example."

"I don't have a - look, I just don't want to get in trouble over this, okay?"

"Eh, that probably won't happen," Yozora said.

"To borrow a phrase from one of my colleagues, the sheer irresponsibility of our current crop of students is driving me to despair!" Nitta-sensei proclaimed, sitting at his desk and glaring angrily at the trio of students who were standing before it.

"I think Itoshiki-sensei actually usually says, 'has driven me to despair', said the young boy whom Kodaka had been informed was Negi-sensei, as he stood beside Nitta regarding them with a more sympathetic expression. Which would probably have been a bit comforting, if, you know, he hadn't been a child younger than any of them.

As Nitta-sensei continued lecturing them, he combined the rant with a few shots at Negi-sensei for continuing to fail to provide discipline to the students. Kodaka thought that was a bit unfair since the boy teacher hadn't even been present for any of this, not that anyone was consulting Kodaka for his opinion. Of course, if they had consulted him for his opinion, he would have been too busy giving Yozora heck for picking a little kid to be their faculty advisor, genius or not. What had that girl been thinking? He would really like to know!

There was no possibility of asking her, though, under the present circumstances. She was staring off into space, letting the lecture flow off her like water off a duck's back. He might have envied her that poise if he didn't suspect that it wasn't poise, but simply actual indifference.

On the other hand, Haruhi was staring rather intently at Negi-sensei. Kodaka found himself wondering what was up with that. Now that he realized that Negi-sensei was one and the same person with the boy teacher he'd heard rumors about, the one who somehow caused shotacon behavior in girls, he was starting to wonder just how depraved Haruhi might be.

Eventually, after what felt like hours, Nitta-sensei's lecture about The Horrors of Truancy, supported with ample reference to Students Of The Past who had Fallen From The Path and Their Dreadful Fates, reached what seemed like a logical conclusion. Negi-sensei smoothly swept in before another lecture could begin. "Yes, of course you're right, Nitta-sensei," he said. "I'm sure that these young people -"

Everyone stared at him.

He continued without pause. "- were simply overwhelmed by the excitement of forming a new club. I'll be sure to keep an eye on them to make sure that they don't do it again. In fact, I'll escort them to their classroom right now so that they don't miss any more of their class."

"Hrmph," said Nitta-sensei. "Well, then, I'll leave them in your care. Remember, Negi-kun, their behavior reflects on you."

"Yes, of course," Negi-sensei agreed, silently gesturing for the three students to head for the door, which they of course did. He followed them, bowing politely as he closed the door.

"Ooookay," he said when that was done. "While he's overdid that a bit, it's important to prioritize classroom time over -"

"Negi-sensei, are you an alien?"

The boy didn't even pause to stare bewilderedly at Haruhi. "Only a legal one."


"An attempt at humor. No, Haruhi-san, I'm not an alien, a time traveller, an esper or a ... what's the other thing?"

"Slider," supplied Kodaka.

"... well, I do enjoy waterslides, but I wouldn't say that I'm -"

"That's not ... ngh. Are you sure?" Haruhi pressed. "You wouldn't lie to an innocent girl, would you?"

"Of course not!" Negi assured her. "Is something the matter, Kodaka-san?" he asked the boy, who'd broken down coughing for some reason.

Kodaka waved for Negi to not worry about him, since he found it impossible to speak right then.

Despite what Yozora thought, her poster's hidden message wasn't that hard to figure out, at least for the generally highly educated populace of her high school. On its first day posted on the school's bulletin board, several students other than Haruhi paused to take a look at it, then tilted their head to see the message hidden in the diagonal.

The first was a rather beautiful young girl who paused to do so just briefly. She quietly sounded out the hidden words, and made a sad face. But a side glance told her that she was under observation by a trio of hostile glares, so Katsura Kotonoha quickly moved on before she had a chance to note the location of the Neighbors Club's headquarters. Something of a pity, really.

If she'd paused just a little longer, she'd have realized that those hostile glares - from a trio of girls who will not be introduced at this time - were not the only eyes on her. A rather more sympathetic pair were also following every step she took, every move she made, and had definitely noted her pause. Curious, Itou Makoto paused to look at the poster she'd examined, and tilted his head as she'd done as well.

He didn't see it, though. After a moment, he shook his head and continued his way out of school.

But his own pause had been noted, and in what might be considered something of a domino effect, the person who'd noted it paused as well, tilted his head. And did see the message. But Yuuki Rito blinked in confusion. Despite his awkwardness and occasional shyness, he'd never had any difficulty making friends. He was aware that some of them might not be terribly good influences on him, but he'd never lacked for friends. With a shrug, he headed towards the lockers to change into his shoes, and then towards something he'd been meaning to do for a long time.

The domino effect continued as a petite red-haired girl who'd seen Rito taking a look at the poster sauntered up to it herself. She'd exchanged a grand total of five sentences with this boy who was apparently her cousin, and didn't honestly think much of him. But if he'd found something interesting, she was curious enough to wonder what it might be. And so she tilted her head as well.

A smirk crossed her face, and Yuuki Nao shook her head. People who had the misfortune of not being her never ceased to amuse her. She sauntered away from the poster, but on an impulse - for she always obeyed her impulses - she fished her rather rulebreaking cellphone out of her vest pocket, and lifted it to her ear after hitting one of its speed dials. "Hey, Natsuki," she said. "Wanna go out tonight and beat people up? ... Great!"

Friendship takes many forms.

That seemed to be the end of the dominos. The next person to give the poster a more than casual glance did so a few moments after Nao passed by. It was really more of a double take than anything else. Well, actually, there's no way that it can be considered anything other than a rather exaggerated double take, as the young woman in question first gave it the aforementioned casual glance as she was passing it while accompanied by her two friends, then looked away.

Then her eyes widened and, just as she was lifting her foot to take another step forward, her head twisted back to stare widely at the poster again, freezing in this extremely awkward and unbalanced position. The outcome was, of course, inevitable. She pitched forward and landed flat on her face in the hallway.

Of the two girls accompanying her, one promptly began to laugh her head off, to the appalled stare of the second. "Yeah, I'm sorry, Haruna-chan, but you've got to admit that's funny," said Tsuruya THIS NAME HAS BEEN CENSORED IN YOUR OWN INTEREST.

I hate it when that happens.

"It's not that funny," said Saotome Haruna, shaking her head, a bit hypocritically since, if we're being honest, she found it just as amusing as Tsuruya. She did help her friend up, asking, "Are you okay, Mikuru-san?"

"Ah," said Asahina Mikuru, blushing prettily. "Yes, yes, I am. I just saw something very confusing, that's all."

They looked where she'd looked, saw nothing terribly confusing, and returned skeptical and amused glances to Mikuru.

"It's not there, now," she offered feebly.

"Ahhh," they chorused.

Away they went.

Later. Much later.

He stood before the window, looking down on the world both figuratively and literally, watching the lights of evening come up, occasionally allowing his eyes to stray over to the World Tree and a few other points of interest, such as a certain haunted-looking mansion on the city limits, barely visible from this dormitory tower. He had long been aware of the powers at work in this academy, but since his own interests in such matters were largely specialized, he'd never paid them much mind.

But things changed. He smiled thinly. Though he himself had not changed in any real sense since the early eighties, he was not fool enough to deny that things did change. He supposed that becoming richer and richer with each passing day was a change, but it wasn't a dramatic one, the sort of changes that had brought him here.

Or specifically, the opportunities they presented.

The noise from the bed was a bit distracting, but he kept his eyes and his mind on the specifics of his plan. The distraction of his cell phone ringing, on the other hand, was one that he couldn't ignore. He checked the number, and was somewhat surprised. But on a moment's reflection, considering the success of phase one of his plan, he supposed that he shouldn't be.

"Good evening, Makoto," he said as he took the call.

"What are you doing?" the boy's voice snapped on the other end.

"At the moment, I'm considering certain business opportunities that have presented themselves," he answered, far more politely than he'd just been addressed. "Is something the matter?"

"Mom called," the boy said. "She said that you just up and dropped Itaru with her. Why did you do that?"

"... are you unhappy that your sister and your mother are being reunited?" he asked, feigning confusion. "I don't understand why you'd get upset about this. It's not like you'll be kicked out of your room, or anything. You're at the boy's dorm at your school, aren't you?"

"That's not the - you're up to something."

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I am," he admitted, smiling again. "As I said, I'm making some business moves that require my undivided attention, so I don't have time to look after my daughter at the moment. So I've returned Itaru to your mother. It's not that complicated." That was a lie, of course.

"... you're up to something," the boy repeated.

"I admitted that," he replied. "Was there something else?"

"... no."

"All right then. How's your love life?"

"... I'm not about to discuss it with -"

"If you can't talk about these things with your own father, I really hope you have some good friends," he said. "Well, just remember what I told you. Enjoy yourself. Don't ever let anyone tie you down. And remember -"

"- someday you'll come to steal any cute girlfriends I get away from me," Makoto recited the words he'd said to him, the last time they'd spoken, in a weary tone.

"And someday might be sooner than you'd think," he added. "Later, kiddo." He hung up before the boy could respond to that, then turned the phone off so that he couldn't be interrupted.

Just in time, as it happened, because the sounds from the bed had turned into coherent words. "I think she's ready," said the older of the two women there, her words a bit slurred by the juices she'd been drinking.

He turned with a smile to regard her, crouched between the legs of the adorably young-looking girl whose hands were firmly tied to the headboard of the bed on which she was lying, as she trembled in what was doubtless a heady mix of arousal and horror. Arousal was inevitable when someone performed cunnilingus with skill. Horror was inevitable when that person was one's mother.

"Well done, Mai-chan," he complimented her as he approached them, skinning off the boxers which were his only clothes, aside from his amulet. "Are you ready, Setsuna-chan?"

"W-who are you?" she gasped, eyes helplessly drawn from his mustachioed face down to the thing between his legs. It was, he supposed, the first time she'd ever seen one. Should have been more thorough, Shun, he thought, smile widening.

"You can call me daddy," he told her as he settled between her legs, her mother holding them open for him. "Or Tomaru. As long as you call it out frequently," he added, shoving himself into her.

She did, eventually. He supposed that he could have told her to call him grandpa, since he was the father of both her mother and her father (as well as her maternal grandmother) but that made him feel so old. And the last thing he wanted, especially as he fucked yet another one of his cute little girls, was to feel old.

If this worked, he'd never feel that way, ever ...

Elsewhere that evening in Mahora, in the open doorway of one of the hangars formerly used by the now-disbanded aviation club, a pair of men in black suits were standing with a third, rather petite, hooded figure in an orange jumpsuit. The older of the two men touched an earpiece. "We have confirmation that they're inbound," he said to his colleague. "When they arrive, don't say anything, don't take offense to anything they say, don't react." His eyes turned to the figure standing between them. "This is your last chance. We can offer you asylum -"

The figure's hooded head rocked back and forth, just once.

"Then I'm genuinely sorry, but you're leaving us with no options but to turn you over -"

Whatever else the man might have said was lost beneath the whining sound produced by the engines of the vehicle which now descended towards the hangar doors. It resembled, if anything, a stealth bomber, though such vehicles couldn't maneuver as this one did, nor did their landing gear flow like liquid metal from the bottom of the hull moments before it settled down. In the exact same way, a hatch appeared on the hull, and a ramp descended.

Down came a pair of men, slightly larger than the two men below, dressed in suits chosen as though to parody them - though allowing for their tails to swing freely behind them.

"Remove the hood," said the foremost of the two new arrivals.

Wordlessly, the senior agent did so. Pink hair flowed freely down the small girl's back as she looked with calm defiance towards the men with tails.

"Your Highness," the foremost said, with a slight bow that conveyed no real sense of deference. "We will be taking you home now. Do you wish us to annihilate your captors and all who know them?"

The senior agent saw his companion's breath catch at that, and he allowed himself a slight frown. That one won't last long in this business.

After a moment, she spoke. "They have done their duty, as they saw it. Let no harm come to them."

"As you wish." With a gesture, he beckoned towards the hatchway.

With a sigh, the girl started walking in that direction ... then paused, to look back at the agents. "Agent Coulson," she said. "Have you heard of a book called Paradise Lost?"

"It's a fairly famous one. Your Highness," he added, as an afterthought, when he saw a slight tension in the arms of one of the emissaries.

"'Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven,'" she quoted.

"I think I see your point," he replied. Then, in her own language, he added, "May you find all you seek."

She smiled at him. "I hope so," she said in his, and walked up into the ship, followed closely by the two emissaries.

"I would bathe," she said, as the door closed behind them. Clever agent, she thought. "I see your point." When speaking of lines written by a blind man, spoken by the master of lies. You do your master proud. I hope I will not cause you any trouble, clever agent.

But it is far better neither to reign nor to serve, in neither heaven nor hell, but to fly freely in the world that lies between. And I will.

Chapter Text

One of the consequences of the series of disasters which had afflicted the Mahora area in recent years had been a rather dramatic change of school policy when it came to dormitory living. A number of the dormitories had been seriously damaged by those disasters, to the point where the schools didn't have room for all of their students, despite their dwindling enrollment. Thus, the school authorities had had no real choice but to grudgingly permit students to take up homes in apartments off campus, or continue to live with their parents or guardians in town - a bit less grudgingly in cases where those parents or guardians were members of the faculty. Even if said faculty member basically taught one hour a year, plus surprise visits, and spent the rest of his time dodging his TAs while working on multiple manga series.

Yuuki Mikan was not really aware of any of that. Well, she was well aware that her father was not the most responsible of persons, and could probably have concluded that he couldn't actually do the job he'd been hired to do and do all the work which she knew that he did. (There simply weren't enough hours in the day.) But the twelve year old didn't really concern herself with that sort of thing. She was content, for the most part, with the consequences as they pertained to her - the fact that she could live here, in this nice house, with her family - theoretically - rather than in the dorms.

For the most part. Sometimes, seeing the other girls in her class and their closeness, she wondered whether she might be missing something. But then she came home to this private house, kicked off her shoes and lay down on the couch, heels kicking behind her, to read the manga that her father drew while sucking on a lollipop, and was content. She heard the front door open, and then a slow, slow series of footfalls through the hallway leading past the family room, where she was, to the stairs leading up. Thud, thud, thud, went the footsteps on the stairs, heavy sounds which communicated melancholy as no words possibly could.

"Blew it again, didn't you?" she asked without looking up.

A brief pause in the footsteps, followed by a rather rapid thudthudthudthudKER-RASH! Mikan flinched, then peered up to glance into the hallway over the back of the couch, seeing her older brother's orange-haired head flat against the floor.

"'m all right," his voice said, muffled by the fact that he was facing downward, just as she was about to get up and check on him. He managed to get to his feet without looking directly at her, then turn around and begin trudging back up the stairs. "I'm going to go have a bath," he said in passing.

"Okay," Mikan said. She wasn't entirely sure what possessed her to continue. "If you end up masturbating, remember to clean the tub afterwards, okay?"


A few seconds, in which Mikan couldn't bring herself to look, and then another, "'m all right."

There were many times in which Mikan hoped she was adopted. This was one of them, if not for the reasons that she normally did so.

It's just not fair, Rito thought as he grumblingly watched the furo fill with water while he scrubbed himself clean. I was mentally prepared. I did tons of image training. It's a simple thing to say. 'Sairenji Haruna-san. I like you. Please go out with me.' How hard can it possibly be?

Fucking impossible, that's how hard!

And he'd even set it up perfectly this time. He'd been standing, confidently but not arrogantly - because girls hated arrogant guys, no matter what Sawanaga seemed to think - at the school gate, waiting for her as she walked towards it, chatting with some of the girls in their class. He didn't see any of them, of course, his eyes were solely on her. Her sweet expression. Her silky black hair. Her gentle manner. Her toned legs. Her firm yet clearly well developed breasts, hidden beneath the uniform blazer and the shirt under it, yet obviously -

Dammit, I don't want to clean the bathtub! Go down! Dowwwwwn!

Finishing his scrubbing, he rinsed off and hopped into the tub, hoping that the distraction and warmth would put paid to his little friend, whom he cared about a lot but did not really want to have to deal with right at the moment. He wasn't having any luck with that either, so he decided to think about how everything had gone wrong.

Because it had. He didn't understand it. But it had. Just as Haruna-san's lovely face was ever so slowly turning in his direction, his confidence had completely wilted. Again. And since he couldn't possibly face her without any confidence, lest she laugh at him, and thus kill him, he'd had to dive for cover in the closest set of bushes.

At least this time, he'd had the good fortune to avoid diving into a bush which anyone else had been using for whatever purposes. Like those screwy pink-haired twins, that one time, who'd at least had the courtesy to wait until Haruna-san was out of earshot before beating the living hell out of him for interrupting them. That had been nice of them, considering that they'd clearly been enjoying themselves. No, no, don't think about that. Don't think about what you saw them doing to each other. Don't think about where their hands were, or -


The worst part about high school was that everyone seemed to be so much more comfortable about that sort of thing than he was. Maybe they weren't. Maybe they were all faking that confidence. Those girls hadn't been faking any damn thing though. Don't think about them! Still, maybe that was the key. Maybe you had to fake it in order to make it. (He really thought that was an original idea.)

No, that wasn't the worst part. The really worst part was that he was fairly sure that there were girls in his class, even, who would probably cheerfully give him a tumble for shits and giggles. And sex would be on the agenda, without doubt. But he didn't want any of them. He wanted Haruna-san.

Ah, hell with it.
He started to rub himself off. The fact that he'd have to scrub the bathtub after he was done, now, was far less important than the fact that this thing wasn't going down and he couldn't just walk around with a boner while his little sister was around. She'd get the wrong idea. (He wasn't sure what the wrong idea was, in this instance, but he didn't want Mikan to get it.) So he wanked, occasionally polishing the helmet of his little warrior for variety, feeling the tension grow and grow.

And then the water of the tub began to bubble. Huh? Rito thought. He didn't believe that he'd farted. Still, he was too close to satisfaction to let something like that distract him, and he kept on.

There was a roar, and then, like Venus rising from the waves (yes, that was what he thought; his father was an artist) a naked girl with bright pink hair and brilliant green eyes surged up from the tub before him.

In practically the same instant, his self-ministrations achieved their desired effect. And, utterly unlike Venus rising from the waves, the white substance produced by those ministrations flew up to splatter on the pink-haired girl's face.

They stood there in a tableau for a few moments.

Then the girl's tongue sneaked out from her mouth to sample what had just been sprayed at her. After it retreated, she nodded. "An interesting greeting method," she said.

Mikan had finally had enough, for the moment, of the adventures of an amiable yet violence-prone lout drawn into a secret war between ghost pirates and magical ninjas, and so she decided to go upstairs to get started on her homework before dinner. The possibility that she might catch Rito as he was coming out of the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel around his waist didn't occur to her. It didn't even cross her mind. And if it had, she wouldn't have wanted to see anything like that. And if she did happen to see it, there wouldn't be anything weird about it, because brothers and sisters did that sort of thing all the time without there being any weirdness or uncomfortableness. Nothing odd at -

She heard a high-pitched, almost girlish scream and the sound of pounding feet. Alarmed, she hurried up the stairs and turned the corner to the bathroom to see Rito, towel wrapped around his waist, slamming face first into the wall, his hands clutching at it as if for handholds, like he was trying to continue his headlong flight up the wall.

"Rito, what in the world -" Mikan started to ask.

"Naked!" he shrieked. "Pink! Pink pink pink! And naked! Girl! Pink naked girl! Gyah!" her older brother concluded.


"Pink naked girl!" Rito repeated. "In tub! Gyah!" he added, starting to calm down but nowhere even close to a conclusion of that process.

Mikan considered her brother. Very carefully. Solely because she was afraid for his mind, not for any other purpose. And then, slowly, she turned and walked to the bathroom door and looked in. "This tub?" she asked quietly.

"Yes! Pink naked girl in that tub! Gy- Mikan, why aren't you freaking out?"

"A more phlegmatic disposition than one would expect of someone of my age," she explained. "Also, the complete absence of any girls, regardless of their color or clothing, in the tub."

Somewhat more quickly, Rito came over to look where Mikan was looking, and, indeed, there was a decided lack of girl in the bathroom. "But," Rito protested. "But I saw her! She was right, right there -"

"Okay, Rito?" Mikan said. "I know that you are at a difficult time in your life -"

"Oh, no, Mikan, I'm begging you, don't give me the speech."

She ignored him. "- and you're a little stressed out about the whole thing where you utterly fail to confess to a girl that you like -"

"Please, please, no."

"- and you seem really excited right at the moment -"

"That's - why are you looking there in the first place?" he whined, trying to cover up what the towel didn't quite hide.

"- so I'm just going to pretend this didn't happen, and later, maybe, we can have a little talk about the difference between what we imagine and things that actually happen," she concluded. "Now, I'm gonna do you a little favor, and clean the tub for you, before I take a bath myself. Okay?"

He wanted to protest. He wanted to insist that he wasn't imagining things. But the thought of having someone clean the bath instead of him was just too persuasive. "Okay," Rito said heavily, picked up his clothes from the bathroom floor, and walked away shaking his head.

Mikan promptly took a very cold shower, for no particular reason, and then jumped into the bath without cleaning it.

Maybe Mikan is right, Rito thought as he trudged down the hallway to his room. Maybe I did imagine the whole thing. I mean, I was thinking about those crazy pink haired girls, right before it all happened, so it makes a certain amount of sense that I'd imagine something like that. In a way, the notion that he might be losing his mind was somewhat comforting. It meant he wouldn't have to - or actually, be able to - worry about anything else.

Somewhat cheerfully, he opened the door to his room.

"Oh, hey," said the pink-haired girl who was sitting on his bed, smiling cheerfully at him as she toweled her face and hair. Other than the towel hanging around her neck and not quite reaching far enough down to cover her breasts, she was still completely naked. "I borrowed one of your towels. I hope that's all right."

Rito stared at her. She looked back, still smiling. He blinked. repeatedly. The girl did not vanish. He closed his eyes, rubbed them rather vigorously, and then looked at her through the haze. She was still there.

He took a deep breath. "Would you mind staying right there, not moving a muscle, while I go and get my sister to show you to her so I can make her acknowledge that I'm not actually crazy?"

Now she blinked. "Hum!" she hummed. "Well, that is a very unusual request, but I am imposing on your hospitality. So, no, I wouldn't mind doing that. Although ..." She paused, tilting her head slightly. "... your sister, is she the girl with whom you were speaking earlier, Rito?"

"Yes," he answered automatically. Then he had a realization. "Wait, how do you know my name?"

"I have very good hearing," she said. "So I heard you talking to her while you were in the hallway, and she used that as your name. It is your name, right, not some form of nickname?" When he nodded, she sighed in relief. "I didn't consider until just now that possibility. I do not wish to give any offense while I am imposing on your hospitality. In any event, you might not want to interrupt your sister, Rito, as she's right at the moment engaged in something."

Oh, right, cleaning the tub. "Yes, I suppose so."

She nodded. "I have two younger sisters of my own, and I know that it's important to give them privacy."

He nodded. She nodded back.

"Okay, who the flaming moonbeams are you and how did you get in here?" Rito asked, at last failing to maintain the calm that he'd been keeping until this point.

The girl blinked, and bonked her head softly with a clenched fist while sticking her tongue out. "Oh, I am so embarrassed!" she said, standing up so as to show him every inch of herself, rather than just what he'd been able to see while she was seated. "Here I am, talking about not wishing to give offense, and after you go so far as to greet me and give me your DNA, I have not even had the common courtesy as to introduce myself! My mother would be so mad at me!"

She took a deep breath, and then continued. "I have the honor to be Lala Satalin Deviluke, crown princess of the Empire of Deviluke. Hence the family name," she added, somewhat more softly. "As to how I came here, after you left your bathroom at such speed, I suspected that you might be a bit shy. So as not to offend you, I picked up your towel and departed from that place through its other exit, then came into this room by that entrance." She elaborated by pointing at the window.

"Crown Prin-" Rito started to repeat. "Empire of - okay, maybe I should have been a bit clearer when I asked my question," he said at last.

"It's something we should all strive to achieve," Lala agreed.

He ignored that. "When I said, how did you get in here, I meant, how did you get into this house in the first place?"

"I teleported from the bathroom on our ship to yours," she answered easily. "Um, might I ask a question at this point? I assure you I will strive to be as clear as possible."

"... sure, ask away," Rito said dazedly.

"Where exactly on Earth are we?"

Now he blinked. "Uh ... the town of Mahora, Kantou district, Japan. My house," he added, somewhat unnecessarily.

She nodded as though that explained a few things. "Yes, that explains a few things. After that awfully showy entrance, they would probably have headed to our base in this area to refuel for our journey back to the homeworld," she mused aloud.

"Homeworld?" Rito repeated. That statement combined with the fact that he'd never heard of any Empire of Deviluke to produce a startling conclusion. "Are you ... are you from another planet?"

"Yes, the planet your people know as Kinsei, or Venus as it's somewhat more widely known," she confirmed. "I'm sorry, were you under the impression that you and I are of the same species? Have you not noticed this?" She turned slightly, giving him a clear view of her rear ... though Rito's eyes were quickly drawn up to notice the long, thin tail, colored considerably darker than the rest of her flesh, which stretched from her lower back and terminated with what looked like a heart.

He stared, then forced himself to look up at her face. "Would you please put some clothes on?" he asked weakly.

"I would love to do so!" she said cheerfully.

They stood there staring at each other for several moments.

"So ..." Rito asked.

"So?" she asked right back. "I mean, I think it is rather obvious that I don't have any with me, so I was assuming that was an offer to lend me some. You are a very generous soul, Rito."

A few moments later, after briefly considering and discarding abortive plans to borrow clothes from Mikan's room (too small for her, likely to provoke terrible retribution) or from his mother's closet in his parent's room (potentially booby-trapped), Rito settled for instructing Lala in a method of wrapping the towel she'd borrowed around herself so as to preserve her non-existent modesty. It was a little disturbing to see the way that she treated this as a great discovery.

"You are not only generous, you clearly know where your towel is, Rito," she told him as she sat down on his bed again.

"Huh?" he said, then shook his head. "No, never mind that. Wait ... if you're an alien, why do you speak perfect Japanese?"

"'If'?" Lala said, arcing an eyebrow. "Would you like a sample of my DNA to confirm it?"


She looked a little put out. "Well, anyway, I actually don't speak a word of your language. There are microbes in my brain that translate everything."

"... okay, that makes no sense whatsoever," Rito said flatly. "How would microbes in your brain let you talk in a language you don't know?"

Lala looked at him admiringly. "And you're clever, too! Yes, I'm sorry, that was what we might call a lie. The microbes are real, but they're only part of a very complicated set of implants that facilitate our communication. I'd love to explain more, but I suspect you probably don't have the right background in biotechnology, neurology, and paraphysics to really understand the principles. Am I wrong about that?" she asked hopefully.

Rito rubbed his face. "Microbes," he said, absently. "Got it."

She smiled sunnily. "Don't let it worry you."

"Okay. So. You teleported here. From a spaceship which had landed somewhere in this area." It was sort of scary, how easily he found it to accept that. "Why did you do that?" he asked.

Lala blinked. "Well, obviously, I wanted to leave, and that seemed the quickest way to do so. So I used this number that I started building a while ago." She held up her left wrist, around which was a thin metal bracelet that Rito hadn't noticed before. "I call it Pyon-Pyon Warp-Kun," she pronounced proudly. "I'm still working out the bugs in the navigation software, so the destination is largely randomized, and I'm sure that with a little work I can extend the range beyond a few percentiles of a light second, but it works rather nicely."

"Pyon - this is a translation problem, isn't it?" Rito asked, changing directions abruptly. "It sounds different in your language. Hopefully not quite so ridiculous?"

"Hey!" she said, frowning.

"Sorry, sorry," he said, blushing as he realized that he'd accidentally insulted her. He had a feeling that this girl was trouble with a capital T, but even if that wasn't the case, it was probably best not to antagonize her. And as he was thinking this, it occurred to Rito that this might be the longest conversation he'd ever had with a member of the opposite sex, other than Mikan.

That odd realization drove him to try and extend it. "Um, so why didn't you just, I don't know, walk off the ship?"

"Well, the people who were holding me captive there would probably have objected," she said, then blinked. "Didn't I mention that part?"

"No," Rito said, panic starting to well up again. "No, I can safely say that you didn't mention that you were escaping captivity. Ah, if it's not too much to ask, why were you being held captive?"

"Well, mostly because it was the job of the people on the ship to hold me captive," she answered. "I don't hold it against - oh. That's not what you meant, is it?"

Rito shook his head rapidly.

"Sorry. Well, to answer the question that's implied by that question ..." Lala said, then trailed off, tilting her head to one side. "... when you get right down to it, I'm not sure why someone takes up the job of being a pursuer," she said. "It's dangerous, difficult work at the best of times, and while the rewards are - Rito, why are you slamming your head against the wall like that?"

Before he could answer that, Rito was completely distracted when a small object, moving at a speed that made it hard for him to make out any of its features, flew in the window. "Lala-sama!" it said, in a voice which (to Rito) sounded like a synthesized version of an elderly British lady's voice. "Thank the Fairest and Fallen that I was able to find you so quickly!"

"Ah, Peke!" Lala said, managing to sound at once pleased, surprised and yet also somehow worried.

The flying thing began station-keeping in front of her face, allowing Rito to get a good look at it. To his eyes, it vaguely resembled a tiny human being, in a suit, with bat wings on its back, but with its head replaced with a white globe on which someone had drawn squiggles which vaguely echoed eyes, a bit like the teru teru bozu that he and Mikan had made when she was much younger and still believed in that sort of thing.

"- and after I realized what you must have done, Lala-sama, it was simple to attune my sensors to detect the Cherenkov radiation produced by Pyon-Pyon Warp-Kun, thus telling me exactly where you were," it was saying. "And in the confusion which your disappearance from the vessel provoked, I was able to quickly make my escape!"

Lala was starting to frown. "How quickly?" she asked.

"Um, Lala?" Rito asked.

The flying creature swivelled in mid air so that its 'face' was turned to look at Rito. "Lala-sama, who is this rather dull-looking creature?" it asked.

"Peke," Lala said sternly, "that will do. This is Rito, a very clever, very generous person whose hospitality I am presently enjoying. You should not insult him unnecessarily. And I should not do so, either, by failing to introduce you to him. Rito, this is Peke, my robot valet."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Peke said, in a tone which would probably better serve the words, "Hurry up and die."

"Of course it is," Rito said, feeling the headache he'd felt earlier coming back.

Lala smiled abruptly, and clapped her hands. "And it's a good thing that Peke has arrived, because now I can heed your earlier request!"

"Huh?" Rito asked.

"Lala-sama, I begin to wonder whether you might have rushed to judgement by declaring the creature clever," Peke said.

"Don't be silly, Peke, I never rush to judgement," Lala replied, letting the towel drop and exposing herself fully to Rito, who promptly panicked and threw a hand over his eyes. By some horrible twist of fate, however, the fingers of the hand were spread widely enough that one of his eyes had a clear sight of her all the same.

"Okay, Peke, do your thing!" Lala said, posing in a way that made her firm breasts jiggle as she pointed towards the ceiling.

"Yes, Lala-sama!" the robot replied. "Change: Dressform!" With a surge of brilliant light and what sounded like tinny music to Rito's ears, Peke's body transformed into coils of material which wrapped tightly around Lala's body, making her squeal a bit at the pressure, before they seemed to explode outward again as she spun around and stood revealed in a mostly-white skin-tight costume, along with a big hat that had bat wings extending from its sides and Peke's "eyes" painted on it.

Rito stared at her through his eyes. Slowly, he let his hand fall. "Okay," he said, after a moment. "You're a magical girl, aren't you?"

Lala's face went very stiff. "Rito," she said, very coldly. "I am going to choose to believe that that was another instance of what you called a translation problem, this time on my side. Because I don't really want to believe that someone as friendly and kind as you have been so far would insult me so terribly as you just did."

"Shall we kill him and all who know him, Lala-sama?" Peke asked eagerly.

"Uhhh," Rito said. "Yeah, it must be a translation problem. I didn't mean anything -"

"That's good. That's very good. There is no such thing as magic, Rito, and all phenomena can be scientifically examined and explained," she continued. "So, no, I am not what you just said. No, we will not kill him, Peke. Not over a simple misunderstanding. And while we are on the subject of misunderstandings, did you say that you were able to easily escape from their vessel?"

"Yes, it was simple to do so," Peke said eagerly, just as eagerly as she'd (?) suggested killing Rito. "They were overcome with confusion by your disappearance, Lala-sama."

"Orrrr possibly feigning it so that you would be able to make your escape and fly directly to my current location, thus leading them right to me?" she asked.

There was a brief silence.

"In my defense," said Peke at last, "you programmed me to be loyal, not clever."

"So I did," Lala admitted. "I'm sorry, Rito. I hope your house won't be too badly damaged by what's about to happen."

"What?" Rito shrieked.

Before the echoes of that panicked yelp had quite subsided, they were already there - a pair of incredibly tall men, both of them dressed in black suits and dark glasses, more than a bit reminiscent of the agents in a movie Rito had seen once, on either side of Lala. But perhaps owing to the rather traumatic way that Lala's tail had been pointed out to him, his eyes were immediately drawn down to the back of the one facing away from him, and noting a tail just like hers. Well, not quite like hers - lacking the heart-shape on its tip.

"So here you are," said the agent facing away from him, clearly addressing Lala, who was looking up with an expression which suggested more annoyance than anything else. "Please be advised that our instructions were to treat you with every courtesy ... unless you attempted to escape from custody, in which case you were to be confined and separated from anything you might use as part of a second escape attempt. Including this valet of yours."

The agent punctuated that remark by grabbing Lala's upper arm and yanking it in a way that Rito had to admit looked rather painful. Lala's face tensed, but she did not cry out.

"Order it to remove itself from your person and shut down," the agent continued. "Or we will be forced to take action against it."

Lala was starting to struggle against his grip, but Rito wasn't really paying attention anymore. He had slipped into a mild fugue when he realized that the second agent, the one who was standing behind Lala and thus facing him, wasn't actually keeping an eye on Rito. He was simply standing by in the event that Lala did break free. Nobody involved in this seemed to be paying him any attention at the moment. As though he was completely irrelevant to the matter at hand.

Well, Rito thought. They're not really wrong about that. This doesn't have anything to do with me. 'Pursuers', she called them. These guys look like cops, sort of. Cops or secret agent types. If they're chasing her, they have to have a reason to be chasing her, don't they? She said they were doing their job, after all.

What do I really know about this girl? She shows up, scares the crap out of me, embarrasses me, gets ticked off at being called a magical girl. That's it. Considering all of this, for all I know, she could be some kind of galactic criminal. That even makes sense with what's going on. So this doesn't have anything to do with me,
and for all I know, Lala deserves exactly what she's getting. Really, I should just make a discreet exit, go see Mikan, get a lecture about separating reality from fantasy, and keep my mouth shut. That's what I ought to do.

(Excuse me while I insert an interlude. It has been said, and fairly, that one of the distinguishing features of our reality is that people here tend to make very bad decisions. Yuuki Rito is about to make one such bad decision, a choice which will in many ways ruin his life and place him in constant danger from this point forward. And yet it can honestly be said that this is the decision that almost any Yuuki Rito would make under these circumstances. Whether this means that Yuuki Ritos across the continuum are as big of an idiot as this particular example is hard to say.)

Rito sighed. Craaaap.

He dashed forward, and saw that his suspicion about the second agent were correct - he wasn't paying Rito any attention, not even once Rito passed Lala and the agent as they struggled against each other on his way to the soccer ball which was resting on the floor. As soon as his foot was adjacent to the ball, he whirled and slammed a sharp kick into it, sending it flying into the first agent's face with enough force to knock the alien strongman back a pace, and startling him (and his colleague) sufficiently to make him release his grip on Lala's arm for a moment.

A moment was all that Rito needed. Sharply turning, he dashed towards Lala and grabbed her hand in passing. "Let's go!" he shouted as he jumped out the window onto the roof, pulling her along wth him as he started running towards the edge of that roof, then jumping across to that of the neighboring house, like a burglar in a period drama.

It was perhaps well for Rito that he didn't dare to look behind him. Had he done so, he would have seen Lala's face go through several startling emotions - amazement that this mortal was risking his life like this, respect for his surprising courage, speculative wonder as she glanced at his shoulders and rump, and finally a rather crafty look.

Lala thought, has potential.

"I know, I know," said Sairenji Haruna as she brushed and petted Maru's hair while he yelped at the window of her room. "You'd like to go out for a walk, and I'd like to take you out for a walk. But not after dark. We can't go out after dark anymore. It's not safe."

At least, that was the rationale her older sister had claimed when she laid down the law to her, more than a year ago. There had been several incidents of girls being attacked at Mahora, and she would have liked to believe that her older sister had been solely motivated by concern for their welfare. She really would.

But if she'd been concerned for her safety, why had she insisted that they both stay here, in the house, when the school had been closed and the town evacuated?

Of course, she knew the real reason. It was the same real reason that she couldn't have friends over, rather than the excuse she always gave - that her sister had been working late and needed to sleep during the day, so even if they promised to be quiet, her friends couldn't visit. It was the same real reason she couldn't stay over at a friend's house. It was the same real reason behind everything.

Sometimes she thought she'd been freer before - but of course that wasn't true. And she was ... happy about this. Even if her sister seemed tense and unhappy all the time, and spent most of her time down in the basement. Where Haruna would never go.

But she would have liked to take her dog for walks, sometimes. She looked out the window at the night sky, and sighed. And that was when she saw a boy with orange hair running along rooftops like a burglar in a period drama, dragging a pink-haired girl behind him, being chased by a pair of men in black.

Haruna blinked.

Yes. She had seen that.

And thinking a little, she realized that she knew who the boy was. "Yuuki-kun?" she asked no one in particular. Her classmate, the one who kept diving into bushes whenever she was around.

What in the world was going on, here?

There are moments where one realizes an absurdity, often long after experiencing it - traditionally, once one is stranding in front of a refrigerator, at home, after the movie has ended. And then there are moments where one realizes an absurdity as one is experiencing it, and finds it amusing. And then there are moments where one realizes an absurdity as one is experiencing it, and finds nothing about it even remotely funny.

"Wait a minute, Lala," Rito shouted as he ran along the rooftop, frighteningly aware of the fact that a rather large gap between buildings was coming up rather shortly. "You've got that, that Pyon-Pyon Warp-kun thing, right?"

Lala rather smoothly caught up with Rito, just as they were coming up to the aforementioned gap, scooped him up in her arms and bounded calmly into space. "Yes, but it will take about four thousandths of a day to recharge after its last use!"

Rito would have done some quick math, but he was too busy gaping in sheer astonishment as, helped a bit by the wings on her hat, Lala came down on the ground as light as a feather and took off running, lowering his feet to the ground to encourage him to join her. "That's not much time at all!" he said as he did so. "What's the -"

"No, sorry, messed up!" she answered. "That's a fraction of a Venerian day, not a Tellurian one. A bit more than twenty-four of your hours!"

"Ah, crap!"

As it happened, in a town like Mahora, under the present circumstances, people running around on rooftops was the sort of thing that got noticed. And not everyone who notices it had as much discretion, or as many reasons to avoid official scrutiny, as Sairenji Haruna. So as Rito and Lala ran from the pursuers, and the pursuers ... well, pursued them, said pursuers were themselves being followed.

But quietly. And discreetly.

A bit like a shadow, in fact.

"Oneesama, are we just going to let these people do whatever they want?"

"So far, they aren't hurting anyone, and they did file a report with the administration saying that they were going to be chasing a fugitive here. So for the moment, we're just observing. Besides, I'm ... uncomfortable in this outfit you have me wearing. So battle is probably a bad idea."

"But they're - gyah! That guy just threw a truck at them! We can't just let that happen!"

"... technically, he threw it in front of them, so -"

Having a truck drop out of the sky in front of one, blocking all possible routes of escape, was not the sort of thing that Rito had ever expected to happen. Of course, needing routes of escape was not the sort of thing that Rito had ever expected to happen. Teeth clenched, he turned to face the pursuers.

"Okay, you bastards!" he cried, holding up his fists. "Don't come one step closer or you'll face the wrath of Rito! I'm a tenth dan master of ... of ... of everything and you're gonna be in a world of hurt!"

Lala blinked. "Rito, I must note that a talent for lying plausible lies cannot be found among your many qualities."

He found himself sweating profusely at that. Still, perhaps they hadn't heard her. That might explain why the pursuers came to a halt a short distance away. This fragile illusion was dispelled the moment the one who had been doing all the talking so far began to speak. "Lala-sama. This is pointless. Please cease these attempts to run away from home."

"I refuse!" Lala said, her jaw firm.

"... run away from home?" Rito said, his own rather loose.

"I am weary with the marriage meetings father keeps arranging for me," Lala continued, showing no sign of noticing Rito's ever-so-slow turn to look incredulously towards her. "They are universally unpleasant persons! And the sex is awful!"

"What," Rito said.

"But this is the will of your father, and -" said the pursuer.

"Fie upon the will of my father! Fie fie!" Lala retorted. "I have come here, and I have found sanctuary with this fine young man, who is generous, clever and brave! And I have shared his salt!" she added, smiling angrily.

Rito blinked. ... shared his salt? he thought. And then, quite abruptly, he remembered something his mother, a world traveller, had mentioned to him, about how in Arabic countries, hospitality was expressed by offering someone salt. It came to him, though, that Lala hadn't eaten anything in his house. Oh, wait. That's not quite true, he realized, just as he realized that the pursuers, who had continued to basically ignore him, were now turning rather hostile expressions in his direction.

And there, thought Lala as the pursuers' attention turned off of her and onto Rito, is my opening.

Like most Devilukeans, the pursuers didn't deal well with things that they weren't expecting. How else to explain how something like having a football kicked at one of their faces - an attack that couldn't possibly do any physical damage - left them flat-footed long enough for Rito to drag her out of the window and get this chase started. The only reason that she hadn't been able to exploit that moment of weakness and uncertainty was, she ruefully realized, that she was also like most Devilukeans, and had been as surprised by the development as they. But a distraction she'd chosen herself, one that had been carefully planned over the last few minutes? Oh, that she was more than ready to exploit.

Her right arm swept out, and, from a hidden panel in that arm's sleeve, into her hand shot the single most important weapon in her arsenal. She'd heard that human technicians had devised a method of communication which vaguely resembled her weapon, a 'cell phone', and puzzled over the connection between that device and the basic structural and functional unit of all living organisms. But she was certain that no device built by human hands could make the sorts of calls she could.

A single button press was all it took, but since there were formalities to be observed, she called it out all the same. "Go Go Vacuum-kun!" she cried.

The look of sheer mortal terror on the faces of the pursuers as they jerked their heads back to regard her instead of Rito was incredibly satisfying, as was the panicked cry of, "No, not one of her inventions!" that burst from one of their lips, as the device materialized from subspace, hovering in mid-air. Her legend was clearly growing. That was nice. She'd said that she didn't blame them for what they'd done, and she hadn't. But they should not have laid hands on her. In the words of an acquaintance of hers, they should know their place.

To Rito's eyes, the thing that appeared out of nowhere looked like a weird combination of an octopus and a balloon. All that he could do was stare at it in shock. And then a roaring noise that he found naggingly familiar began to come from its insides. Without any more warning than that, the two pursuers were pulled off of their feet and yanked through the air towards what looked like the octopus' mouth.

... oh,
Rito realized. It's a vacuum cleaner, just like she said. Then he realized that he was also being pulled off his feet and dragged towards the device's mouth in the exact same way, as were assorted pieces of the landscape, like trash cans, innocently passing-by cats, branches of trees, trees -

"Lala!" he shrieked. "Turn this crazy thing off!"

"Hm. Yesss. An off switch would be a good addition to make to the next version," she said speculatively. She was not being pulled towards the device's mouth. Rather, she was hovering in mid-air, with the bat wings of her hat beating furiously to keep her stationary. "That's good feedback, Rito, you're very helpful!"

"What?" he shrieked. As mute testimony to how crazy the situation was becoming, now he was seeing weird costumes flying towards the vacuum's nozzle. Just the costumes. No people in them. He was clearly losing what was left of his mind.

"Greaaat idea, those costumes, Mei."

"Oh, shut up and hold on to the tree and hope that it's well-rooted, oneesama."

And then Rito saw that he was going to go in the mouth of the vacuum. Well, he thought. I knew that it was a bad idea. I've never really given much thought to how I wanted to die, but if I have to, I guess dying for an inexplicable impulse to look heroic in front of a pretty girl has to be a good way to go.

He would probably have gone on further in that fashion if he hadn't been drawn into the nozzle, just as the device's 'bag' reached its maximum capacity for expansion.

And so exploded.

A half hour later, Rito woke up in a tree. Not under it. Bent over one of the branches, hands and legs danging beneath it. Slowly, with great difficulty, he raised his head to look around.

Lala was hovering nearby, watching him with great interest. "Oh good," she said, smiling brightly. "I was wondering when you were going to wake up."

"Don't you mean, if?" he asked, much more quietly than the usually spoke.

Now she blinked, as though his statement confused her. "Oh. Oh, no, Rito. I knew that wouldn't happen. I don't invent things that can kill people permanently."

"What?" he asked.

"That would be wrong," she said, as though to a small, not terribly clever child.

"No, what do you mean -"

"I'm glad that you woke up when you did," Lala continued, completely overpowering his fragmentary question. "I really have to get going, before the pursuers regain consciousness, too, and I'm not sure when we'll be able to talk again. I suspect I might have to leave the area, since there are probably going to be some people who'll want to have some words with me about this situation, and I don't really want to talk to them. Even if they are rather cute, the way that they hide completely ineffectively over there," she added, with a glance in a direction that lay more or less behind Rito at the moment.

"Oh," he said, since he had no idea what to say.

"So, thank you for trying to help me," she said, smiling winsomely at him. "I really appreciate your generosity, your cleverness, and your courage. Until we meet again." And with that, she was flying away from him.

"... could you pay me back by helping me down from here?" Rito asked, very conscious of the fact that he sort of sounded like a whiner, but uncertain of how he was supposed to extricate himself from this rather precarious position. Unfortunately, by the time that he spoke up, Lala was already out of earshot. "Figures," he said, once he realized that.

Somehow, he got down. Somehow, he managed to limp his way down the streets that led back to his house. Somehow, he made it to the door, and got it open ... to find Mikan sitting in the foyer, putting on her shoes as though she was about to go out looking for him.

"Rito!" she gasped as she saw his injuries. "What in the world -"

Moving more quickly than he thought he could manage under the circumstances, Rito held up his hand. "Mikan," he said. "You are my little sister. My only little sister. I probably care about you more than anyone else on this planet. So I will never deliberately lie to you. Ever. So if you ask me something like 'what happened to you', 'what was all that noise in your room', 'why weren't you in your room when I went to go look for you', or that sort of thing, I will tell you the whole strange story."

Mikan started to open her mouth.

"And then you will start thinking your older brother is a filthy liar," he concluded.

She closed it.

"I think I'm just going to go to bed, now," he said.

And he did.

The planet Venus hides many secrets. Until space probes revealed its surface, the human imagination had populated it with jungles and dinosaurs. The revelation of the Venus' true nature - swept by winds faster than any Earthly hurricane, volcanically hot, and subject to immense atmospheric pressure - had put paid to such dreams. Which was perhaps ironic, since the jungles and dinosaurs were there; just not on the surface, but in climate controlled, well-shielded caverns beneath it.

Of course, there were also cities and towns and farms and castles within those caverns, all carefully protected from the hellish surface of the planet. Life, in a variety of forms, had found a way to survive. And yet, at the back of every sapient mind on the planet was the question of whether those protections would truly be enough. Everyone of them had heard the tales of what happened when the shielding failed on one of the mightiest kingdoms only a decade earlier.

There was nothing there, now.

Though the people of Venus could distract themselves with the burdens of their day-to-day lives, or, in the case of the very wealthy among them, with almost endless hedonism and petty scheming, the question of whether that could happen to them could not be ignored.

Certainly thoughts of the great heat and immense pressure of the surface were very central to the thoughts of Zastin, the highest ranking soldier in the army of Deviluke. He was considering how such an immolation might actually be preferable to what he was enduring now, after having reported on the findings of the pursuers he had sent to retrieve his nation's wayward crown princess. Quite a bit after having reported, to be honest.

The Emperor, Gid Lucion Deviluke, had been expressing his dissatisfaction for some time.

"A human!" he roared, returning to the central theme of his outrage. "She dallies with a human! Generations of carefully nurtured breeding, out the airlock, for what?! What?! A mayfly romance?! Curse the girl! Curse her intelligence, curse her stubbornness, curse every wondrous thing about her! ARRRRRRRRRGH!" he punctuated.

Far below the throne where his sovereign was presently ranting, Zastin knelt, and waited his orders. And thought of heat and pressure.

"Zastin!" the Emperor finally barked. "You will go Earth, retrieve Lala and destroy the town where this 'Rito' person lives, killing everyone who might possibly have witnessed this shame!"

"By your command," Zastin said. Inwardly, he groaned. He was sure that this sort of thing was how things had started to go wrong for the Urursei. But his master's commands were absolute, and so he rose and marched towards the throne room's only exit.

"Hold," the Emperor said.

This command, too, was absolute, and Zastin managed to hold back a sigh of relief as he believed that he heard the return of sanity to his master's voice.

After a moment, the Emperor let out a sigh. "No," he said. "No, I countermand my earlier order. It was given by an outraged father, not the Emperor of countless souls."

"It is well for those souls that you excel in both roles, my liege," Zastin said, to fill the space after that remark.

"Your comment is praised for its loyalty and condemned for its extreme fatuity, Zastin," the Emperor said dryly.

Since Zastin wasn't entirely sure what fatuity was, he simply bowed in acceptance of the rebuke.

"It is obvious that Lala is trying to provoke me with this," the Emperor mused. "So I shall not respond to her provocation. Rather, I will give her space, and in time she will grow bored with her new toy, and move on - and then we will retrieve her. What matter what the mayflies remember? We can afford discretion. And patience. Return to your duties, order your subordinates to maintain a watch over her, and do nothing more,"

Rejoicing inwardly as he had earlier been groaning inwardly, Zastin bowed once more before he swirled his cape and made his exit. No war today, he thought happily. Always a good thing.

"Zastin," said a voice from behind him.

Cold sweat broke out on the back of his neck, as he felt a fear he had not felt while kneeling before the outraged form of the Emperor of his nation. Slowly he turned. "Yes, your Imperial Highness?" he asked of the Empress, who stood in the shadows of the corridor leading from the Emperor's throne room.

"The Emperor has commanded you to go to Earth and retrieve Lala, I believe," she said.

"He countermanded those orders," Zastin observed, hoping that this contradiction did not constitute lese majeste. As the definition of that crime lay strictly in the hands of the majesty in question, he had cause for concern.

"Yes, he changes his mind easily," the Empress mused, as though she was only thinking out loud. "It would be a shame if he were to change his mind back again without informing you, wouldn't it? Whereas if you were to obey his first command, you would be viewed as having correctly anticipated his changing moods. Rather admirable, don't you think?"

Zastin swallowed. "If he were to change his mind -" he said.

"Or if it were to be changed for him," the Empress interjected.

This was intrigue. It ill-suited Zastin's simple soul. He wanted nothing more than to run far far away. Earth seemed like a safe distance. And since he was going there anyway - "Indeed, your Imperial Highness," he agreed, and backed away, never taking his eyes off of her for a moment.

She only smiled at him until he was out of sight.

Phase One was well under way. Now to contact the worthy Ghee Bree and inform him of the girl's antics, so that he would move things even further towards Phase Two ...

A good night's sleep was supposed to make everything better, so Rito found the next day, as he slowly walked to school plainly bandaged and in ill-humor, to be terribly wrong. Nothing had been made better. He was in pain, he was humiliated, and his faith in the order of the universe had been terribly shaken.

And there was no compensation. In stories he'd heard, when bad things happened to a person, there was usually some good mixed in with it. The hero suffered a loss, but it spurred him on to greater victories later. Nothing like that was happening. He hadn't won any boon from what he'd gone through. Nothing that he'd experienced would help him in any way.

(Or so he thought, and then there was a flicker of memory, reminding him of Lala's smile as she thanked him and called him brave, and generous, and clever. But he shook his head to clear it of such idle nonsense thoughts.)

So he walked slowly down the street to school, for yet another day of questionable education and the destruction of his hopes and dreams.

"Good morning, Yuuki-kun," said a voice from his side.

Rito froze. He knew that voice. He knew that voice. But it was utterly impossible for the person who owned that voice to be talking to him, to be greeting him. Slowly, ever so slowly, he raised his head as he turned to look at her.

It was impossible. And yet, there she was. Sairenji Haruna was looking at him. Sairenji Haruna was talking to him. Okay, things weren't quite as he'd always envisioned them. She had a weird, sort of puzzled frown on her face, rather than her usual gentle smile, but the point was, her eyes were on him. She was acknowledging his existence.

Abruptly, Rito realized that this was it. This was the compensation for all the trouble he'd endured last night. After all that, how could he possibly still lack the confidence to say what he felt? In the face of a hostile universe, what was the point of hesitating to express one's true feelings? He drew in a deep breath, closed his eyes and braced himself.

"Yuuki-kun," Haruna said, not really noticing these preparations. "I'm not really sure how to ask you this, but -" what in the world were you doing last night, running around on rooftops with that girl? she would have asked, but she paused as she felt a shadow fall on her.

"I LIKE YOU! PLEASE GO OUT WITH ME!" Rito cried out, bowing deeply. I said it! he thought happily. I said it! Nothing can possibly go wrong now!

"Okay," said a voice in response.

Rito froze. That was not Haruna-san's voice. But he knew that voice. He knew that voice. For the second time in just a short while, he found himself slowly raising his head.

"I mean, we should probably go out from time to time, since we won't be able to spend all our time in bed together," said Lala, smiling happily. "And I'll have to go out when I'm going to school with you."

"Eh?" said Haruna, looking at the girl who'd unceremoniously stepped between her and Rito. "Who -"

"Oh, hi there," said Lala, as though noticing her for the first time. "I'm Lala! Rito and I are lovers and will be living together from now on. Are you a friend of his? I hope you'll also be a friend of mine, then?" She smiled sweetly.

"Oh," said Haruna, and then, to Rito's extreme horror, she nodded politely and began to step away. "Yes, that would explain it, then. Um. I hope you'll be very happy together, then." One more polite smile in Rito's direction, and then she was walking away from him.

"She seems like a very nice person, Rito," Lala told him.

"..." Rito replied.

"That didn't translate all that well," she admitted.

"What are you talking about?" he asked, almost tearfully. "What is this about living together, and going to school, and -"

"Oh," she said, nodding. "I suppose it's understandable that you wouldn't have been informed. You see, while I was heading away from where I left you, last night, I ran into a friend of a friend. Actually, a family member of a friend - well, to call her a friend might be a bit much, but - well, you get the idea."

"No," Rito said. "Not really."

The previous night

Lala hadn't gotten very far from where she'd left Rito - though she was out of earshot of his quietly-voiced request, or she would probably have turned back to help him down from the tree - before she realized that she was being observed. And not just by the pathetic but vaguely cute girls who'd been observing her encounter with the pursuers, but rather by someone who might conceivably be a true threat to her designs.

On the other hand, it might be possible to turn that threat into an asset.

Opportunity or problem, it was something she couldn't ignore, so after a cursory examination of her surroundings, she descended from her flightpath to the plaza where the dark-skinned girl in frilly black clothes was standing before a streetcar. In silence, the two girls in chromatically opposite dress regarded each other for a few moments.

"Zazie Rainyday, I presume," Lala said at last.

The other nodded acknowledgement that the presumption was a correct one, and then spoke in a much quieter voice than Lala's. "Lala Satalin," she stated ... omitting any mention of the royal clan name. The implication was obvious.

For the moment, Lala ignored that veiled insult. "I know your sister well," she said.

"You know her as well as she allows you to know her," Zazie replied, looking away.

Which was true, but could perhaps have been said a bit less baldly. Still, the girl had clearly scored a point, and it should be acknowledged. And it was, for Lala nodded and kept silent, allowing Zazie to make the next move.

For a while, it seemed that no move would be made. Then, at last, Zazie spoke. "May I ask your intentions here?"

"Yes," Lala replied cheerfully, pleased that the other was making this so easy.

After a moment, Zazie gave a quiet sigh. "Very well. What are your intentions here?"

Counting the score at one all, Lala replied, "I am leaving this place. I may return eventually, but for now, I think I must take my leave of it. I am charting a course separate from that of my father, and it makes little sense to remain in a place which offers sanctuary to his servants."

"Indeed. And your plans -?"

"Are my plans," Lala said, nearly as quietly as Zazie had spoken.

Zazie was silent, and now Lala judged them scored at two to one - until the other girl spoke again. "And you know, of course, of the various cabals, and schemers, and malefactors in this part of the world, all of whom will have plans that might impinge upon your own?" Her tone was deliberately casual.

Lala flinched, and awarded her interlocutor another point. "No," she confessed, for there was a time to conceal and a time to reveal. "I have spent most of my time on this sphere in the land called California. As I understand, there are ties between that place and this, but - my researches were interrupted before I could learn all that I would wish."

"I am sorry to hear that," Zazie said in a tone which conveyed very little in the way of sorrow. "But I should note that you suffer under a misapprehension when it comes to the relationship between this campus and your father's agents. They are permitted to act here as long as they do not, without good reason, inconvenience the students here."

Lala frowned. Well, that was obvious. And it didn't change -

And then she saw it.

"... why are you telling me this?" she asked.

"You are here for a reason," Zazie answered.

Of course it would be something like that. "It is a coincidence," Lala replied dismissively.

"There are no coincidences, only necessity," Zazie stated.

"Whose necessity?" Lala asked - then, before Zazie could answer, continued, "No, never mind. I am not interested in your religion."

Zazie shrugged in response. "Are you interested in fine food?" she asked. "We might better discuss this matter on a full stomach."

It came to Lala that she had not eaten in nearly a day, and that the air of freedom, while bracing, was not as appetizing as all that. So she simply nodded, and stepped forward as Zazie tapped on the closed shutters of the streetcar. They slid open, and a smiling female human in a chef's hat was waiting to serve delicious smelling soup.

It was, in fact, the most delicious soup she had ever tasted.

"And that's what happened," Lala concluded, having given a somewhat abbreviated account of these events to Rito. Well, abbreviated except when it came to describing the soup, as she'd gone to great lengths elaborating upon how wonderful it had tasted. Since Rito had had the opportunity to sample the Chao Bao Zi's offerings in the past, he was more understanding of this than you might expect.

"So ... you're going to be going to school here," Rito said.

Lala nodded cheerfully.

"... how does that lead to you living with me?" he asked.

"Well, Rito, you did offer me your hospitality yesterday, and I have eaten your salt," she reminded him.

As Rito blanched, two girls walked past them, both of whom happened to be in Rito's class. One of them looked up at that remark. "What did that girl just say?" she asked her friend, who was pulling her rapidly along with her.

"Never mind, Sekai-chan," replied the other one, rather petite with an odd look in her eyes. "It's better to ignore such people."

"... Setsuna, since when did you call me 'Sekai-chan'?"

"Okay, please don't say that sort of thing in public," Rito finally said, once he'd regained as much of his composure as he was likely to regain.

"Very well," Lala replied, mystified as ever by the strange taboos of the Earth-folk, but willing to abide by them. "Since you are my local contact, it only makes sense that I stay with you. Don't you think?"

"I don't think it really matters what I think," Rito admitted wearily. "Well, anyway, you can't go to school dressed like that, you're going to have to wear the uniform."

"'Uniform'?" Lala repeated, again mystified.

Rito had the distinct feeling that this was the start of not only a long day, but a whole series of them. And he was, of course, correct.

Chapter Text

The girl standing at the head of the class, resplendent in a Mahora uniform and smiling brightly, had a tail. Despite her pink hair, blue eyes, and ... other attributes ... one's eye was inevitably drawn towards the long black tail that poked out from her lower back and flowed down past her skirt and legs. It had been plainly visible as she wrote her name on the board, in both Roman characters and hiragana.

Kodaka could almost feel the laser-like intensity of Haruhi's gaze coming from where she was presently sitting behind him, directed towards the tailed girl. It was strange. He'd known her for only a few weeks, only spoken to her in the last two days, and yet he already felt that he knew her well enough to be experiencing profound dread at the thought of that intensity.

And then, as it must, the worst occurred. Honekawa-sensei finished the usual spiel about welcoming this visitor to our shores and showing her the utmost courtesy, and asked the horrific question, "Does anyone have any questions for our new transfer student?"

Haruhi shot up. Her hand was raised, and Honekawa-sensei was on the verge of saying her name when she snapped out her words. "Deviluke-san -"

"I prefer to be called Lala," said the new transfer student cheerfully.

"Don't care," Haruhi replied. "Are you an alien?"

"Yes," Lala replied honestly. "Well, technically, from my perspective, all of you are the aliens, but I -"

Haruhi made a disgusted noise. "No, you're not."

Now Lala blinked. "Excuse me?"

"No, you're not," Haruhi repeated as she sat down rather heavily. "A real alien would never casually admit it like that. They'd hide it, pretend to be ordinary, and only reveal it to a closely chosen circle of trusted associates. You're obviously just a girl who hasn't grown out of some delusional fantasy you came up with back in junior high. To the point where you engage in cosplay while at school." She shook her head in obvious dismay.

Now Lala was staring at Haruhi with a comparable intensity. "You are a sad, strange young woman, and you have my pity," she declared.

With another disgusted noise, Haruhi turned away and began staring out the window.

After a moment of silence, Honekawa-sensei cleared his throat. "Um, any other questions?" he asked hopefully.

One of the boys raised his hand and snapped out, "Which dorm are you living in?"

A stern looking girl started to stand up, but before she could say anything, Lala answered the question, sounding cheerful again. "I'm not! I'm living at Rito's house!"

There was the sound of someone's head hitting the wood of their desk, and several heads turned to confirm that it had come from the direction of one Yuuki Rito, who was presently hunched over and praying for the Earth to swallow him up.

The girl who had been about to say something paused only a moment before declaring, "You are living under the same roof as an unrelated boy your own age? That's unbelievably shameless!"

"We're not unrelated," Lala protested, sounding a bit surprised at this. "We're in what I believe is called a common law -"

"Now, Kotegawa-san," said Asakura Ryoko, at last rising to the occasion. "You should remember that Yuuki-san's father is a member of the faculty. No doubt he's serving as Deviluke-san's sponsor while she's in this country. Isn't that right, Deviluke-san?" she asked, turning that gentle smile of hers on Lala.

Lala regarded her with a somewhat bewildered look. "Um," she said, then glanced at Rito, who was still slumped over his desk. "Isn't that right, Rito?"

Rito managed to raise a hand and wave it vaguely.

"I guess that's right," Lala interpreted. "Who are you again?" she asked Ryoko.

Without bothering to answer, Ryoko turned to look sunnily at Kotegawa. "See?" she said. "Nothing shameless about it."

"Bubuzuke," Kotegawa Yui muttered.

"What was that?" Ryoko asked, her smile not altering a bit. In the back of the class, Yuuki Nao was on the verge of breaking into hysterics.

And so began yet another day. The sad thing, Kodaka decided, was that he wasn't even surprised by Haruhi's antics anymore, despite the relative brevity of their acquaintance. It was actually more surprising that she hadn't done something like marching up to the new girl and yanking the obviously fake tail off of her to prove her point. (It had to be fake, of course. There were no aliens.)

It wouldn't have been the first time she'd yanked something, after all.


Haruhi glared at Yozora.

Yozora glared right back.

Kodaka, standing behind Yozora, wished he was somewhere else. Anywhere else, other than standing outside the door of their club, watching these two incredibly cute but unfathomably mean girls stare in ways that spoke eloquently of death at each other. Well, actually, the location didn't matter, but he could have done without the company.

"So how's the moe thing coming along?" Yozora finally broke the silence.

"It's coming along," Haruhi answered flatly and uninformatively. (Is that a word? It is now.) "Perhaps the poster will attract some more members today."

"Perhaps," Yozora answered. And glared.

Haruhi glared right back.

"So ... we going in or what?" Kodaka finally asked.

"I suppose so," Yozora said, turning to slide open the door and walk in. Haruhi followed her quickly, with Kodaka just a bit behind ... pausing to glance over his shoulder. He had a strange feeling, as though he was being watched. No, that's ridiculous, he thought, and went in the room.

His watcher retreated for the moment.

Inside, Nagato had arrived before them, and was already engrossed in her computer, just as she'd been the day before. He considered greeting her all the same, since she'd demonstrated the ability to pay attention to her surroundings despite the headphones.

Haruhi pre-empted the gesture. "I wonder what kind of game she's playing, anyways," she said, and even as she was doing so, she was walking over to the computer and unhesitatingly yanking out the headphones' cord.

Immediately, the club room was filled with a high pitched woman's voice, shrieking at the top of her lungs. "S-stoooop! If you keep doing it so hard, my p*ssy is going to break!" the voice cried, a beep filing in much of one word in particular. "Ahhhhh-ah! It feels so good! Lucas, your d*ck is the best!" Make that two words. "It's reaching all the way inside me! This is incredible! Something is coming! Hyeah! It's coming!"

Nagato blinked. Slowly, she turned to look at Haruhi, just as the plug of the headphones slipped from the other girl's suddenly paralyzed fingers. Moving faster than any of them had seen, she reached out to snatch it out of the air, and, in total silence, plug it back into the computer.

Blessed silence reigned once more.

After a moment, Haruhi turned to look at Yozora and Kodaka, who were each standing just as still and with eyes just as wide as hers. "Let us never speak of this again," she suggested.

Whatever else could be said about Yozora, she didn't - at the moment, at least - argue with Haruhi's suggestion. While she did cast a mildly appalled look in Nagato's general direction, the smaller girl's apparent obliviousness apparently daunted her. So instead, the glower with which she generally greeted the world was directed at Haruhi. "So, what about the moe, wench?" she asked.

Haruhi glowered right back as she walked over to the club room's table and took a seat at its head. "Should I take it that wench is your new nickname for me?"

Yozora - who had been about to snap that she shouldn't take that chair, preparatory to telling Haruhi not to take any chair, but rather remain standing at all times - froze.

"What?" Haruhi asked, frown deepening. "What's your problem now?"

"Of course it's not a nickname," Yozora finally growled. "Only ... I mean, it's only an observation, wench."

"What. Ever," Haruhi sneered. "Anyway, there have been some ... mild setbacks on that front."

Earlier that same day. (Yes, it's a flashback in a flashback. Cope.)

She had actually spotted her target quite a few times before this, but had held back from approaching her directly before now. But things had clearly changed. The time table needed to be moved up a bit.

Not that she had any real choice in the matter, the girl called Asahina Mikuru mused as she was grabbed on the shoulders and heard the cry, "You! You are moe!"

"Hweh?" she said in response, staring in seeming befuddlement at the girl who had come out of nowhere to grab her as she made her way to her calligraphy club. It was only about fifty per cent faked, she thought. When she'd seen the poster with its cleverly hidden message - similar to one of the techniques used in her own basic training - she'd thought that something had gone wrong with her mission, and that she was going to have to contact someone for more information. The poster she was supposed to have seen had been supposed to be a poster for something called the SOS Brigade.

And yet, here she was, the incredibly beautiful person who'd featured in virtually every one of her erotic dreams since she'd started having erotic dreams, talking to her and touching her. Despite everything, this part of the mission was going well, and while that was a little confusing, she had been trained to deal with this situation. So she acted far more befuddled than she actually was, as she'd been trained.

"You're moe!" Haruhi repeated. "So moe it should be a sin! In fact, it is a sin! I'm with the Student Council Intelligence Division, hunting down people who are too moe! You have to come with me to discuss your sin!"

"Ah ... okay," Mikuru said, amused by the lie more than anything else.

Haruhi grinned evilly, and Mikuru felt herself go a little faint before the girl dropped her hand from her shoulder to her hand and turned, preparatory to starting a headlong dash through the school corridors, dragging Mikuru behind her.

The headlong dash terminated after one step when Haruhi ran face-first into the cleavage of one Saotome Haruna, who'd been walking up to the two of them while they stood in the hallway. "'Scuse me a second, here," Haruna said, not sounding terribly apologetic. "What's this crap about a Student Council Intelligence Division?"

"Uh," Haruhi temporized.

"Now, here's the thing," Haruna continued, staring down at the younger student. "I happen to be very good friends with the head of the Student Council Executive." This was more or less a lie. She and Kikukawa Yukino had met a handful of times and she doubted that the third year girl considered her even an acquaintance. But what was the point of having connections if you didn't milk them for all that they were worth? "And I'm pretty sure that she'd have mentioned a Student Council Intelligence Division inquiry into moe if one was about to take place, since she's kinda moe herself. So let me repeat myself - what's all this crap?"

"Saotome-sempai, right?" Haruhi asked, starting to regain a bit of poise. "I think I met you back when I tried to join that English Research Club you were in, when I was in second year junior high and you were third."

Haruna had no memory of that encounter, which suggested that the girl was either making things up or had been involved in the periphery of an incident that Haruna had been trying hard to forget over the last two years. "So you did," she bluffed. "Still waiting on the explanation vis a vis the crap."

Since Haruhi was still waiting for an explanation vis a vis the crap that she'd experienced back then, and why this girl and her friend, whatever her name had been, had acted so weirdly, she found this very unfair. Of course, she found most things that she didn't dictate to be very unfair, so that was nothing new. It was time to fall back on a time-proven mechanism for dealing with boring, ordinary people. "I was just kidding!" Haruhi protested. She quickly turned back to look at Mikuru. "You knew I was kidding, riiiight?"

"Ummmm," Mikuru said. The honest truth was that she'd been well aware that Haruhi was lying, and so 'kidding' from a certain point of view. But she was also aware that she wasn't supposed to know that. So she hesitated, and eventually said, "Yyyyes?" In a way that suggested that the answer was actually no.

Haruhi and Haruna both stared at her for a long while. "She really is so moe that it's a sin, isn't she?" Haruna asked after a moment.

"Yeah," Haruhi said, dazedly. She twitched faintly, as though shaking herself out of a stupor. "Um. But, but the truth is that I was taking her somewhere to show her something interesting!"

"Where and what?" Haruna asked calmly.

Haruhi's grin grew a bit panicked. "I can't explain that! It'd spoil the surprise!"

"Uh-huh," said Haruna, remembering dragging the members of a certain club to remote locations in the library for just that purpose, with just those words as justification. With more mature wisdom - which she was well aware might simply mean being tired - she decided to continue being obstructive. "Mikuru, you know that you don't have to go with her if you don't want to, right?"

"Um," Mikuru said.

"And you know that you can go with me if you do want to, right?" Haruhi pointed out.

"Um," Mikuru said.

Now this ... this was a dilemma. Both for personal and professional reasons, what Mikuru wanted more than anything was to go with Haruhi. A dizzying future of being made to do just awfulthings by her stern mistress awaited. And, also, you know, her mission. But there was a paradox, here. If she acted on her desires, rather than being forced into doing things very much against her will, would she still be so moe?

The answer was obvious. "Um," Mikuru repeated a third time, but this time followed it up with, "I think maybe I should hurry to calligraphy club." With a shy, tremulous smile in Haruna's direction.

Haruna answered it with a proud smile right back at her.

Haruhi, of course, did not smile at all. "Well, fine, then," she huffed. "Be like that." She glared at Haruna, who returned her look with equanimity, and stormed off.

"... but I'm sure that I can fix the situation, just given a little time,"

"I think we should get rid of this table. Maybe we can bring in some couches, and a coffee table," Yozora said to Kodaka.

"Did you listen to a word I said?"

"Are you still here?" Yozora asked.

"By we, you mean, me, right?" Kodaka asked, envisioning an awful future of hard labor ahead.

"You're so perceptive!" Yozora replied, cheerfully.

Well, maybe today's club meeting would be bett- no, even in the privacy of his own thoughts as he slumped down the hallways to the club room, Kodaka couldn't bring himself to finish that notion. But it was possible to hold out hope that it would at least be quieter, that Haruhi would maybe start progressing towards realizing that this club wasn't for her, that Yozora would just sit around and be moody rather than coming up with extravagant demands of him, that Nagato would ... well, okay, it wasn't really necessary to hope that she'd stay quiet. It would be a radical departure for her to do anything else.

Still, he could hope for more quiet. And he did. And -

There it was again. The strange eerie sensation. But for once he didn't react immediately to it. No, he was going to be clever this time. He was going to wait, and walk, and there was a corner up ahead, and he was going to turn it briskly, and then wait there, hidden behind the corner, for his follower to show up. Ha ha!

Only he was still waiting five minutes later, and people who were passing him in the hallway were starting to give him looks. Okay, there was nothing new about that, but still. With a sigh, he turned and resumed his course towards the club room.

His stalker, who had realized what was probably about to happen, resumed following him after another moment.

"I think I'm being followed," Kodaka announced to the club as he entered. Well, since Haruhi wasn't there and Nagato was immersed in her computer, he really only announced it to Yozora.

Her reaction was to stare at him in silence, then get up and head over to the tea set that remained from when this was a literary club. She poured some into a cup, and turned back to Kodaka with a gentle smile. "Here," she said, softly. "Drink this while it's still warm."

"I'm serious!" Kodaka protested. "And stop that! Don't go being kind to me like I'm some sort of -"

"What can I say," Yozora said with a shrug. "I guess I'm just one of those people who become kinder when they see someone worse off than they themselves."

"And don't say things like that! You should know that -"

Before he could conclude his observation that sometimes pity was worse than outright malice, the door to the club room was flung open and Hurricane Haruhi entered. "I've done it!" she proclaimed.

"All right," Yozora sighed. "Let's see this example of moe, then."

"What? No, not that! I'm still working on that. But I've recruited another member, someone who - well, I'll let the poor soul tell you himself."

There next entered into the room a young man, slightly older than Kodaka, with a friendly and patient smile on his face. "Good afternoon," he said, bowing politely. "Koizumi Itsuki. I understand that this is a club for people seeking friends."

Kodaka hated him on sight, and the sound of his voice, so polite and formal, didn't do anything to change that. In fact, it made it even worse.

"And you have problems making friends?" Yozora asked, sounding very suspicious.

"Yes," Koizumi admitted with a sigh and a shake of the head. "I wish it wasn't so, but I'm afraid that it is. Something about my manner is terribly off-putting, I think. I have a few associates, but no real, close friends, and I truly feel the lack."

"And being the bishonen type, he'll be a real draw for the girls!" Haruhi added.

Kodaka looked at Haruhi. She turned her head just enough that Yozora wasn't able to see half of her face, and then winked at him. That told him all that he needed to know, and made him hate the fellow even more - this wasn't some person she'd picked up off the street, it was Haruhi's boyfriend! The bastard! He had a girlfriend and he wanted more friends than that? How could anyone be so selfish? Well, at least Yozora wasn't going to go for this.

"Well, let's put it to a vote, then," Yozora said. "Anyone opposed to Koizumi joining the Neighbor's Club?"

Kodaka blinked. Wait, opposed? That would mean he had to put up his hand and indicate that he didn't want him there, opening him up to who knew what kind of retribution from Haruhi ... and on top of that, Yozora didn't seem to be putting her hand up. And Nagato was oblivious, so ...

"I guess it's unanimous, then," Yozora said easily, turning her head so that Haruhi wasn't able to see half of her face, and glaring at Kodaka. Payback, she seemed to be saying, was a bitch.

"So what lame and silly things were you talking about before I arrived?" Haruhi asked as she headed towards the seat at the head of the table.

Yozora, who was closer, swooped in and sat there first, looking up at her with a snooty expression. "Kodaka thinks he's being followed. By a stalker."

Haruhi glared at her for a moment, before turning, with a shrug, and taking a seat at the table's foot. "Wow, that's so ridiculous," she said. "What the heck would make you think that someone would take that kind of an interest in someone as dull as you, Kodaka?"

He couldn't help but flinch as he related the facts of the case again. Maybe he'd been wrong before. Maybe fake sympathy wasn't worse than outright malice.

"That sounds terrible," Koizumi said with a look of profound sympathy on his face, having settled down on a chair facing Kodaka after a few moments spent checking out the club's selection of board games. "I can well imagine your discomfort, since I had a similar experience last year."

No, he was wrong now, fake sympathy was definitely worse. He stared naked hatred at the guy sitting across the table from him, who showed no signs of noticing it.

"What's this?" Yozora asked, eyebrow raised. "There's actually been stalking incidents here?"

"Unfortunately, that is in fact the case," Koizumi confirmed with an air of melancholy. "I would really prefer not to reflect on such sad matters -"

"It was one of those 3-F girls, and it only lasted a week before she started following me around instead," Haruhi interjected flatly.

"... the ones who've failed the graduation exam twice now?" Kodaka asked, interested despite himself.

"It had only been once at the time," Koizumi hedged, but nodded.

Despite hating the guy, Kodaka couldn't help but feel somewhat grateful for the possible solution he'd just presented to the problem. (Which really only made him hate him more.) "Maybe it's that girl again this time?" he asked.

Koizumi hemmed. "I think not. Since that episode I have maintained something of a watch on her, with the assistance of some of her more normal classmates -" He paused, as though listening to something that no one else could hear, then smoothly continued "- if you'll pardon the expression. I believe that the young lady in question is presently infatuated with one of the teachers at the engineering department of the local university."

"Well, even if it was her, it's not like we could do anything about it," Haruhi said, shrugging.

"Who says we can't?" Yozora asked, bristling reflexively.

"Well, I guess we could, but why bother?" Haruhi answered the question with a question. "It happens. Live and learn."

"Of course, it's possible that the stalker might be an alien, esper, or time traveler taking an interest in our club members' activities," Koizumi observed off-handedly.

Haruhi stared at him for a few moments. "That," she said, "was the most blatant attempt to manipulate me I have ever seen."

"I apologize," Koizumi said, sounding genuinely abashed.

"I am not that easily fooled, you know."

"Yes, of course not."

"And to prove it, I'm going to help Kodaka with his problem, simply out of concern for one of my club's members, not out of any ambitions to use him as bait for aliens, espers, time travelers or sliders," she added, coming to her feet.

"How admirable!" Koizumi enthused.

"One of whose club's members?" Yozora growled.

And so Haruhi had quickly devised a plan which she outlined to the others, and once she had done so, not even Yozora could really argue with the idea (since she was privately wishing she'd come up with it first.) In essence, the idea was to test whether or not Kodaka was really being followed by a stalker by doing something that would drive any stalker crazy - ensuring that she ("Or he," Koizumi interjected helpfully) would always see Kodaka in someone else's company, rather than being alone as he stalked through the hallways. Thus infuriated, the stalker would become sloppy and more easily detected and intercepted.

It was a good plan. The only real hitch came in its implementation, when both Haruhi (who as the person who'd come up with the plan wanted to see it being followed properly) and Yozora (who as head of the club wanted to look after her, got that, her club members and anyway didn't have anything better to do) insisted on getting the first "shift" looking after Kodaka. After some polite and well-reasoned discussion -



- they reached a compromise which had them both taking it.

And so, as the three of them walked to class together the next day, neither girl looking at each other, Haruhi was moved to comment. "Yes, I see what you mean about the sensation of being watched."

Yozora nodded grimly. "It's not very pleasant."

Kodaka sighed. "That's not really -" he started to say, then gave up. It was obvious that he wasn't going to come out ahead of this. The plan wasn't working - he felt eyes on him, but that was because everyone was staring at the three of them together, and whispering as they wondered what was going on. The sensation of being watched that he'd felt until this point was nowhere - his watcher, whoever it was, had responded to this provocation by pulling back, rather than getting closer and sloppier.

And by lunch, the rumor was spreading that notorious Yankee Hasegawa Kodaka of class 1-D had begun building a harem, currently consisting of reclusive beauty Mikazuki Yozora and well-known eccentric Suzumiya Haruhi, whom he had bound to himself as sex slaves, doubtless by raping them until their minds broke.

"It's not so bad," Koizumi assured him as Kodaka stalked through the hallways, for once wishing he was alone. Particularly when his unwanted escort predictably followed that up with, "Things could be worse."

"How?" Kodaka asked him before he could do the sensible thing and stop himself.

"Well, Nagato-kun's membership in our society could be more well-known than it is, which is to say not well-known at all," the other boy suggested after a moment's thought. "If it were more well-known than it is, you would most likely also be suspected of having made her your sex slave through coercive sexual assault. Which would likely attract the unwelcome attention of the remnants of her fan club, as well as your class representative, whom I believe to be some manner of acquaintance of hers."

He already had attracted that unwelcome attention, Kodaka thought despairingly as he remembered the mystified smile on Asakura Ryoko's face as she'd watched as Haruhi and Yozora walked him to his desk this morning. She'd stopped by to ask him if everything was all right, and all he'd been able to do was stammer out that everything was fine. He knew she didn't believe him, of course. Who would? Then he blinked. "Fan club?"

"She acquired one following her performance as part of 'Arrivederci, Dekopin Rocket', last year," Koizumi explained smoothly. "It hasn't lasted terribly long, since she hasn't done anything like that since then, but she does still have a few die-hard -"

"How do you know this crap?"

"I make it a point to become well-acquainted with the backgrounds of my associates," he answered smoothly.

"Swell," Kodaka grunted. "Look, leave me alone, all right?" Wait, his associates? he thought. Did he know her before this, too?

"Regrettably, I feel it would not be in my interest to comply with your request," he said with a polite shake of his head. "Suzumiya-san would take my departure from her plans very amiss, and I shudder to think of the potential consequences." He actually shuddered at that point.

"Yeah, I bet," Kodaka said, thoroughly disgusted. "Speaking of the backgrounds of my associates, I know about you."

"Oh, really?" Koizumi asked, blinking in mild surprise. "She's opened up to you that much? Interesting. But perhaps now isn't the time for that ... are you offended by her deception of Mikazuki-san?"

"What?" he asked, bewildered at the change in the conversation's direction. "No, I - I'm pissed off at you. You come in, talking about wanting friends, when you and she are -"

"I should perhaps now interject with the fact that I believe that we are probably going to be breaking up rather shortly," Koizumi interjected. He glanced out the stairwell window at a tree that had fallen down last night for no apparent reason. "There have been some signs that she's dissatisfied with our relationship."

"Oh," Kodaka said, brought up short by this revelation. He surged up as he realized that actually didn't change anything. "But you'll still be friends, afterwards, right? And -"

"I don't know if I could really claim that," Koizumi interjected ... again. "I don't think I could really categorize our relationship as ever having been friends, even before we became sexually active with one another. I use that term rather than intimate, deliberately. And I suspect that, frankly, 'master and slave' might be a better description of our relationship. Or 'goddess and worshipper', perhaps?" he added, speculatively.

"... okay, now you're starting to freak me out," Kodaka said, backing away.

"Sorry for doing so. But I suspect that the nature of our conversation has done something to draw the interest of your stalker, who's presently standing on the level just below our own."

Kodaka stared at him for a split second, then jumped over the railing.

His knees screamed at him that he'd just done something very stupid almost before he landed on the other flight of stairs, but they were drowned out by the exaltation he was feeling. At last, forget all the frustration, all the confusion of dealing with the awful girls and that son-of-a-bitch Koizumi, forget all the aggravation of having his innocent self slandered and maligned. None of that mattered anymore. All that mattered was that he was finally going to get close enough to whatever twisted weirdo was following him around, close enough to be able to express opinions at that person, rather forcefully if necessary.

"All right, you damned nuisance!" he shouted, even though his eyes had reflexively squeezed shut in response to the aforementioned pain in his knees, and he couldn't actually see the aforementioned nuisance. "I don't know what your problem is, so you're gonna tell me why you're following me around all over the place, or else I'm gonna beat the crap out of you!"

Dead silence.

Aw, no, Kodaka thought. Don't tell me that the nuisance ran away as soon as that jerk said anything about anything! Or that he was just joking! Holy crap, my knees hurt! That's not funny you bastard! And - He was likely going to continue in that line, had his train of thought not been interrupted by what he saw when he finally opened his eyes.

Lying on the floor of the landing was a young ... boy, in a typical boy's uniform, who looked as though ... he had just fallen down, either because of hearing Koizumi's announcement or seeing someone jump down in front of ... him. (All of those pronouns seemed slightly wrong to Kodaka, slightly off, but they were the best that he could manage at the time.) He was staring up at Kodaka with an expression that verged on outright worship.

"That," the ... boy said, in a tremulous voice, "was the most incredibly manly thing I've ever seen."

"Ah?" said Kodaka.

"... so was that the explanation for why you've been following him around, or was it an invitation to have the, if you'll pardon the expression, 'crap' beaten out of you?" Koizumi asked, having finally descended the stairs to join the two of them.

"Ah?" said Kodaka, again.

The boy's name (for he was a boy, he was quick to assert) was Kusonoki Yukimura, and he was in the same grade but a different class from Kodaka, Haruhi, and Yozora. (He was actually in the same class as Nagato, but she didn't volunteer the information and neither did Yukimura.)

"That's a boy's name," Yozora said, staring somewhat bewilderedly at him.

"Yes," agreed Yukimura. "My parents gave me such a name in the hope that I would grow up to be a fine example of Japanese manhood, like Sanada Yukimura."

"... are you sure that you're not -" Haruhi started to ask.

"I am a boy," he said, with the air of one used to repeating what should be a self-evident fact.

"- yes, fine, but are you possibly an alien?"

Yukimura blinked, taken aback by such a question. He made several false starts at giving her an answer, before he at last replied, "If I am, then I am unaware of the fact."

Haruhi sat back in her chair and sighed. "What a ridiculous waste of time this has been," she muttered.

"Why did I let you talk me into bringing him back here?" Kodaka asked, vaguely directing the question in Koizumi's direction. "Why?"

"It is somewhat mysterious," Koizumi agreed.

"So now that we've settled the issue of your gender and other, shall we say, issues of identity that only a wench would care about ... what were you doing following Kodaka around?" Yozora asked after a moment of consideration. Haruhi was sufficiently annoyed with the entire situation that she didn't even react to the 'wench' remark.

"Because I wanted to learn to be strong and cool, like him," Yukimura said.

"... strong and cool?" Yozora repeated. "Are we talking about the same Kodaka, here?"

Yukimura gave no particular sign of having heard that remark as he began to warm to his topic. "He walks alone, gallantly slicing the wind with his shoulders ... beyond doubt, the picture of the ideal Japanese man."

Haruhi managed to rouse herself a bit. "He's only alone because he has no friends, you know."

Again, Yukimura neither acknowledged nor responded to that interjection. He was now in full oratorical voice, his deep passion for the subject coming through. "Unhindered by the boring rules which are for his lessers, he lives life as it pleases him. No law can constrict his behavior; he takes what he wishes when he wishes, destroys all those who would oppose him, and binds beautiful women and disturbingly attractive yet effeminate men to him through the force of his supreme will, taking his pleasure of their bodies as it pleases him."

"... wait, what?" said Koizumi, his usual smile fading just a tad.

Oblivious yet again, Yukimura reached his conclusion. "Not even God arouses fear in the heart of this master of his own fate, who is surely the most blessed existence in all of this world."

"What the hell?" Kodaka finally asked, more appalled than angry. "I never did any of that stuff!"

"And he's humble, too," Yukimura cooed as an epilogue.

"Oh, come on!"

"I see," Yozora said, nodding. "You wish to become like Kodaka, then. But why? Why would you aspire to such heights?"

"Excuse -" Kodaka said, whipping his head around to stare at her. She smiled sweetly at him.

"I believe that if I were to become such a manly person, I would no longer be bullied as I have been," Yukimura explained. "No longer, when I begin changing for PE, will I suddenly find myself alone. No longer, when I have finished playing and change my clothes, will I be abandoned. No longer, when I am playing dodgeball, will others fail to aim at me. No longer -"

"Hold it, how is any of that -" Kodaka started to ask, then found himself interrupted when a piece of paper mysteriously flew across the room to smack into his face.

"Your story is indeed a tragic one," Yozora said solemnly as she lowered her hand, which surely had not thrown paper into the face of a man among men. "Kusonori Yukimura, your determination to face your troubles and solve them with your own strength is admirable! From now on, you are permitted, nay, encouraged to follow Kodaka wheree'r he might go, even unto the boy's washroom."

"Hey, what?" Kodaka snapped as he pulled the paper off of his face.

"But in the interests of facilitating your observation of him at close range, might I suggest joining the Neighbor's Club, as he has?" Yozora suggested, sliding a registration form over to Yukimura.

"I would be most happy to do so," Yukimura said, signing his name to it.

"What the hell are you doing?" Kodaka hissed into Yozora's ear as he almost lunged across the table to where she was sititing.

"I'm preparing for the wench's inevitable departure from this club," Yozora answered, quietly, with a glance at Haruhi, who was still pouting at the other end of the table. "By recruiting more members, even when she goes and takes her partisans with her, we'll be able to maintain the required number of members. And after all, someone who obviously has problems relating to people, like this poor boy, belongs in our group."

"And what's the real reason?" he asked, not buying her rationalizations for a second.

"This is hilarious!" she admitted, grinning.

"Seriously, effeminate men?" Koizumi asked as Yukimura filled out the form. "Are they saying that about him, too?"

"It is a self-evident truth," Yukimura answered without looking up.

And so, eventually, the third meeting of the Neighbors Club wound to its end, as Kodaka slumped away after one last glance at Yozora as she dragged Yukimura away with promises (or, to Kodaka's mind, threats) that she would give him advice on good things he could do as Kodaka's new minion. Had their departure not been so abrupt, they might actually have witnessed something remarkable - specifically, Nagato Yuki looking up from her computer, blinking twice, closing the laptop's lid, sliding it into her bag and then, after a quiet bow in Haruhi's direction, departing briskly from the room as well.

Haruhi gave no sign of noticing that gesture on Nagato's part. She remained where she was sitting, at the far end of the table, to all appearances just pouting. Unfortunately for Koizumi Itsuki's ease of mind, he was all too aware that appearances could be deceiving, and, in the case of Suzumiya Haruhi, nearly always were.

Just as he was about to suggest that they should leave as well, before the building supervisor came along to close up for the evening, Haruhi abruptly stood, silencing him. Slowly, ever so slowly, she walked down the opposite side of the club room's table, left hand brushing gently against the backs of the chairs on that side, seeming to linger a bit on the chair where Kodaka had been sitting until just a little while ago.

But only a bit, and then she was moving on, slowly, to the head of the table, where Yozora sat, and there Haruhi paused, bringing both hands down on the chair's back, slowly sliding them together. For a few moments, Koizumi entertained the notion that she was about to pull the chair back and sit down there. But then the white-knuckled grip that she had on the chair's back eased, and she let go. With what might have been a sigh, she backed away from the table, so that she was leaning back against the club room's window, half turning as though to look out it.

"Itsuki," she said, disdaining honorifics. "I'm bored." And without further ado, she started to hike up her uniform's skirt.

Koizumi nodded reflexively, even though she wasn't looking at him and had made it clear in the past that she was profoundly uninterested in his acquiescence to her demands. By the time that he was in front of her, her skirt was up around her hips and her panties had been tugged to the side, exposing her genitalia to his view. (She had shaved off her pubic hair some time ago.) Without further ado, he knelt down between her spread legs and began licking.

After a few moments, her hands came down into his hair, tightening and loosening her grip on his locks depending on her satisfaction with what he was doing with her. Of course, given that it was Haruhi, there was no particular correlation between her grip and her satisfaction. When he gave patient attention to her clitoris while he began to finger her vigorously, which he knew from past exploits she enjoyed, she let go almost completely.

Meanwhile, the hand of his which had not parted her folds had been employed to open his pants and slip out his own member so that he could stroke it the rest of the way to hardness. He would have felt a bit more guilty about not being fully erect from the sensation were he not well-aware, without even a glance in the direction of her face, that her eyes were firmly closed and her head still half-turned away. In her mind, it might have been anyone's lips down there, anyone's face.

That Asahina girl she'd gone on and on about last night, for example. Or Mikazuki, brought to heel and forced to serve her whims. Or the Deviluke's lost princess, whom he'd been told had arrived in her class the other day, or even Nagato. A remarkable irony if that were the case, though he was still not completely certain of his suspicions when it came to her. Or Kodaka.

No, not likely that. If it was a male, then it was most likely someone Koizumi had not as yet met. As far as he knew. He hoped so. It would be difficult to control his irritation if he learned that matters were otherwise, that that person was numbered among his acquaintances, that all that had come from Haruhi's separation from him was pointless.

She shuddered, as though his private contemplation of that name had somehow provoked her release, and pushed him back. "Do me like this," she said, pulling the panties down so they tangled around her knees, while she turned around so that she was facing outwards. "Do me against the window."

He hesitated, though by now he was fully erect. "Someone might see -" As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew that they'd been a mistake.

"They'd have to look up to do that," she said, eyes staring hellishly at his reflection in the glass. "And they don't. Fuck me, already."

Obedient even in what he was now sure were the final moments of their relationship as sexual intimates, despite the frisson of terror he always felt as his member slid up into her, he proceeded to fuck her. After a few moments, he was pumping into her as he held her hips firmly while her hands came up to press against the window, pounding softly against it as she was herself pounded much more forcefully. "Look up," she said. "Why won't any of them look up? They can, can't they? Their necks can bend?"

Under other circumstances he might have considered answering that, suggesting that they could look up, and indeed one or more of the students moving on the grounds below might even have done so, but then quickly looked down again in embarrassment, so quickly that she couldn't see. But she wouldn't have wanted that reassurance anyway, and he really just wanted this to be over. So he shoved himself up into her warmth until the motion finally gave him release, spurting up into her.

"They didn't look up," she mused.

"I'm sorry," he said.

Haruhi sighed. "We're done," she said, without turning to look at him. "This ... you, me, this, is done."

"Yes, Haruhi," he agreed as he pulled back from her. "I'll remain in the Neighbors Club, though."

"Do as you will," she said, her eyes and her mind far away from him.

Tonight, the boy, whose real name he no longer remembered, would fight the monsters born of this girl's id, and he would do knowing that they were stronger because of his failure here. As he made vague attempts to clean himself before tucking his member away, he found himself cursing the person who went by the name John Smith.

He hoped that it was not his fate to be John Smith. It would make this so confusing.

With the sure and certain knowledge that this latest development in the saga of his life could only mean more trouble for him, Kodaka trudged wearily down the stairs to his locker, so that he could change out of his slippers and into his shoes. The prospect of heading home to his little sister, whom he was starting to suspect might actually be the sanest person in his limited circle of acquaintances. And, oh what a terrifying thought that was, he thought with a sigh as he opened his locker.

And that was when he saw it.

He blinked at first, certain that stress must be making him hallucinate. When the image before his eyes didn't dissipate, Kodaka slowly reached out towards it, as though to shove his hand through it. The tips of his fingers brushed against it, and he recoiled momentarily, shocked. Well, not literally. After some more hesitation, he reached out again to delicately pick it up and bring it to his face.

He wasn't imagining it. It was, indeed, a piece of paper with his name on it, delicately folded and pushed through the slats in his locker to land there. And there was only one sort of letter that was ever sent that way.

A love letter.

To him.

Kodaka's lips curved around in what he thought of as a smile. Fortunately, there were no small children around to be disturbed by the sight, or upset him with their screams. Thus unhindered, his thoughts moved to the obvious question - who had sent him the love letter. (Love letter love letter love letter, some of his thoughts sang in accompaniment.) Perhaps the other side of the card would explain that.

He turned it over and his smile turned upside down. No name. No sweet sentiments. Just, "Come to Class 1-D as soon as you can." Was whoever had sent this planning to confess to him in person?

Or was this a trap?

That possibility frightened and uspet him, but when he calmed down after a moment, he decided that it didn't seem likely. None of the girls he'd met recently seemed likely to do that. Neither Yozora nor Haruhi would have bothered to be subtle like this - if they'd wanted to talk to him, they'd have grabbed him and dragged him off somewhere, like Yozora had done when she announced the club's formation to him. So who could this be from?

Oh, no. Don't tell me Koizumi sent this?

Shuddering at the notion, he considered just not going. But what if it wasn't Koizumi or anyone else he knew? What if Yukimura had just been the most obvious person who'd been following him around? What if there was some sweet, shy thing waiting for him to come and see her, and he broke her heart by not showing up? He couldn't live with himself if that happened!

Screwing up his courage, he closed the locker and turned back the way he'd come, marching to his classroom. Hesitating only momentarily, he slid open the door and walked in.

"Oh, good, you did come," said Asakura Ryoko, standing in front of the blackboard with a patient, gentle smile on her face. She started walking towards him, pausing when she noticed that Kodaka, genuinely surprised to see her, was standing in the doorway and staring at her. "Come in, come in," she said, beckoning him.

Somewhat automatically, Kodaka heeded the gesture and walked towards her. He thought he heard the door sliding shut behind him, but that must have been his imagination.

At the exit to the school, Nagato Yuki, buried in a book - for she did read, even if she'd found other things to do besides read since the rest of the club departed - abruptly looked up. Her eyes narrowed, and she turned in place and began running back the direction she'd just come.

"I, I don't know what to say," Kodaka said after a moment.

"But you just did," Asakura observed, blinking but still smiling at him.


"You just did say something, so clearly you did know what to say."

"Oh." He supposed that she was right, but - "Uh, I mean, that isn't - what I'm trying to say is - I really wasn't expecting it to be you."

"Well, I can understand why you wouldn't be expecting it to be me, but then again, I'm not sure who you would have been expecting," she said. Still smiling.

"Um, well, I ... I've never gotten a love letter, before now, and -"

"Oh!" Her hand came up to her mouth, momentarily hiding the smile. "Oh, my. You think that what I put in your locker was a love letter?"

"... isn't it?" he asked, feeling a bit faint. Kodaka wasn't sure why he bothered to ask. A statement starting with the phrase 'you think that' could only really have the implicit meaning 'you are foolish and stupid for thinking that'.

"No, no," Asakura said, lowering her hand. He might have been imagining things, but he thought he could see some actual pity behind her smile this time. "There's someone else that I care about, very much, and - oh, this is very embarrassing." She shook her head.

"Oh. Of, of course," Kodaka said, trying to match her smile.

"Are you in physical pain?"

He stopped trying. "Um, no, it's nothing. Ah ... well, um, why'd you want to talk to me?"

Asakura nodded. "Yes. Well, normally, I'd give you a speech about the importance of taking action rather than living with regret over inaction, and how sometimes it's very necessary to take that action rather than wait for instructions to do so, but we're honestly in something of a rush. Any minute now, Yuki-chan will be coming along to break down the barriers that I've erected, and I really need to get this done."

She seemed to take a deep breath, though she was still smiling as she did. "I want to thank you for your actions in disturbing the mental balance of Suzumiya Haruhi, on behalf of the Radical Faction of the Data Overmind. Since no one else is likely to do so. Particularly after your species becomes extinct in a few weeks."

"... what," Kodaka said.

Well-satisfied with her accomplishments today, and pleased with the prospect of having someone who would be constantly keeping an eye on her Kodaka for her, even if he didn't realize that was what he was doing - actually, especially if he didn't realize that - Yozora strolled down the stairs towards the lockers, humming. She looked forward to this evening's conversation with Tomo-chan, and the praise her friend would doubtless bestow on her.

She paused as she heard the sounds of someone running, getting louder and hence closer. Before she could react, though, the source of the sounds came into view, as Nagato Yuki moved up the stairs faster than Yozora had ever seen her move before. No - faster than she'd ever seen anyone move before.

"Wha-" she started to ask.

Nagato didn't even pause as she ran past Yozora, swiftly enough that the wind of her passage kicked up Yozora's skirt. And then she was out of sight.

Momentarily stunned, Yozora decided that the only possible response to this effrontery was pursuit, and so she proceeded to chase after her.

"I'm sorry, but I have to admit that I don't like repeating myself," said Asakura, still smiling. "So I won't, even if you ask me more nicely than you just did."

Kodaka stared at her for a moment, before he started laughing helplessly.

"Is something funny?" she asked, blinking.

"Yeah," he said, still chuckling. "It's hilarious. I, I was just thinking, before all this, that my little sister was probably the sanest person I know, and then I got your letter, and I remembered that I know you, so that wasn't fair to you ... only it is, because, clearly, you are just as crazy as everybody else." He shook his head with a sigh.

"No," said Asakura Ryoko. Who had stopped smiling. "I am not crazy."

"Yeah, because sane people come up with crap like Data Overwhatsit and talk about the extinction of - whatever, I'm out of here," he said, and turned to head for the door.

Which wasn't there anymore. Either of them. There was blank wall where they'd been, just like that which had replaced the windows on both sides of the room.

"Wha -"

"It's quite easy actually, all I needed to do was tamper with the molecular structure of the building, and I can change its matter at will," Asakura said, smiling once more. "You cannot leave this room without my permission, and so I would strongly suggest that you apologize for your presumption ..."

Abruptly, from the blank wall where the room's other door had been, there was a sort of rainbow-colored light, in a sharp vertical line, and a small white hand shoved through it.

"... or at least, that's what I'd like to say," Asakura added, with something almost like a sigh. "But it's not going to work out that way, I guess."

With a strange sort of pulse that ran along the side of the wall, looking like nothing so much as a ripple in water, the wall over the door vanished, and in stepped Nagato Yuki. Her face was still and set as she walked in and turned to look at Asakura.

"Your programs are too basic," she said.

As Kodaka stared at her in shock over hearing words from the girl who never said anything, Asakura shrugged as she smiled. "It was the best I could do on short notice, I'm afraid."

"You are supposed to be my backup." Nagato said in a mantra-like tone. "This sort of insubordination is forbidden; you must obey my commands."

"What if I refuse?"

"Then I will disconnect your data interface."

Asakura nodded, sagely though still smiling. "But you don't really want to do that, do you, Yuki-chan?"

Behind her glasses, Nagato blinked exactly once.

"Fine, fine, be that way," Asakura said. "I'll obey you this time. It's not like it makes very much difference at this point." With neither a word nor a gesture from her, the walls covering the room vanished, flooding it with light from the setting sun and exposing the face of Yozora, who was staring through one of them at what was going on.

Asakura, of course, smiled at her. "I suppose I should have thanked you, as well," she said, pitching her voice to carry. "Well, it's not important. Are we done here?" she asked Nagato.

Nagato silently bobbed her head in response.

"All right," Asakura said, turning and walking out of the room. "See you both in class tomorrow."

"What -" Kodaka started to ask.

"What the hell?" Yozora said, loud enough for everyone present to hear it.

"An explanation would appear to be in order," Nagato said quietly ... then turned and headed out of the room just like Asakura had.

"Where are you going?" Kodaka asked.

Nagato paused. "Home. This is customary. The school day has ended."

"But ... what about the explanation for all this?" Yozora asked, coming forward to block her exit.

"I will provide it if you accompany me. Was this not implicit?" Nagato asked.

"Wha - no!"

"Odd. I suppose that the scene changes which normally follow such remarks must then actually be covering much in the way of significant dialogue," the small girl seemed to muse aloud. "How I have described things was my understanding of how things are supposed to work."

"By any chance," Kodaka asked, feeling a bit faint, "is your understanding of how things are supposed to work largely based on games?"

"Of course," said Nagato.

"Of course," Kodaka repeated, rubbing his head.

The building which Nagato silently led them towards was one of the newer ones built in the Mahora area, just before all that stuff had happened last year. Kodaka hadn't been there for any of that, but he'd picked up enough overheard gossip and chatter to know that he probably didn't want to know anything more about it. Seeing the building's profile against the evening sky made him realize that it was getting kind of late, which led to other realizations.

"Is there going to be a problem, with you bringing people back to your dormitory like this?" he asked.

"There will be no problem," Nagato responded without looking back, or pausing.

"Your roommate won't mind?" he asked. "Maybe you should phone ahead and -"

"There is no roommate," Nagato said in the same quiet near-monotone that she had used for every word that she'd spoken so far.

"You live alone?"

It was at that point that Yozora, who until this point had been silently walking beside Kodaka with her usual frown and her arms folded in front of her while she glared at Nagato's back, swung her left arm out so that her forearm slammed into Kodaka's stomach, bringing him to a halt with a grunt.

"Why did you do that?" he bit out at her.

"Why are you doing things that give her an excuse for delaying the explanation for all this crap even more than she already has?" she hissed in response.

"Because I need to call my little sister and tell her I might be kind of late for dinner," he said, and flinched in anticipation of Yozora's scornful response.

She stared at him in complete silence for a moment, then turned to look at Nagato - who'd kept walking while they stopped, and was therefore some distance ahead - and spoke up. "Hey, Yuki. Kodaka needs to call his sister."

Now Nagato paused, and turned to look back at them. But she didn't say anything.

"So can he do that, or what?" Yozora asked, after a moment.

"... he can do that," Nagato said.

Yozora turned back to Kodaka, and now there was scorn in her voice. "So apparently you can do that."

"Uh, right," he said. Pulling his cell phone out of his pocket, he dialled the only number on his speed dial. "Uh, hey, Kobato -"

"Whither thou, thou knave?" roared the voice from the phone's speaker, forcing him to jerk it away from the side of his head to avoid damage to his hearing, and also allowing the next words to be heard by Yozora as well. "Hast it not been well unto half of an hour since thou should have been home? What keepest thou? Wherefore art thou late, my servant!"

"It's kind of a funny story," Kodaka said, while watching Yozora, wide-eyed, mouth the word 'servant'. "I'm gonna be a little late, but dinner's in the fridge, you just have to heat it up. You remember how to do that, right?" he asked, before he could really consider the implications of the question.

"Bah!" Kobato's voice echoed. "These primitive heating units are as nothing to one who has -"

"Great, great!" Kodaka interrupted, in a desperate attempt to prevent Yozora from learning just how messed up his little sister actually was. "Okay, I'll be there ... real soon," he said, after a moment of consideration reminded him that he had no idea how long this explanation was going to take. But it allowed him to quickly hang up.

"Your little sister, huh?" said Yozora.

"It's kind of a funny story," he said.

"I think I know where I'm going after the explanation," she said, starting to smile in a rather frightening way.

Kodaka was starting to find the prospect of humanity's extinction to be somewhat less than terrible.

A few minutes later, the three of them were standing in front of a room marked, in cold golden letters, room 708, watching as Nagato opened the door and walked in, gesturing silently for them to follow. Somewhat hesitantly, at least in Kodaka's case, they did so, observing a rather ordinary looking apartment with a kitchenette and a closed door which presumably led to a sleeping area. There were some mild oddities, like the absence of any curtains on the window, or any rugs on the floor, but they could have been put down simply to the resident's taste. And it wasn't completely absent of decoration, as there was a set of gaming consoles in one corner and shelves filled to capactity with games and manuals right beside it.

For the moment, though, Kodaka's attention was firmly on Nagato as she walked over to the far side of the room's table, knelt down there, and gestured that the pair of them should join her. Again, they did so.

"I would offer tea, but I suspect that the offer would be unwelcome under the circumstances," Nagato said after a moment.

"Damn straight," Yozora agreed. "What's the deal?"

"To begin with, you must understand that neither I, nor Asakura Ryouko, nor Suzumiya Haruhi are ordinary human beings," she said.

"Wait, Haruhi is one of you?" Kodaka asked.

"No. But she is not an ordinary human being."

"No duh. We already knew she's a freak," Yozora sneered.

"Idiomatic, but within the realm of acceptable terminology. I do not, however, here refer to her personality." She paused, then, as if reflecting. "I have never had to explain this before, and your language is not ideal to convey the meaning. Nonetheless, I must attempt to do so. That is the purpose for which I was created by the Data Overmind, which is the ruling authority of this galaxy."

"That's, that's what Asakura was talking about," Kodaka stammered.

"Correct. She was also created by the Data Overmind. We are both Humanoid Interfaces, designed to facilitate interaction between data entities and biological ones such as yourself. It is my function to observe and report on the activities of Suzumiya Haruhi, and her function would be to provide supplementary services if I were to become unable to do so. However, she is presently acting -"

"Wait," said Yozora. "Waitwaitwait. Back up a second, please. Are you saying that you're an alien?"

Nagato blinked. "No. I am a Humanoid Interface."

"... you mean you're a robot."

"Idiomatic, but within the realm of acceptable terminology," Nagato replied.

"And you were built by aliens," Yozora continued.

"Idiomatic, but within -"

"Right. Sure. Whatever," Yozora interrupted. "You ought to tell this to that wench, she'd probably buy it. Which I don't, by the way."

"It is unlikely that she would actually believe it," Nagato quietly disagreed. "She did not believe the statements made by Lala Satalin Deviluke."

"Well, of course she didn't believe that nonsense," Yozora sneered. "I never thought the wench was stupid, just -"

"Wait," Kodaka interrupted, earning a scorching glare from Yozora that he didn't really notice. "Are you saying that girl is actually an alien?"

Nagato nodded. "Although it is somewhat imprecise to say that. She is a member of a species which evolved in this solar system's only naturally occurring ecosystem, as did your own species, but which has en masse traveled to artificially created ones elsewhere in this solar system."

"... oh," said Kodaka.

Yozora just stared.

After a moment, feeling the need to get the conversation going again, Kodaka asked the next question. "So ... Haruhi isn't one of you ... Interfaces, but ... she's not from one of these ... other ecosystems, either, right?"

"Correct," Nagato agreed. "She was born in Kobe, sixteen years ago. However, three years ago, an event occurred which attracted the interest of the Data Overmind, which had been observing events on this planet for some time."

Kodaka wanted to ask how long, but he wasn't honestly sure whether he wanted to know what the answer was. "What event, exactly?"

"I am unable to explain in terms that you will understand," Nagato replied. "Essentially ... she created information."

Yozora seemed to find her voice. "What's so interesting about that?" she demanded. "I mean, we create information all the time, TV, movies, all that -"

"Incorrect," Nagato interjected. "Those are representations of information, not information itself. Information can neither be created nor destroyed."

Kodaka blinked. Something sounded familiar about that.

"Hold it," Yozora said again, getting pale. "I'm, I'm not some science geek, okay. But even I know that it's matter and energy that can't be created or destroyed -"

"The definition of information includes those, as well as other forms of existence which your species has not yet isolated," Nagato answered.

"... are you saying that, that, that wench can create matter and energy?" Yozora asked, after a moment.

Nagato nodded.

"Or ... destroy ..." And now her voice failed her again, as Nagato nodded in response to the implication.

"This is crazy," Kodaka said. "I mean, no, this -"

"Aliens are real," Yozora said, staring at Nagato.

"In the general area of Mahora, there are at present slightly more than one hundred individuals born on one of the other planets in this solar system, in addition to the Humanoid Interfaces currently stationed here," Nagato confirmed. "This in addition to individuals of partial extraterrestrial heritage who were born on this planet."

"And espers are real," Yozora said, starting to nod.

"The term is somewhat imprecise, but there is an even larger number of individuals with capabilities outside the human norm who are otherwise of standard human origin."

"And time travelers are ..." Yozora said, still nodding, even after her voice failed halfway through the sentence.

"There are at least four currently present in this region," Nagato agreed. "I am not equipped to track their movements, so some may be arriving or departing."

"And ... that ... other thing ..." Yozora stammered.

"Sliders," Kodaka supplied helpfully.

"What is this, I don't even know what that means and you somehow remember it?" she shrieked, turning her angry face in his direction.

"It was distinctive," he said defensively.

"The term refers to individuals who are capable of moving between parallel realities, popularized by an American television program which aired on NHK in the late twentieth century," Nagato explained.

"And they're real, too?" Yozora whined.

"I have only ever encountered one such individual. The Data Overmind is aware of other examples, however. An entire civilization of sliders attempted to gain a foothold on this reality some two billion years ago."

"What happened?" Kodaka asked, since that was what you were supposed to do when statements like that were made.

"We annihilated them."

"Of course you did," he said.

"It's bad enough," said Yozora, as she finally started to get up from where she'd almost collapsed on the floor after Nagato's explanation of the term 'sliders', "that we're in some kind of science fiction story. But we're also at the mercy of that wench, who has godlike powers?"

"Incorrect," Nagato contradicted.

"... but you just said -" Yozora started to protest.

"Suzumiya Haruhi does not possess godlike powers," Nagato interrupted. "Her powers are in fact significantly greater than those of the entities which human cultures have identified as gods, who are not capable of creating or destroying information, only of transforming it with respectable degrees of versatility. However, you are not 'at her mercy', a phrase which implies that she can do with you as she pleases. She does not possess conscious control over her powers, and is not actually aware that she has them. Instead, they respond to her subconscious urges and wishes."

"That's -" not so bad, was what Kodaka was about to say, but then he considered some of his own unvoiced thoughts, the impulses he'd felt from time to time, the things that he stopped himself from doing because they were wrong or bad or hurtful, and realized that it was the exact opposite of "not so bad". From the look on her face, Yozora was thinking the same thing.

"... we're doomed," she said.

(Score one for Kodaka's face-reading. Enjoy it, he won't have many more wins like this.)

Nagato simply nodded in response.

"That's what, what Asakura was saying," Kodaka remembered, speaking half-dazedly. "She said, 'before your species becomes extinct' ... Haruhi is going to do that?"

"That is the current most likely projected outcome," Nagato agreed. "Based on statistical models derived from the analysis of the melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, she will begin to develop suicidal ideations within a few weeks. Her impulse towards her own demise will likely wreak considerable havoc on this planet and solar system. Current projections suggest that events will resemble phenomena described by Dr. K. Eric Drexler."

"What?" Yozora asked, bewildered.

Nagato opened her mouth to respond, then paused, as though evaluating her listeners. After a moment, she tried again. "Objects and persons transforming into gray goo that causes other objects and persons to transform into gray goo, until everything is gray goo. Of course, before that happens, the Data Overmind will seal off this section of space-time to prevent the spread of the event outside of this solar system."

"Well, hooray for the Data Overmind," Yozora snapped. "What are you doing to prevent that from happening?"

Nagato blinked. "Nothing."

"What do you mean nothing?"

"You're just going to let it happen?" Kodaka asked, stunned at the callousness.

"It is not my assignment to prevent it from happening," Nagato answered. "My assignment is to observe Suzumiya Haruhi, and to interact with other entities as required to allow me to do so. I would prefer to extend the period in which I am able to observe Suzumiya Haruhi to the greatest extent possible, as this would increase the information which can be gathered from my observations. But my options for doing so are limited.

"Furthermore," she continued, before either of them could object, "there are other Humanoid Interfaces present who would act to counter any action I were to take. Many of them, as with Asakura, are associated with the Radical Faction of the Data Overmind, which currently believes that the best method for gaining a greater understanding of the way in which Suzumiya Haruhi creates and/or destroys information is by encouraging such a development, and analyzing the resulting events, as has been done so on previous occasions."

"On previous occasions?" Yozora repeated. "Wait, I thought you said that no one else has ever been able to do what the wench can do!"

"That was a true statement. However, there have been other incidents where species have seemed on the breakthrough of developing the ability to create and/or destroy information, only to fail to do so, often in self-destructive ways. Quite recently, in galactic terms, one such species was developing the potential to create information in a way that caused the eventual destruction of their homeworld, though a small number survived to relocate to this solar system."

"So there's a -" chance for survival, was what Kodaka had been about to say, but then he realized that Nagato was probably talking about a species much more technologically advanced than his own. And that even if that wasn't the case, neither he, nor anyone he knew, was likely to be one of the survivors this time. And even if he did somehow end up in that, skulking around the edges of someone else's solar system didn't sound like a fun existence.

The sheer absurdity of that thought almost made him laugh, though. It would really just be making his problem making friends into the defining trait of his species, wouldn't it?

"Why are you telling us all this?" Yozora demanded suddenly. "Are you just trying to make us unhappy? Unhappier, I mean."

"You asked for an explanation," Nagato answered. "It is my function to interact with the population of this planet. I will answer any questions you might have, to the limits of my knowledge and my ability to answer."

Yozora just stared at her for a few moments, while Kodaka found himself puzzling over that response. Surely there had to be an easier way to deal with people than by providing someone who could answer their questions. The aliens could have erased their minds, or killed them, or -

And then he saw it.

"What -" he started to ask.

"What can we do to prevent what you're describing?" Yozora asked, just a second faster than he could.

"Very little," Nagato admitted. "Your actions to date have contributed greatly to Suzumiya Haruhi's melancholy, as has already been observed."

"But -" Yozora sputtered. "But you wouldn't be telling us all this if there wasn't anything -"

"I did not say that there was not anything that you could do," she interrupted. "There was a plan, devised in agreement between the Data Overmind and two of the human factions which take an interest in the actions of Suzumiya Haruhi, which was projected to delay her breakdown long enough for a more optimal solution to eventuate. That plan relied on the formation of a club."

And suddenly, Kodaka saw all. (Well, he saw all that he was supposed to see right then. There was a lot that he wasn't going to see until much later.) His hand went up to his face. "Oh, god," he said. "Oh my god. I did this, didn't I? I put the idea of the club into her head -"

"Significantly before it was supposed to appear there," Nagato supplied.

He didn't really hear that. "- and then, you, Yozora, you formed the Neighbors Club so that she couldn't establish her club because of that rule -"

"That doesn't make any sense!" Yozora protested, just a bit frantically. "If it was supposed to happen later, then the existence of the Neighbors Club would still have prevented -"

"The fourth 'non-specific club' founded in this school year is projected to be reclassified as a religious studies group following the conversion of the majority of its membership to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, opening a berth for the foundation of Suzumiya Haruhi's club," Nagato noted. "Unfortunately, this will occur only a day or so before the most optimistic projections of her breakdown."

"Then it's their fault for embracing a weird religion, not mine!" Yozora said, nodding fiercely.

"It doesn't matter whose fault it is!" Kodaka yelled, mostly to cover his certainty that it was his own. "This club of hers - can the Neighbors Club fill the same role for her? Keep her from destroying everything until we can come up with something better?"

"Yes," said Nagato.

They both stared at her, waiting for the elaboration on that point that they were sure was to follow. Nagato stared back at them. If a staring contest were being held, they would have lost, as they broke their gaze at her by turning to glance at each other, before turning back to chorus, "How?"

"Unknown," said Nagato. "No projection of that event has been made. It was determined to be an event of such low probability as to be illogical."

"Oh, for -" Yozora started to groan, holding her head.

"No, wait," Kodaka interjected. "How was the club that she was going to form different from ours?"

"Its most notable difference was that Suzumiya Haruhi was its titular leader. In addition to that, it contained representatives of all three of the factions with an interest in her, rather than just two," she added.

"Wait, what?" Kodaka asked, but in a flash, he realized what was being said. "Koizumi! That bastard is in one of these factions, isn't he?"

Nagato nodded.

"And ... that girl she keeps talking about, the one who's moe," he continued the chain of thought. "Her too?"

Her roommate was already out by the time Mikuru got to their room, having been thoughtful enough to make dinner and leave it in the fridge for cooking-impaired Mikuru. Which would have been nice, had Mikuru's mild phobia of their appliances not also extended to the microwave. (She'd seen what those things could do! It was Not Nice!) Still, she understood that it was the thought that counted, so she put the microwaveable dish in the ... thing ... and then went and got her ten-foot pole to press the buttons from what she hoped was a safe distance.

It took a while to get them right, but eventually, she had slightly overcooked dinner. Well, that was the way it went. At least, it was the way that her life had been going lately. Oh, who was she trying to kid, here? (Obviously, she was trying to kid herself, since as far as Mikuru knew, there was no one listening in on her thoughts. She didn't know about me, in other words.) It was the way things had been going since she arrived in this ficton - cruddy, to be precise.

Another day closer to the end of everything, and still Haruhi hadn't shown up to drag her off to she knew not what fate. It was actually starting to be a bit frightening, even beyond what was expected of the 'scared of everything' persona she was employing. The instructors back in her proper time and place and frame of reference had explained to her that even if the world ended, she would be okay, but when she'd asked them to elaborate, they'd given her math.


Somehow, she was going to have to come up with a plan to put herself in Haruhi's power without compromising her status as 'moe', which meant that she was going to have to somehow arrange for a distraction for Saotome-san and Tsuruya-san so that neither of them would interrupt. Well, maybe just for Satome-san. Tsuruya-san would probably find the notion of her being dragged off for lots and lots of who knows what to be as funny as she found just about everything else.

Plan, plan, plan.

She was awful at planning. Maybe tomorrow, something would happen that she could exploit. Right now, freed of the necessity to keep quiet, Mikuru decided to lean back on the dorm room's couch, and enjoy contemplating some of the 'who-knows-what'. Her hand slid down between her legs, sliding under the strange garment that her roommate had insisted she wear soon after they moved in together, no, don't think about that, think about pleasant things.

Like being made to wear strange costumes. Well, she supposed technically that the 'pantsu' she was obliged to wear was the same thing, except that she knew her roommate didn't take any sensual pleasure from her submission. (Which was just as well, because while the other girl was rather cute, she was not in any way, shape or form Mikuru's type.) But no, when she finally came under the rule of her mistress, she was going to be made to wear all manner of strange costumes, and know utter humiliation - and thus utter fulfillment.

But there would be more, she knew, as her thumb began to strum against her clitoris, while the first two fingers of her hand parted her labia to begin teasing at her vulva. There would be physical punishment. Ah, the physical punishment! Things she couldn't even imagine, and she could imagine quite a bit, were going to happen to her. Those pincer thingies, the ones that were associated with clothes for some reason, applied to every loose bit of her flesh. Spanking, forceful and vigorous. Biting. It was going to be wonderful!

Ohhh. Perhaps she would even be made to kneel in chickpeas for hours on end, oh, so long that they would be pressed into her flesh, and, oh, leave marks in flesh, and be made to photograph, oh, her knees and send the photograph all around the, oh, world so that billions of people could see it and, ohhh, witness her submission, with some of them tricked into thinking it was a picture of someone's fingers with odd growths on them, and and and ohhhhhhhhh!

And then, just as Mikuru was about to achieve orgasm, the door to her room was flung open and her roommate staggered in, smiling broadly with her clothes disarranged and her eyes unfocused. "Five of them this time!" Ku Fei proclaimed. "This is the best training ever! I - oh. Excuse, Mikuru-san."

Mikuru, who resembled a tomato at the moment, nodded politely in greeting.

"So it's simple. All we have to do is put Haruhi in charge of our club and follow her lead for a little while, and them I'm sure she'll calm down and not want to destroy the world or anything like that!" Kodaka said enthusiastically.

Having done so, he abruptly realized that Yozora was staring at him. In fact, she was staring at him in almost exactly the same way that she'd been staring at him when he interrupted her conversation with "Tomo-chan" a few days ago. It had been an awful experience then, and it wasn't much better now. Actually, the presence of Nagato, who was also looking at him without quite so much intensity in her gaze, might have made matters worse.

Eventually, the silence ended when Yozora spoke, quietly and distinctly. "You. Want to put. That. WENCH. In charge of. MY. Club?"

"It's that or the world is going to be destroyed!" Kodaka pointed out in what he had to admit was not the most reasonable tone of voice.

Yozora looked away. "I'm not convinced that your cure is preferable to the disease."

How could anyone be so selfish! Kodaka gritted his teeth. "Has it occurred to you that you can't make friends if the world gets destroyed?" he bit out. "That you won't ever have any friends if that happens?"

Yozora closed her eyes. "Has it occurred to you that Yuki said that this was a delaying action in the hopes of something better coming along?"

"That statement is more or less synonymous with what I did say," Nagato supplied.

"And anyways, this whole thing is kind of fishy if you ask me!" Yozora continued, opening her eyes to glare at the other girl. "If the wench wanted a club of her own, and she can pretty much do anything she wants, then why didn't her unconscious arrange things so that she got there before I did? By throwing obstacles in my path or something?"

"For reasons that the Data Overmind does not understand, it is believed that Mikazuki Yozora and Hasegawa Kodaka, when acting in concert, are somewhat resistant to the data manipulations of Suzumiya Haruhi," Nagato explained. Well, 'explained'.

"How is that possible?" Yozora demanded.

It seemed to Kodaka that there was a hint of a frown on Nagato's usually immobile face. "The reasons for this are unknown to the Data Overmind," she repeated. There wasn't any annoyance, or much of anything else, in her words. "If the mechanism for this resistance was understood, it would be implemented in a different class of Humanoid Interface who would attempt to take Suzumiya Haruhi prisoner so that her abilities could be studied more directly." Neither was there anything in that rather frightening statement.

"I like the way your boss thinks," Yozora said, making frightening statements of her own.

"Yozora -"

"I need to talk to Yuki privately," she said, not looking at him right at the moment. "Step outside, please."

"I don't think -"

"Now," she said.

Kodaka found himself standing in the hallway outside of Nagato's room a moment or so later. Briefly, he considered coming up with an air friend of his own.

Back in the room, Yozora drew in a breath to steady herself as she stared at Nagato. "If I go along with this, there's something I need to know -" she started to say.

"Suzumiya Haruhi is not sexually attracted to Hasegawa Kodaka, nor is she likely to develop such an attraction in the future," Nagato said.

Yozora flushed. "I wasn't - I didn't - I'm - oh, fine then!" She nodded once, got up from the table and marched over to the door.

"We're doing it," she said to Kodaka once she got it open.

"By 'doing it'," Kodaka asked suspiciously, "what exactly do you mean?"

Yozora gave an annoyed grunt. "I mean that we are going to hold elections for club officers tomorrow, and the wench will almost certainly win since you and I are going to vote for her - by secret ballot, of course - and then we're going to let her run rampant with our club, leading us into all sorts of weird adventures, looking for aliens, time travelers and espers - all of which are actually already present in the club, but heaven forbid that anything be easy where she's concerned - and hopefully stave off planetary destruction that way. Or something like that."

He sighed in relief. "Okay. What did you need to discuss with -"

"Feminine hygiene," she snapped. "Turns out that alien-created robots know a lot about it."

Officially sorry that he'd asked, Kodaka flinched. "Okay, then I guess I'll see you at school tomorrow, then." He turned to leave.

"Uh, like, no?" Yozora said in a parody of ganguro-talk. "I'm coming back to your place to meet your little sister, remember?"

He flinched again. "I was kinda hoping you wouldn't remember," he said sheepishly.

"It's wonderful to have hope for the future, Kodaka," Yozora told him, nodding seriously. "It's wonderful because it gives people like me something to crush."


Eventually, the sounds of the conversation outside the door of her room faded away completely, though Nagato Yuki sat just where she'd been, just as she had been, until she was quite certain that the two humans had left the building and would not be returning to continue discussing matters. There had been a question which she'd evaluated as having a high probability of being asked, which had not been.

They were wonderfully hard to predict, at times.

Once they were definitely departed, however, she arose from her position at the table and headed over to the game console in the corner, put on the headphones, and powered up the console. This evening, she was going to go over the bad endings of the 'Paradise Sensation' route of The Sacred Blackstar, generally viewed as the most sophisticated and 'adult' of its routes. Because of course there was nothing more sophisticated and adult than wrecking and destroying your other relationships for the sake of a romance with a yandere sexpot. Everyone knew that.

Before she was even a third of the way through the flowchart leading up to that branch - save spots and skip mode were for people who didn't appreciate the artistry of the medium - she heard the door opening. Since it had automatically locked after Yozora went out, and since there was only one other person who had a key, there couldn't be any question about the identity of the person who'd just entered the room.

Of course, technically, she wasn't a person. But then again, technically, neither was Nagato.

"So?" asked Asakura, smiling warmly, and using a communication medium that wasn't hindered by the fact that Nagato's ears were covered. "How'd they take the news?"

"As anticipated," Nagato replied in the same way, without taking her eyes off the screen. "They wish to prevent it from happening."

"And of course, you did what you could to grant them that wish," Asakura observed. "Even though that's just as much of an improper intervention as anything I might have done to Hasegawa-kun in the classroom, had I been minded to do so."

"Report me," Nagato suggested.

"You know I won't," Asakura pointed out as she came down to crouch down behind Nagato. "Honestly, I don't believe it'll make any difference, and the last dying gasps of their hope will be as fun to watch as those of the Kryptonians were. And we'll be much more thorough, this time." She laid the side of her head against the back of Nagato's own. "How does that make you feel?" she asked.

"I don't feel anything," Nagato answered. "You are well aware of this."

"Such a bad little liar you are," Asakura said, shaking her head slightly so that the vibration was transferred to Nagato. "I'm curious. Did you tell them everything?"

"... of course not."

"So you didn't tell them about the real Nagato Yuki?"

Nagato didn't answer that, since the answer was implicit in statements she'd already made. And because she didn't want to answer.

"'Please, no,'" Asakura said, using her regular speech apparatus as well as the more unique set she'd been using up until this point. In the former, she was deliberately pitching her voice higher, in what she imagined was a parody of Nagato. "'I want to know what love is like.' It's your own fault, you know."

Nagato didn't answer that either.

Slowly, Asakura's left hand came around Nagato's waist and started to slide down beneath her skirt, while her right hand slid up under her shirt and bra to begin tweaking her nipples. With some reluctance, Nagato set down the console's controller and gave herself over to Asakura's attentions.

It occurred to her, as her neck was being kissed, that she too was in a relationship with a yandere sexpot, and would probably destroy her other relationships for this one's sake. Oddly, it didn't make her feel more adult at all.

"Okay, before we go in, you should probably understand that my sister is a little ... eccentric," Kodaka said as they arrived at door of the small, two story house just outside of the teacher's district.

"I never would have guessed that from what I overheard," Yozora said blandly, without really looking in his direction.

These were the first words they'd spoken to each other since leaving Nagato's apartment building. She'd spent most of the trip engaged in what could uncharitably be called sulking, while he had spent it divided between worrying about the fact that she was sulking, worried about what was going to happen tomorrow with Haruhi, worried about what was going to happen once his sister met ... whatever it was that Yozora was to him, and worried about a few dozen minor issues that didn't occupy very much of his attention for very long. Neither of their preoccupations had left them with much time to converse, even if they'd wanted to do so.

"Yeah, well, um. The important thing to understand is that it's all an act," he continued, somewhat forcefully. "She doesn't ... believe these things that she's saying. It's all just a game, and the best way to deal with it is to ignore it until she gets tired of it and moves on to something else."

"This is an expert opinion?" Yozora asked.

"Yes, yes it is," he agreed. He thought it was, anyway. Even someone as chronically irresponsible as his father would have consulted an expert before he made that kind of a statement, right? Of course! He decided not to examine this line of thought any further.

"How long has she been acting the way that she does?" Yozora asked, in the same monotone.

"A year and a half - okay, so maybe the expert was wrong, but - look, let's just get this over with," he sighed. Bracing himself slightly, he opened the door a crack, checking for booby traps. Satisfied that there weren't any this time, he opened it the rest of the way. "Hey, Kobato ... I'm back!" he called out.

The front door opened up to a hallway, of course, which led back into the rest of the house with an open passage to the living room. From that direction, Kodaka heard a sharp but faint gasp in response to his words, followed by the pattering of feet. Moments later, sinister organ music - actually, a CD recording of sinister organ music - began playing in the background for a moment, before his sister sprang into view.

"Ah ha!" proclaimed the tiny person with long blonde hair cut princess style, dressed in a long flowing black and lacy gown and wearing a single red contact over one of her otherwise green eyes. "The wretch returns! The wretch, who dared to phone his master and inform her that he would be late without daring to beg forgiveness for this trespass!"

And then the visible green eye narrowed as she caught sight of Yozora, standing behind Kodaka and staring in mute wonder at what lay before her. "And more!" the small girl continued her rant. "For another trespass begins, yay, in that very moment where one ends! Who is this mortal girl whom you have brought, uninvited, hither unto our domains, my servant?"

"Um, this is the head of that club I've been telling you -"

"Former. Head," Yozora interjected, rather sourly.

"Uh. Right. Anyway, Mikazuki Yozora, this is my little sister, Hasegawa Kobato -"

"Do not employ the name which I bear only as a guise to walk freely among the mortals!" Kobato commanded. "If you have brought her unto our darkness, then she should know the truth of that which she has ... has ... um ..."

"Encountered?" Yozora suggested.

"Yea verily!" Kobato snapped, annoyed. "The truth of that which she has encountered. For lo - I am of the blood of the great darkness, the shadow among shadows, the mistress of puppets, the vampire Evangeline Athanasia Katerina McDougall! Of the clan McDougall!" she added.

"So," said Yozora a few moments later, after Kodaka had managed to extricate her from the encounter with the alleged 'mistress of puppets', and gotten her out the door to where they were presently standing. "What exactly is her deal?"

"It's just like it seems," he said wearily. "She thinks it's fun to pretend to be a vampire."

There was a thump on the other side of the door, perhaps resulting from someone with their ear pressed against it taking exception to a certain use of the word 'pretend'. Kodaka ignored it.

"Yeah, I got that part. What I mean is, why does she do that?"

"Well, about two years ago, there was this anime on TV that she used to watch all the time, and at some point she started insisting that she was the show's vampire character, dressing like that and calling herself Reisys Vi Felicity Sumeragi or something like that. Well, that lasted only a few weeks, fortunately, but then she changed her name to ... well, what you just heard."

"I think I remember that show," Yozora mused, frowning. "Why'd she switch?"

"I dunno," Kodaka said with a shrug. "Well, I do have a hunch it might have something to do with the way that she stayed up late one night watching some of my dad's old movies, stuff from back in the 80s - that 'of the clan' whatever points to it. But the rest, I think she just got tired of people making fun of her for pretending to be an anime character, so she made up a new one."

Yozora was still frowning.

"What?" Kodaka asked, starting to get a bit spooked again.

"Eh, it's probably nothing," Yozora said after a minute. "It's just ... no, never mind." She laughed bitterly. "It's funny, though. Don't you think? Considering everything else, what do you think the chances are that there really are -"

"Ah, no, don't even go there," Kodaka groaned.

"How can I possibly not?" Yozora asked. "Talking about cosplay pretending, now I'm starting to wonder if the cosplay robot girls on campus are actually real robots."

"Or that there really are ghosts?" he asked.

"... let's not get crazy," she said quickly. "Anyway ... I'll see you in school tomorrow." She looked away. "Let me handle the leadership handover, okay?"

Astounded that she was bothering to ask him for permission, all Kodaka could do was nod.

"Great. Later," Yozora said, without turning to look at him again, and then strolled off.

The next day, classes seemed to take forever and be even less about anything than they ever did. There was a brief distraction at the start of lunch when a girl from some other class showed up and apparently knew Lala from somewhere. But even though Kodaka now felt a vague interest in the pink-haired girl's activities, after having learned that she really was from another planet, he didn't feel motivated to follow her, her friend and that Yuuki kid when they all went running off together.

No, all that he wanted to do was to get through to the end of the day and then head to the club room with Yozora to make sure that she followed through on their plan, and then take care of some other stuff that needed doing as well. He found himself reflecting that it was really sort of strange - he hadn't wanted any of this when it all started, and now he was feeling an enthusiasm he hadn't felt about anything in a while. Of course, having realized that, he promptly convinced himself that it wasn't really enthusiasm he was feeling, but actually sheer mortal terror of the consequences of messing this up.

At last classes ended, and he turned around to see that Haruhi had already departed. Well, no surprises there. She'd only waited for him the last time because it had been part of one of her plans. But Yozora also appeared to have vanished quickly as well, and that made him really nervous. What if she backed out on the plan at the last minute?

With that thought in mind, he quickly headed to the club room, hoping to find them both already there. On opening the door, Kodaka found himself cursing the notion of hope as a bad idea all around, because the only people who were there were Nagato and Koizumi, both seated at their usual stations.

As Kodaka entered, Koizumi promptly turned that obnoxiously superior smile on him. "Ah, good day, Kodaka-kun. I'm happy and, of course, also somewhat saddened to report that my expectations about the longevity of my relationship with Suzumiya-san have proved quite accurate -"

"Don't care," Kodaka interrupted. "Esper, right?"

Koizumi fell silent, mouth open for a moment, before he coughed and gave a short look in Nagato's direction. (She of course didn't bother to acknowledge the glance.) "I see someone has rather jumped the gun on explanations."

"Whatever!" he snapped. "Look, I don't know how long it's gonna take for her to get here, but you need to know that Yozora and I have come up what we think is a way to fix this situation, but we're gonna need your help to do it."

"I will of course give your efforts to prevent the end of all that is my full support," Koizumi said. "What can you tell me about -"

The door to the club room opened, and Yozora walked in smiling in an unpleasant way. "Ah, good, you're here already," she said cheerfully in Kodaka's direction.

"Where the hell else would I be?" he asked. "Where did you -"

"I was off preparing our new maid," she said.

It was at that moment that, shortly behind Yozora, that a person wearing a maid's costume walked in with a solemn look on her - no, his face, Kodaka realized as he belatedly recognized him as Yukimura. "Good day to you, aniki," he said politely.

"You should probably start addressing him as Master," Yozora supplied.

"What the hell?" Kodaka said, feeling a bit dizzy.

"It's what maids are supposed to call people," she explained.

"That isn't what I was asking you horrible person and -"

"Well, I explained to Yukimura that the best way to become manly was to start from the absolute opposite of manliness. Vis a vis," she added, with a gesture towards Yukimura.

"Do you object, aniki?" Yukimura asked, looking tearfully up at him. "I mean, master?"

Kodaka covered his hand with his eyes and wished to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. After a moment, though, he decided that it couldn't matter. As long as Yozora still intended to go along with the plan, things would be fine.

Then the door flew open again, and Haruhi entered briskly with a big smile on her face. "Great news!" she proclaimed. "I finally got the moe girl and she's gonna make a great maid for ... our ... club ..." she concluded, much more slowly as she got a good look at Yukimura.

In the silence that fell after she trailed off, a tiny voice could be heard from the doorway as a rather baby-faced girl peeked in. "Is this the place where the Student Council wants me to be?" she asked.

A few minutes earlier, Asahina Mikuru had paused before heading to her calligraphy club in order to step into the washroom and wash her hands, marveling as she did so at the miracle that was indoor plumbing. The water streaming out of the faucet, that way ... so amazing to watch, it was almost hypnotic. So it wasn't any wonder that she didn't notice anyone sneaking up behind her until she finally managed to lift her head and look in the marvelous wall-mounted reflecting device and see, standing there behind her -

"Don't scream," Haruhi hissed as she grabbed her. "If you scream ... I'll ... I'llll do something you can't even imagine!"

That was difficult to believe, but it did mean that Mikuru stifled herself, and feeling her undergarments grow moist for reasons that had nothing to do with a wish to relieve her bladder, she allowed herself to be dragged into the hallway and out of the school building.

"Get in here," Haruhi hissed without even a backwards glance.

Hesitantly, the girl came into the room. Now that he had a better look at her, Kodaka had to agree that the girl really did seem to embody the concept of 'moe' - inasmuch as he understood the concept. Really, the way that she seemed to have every possible 'cute' feature was almost disturbing. "Where am I? What is this place?" she asked, looking around nervously.

"I think we can all agree that Mikuru-chan here would be a much better maid for the club than ... that person," Haruhi said, rather than answering such trivial questions. And then, as Kodaka watched in faintly amazed horror, the girl grabbed the other girl from behind, provoking a startled shriek from Mikuru as her breasts were first groped, then pushed up from her chest. "See?" said Haruhi. "This is a much better rack!"

"And we all know how important that is," Yozora answered dryly. "But to the contrary, I believe that the cool elegance and professionalism that Yukimura exhibits will be more appealing to those drawn to maid appeal. Only inadequate and unmanly men would be drawn to a clumsy girl like her."

Yukimura had started out looking just faintly bewildered by all of this, but hearing the comments about Mikuru, he'd started to regard her with fairly blatant hostility.

"But-but-but I don't even want -" Mikuru started to say.

"Nonsense!" Haruhi snapped. "Let's ask the opinion of the nearest adequate man. Kodaka, which do you think is better? It's Mikuru-chan, riiiight?"

"If I got a running start, do you think I could get through the window?" Kodaka asked Koizumi.

"I sure that I couldn't imagine, being inadequate and all," Koziumi replied calmly.

"Hey, Kodaka does not set club policy!" Yozora said. "That's the job of the club president, which happens to be -"

"How can you be president when we haven't held elections yet!" Haruhi snapped, letting go of Mikuru to fully confront Yozora. Kodaka could have sworn that he saw a pout briefly settle on Mikuru's features before they reverted to cute bewilderment, but he decided that he had to be imagining it.

"Oh, so you want to have elections, huh?" Yozora sneered. "You think everything is going to go your way if we have elections, I bet. Well, fine. We'll just see about that!"

Besides, there were more important things to think about. Obviously, Yozora had planned this as a way to give the presidency to Haruhi without seeming like she was doing just that. It was really clever, the way that she was manipulating the situation, making it seem like there was an actual fight going on.

"We'll use this as the ballot box," Yozora said, producing a half-empty box of tissues. "Now, as to the rest ..." she added, pulling one of the boxed board games down from the shelves, then setting up the board like a screen. "Everyone, step behind the screen, write down the name of the person you want to be club president on a piece of paper, fold it up and put it in the box. Um, someone tap Nagato on the shoulder so she goes along with this too ... no, don't unplug the headphones, tap her on the shoulder ..."

Of course, to make sure that Haruhi didn't have any suspicions, it would probably be best if someone voted for another candidate, Kodaka decided, and, just for the heck of it, wrote Yozora's name on the paper. She'd realize that he'd done it, and it would be a nice, friendly gesture, he thought as he put the paper in the box.

Moments later, the ballots were read out by Nagato - revealing that four votes had been cast for Yozora, two for Haruhi, and one for Kodaka.

"Well," said Haruhi. "Congratulations, President." In tones much like someone else might say, hurry up and die.

Yozora resembled a stone statue.

Kodaka stared at Nagato, who pointedly avoided his gaze, as did Koizumi and Mikuru.

He was starting to develop a theory on why the world was really in danger that didn't have any thing to do with him and Yozora.

"All right," said Kodaka, for once trying to be intimidating rather than just being himself and accidentally coming off as intimidating. He paced up and down the length of the club room as he spoke. "Let's start at the most ridiculous part of this whole ridiculous situation. Which one of you hosers voted for me?"

"H-h-hosers?" Mikuru repeated apprehensively as she gazed up at him from where she was sitting on the opposite side of the desk.

"Slang term popularized by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, used to describe persons clumsy or stupid, with particular indications of drunkenness," Nagato explained as she sat beside her, without looking up from the book she'd started reading once the club ended.

"The drunkenness part of the expression would not really seem to apply to any of us, though," Koizumi mused as he brought his hand up to his chin. "It's also somewhat surprising that Hasegawa-san would know of or use such an expression."

"My dad has a lot of old movies on VHS, okay?" Kodaka snapped. "Is this really even a little bit pertinent?"

"Perhaps not," Koizumi allowed.

"Based on the handwriting of the ballot in question, it would seem a very high probability that the vote in question was cast by Yukimura-san," Nagato said, again without looking up.

That brought Kodaka up short. "Huh," he said, after a moment. "Okay. I guess I can see how that might happen." He coughed. "Right. Did any of you vote for Haruhi?"

Now both Koizumi and Mikuru looked down, just like Nagato was doing, but without the excuse of having a book handy.

"Let me guess," he sighed. "You all thought it would be best to give at least one vote to someone other than Haruhi, so she wouldn't get suspicious of the whole bit."

Koizumi looked up again, with a rather sardonic expression on his face as he regarded Kodaka. "That would be a very perceptive evaluation of the motives behind my action," he said, over-smoothly as ever. "One which could come only from a deep, personal understanding of such motives."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I did it too," Kodaka sneered. "I have an excuse - I'm just barely treading water here!" He let out a long breath of air. "Okay," he said, trying to calm down a bit. "We've blown this one, but there's still chances to fix things. But next time, don't just unilaterally decide how you're going to support whatever plan we come up with, all right? I know that we sprang this one on you kind of suddenly, but -"

Then he frowned. "Hey wait a minute." Whirling to look at Koizumi, he continued to speak in a slow and suspicious manner. "If you're an esper, how come you didn't try to, I dunno, communicate with us mentally or see the future or -"

"Unfortunately, that's not the way my abilities function," Koizumi admitted ruefully. "They require closed space in which to do so."

"Huh, okay, I can see how that would be a problem," Kodaka mused, nodding, but still frowning.

Koizumi stared at him for a moment. "Aren't you going to ask about the meaning of the expression -"

"I'm not gonna give you the satisfaction." He'd already moved on to start glowering at Mikuru, who seemed to shrink in her chair beneath his stare. "If you're a time traveler - hey, how can you have time traveled back from a future if the most likely outcome of all this is that we're all gonna die?"

"Oh, here we go," Koizumi sighed.

"That's classified information," Mikuru said apologetically.

"Get used to that expression," Koizumi advised Kodaka. "I am fairly sure that it would be a relatively trivial task to get one of them into a state where the only answer that they can give to anything is, 'classified information'." That delivered in a killer imitation of Mikuru's own tone.

"Muu," said Mikuru, shrinking further in on herself. Why wasn't her cruel mistress here to protect her from this abuse with much more painful and fun abuse?

"And I suppose that there's obscure reasons you also can't use your powers to help with this kind of thing, right?" Kodaka asked Nagato.

"No," answered Nagato, choosing this time to look up and meet his gaze. "They are simply not relevant to this matter."

"Same difference," he sighed. "Okay. Well, you guys put Yozora in charge -"

"Didn't you vote for her, as well?" Koizumi observed.

Kodaka completely ignored him. "- so we're just going to have to trust her to come up with some kind of a solution. My idea didn't work, so it's up to her." He paused, considering this, then shook his head. "God help us all."

"Unfortunately, that's not very likely, given the likelihood of God's identity," Koizumi said.

"Shove it."

Elsewhere, in fact, just above this league of frightened individuals, on the roof of the school, a door was opening. "Why do you have a key to the roof?" asked Itou Makoto as he followed a girl out onto the fenced off blacktop.

"I'm president of the astronomy club," Saionji Sekai explained airily.

Makoto blinked in amazement. "Seriously? You're only a freshman, right?"

She shrugged. "It wasn't that hard. The club's been pretty much dead since Naba Chizuru dropped out two years ago. Anyway, it made getting a key to the roof really easy, all I had to do was tell them that I planned to do some stargazing."

"Wow, you are such a liar," he said, amazed at her temerity. "Look, whatever it is you wanted to talk to me about -"

And then, without another word, she held up her cellphone, which contained a photo of her and a certain girl.

"Ta-da! As of earlier today, Katsura Kotonoha and I have become best friends! Want me to help you get to know her?"

He stared in mute shock.

"... waiting on a response isn't my idea of fun times, you know," Sekai observed after a moment.

Chapter Text

The first time he'd ever seen her, the very sight had quite literally taken his breath away. He'd honestly found it difficult to inhale as he stood there, on the day of their introduction to high school life, and watched her from a distance. She was gazing up at the class lists with a look that somehow seemed to mix fear and hope in a way that he'd never before realized they could combine. He'd looked at her, and tried to follow her gaze, to where her name - which he did not then know - was doubtless printed, with some vague hope of his own that she'd be in the same class as he was ... and the sad certainty that she wasn't going to be.

Life, he'd learned, could never be that sweet to Itou Makoto.

And sure enough, she wasn't in the classroom when he arrived to start classes the next day. It wouldn't be until he was heading home at the end of that day that he saw her again, on the same train taking them out of Mahora and into the town adjoining it. He was so startled to see her that he almost didn't get off at his stop, making something of an ass of himself as he panicked and dashed for the doors just as they were starting to close. He'd gotten through by the scrape of his neck, and felt incredibly foolish as he'd watched the train carrying her pull away and head further into metropolitan Tokyo.

Finding out her name had proved relatively easy. Finding out anything about her beyond her name had proved difficult. No one seemed to know her all that well, no one seemed to be her friend. That was probably the explanation for the air of loneliness that he perceived about her. Someone who was always alone would be lonely, after all. It just stood to reason.

Unfortunately, that awareness was problematic. He was drawn to her by her air of loneliness, and yet he also knew that if he became close to her, that air would dissipate. What if that happened and he didn't find her attractive anymore? The answer to that question was that he'd be just like his father, moving on when he got bored, and the very last thing he ever wanted to do was be like his father. So rather than risk damaging the beauty he perceived, he stood back, and watched, and felt satisfied with that, for a while.

It was Taisuke who'd changed it up, Taisuke who'd started talking about the urban legend. If someone kept a photo of someone else as their cellphone's background, without anyone else seeing it, for three whole weeks, they'd be sure to become close to that person. He was halfway sure that Taisuke had only come up with this nonsense to mess with Rito, who'd promptly nodded, turned away from them to fiddle with his phone, and then turned back all smiles. The gleeful look on the kid's face had almost been enough to keep them from trying to sneak a peek at the picture of Sairenji, who was beyond any possible doubt pictured there now. Even if the myth wasn't something Taisuke had made up, rather than hearing from the older sister he had a huge complex about, Makoto was fairly certain that if just about everyone knew whose photo was on someone's wallpaper, it counted as having seen it for those purposes.

But despite that, he'd found himself giving into the impulse to take a quick snapshot of Katsura Kotonoha when he saw her on the train the next day. Whether he believed in the myth or not, it would be nice to have a photo of her that he could look at when he couldn't look at the real thing. And maybe the myth was right after all.

And then Saionji Sekai had promptly wrecked everything, as he probably should have suspected that she would. He'd first met her - that he knew of, at least, since she had been introduced to him on the first day of classes just like everyone else in their class and it was not impossible that he'd seen her or she'd seen him before that - when he'd headed over to offer his commiserations to Kiyoura Setsuna, whom he'd met during orientation and whom he'd encouraged, somewhat off-handedly, to put her name in the running for class representative. She'd pulled off a respectable second-place showing behind Asakura Ryoko, well in advance of some "John Smith" person who'd garnered one vote as a write in candidate. But Kiyoura's usual stoic expression, which he'd only seen shaken once, couldn't hide the fact that she wasn't happy about losing after getting up the nerve to run.

"Sorry," he'd said to her without preamble, when he'd approached her at lunch. "You had my vote, if it helps. And I asked some of the guys to vote for you, too. Don't know if any of them did, but I did ask."

She'd made a tiny face. "Well, it's not that surprising," she'd admitted. "I just transferred in this year, and Asakura-san has been at Mahora since the start of junior high, so she has some history in the position that I couldn't claim. It would have been nice to win, but -" And then she'd shrugged.

And then the girl sitting beside her had spoken. "And on the upside, if anything happens to her, you're a shoe-in to be asked to take her place." Such were the first words he'd ever heard from Saionji Sekai.

They'd both stared at her, as one did when someone said something that betrays a remarkable lack of tact.

"What?" she'd said, all innocence. "I meant if she had to transfer out for some reason, not anything, you know, bad. I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to her, just so my best, most dearest friend could become a class representative," she'd elaborated, in a way that somehow managed to be horribly unconvincing.

"Right," Makoto had said, as his own first words directed at her. And then, with a wave of his hand, he'd set off, expecting that he'd never have anything to do with Kiyoura's wacky friend, ever again.

The very next day, the homeroom teacher had announced that - well ahead of schedule - he was going to rearrange the classroom seating chart, implicitly to stop some of the noise makers in the class. And so Makoto had bid a fond adieu to Taisuke, privately entertaining vague hopes for some peace and quiet, ideally enough to get some more sleep in.

As he was going to come to see, life could never be so kind to him.

"Ah, we meet again," Saionji had said brightly, as she'd came over to sit beside him, holding up the lot which indicated that she now had the seat beside his.

He'd stared at her, then let out a heavy sigh.

"Oh, come on," Saionji had protested. "Are you really going to be like this when a cute girl comes and talks to you?"

"Referring to yourself as cute," Makoto said, with the air of one delivering words of great wisdom, "is pretty much the best indicator that one is not, in fact, cute."

She'd shaken her head in obvious dismay. "Oh, geez, you are nooo fun."

"Sorry for not being fun," he'd said. To be honest, he wasn't sure, really, why she put him on edge. Sure, she was a little annoying, a bit too much like Otome had been in the last few months of their association, but he didn't think that was really a good enough reason to want some space from her. Even more than she reminded him of Otome, though, he found himself comparing her to - he didn't want to think about that episode. So he didn't.

Rather than think about that episode and ponder the meaning of the way that Saionji reminded him of it, then, he did his level best to ignore her for the next few days. She didn't make it easy, since she was constantly offering her observations to him whenever they had a moment to talk, but he tried very hard to ignore her. Whenever he had to respond, he offered at best non-committal responses, often just remaining silent in the hopes that she'd pick up her own end of the "conversation" without any input from him.

And then, on the very day that he'd taken his photo of Katsura, she'd promptly spotted him looking at it and asked him who she was. If she'd just kept her mouth shut, he'd have gone on being blissfully unaware that she'd wrecked his attempt to live up to the silly charm within a few short hours of starting it. Maybe that would have been better for everyone concerned.

But she hadn't. And to her dubious credit, she'd seemed vaguely remorseful when she learned that she'd messed up his plans, and had offered to "help". Makoto had promptly had dire premonitions of her helping him into a nervous breakdown and/or a life on the run from the law, and as politely as possible told her to just forget about it. He'd wait, get another photo of Katsura, and start the charm all over again, this time keeping his phone packed well out of the sight of anyone.

It had been a good plan. And now he was confronting her, on the roof, as she revealed that she'd taken the opportunity to help him by becoming 'friends' with Katsura during gym class.

"Are you some kind of a psychopath?" he asked her, after a long moment of consideration.

"What the heck kind of a question is that?" Saionji asked him, still holding up the phone showing him the picture of her grinning beside a rather startled-looking Katsura.

"I told you, I didn't want your help, and then you go, and you do this and -" Abruptly, a terrible thought occurred to him. "No. No, you didn't, did you?"

"Didn't I do what? she asked, as she closed the phone and began tapping it against her cheek, smirking as she did so.

"... you did. You told her about me watching her, didn't you?" he asked, beginning to get very angry. "And now she thinks I'm some kind of stalker, and -"

"No, no, no," Saionji told him quickly. "Look, I wouldn't do that. I haven't told her about you. But -"

"'haven't told her'," Makoto interrupted, repeating her exact words as he began to walk - more or less stomp, really - towards her. "Meaning you have told someone else. You told Kanroji, didn't you. Or Kuroda. And it's going to be all over the school before lunch, like those stories about what Hasegawa gets up to. She's going to hear all about it and -" With a hiss of incoherent fury, he grabbed her shoulders.

"Hey!" she said, starting to look appropriately concerned about her welfare for the first time in their brief acquaintance. "Calm down, I didn't tell any of them -"

"Then who!" he demanded, pushing forward and grabbing her shoulder. "Who did you tell and what did you tell them and why are you messing with my life?!"

To his surprise, she seemed to collapse backward under his grip, pulling him down on top of her as she fell to the roof. It was enough of a surprise as to knock him out of his momentary fury, mostly because of the sharp pain in his hands as they stopped him from collapsing completely. Instead, he found himself staring at her face from an absurdly close distance. Another few centimeters and they'd probably be kissing. She didn't say anything for a moment, and neither did he.

Eventually, Saionji found her voice again. "Could you get off me, please? If anyone comes along and sees us, they'll get the right idea."

"Oh, sor- wait, right idea?" Makoto asked.

"No, the wrong idea," she corrected.

"But ... you said -"

"I said 'the wrong idea'."

"No you didn't."

"Yes I did."

Truly, he decided, she must be planning to compete in that Liar Game he'd heard about. Nonetheless, it was probably a good idea to get off of her anyway.

"I didn't tell Katsura about you," Saionji reiterated, once she was standing up again, back against the fence around the edge of the building, a reasonably large distance away from him. "I didn't tell any of the other girls you mentioned about it, either. I did mention something about seeing you had a girl's photo on your cell phone to Setsuna -"

"I knew it," he groaned.

"- but it's Setsuna," she added quickly. "Even though she's been acting kind of strange recently, she doesn't engage in gossip. Listen to it, offer occasional commentary on what other people are saying, but she doesn't ever put anything forward herself. And like I said, I just mentioned you had a girl's photo, not which girl in particular. Not that she'd care one way or another."

"Well," Makoto grumbled. "I suppose, in that case, that Kiyoura will keep her mouth shut about it."

"That's Setsuna, all right."

"I guess you know her pretty well."

Saionji shrugged. "I've been friends with her since, oh, about five minutes or so after we were born. My mom and her mom are ... well, you know that thing, in manga, where there are these two people who've sworn to outdo each other, and they act like enemies even though they really like and respect each other? That's my mom and her mom. It's sort of funny to watch."

"I'll take your word for it."

"Anyway, the point that I was trying to make, at the start of all this, is that I can help you to get close to Katsura. Like I was saying, I faked sick to get a chance to talk with her, and I found out a ton of useful stuff. Like her phone number. Her e-mail. The fact that she hasn't made any friends in her class, even thought about joining some weird club that was supposedly about making friends. Annnd your oh-so-clever cupid of love suggested that she come and have lunch with me starting tomorrow, instead of sitting alone in the cafeteria."

"How does that make you a cupid of love?" Makoto asked, genuinely bewildered.

As though speaking to a very small, not-terribly-clever child, Saionji began to spell it out. "I'm going to have lunch with her, and so are you. You will finally be talking to the mirage of beauty you've only been watching so far. From there, it will probably just be a simple step to asking her out on a date! Won't that be just spiffy?"

"I can see sooo many ways this can go wrong," he sighed.

"Relax! And trust the world!"

"Trust the -"

"Me! My name, it's Sekai. I am 'the world'. Pretty big name for a cute little girl, don't you think?"

"Kind of too big, if you ask me."

"Well, I didn't!"

"Yes you -"

"Did not! Anyway. I've always sort of wanted to live up to my name, to be able to create a world ... and bringing two lonely hearts together is kind of a nice first step!" She grinned happily.

So she was not only some sort of pathological liar, she was a megalomaniac on top of everything else. The number of ways that this could go wrong was only getting larger and larger. "Look, Saionji -"

"So call me Sekai," she interjected. "Saionji is just the name of some guy my mother married for five minutes or so when I was two. He worked for an insurance company, I think. Anyway, I'm not attached to it. Just call me Sekai, and I'll call you Makoto, not Itou. It's a much nicer name, really."

Oh, for the lost art of formality, Makoto thought. But he nodded acceptance all the same.

"Okay," said Sekai, somewhat later in the day, specifically when she called him in the evening. "I've got it all set up with her. We're going to meet up on the roof to have lunch, under the cover of being in the astronomy club, just like the two of us did today."

"And she knows that I'm coming too?" Makoto asked, once more becoming uncomfortable.

"She knows that some of my friends from class are coming," Sekai clarified. "As per your express, nay, forceful request, I've left your name out of it. When it's just you, I'm going to tell her that the other people had to cancel."

"You're going to lie some more, in other words."

"No, I'm going to ask some other people and then tell them to cancel. Don't sweat the small stuff."

"I don't agree that this is small stuff," he complained. "I'm starting to think that this is moving too fast, that I'm not emotionally prepared -"

"Oh, shut uupp!" Sekai interjected. "Girls like guys who are a little shy. A little shy. You, me bucko, are overdoing it!"

"But I just don't -"

"Coward! Coward, idiot! Die!" And then she hung up.

"Did she really just tell me to die?" Makoto asked the empty air of his dormroom. His roommate was out for the evening, which was good, because if this had happened in front of someone else, he could easily see himself dying of sheer embarrassment.

Then his phone buzzed to inform him that he'd just got a mail. Yes I really did just tell you to die! it read. I don't care if you do it or not, but if you don't die, coming to have lunch with me and her tomorrow is mandatory! Signed, Sekai-sama.

"And now she's using honorifics for herself," he muttered, shaking his head.

"I'm having second thoughts about this," he said to Sekai the next day as they started to head up the stairs.

"Oh, let's be honest," she replied, walking behind him to make sure he couldn't cut and run. "It's more like fifth or sixth thoughts, isn't it? Ha ha, guess what - don't care! You're going and that's it!"

"But, y'know, I have to finish my physics assignment, and -"

"Nobody gives a crap about physics. Shut up and soldier, soldier. Want some incentive? Among the many things I talked about with Katsura was what kind of boy she likes."

"Oh, crap, you led the conversation to get her to talk about what you saw as my qualities, didn't you?" he asked, contemplating jumping over the railing.

"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't. The point is, I found out that she doesn't have a boyfriend, never has. Her dad is really strict. I wonder what that's like, having a dad."

He quickly turned to look at her. "You don't have a dad, either?"

"Didn't I mention that it's just me and my mom?" Sekai asked. "Wait, either?"

"Um, yeah, it's just me, my mom, and my little sister, now that - well, that's not important," he said, dazedly, as a terrible thought occurred to him. "Um ... about your dad -"

"Never met the guy," Sekai admitted with a cheerful absence of tact. "All mom will say was that he was nice, but too irresponsible. Why?"

"... does the name Sawagoe Tomaru mean anything to you?" he asked. If not for the phone call a few days ago, he never would have bothered. But the possibility that this whole thing was some scheme of his father's could not be ignored.

Sekai blinked. "Nope. Doesn't ring a bell. Why do you ask?"

"Never mind, not important," he said. There was no way that his egomaniac of a dad would not have been somehow involved in this girl's life if he was her father, too. And she had no reason to lie about this ... right?

"Look, maybe we should ease into this," Makoto said, as he walked down the hallway past the old science lab on the top floor. Well, he was technically walking. His feet were in motion, but the motive force driving them didn't come from himself, but rather from the girl walking behind him with her hands pushing against the flat of his back.

"Ease into it how?" Sekai asked as she pushed.

"Well, you could maybe tell her that you'd thought I was coming, but something came up and I couldn't make it, so as to get her used to the idea that there was going to be a guy there." He nodded, increasingly convinced of the rightness of his pathetic excuse. "That'd be a good idea. She might panic if I just show up."

"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, and you've never met my mother and don't appreciate how meaningful a statement that is," Sekai retorted. "If that happens, we'll deal with it. You should never try to avoid problems, you need to confront them head on and deal with them. That's my philosophy."

And then there was the sound of a huge explosion not far away.

The pressure on the back of Makoto's back abruptly ceased. He whirled around to look behind him. The first thing he saw, even before the cloud of smoke seeping out through the door of the lab, was Sekai crouching on the floor with her hands over her head. "I'm sorry I lied I'm sorry I lied I'm sorry I lied don't smite me for hypocrisy oh god!" she babbled.

"What the heck was that!" he heard himself ask. He wasn't really sure why he did that. It was obvious what it had to be. Well, in general. The specifics required investigation.

Ignoring the panicky Sekai for the moment, he headed for the door and slid it open a notch in order to peer in. The horrible smell of the smoke, and its irritation of his eyes, made it hard to focus on the sights before him, and it felt like forever before he noticed the girl crumpled on the floor in front of one of the lab benches.

Once he did so, though, he didn't hesitate. The door flew open the rest of the way, and Makoto dashed in to check on her. She was petite, wearing what looked like a lab coat over her school uniform, and her face was away from him as he picked her up. Completely unresponsive. He was vaguely aware that it was a bad idea to move an injured person, unless not moving them would expose them to more dangerous. That seemed to cover the present situation.

He carried her out of the lab, awkwardly. She didn't weigh very much, but he wasn't exactly the muscular type. Fortunately, by the time he got through the door, Sekai appeared to have recovered her wits, and came over to help him, somewhat hesitantly. "Who's the cute girl?" she asked.

"What?" he asked back, bewildered. He hadn't really had the time to check the girl out, and was bewildered by the way Sekai chose to describe her. "I don't know, she was in the - no, never mind that, we've gotta get her -"

"Upstairs!" Sekai interrupted, pointing towards the stairs leading up.

"No, infirmary!" Makoto said, gesturing with his head.

"But Katsura-san!" Sekai replied, with another point.

"But knocked out cute girl!" Makoto replied, now almost on the verge of panic himself.

"Katsura-san! Reader! Maybe read first aid book!" Sekai babbled.

Makoto paused, briefly considering how close the roof was versus the distance to the infirmary, before finally snapping, "Okay okay okay!" He started stumbling in the direction of the rooftop access.

First words could be so important. He would always remember the first words Saionji had said to him, the first words Kiyoura had said once he offered to help her out. Makoto vaguely remembered that Katsura had said something in his hearing before this, possibly "Please, hold the doors open!" But it hadn't really registered with him, for whatever reason.

So it was that the first words he would ever associate with her were. "Oh, hello, I'm sorry I'm ear- ahhh! What happened to Shiguma-san?!"

"You know her?" Makoto asked, the strain of carrying the girl's unconscious form getting to him. He set her down on the ground in front of them, and his arms and shoulders thanked him for it even if no one else was likely to do so.

Katsura nodded as she came over to examine the girl. "She's in my class, and she's sort of famous ... what happened?"

"We were passing by the science lab and there was this explosion -" Sekai started to explain.

"Oh, that's what that was. I thought it might be a car crash somewhere out of my line of sight," Katsura said, just before pressing her ear to the other girl's chest. "Well, I don't see any obvious injuries ... actually, I think she might just be asleep."

"Not unconscious?" Makoto asked.

"... it's a fuzzy distinction," Katsura admitted. "Um ... I don't think we've been introduced."

"Oh, this is Itou Makoto. Sorry, but this is the only one I could talk into coming up to have lunch with us," Sekai explained, with the air of one offering profound apologies.

"Ah ... h-hello. I'm Itou," Makoto said. Now that the adrenaline from the crazy dangerous situation was wearing off, his earlier discomfort with the situation and his shyness were coming back as well. He just hoped that she'd take the blush he was sure was decorating his cheeks for a sign of exertion, rather than what it actually was.

"And I'm Katsura," she replied, giving him the most dazzling smile he'd ever seen.

And then a deep silence fell on the roof.

Of course, Sekai was the one to break it. "Soooo ... let's have some lunch!"

As one, Makoto and Katsura turned to look at her with matching appalled expressions.

"No?" she asked.

"That's ... sort of ghoulish, don't you think?" Katsura asked, hesitantly. "When there's this ... person just lying here, and we're waiting to see if she's going to wake up?"

"... prefer if it were when ..." said a fourth voice that made them all jump a bit.

"Shi-Shiguma-san?" asked Katsura after a moment, looking at the girl lying on the ground.

"Rika is Rika," the voice replied, and slowly, the girl's head lifted to gaze somewhat owlishly at the people who were surrounding her, from behind her glasses. "Um ... what happened to Rika?" she asked after a moment.

Silently wondering who this girl was who kept referring to herself in the third person, Makoto was moved to answer. "Um, well, we found you passed out in the lab after an explosion."

Rika, if that was indeed her name, blinked. "Ah," she said. Then repeated, somewhat more loudly, "Ah!" Faster than he'd expected her to move, she was up from her supine posture to kneeling, hand over her mouth. "Rika must have nodded out from fatigue while Rika was conducting Rika's experiment! And then it overheated and blew up! Was anyone hurt?"

"No, no, there was no one else around," Sekai assured her quickly.



"Um, darn, Rika should have gotten more sleep last night instead of engaging in carousing with Rika's sempai." Rika shook her head. "Very embarrassing, this."

"Well, anyway, no one was hurt, Shiguma-san, and this gentleman carried you out of there and up here," Katsura explained, gesturing in Makoto's direction.

Rika turned to look at him. "Thank you," she said, eyes glistening a bit. "If not for you, it would entirely possible that Rika might -"

"Oh, it's no big deal," he quickly assured her.

"- been subject to a horrific sexual assault by a horde of lustful young men who came upon Rika while Rika was sleeping and then -" she continued as though he hadn't spoken.

"Gyah!" Makoto nearly shrieked, in the vague hopes of covering up the remainder of what he (correctly) guessed would be a further elaboration of Rika's vision of what might have happened to her, less for the sake of his own embarrassment by it and more to prevent offense to Katsura's ears.

"- 'ah hah, now my pretty, you shall know the feeling of a man's' -" Rika continued.

"Gyah! Gyah!" Sekai echoed him, hopefully but probably not for the same motive. On the other hand, when it became apparent that such exclamations were doing absolutely nothing to stop Rika's really well-developed description of her imagined fate, she apparently chose a different course of action. "Um, Rika?" she asked.

"- yes?" asked Rika, breaking off her narration.

"I think maybe we ought to take you to the infirmary after all," Sekai said, nodding vigorously. "I mean, Katsura-san didn't think you had any injuries, but maybe we should have a nurse check you out all the same. In case you suffered any ... you know ... hidden injuries. To your brain or something."

The girl's eyes widened behind her glasses. "Oh, criminy!" she exclaimed, using a word none of them had ever heard before. "That would be awful, yes. Rika will happily accompany you to the nurse's office to see whether Rika has suffered a serious brain injury."

"Great," Sekai said, helping her to her feet. "So let's get -"

But rather than turn to head towards the roof access door, Rika promptly turned to look at Katsura, who'd been watching all this with a rather dazed, bewildered expression. "Thank you so much for your care and concern for Rika," she said, almost breathlessly. "You are a much better person than the class gossip would indicate, Katsura-sempai."

"Ah ... no, not at all?" Katsura replied, the formula words sounding like a question, though it wasn't clear to whom it was addressed.

Sempai? Makoto wondered. But aren't they -

Before he could finish that thought, the strange girl was turning to look at him, now. "Thank you, too, sempai, for rescuing Rika's chastity," she said. "Under the circumstances, the only way that Rika can reward you for that is with the offer of Rika's chast-"

"OOOO-kay then!" Sekai interjected, grabbing Rika's coat and dragging her to the roof access door. "I'll just go deliver her to the nurses, so ... ah ... you two can go ahead and start lunch without me, all right? Kthxbye!" And then she was through the door, with Rika just a bit behind her, protesting a bit, but whatever she had to say was cut off when Sekai slammed the door behind them both.

"What - what was -" Makoto started to ask, then broke off as he turned to look at Katsura, silently expressing bewilderment.

Katsura nodded. "That's ... that's Shiguma-san. Like I said, she's kind of famous in our class ... and she's almost as ... well, the girls in our class don't like her, almost much as they don't ... well, you know." The beautiful girl looked down. "I thought that it was because they didn't like her for being so smart, or so young, but ... well, she also acts like that, too."

"Ah," Makoto said. "Um ... wait, what do you mean, so young?"

"I think she's about thirteen, or thereabouts," Katsura explained. "She's been advanced into high school because she's so, well, 'gifted'. I know that for sure. I'm not too clear on how old she is, when she was asked that, on the first day of classes, she said something strange about being just over a year old. I guess it must have been some sort of joke. But, well, I don't know her very well. I mean, she's in my class, but I've never really talked to her before now," she added, looking down again. After a long moment of hesitation, she added, "Kind of like how I've never really talked to you, before now, even though we've been riding the same train for weeks."

After a moment spent in complete, mindless panic, Makoto regained control of his faculties and was distantly pleased that he had not simply fled screaming. Katsura would probably have taken that the wrong way. Or possibly - no, certainly - the right way. "You, ah, you recognized me?" he finally managed to ask.

Oblivious to his inner conflict, Katsura kept smiling warmly as she nodded. "Of course! I see you every day, after all. And you, well, you held the train's door open for me that one time. Who could forget something like that?"

Makoto could, apparently. He had no memory of ever having done that, so apparently he could forget something like that. But, of course, it would be unwise to say something like that, so he didn't. "Oh, right," he said instead. "Um ... well, I guess we should, like she said, start lunch without her. Except -" He blinked, then, as he realized that the basket with their lunches was sitting just beside the roof access door. Wait, that wasn't -

"Is something the matter?" Katsura asked, smile fading a little.

"No, no," he assured her quickly, before heading over to pick up the basket which he was almost certain had not been there before. He paused, looking suspiciously at the door, and briefly considered flinging it open quickly to check if there was anyone hiding behind it. But sanity prevailed in the end, and he just hefted the basket and headed over to the bench set against one of the fence walls.

Unseen by him, unnoticed by Katsura, a pair of eyes - one each of those belonging to two different girls - came back up to the window in the door.

"Oh, this is really good food," Katsura proclaimed a few moments later. "Saionji-san is certainly a good advertisement for the restaurant where she works."

Makoto nodded, since the food was actually very good. "Although I don't think she works in the food prep department there," he mused. He wasn't sure about that, though, since he'd basically tuned her out when she was talking about her job.

"No, I suppose not," Katsura agreed. "She's probably a waitress. I think ... oh, um, never mind."

He blinked. "What?"

She was blushing. "Well, mama is a restaurant consultant, and I seem to remember that last summer, she was employed to help make some changes at one of the other locations in that particular franchise," she said, all in a rush. "And she actually brought home one of the uniforms that the waitresses wear, and it was very ... um ... well ..." Blushing brightly.

"Ah," he said, getting her gist. "Yeah, I see what you mean." And then a vision of Sekai in a risque restaurant uniform filled his vision for some ridiculous reason, and he found himself shaking his head to clear it. "Um ..." he said. "Yeah, we should probably not talk about her behind her back like this."

"No," Katsura agreed quickly. "That's very mean."

They nodded in unison.

"Wow, Rika never realized how much it must suck to eavesdrop on conversations that concern oneself."

"Shut up. Just ... shut up."

And so, somewhat to his ... actually, to his utter amazement, Makoto found himself sitting with the girl he'd always seen as completely unapproachable, and talking pleasantly with her about nothing in particular. The minutes of their lunch break seemed to fly past, and yet they also seemed to move very slowly, based on how much conversation the two of them managed to pack into them. That seemed to defy Makoto's previous understanding of how time was supposed to work, but a lot of things weren't working the way that he'd thought they were supposed to work. Which was sort of nice, actually.

But then, as it must, it came to an end. The warning bell rang, telling students that lunch break was almost over.

Katsura's face fell. "Oh, no. And Saionji-san never came back, either. What do you suppose happened to her?"

"Don't know," Makoto admitted. He managed to stop himself from following that up with, Don't care, and instead offered up some vague speculation. "Maybe she had to explain to the nurse what happened to Shiguma-san, since that girl couldn't explain it too well herself."

"I suppose so," Katsura agreed, still looking unhappy.

Neither of them noticed a faint bumping noise coming from the roof access door.

Seeing her sad face made him want to cheer her up, so Makoto came up with a plan that he wasn't sure was a good idea, or even a workable one. "Well ... to make it up to her, why don't we go out together?"

Katsura stared at him. "What?" she eventually asked.

"All three of us," he clarified. "After school, I mean. There's a new game centre in town, apparently, and I wouldn't mind checking it out. Are you free?"

"Oh," she said. "Ah," she said. "Well, um, I, I do have a meeting with the student council about our class' festival plans, but ... well, if, if Saionji-san and, and you are willing to wait just a little bit ... then ... I guess ... that might be ... fun?" she said at length.

"Great!" Makoto enthused, choosing to answer the words rather than the not terribly confident tone. "I'll set it up with her. Well, we'd better get back to class, I guess. See you after school - I'll be waiting at the train station, okay?"

Heading quickly down the stairs very quickly, Rika nodded to herself. "Rika still is not totally conversant with these matters, despite the efforts of certain of Rika's senpai," she said. "But Rika believes that things are going well, if perhaps a little fast. Not so?"

"Don't know what you're talking about," Sekai answered without looking at her.

"Maybe a little tooo fast," Rika mused out loud. "At least for some of us."

"Don't know whaaaat you're talking abouuut."

The school day passed. The school day ended.

And so Katsura Kotonoha ran briskly through the halls, hoping that the hall monitors wouldn't notice her, filled with anxiety as always but for the first time finding it a somewhat pleasant sensation. The duty of attending these meetings, a burden she'd never asked for, couldn't manage to overcome the joy of knowing that she had true friends now. The constant unfriendly glares she got from the girls in the class, and the not-all-that-well-hidden lusty looks she got from some of the boys, were diminished by the quick grin and well-concealed thumbs up that Shiguma-san had given her when she left the classroom.

Wait, how had Shiguma-san known?

Oh, it probably didn't matter.

She arrived at the student council room and slid open the door, fully expecting to emerge into a room filled with students loudly discussing their plans for the festival. In the second before she opened the door, she noted that it was oddly quiet, but until she was actually in it and hit by the figurative wall of silence, it didn't really register in her conscious mind.

The room was almost completely empty. The only person in the room, sitting at the desk at the front, was a petite, pale girl whom she'd seen at these meetings before. Kiyoura, she thought her name was.

"Am ... am I early?" Kotonoha stammered.

Kiyoura shook her head as she stood up. "No. Actually, everyone else has already left. The faculty supervisor had an incident which prevented him from coming in to work today, so rather than appoint a substitute, they simply rescheduled the meeting to next week. I remained behind to let anyone who didn't get the message know that this meeting was cancelled."

Kotonoha blinked. "An incident? What sort of -"

Kiyoura shrugged.

"Well, then ... um. Thank you for waiting for me," Kotonoha said, embarassed. "I ... I guess, I'll just be on my way, then."

"You seem happy," Kiyoura said, in a flat tone.

"Um, no!" Kotonoha denied. "I mean, I'm not, not happy that you had to do this, or that the meeting was cancelled, or that the teacher had an, an incident, but ... well, um, I guess, that, yes, Iam happy that I can go and be with my friends."

"Ah," Kiyoura said, nodding. "You're going to spend time with Sekai and Itou, then."

Kotonoha nodded, then paused. "... oh! Do, do you know them?"

"I'm in the same class as they are," she said, tone unchanged. "And of course I know Sekai. She's my sister."

"Oh," Kotonoha said. And then a few facts occurred to her, and she blinked repeatedly. "Wait ... Saionji-san is your sister? But isn't your name -"

"We have different mothers, but the same father," Kiyoura explained, leaning against one of the tables, hand on its tabletop, in a pose that conveyed an utterly casual attitude somewhat at odds with what she was revealing. "I'm not sure whether Sekai knows, but I've known for some time now. She means everything to me."

And that was true. It was also true that if her master told her to do something that hurt Sekai, she was honestly not sure what she was going to do.

"Oh," said Kotonoha, a little bit stunned by this revelation. "Well. That's ... um. That's interesting," she said at last, since she had no idea why she was being told these things.

"Have fun on your date," Kiyoura said in the same flat, even tone she'd been using all along.

"Thank - it's not a date," Kotonoha corrected.

Now Kiyoura blinked. "It's not?" she asked, tone changing for the first time.

"No, no, we're just going to ... walk around, you know. As friends."

"That is what one does on the first date, generally," Kiyoura informed her. "Ideally, the first date is composed of a group, for the primary purpose of allowing one to inform one's parents that one was with one's friends, without specifying that one was conducting a romantic liaison with one of them."

"... but that's not what we're going to be doing," Kotonoha insisted, starting to back towards the door.

Kiyoura began to walk towards her, still speaking in that same level tone, in a way that suggested she was not really paying attention to Kotonoha's responses. "The secondary purpose, of course, is for the other persons present to act as lookouts while two of their number enjoy private time together."

"That's, that's definitely not what we're going to be doing," Kotonoha repeated. She wasn't sure why she did that. Clearly, the other girl was engaged in soliloquy, rather than discourse, and the correct action in this case was to leave her to it, and in fact just leave. "Well, then, I'll be on my way," she said, as politely as possible, and turned to leave.

Hm? she thought a moment later. This is odd. Why am I not walking out the door? What's holding me back? Oh. There are rather strong arms around my midsection. How unusual.

"Isn't it?" said a voice from behind her, from a mouth that seemed to be about at the level of her left shoulder. The sensation of warm breath against her hair and the back of her neck was rather disconcerting. "Is that really not what you're going to be doing?"

"Nnnnooo," Kotonoha answered, very quietly. She didn't want to give the impression that she wanted to scream for somebody, anybody to come rescue her, but she didn't want her opinions on this subject to be misunderstood, either. It seemed very important. Perhaps if she was very clear on the matter, the person who was holding her in place would let go.

"I see," said the voice. "Well then. Perhaps you're going to be the lookout, then."

Kotonoha hadn't previously understood the meaning of the phrase, 'to feel one's heart skip a beat'. The new comprehension she now possessed did not bring her much joy. "What?" she whimpered. "No. No! They're not, they don't ... she doesn't ..."

"Has she told you that she doesn't like him that way?" the voice asked. It was Kiyoura's voice, she could recognize that, but there was something odd and unfamiliar in its timbre. "She's a terrible liar, you know. I don't mean that she's bad at lying. Just the opposite. She lies all the time."


"But she probably meant it when she said it. She usually does mean her lies. Things change, though." Something that could not possibly be a tongue seemed to touch against Kotonoha's neck for a moment. "All sorts of things change. You are very beautiful, Katsura-san. But men and boys are fickle in their affections."


A long sigh. "Does the thought of Sekai doing these sorts of things with Itou-kun make you unhappy?"

That ... it didn't seem right to answer a direct question with some sort of interjection, and the truth was always to be prefered, so, with a swallow, Kotonoha worked the word, "Yes," out of her mouth.

"That is jealousy," the voice informed her. "One does not become jealous of others for doing things that one does not wish to do oneself."

"But ... but ... I am frightened ..." Kotonoha raised as an objection.

"That is not fear," the voice suggested. "That is excitement. That is arousal." The forearms that were wrapped around Kotonoha's midsection eased their grip slightly ... but only to allow the hands attached to them to come up a few inches to press against the bottoms of her breasts. "Your nipples are hard."

The grip was light enough that Kotonoha could run now, and she did so, breaking free and never looking back. But she didn't run nearly fast enough, or far enough away, that she couldn't hear Kiyoura's last words.

"The second date is the one where you fuck."

Waiting in the train station was a bit more annoying than Makoto had expected it to be. Maybe he was imagining things, but he kept thinking that people were staring at him as trains pulled in and out without him ever boarding one, wondering what his deal was. Hadn't they ever watched old movies? This sort of thing happened all the time in them.

"You look like someone in an old movie," said Sekai as she strolled up to where he was sitting on the bench.

He looked up at her. "Very funny," he said. "What kept you, anyway?"

"I was phoning one of the other waitresses who work at our restaurant and asking if I could have her shift this evening," she explained. As he blinked, she continued. "Technically, I phoned her and asked her to phone and ask me if she could swap shifts with me, so that when she does it won't technically be a lie that someone called me and said I had to come into work -"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Makoto asked as he stood up, a note of genuine anger in his voice.

"Okay, first off, calm down. If you push me down here, people really will get the wrong idea," she said.

"I told Katsura that we'd be going around together, and if you don't show up -" he started to say.

"Then she'll be surprised but not unpleasantly so, methinks," Sekai interjected. "You'll have more privacy this way, and that will be nice."

"This is a terrible idea!" Makoto protested.

"Oh, don't be silly, the bad ideas I've had so far have gotten you where you would have never expected to go, haven't they?" she asked sunnily.

An answer for that he didn't have, and so he was just staring at her in silence when her phone rang.

"Ah, there's my old chum right now," she said, and answered the phone. "Hey, Ai, is something the -" She broke off. "What? What do you - okay, okay, calm down, I'll be there in a bit." She was frowning as she hung up.

"What's wrong?" Makoto asked.

"Um," Sekai said. "It's ... I'm not even sure, Ai wasn't really clear, but apparently she can't swap her shift with me, and she got told to tell me to come in anyways. So ... it worked out, but not quite the way that I planned." Her smile returned, with a twist in it. "Sort of typical for how things have been going lately, I guess."

"Oh," Makoto said, blinking. "Um. Well, anyway, I guess ... I guess that you're right about how I wouldn't have even had the guts to talk to Katsura if not for you, so ... well, thank you, is what I'm trying to say. I really owe you a lot."

She stared at him. "Want to know how you can repay me really quick?" she asked quietly.

It didn't even require thought on his part. "Yes," he said. He didn't want to be under an obligation to this screwy-if-vaguely-nice girl any longer than he absolutely had to be.

"Close your eyes," she said.

Faintly mystified by the request, Makoto did so. The eyes shot open of their own accord when he felt, a moment later, two lips pressing firmly against his own, and he saw her face a lot closer to his own than it had been even when he'd pushed her to the ground the other day.

After a moment, she pulled back, smiling. "She gets everything else," she said faintly. "But I get your first kiss, okay?"

"Ah?" Makoto asked. "Uh ... hate to break it to you, but that wasn't -"

"What?" Sekai gasped. "Oh! Dummy! Stuff from your mother or little sister doesn't count!"

"Ah, no, it -"

"Whatever!" she snapped. "That was your first kiss that counts! G'bye!" And she ran off, towards the exit as he stood there staring in helpless confusion.

By the time she got to Radish, Sekai was sure that she'd stopped crying and that the tear tracks were gone from her face. She was also quite sure that she'd only imagined Makoto saying something as silly as a claim that she hadn't gotten his first kiss. (Suzumiya Haruhi was not the only teenage girl capable of rewriting reality to suit her wishes; she was just the only one who could do it in a way that made the rest of reality sit up and take notice.) And so it was with a calm and steady heart that she walked through the employees entrance and into her mother's firm hug.

Eh? she thought as her mother squeezed her tightly. This was new. While Saionji Youko was an affectionate and even demonstrative mother at home - really more of a big sister and best friend at times - she'd always insisted on keeping a more professional attitude in the workplace when it came to her only daughter, to avoid implications of favoritism which would cause problems. But here she was, hugging her fiercely, and talking directly into her ear.

"I'm sorry," Youko said. "I don't know what, I don't know why ... we'll work it out, I promise!"

"Okay," Sekai replied, just a bit overwhelmed. "What's going on?"

Youko drew back, looking down at her daughter with an obviously unhappy expression on her face. "It's better if you find out ... from the source, I guess. I, I've got to get going if I'm going to - we'll talk again, later tonight, okay?" She seemed to be looking for more words, but if so, she didn't find them as she gestured in the direction of the office - her office - while shaking her head.

Now thoroughly mystified, Sekai walked towards the office door, hearing the employee entrance door open and close behind her as her mother went out. She paused to look around in confusion, glancing into the employee locker room and seeing that quite a few of the other waitresses were already there, getting dressed for work with expressions on their faces that looked every bit as unhappy as her mother's face had. What the heck was going on here?

She knocked at the door, and heard an unfamiliar female voice telling her to come in. So she did.

Seated at her mother's desk was a old woman. Well, she didn't look too old at first glance, but she was clearly older than Sekai's mother. And second glances made her realize that the blue in her hair was dye, not a natural color, and showed the obvious signs of botox and surgery that made her face look pinched and tiny even as it smiled at her with a complete lack of genuine warmth.

Sekai answered that smile with a polite one of her own, and waited to be addressed.

"No hug for your aunt?" the woman asked.

Now Sekai blinked ... and memories surged. "Oh! Oh, I'm sorry, Aunt Asagi! It's just, I wasn't expecting you, and, I mean, I haven't seen you since Aunt Kagura's funeral, and ..." She trailed off, not sure how else to put it in a respectful way.

"And it's been five years and who knows how many facelifts?" her great-aunt asked cheerfully.

"I wasn't thinking that," Sekai protested, feebly.

"Ah, such a good child you are, then. My own daughters aren't quite so kind," she said with a sigh.

"So ... what brings you to Mahora, then?" Sekai asked.

Asagi blinked. "Didn't Youko-chan tell you?" Before Sekai could answer, the old woman was letting out a long sigh. "Ah, dear, that girl is such a scatterbrain. You'd think she'd have it together by now, but I guess not. Still, she's done well raising you, and she wouldn't get what she's getting if she wasn't good at her job, so I suppose I shouldn't complain too loudly."

Sekai waited politely, since she didn't want to say anything to contradict her great-aunt even if she didn't agree with her assessment of her mother. At all.

"Oh, yes. You wanted to know - ahem. I'm going to be running this restaurant from now on," Asagi said.

Sekai blinked. "What?"

"I don't think it was hard to understand what I said," her great-aunt mused. "Have you been tested for hearing loss, dear?"

"No, I was just ... um, I, I thought you worked for the corporate side of the business," Sekai stammered.

"I did. I do," Asagi confirmed. "But it's good to get down in the trenches every now and then, wouldn't you say? Remind oneself of how this all started."

"Oh," Sekai said, since she had no idea how to respond to such absurd notions. "Um ... so, my mother will -"

"She's being transferred back to the Haramihana location," Asagi quickly assured her. "For now, anyways. She's done such good work there, after all."

Now Sekai's jaw dropped. Her mother had done good work at their location in Haramihana, and so had Sekai herself, but they'd pulled up stakes after she'd gotten into Mahora. "Oh. Ah ... does that mean that we're moving back to -"

"She is, of course, but I wouldn't hear of the notion of pulling a girl like you out of school," Asagi quickly assured her. "I'm convinced that's how poor Kagura went wrong. Lack of education. It's a terrible thing, don't you know? No, you'll be staying here. I'll even let you use one of the rooms here, rather than one of those awful dormitories on campus."

"Uh," said Sekai. "That's, that's -"

"The rent will come out of your paycheck, of course," Asagi continued, still sunnily.

"But. But I only work here during the summer, or when -"

"Yes, I'm afraid that we're about to become short-staffed for quite a while," the old woman said. "Quite a few of these girls aren't up to snuff, I'm sad to say, and we'll be letting them go. Not you, of course. You're family." And she smiled.

"But ... I mean, I know how much the rents here are, and -"

"Yes, it'll probably eat up a lot of your wages," Asagi said, almost mournfully. But still smiling. "I'm sure that an enterprising and so, so attractive young woman will be able to find ways to make a few extra dollars, with a private room all to yourself." Still smiling.

With all the innate warmth and humanity of a shark.

A few hours later, Sekai was sitting crouched beside her bed in the apartment she and her mother would soon be vacating. She'd spent most of the evening after she got home from her job engaged in fruitless discussion with said mother - fruitless because the only thing that came from it was that they were more or less stuck with the situation. Sekai was going to have to move into a room at Radish, and in order to pay for it, she was going to have to go to work there as well. 

And her mother would be leaving town. Sekai was honestly surprised by how much that hurt. She and her mother were not exactly 'more best friends than parent and daughter', but because her father (and step-fathers, whom she barely remembered) had never really been in the picture, they'd only had each other for company. Well, they'd had each other and Setsuna and Setsuna's mom, but that was overcomplicating things.

When the phone call came in on her cell phone, Sekai was feeling exceptionally unhappy about her situation. That was a contributing factor, but the decision not to answer the phone was really prompted by the person who was bound to be on the other end. So she let it ring and ring and ring, and then it stopped. Almost immediately, the sound of an incoming text resounded. Since the text didn't require any interaction, Sekai was more willing to check its contents. She supposed that she should, on some level, be happy that the date had gone as well as it had. But she couldn't quite muster up the enthusiasm for some reason.

There was a knock on the door.

"Come in,," she said, half-hoping that her mother was coming to tell her that everything had abruptly changed and things were going to stay the same as they had been. (The paradox there didn't bother her.) Instead, it was Setsuna who entered her room.

"Oh, hey," Sekai said, wearily. "Did mom tell you the good news?"

Setsuna shook her head. "My mother did."

Now Sekai frowned. "How'd she know -"

"She's moving, too," Setsuna said quietly.

Sekai's jaw dropped. "You mean I'm losing you, too?"

"No," Setsuna answered firmly. "I am staying here. I am going to be moving into the room right beside yours at Radish, and working there as well."

Now Sekai was genuinely dumbfounded. She and her mother were close, but Setsuna and her mother were like the Japanese version of the Gilmore Girls. And on top of that - "You hate working at Radish!"

"I don't hate it," Setsuna replied.

"Really? Gee, how could I possibly have reached that erroneous conclusion?" Sekai asked. "I wonder if it had something to do with the fact that you told me that you hated to wear the uniform, the last time we were both there!" She waved her hand at the uniform which was hanging on the wall for emphasis.

Setsuna glanced at the uniform, and looked away with an expression of distaste that her usual equanimity couldn't quite hide. "I never said I hated it exactly," she said. "What I said was that I didn't feel that it fit my style. And I still think that."

"Then why -"

"Because you're there," she said, with complete and utter honesty.

Sekai felt herself tearing up, and dealt with it as she often did, by standing up and running over to try and crush Setsuna in her embrace. It was going to be all right, she thought. As long as she had Setsuna with her, everything would be all right.

You're laughing now, aren't you? You're laughing at this girl, enjoying the Hope Spot that's going to be crushed by events, the irony of her relying on someone who has been thoroughly compromised. You think she deserves this, don't you? After all, she's a liar, a cheat, and a murderer in several iterations of events - a particularly cruel killer in a few of them. How I hate you. Over here, we are what we are made to be. What is your excuse?

... never mind. On we go.


Night fell. Day broke.

When Makoto next laid eyes on Sekai, in the morning before class that next day, the first words that escaped his mouth were rather different from those he'd planned to say. Rather than ask, "What was the deal with that kiss", he found himself saying "Are you okay?"

She looked exhausted, and didn't sound much better when she answered. "'m fine," she said. "I'm fine. Just had to work a lot more than I expected last night, and didn't sleep to well afterwards because of ... stuff ..."

He considered asking about the nature of that stuff, but suspected that it would probably be embarrassing for them both. Or at least for him. "Well, I hope things get better," he said. "On my side, things went pretty well."

"I know," Sekai told him, then yawned without bothering to cover her mouth, giving him a clear look at her tonsils, which freaked him out a little. "Did I already say I know or did I just plan to do that?" she asked when she was done yawning.

"You said it," he told her a bit dazedly.

"Oh. Well, Katsura-san sent me an e-mail to let me know how great your excursion went, even though I wasn't there. She was sad about that, but everything was wonderful between her and 'Makoto-kun'." She made air quotes around his name.

Makoto blinked. For one thing, he hadn't honestly thought things went that well. Katsura had seemed uncomfortable and unsettled the whole time, almost as though she was afraid to be around him. For another thing - "She called me Makoto-kun in the e-mail?" he asked.

"Yep." She gave him a sly sideways glance. "I take it she's not got past 'Itou' in actual speech?"

"Not, not yet," he admitted.

"Eh, well, she'll work up to it. Girl like that, she's bound to be a little over-formal. Second date should take care of it. On which note -" To his mild horror, she reached into her uniform blouse's neck and rummaged around.

"What the heck are you -" He asked, trying to interpose himself between her and whoever else might be looking. The only one who was, as it happened, was that crazy Suzumiya girl, who just raised an eyebrow before shrugging and resuming her study of the back of Hasegawa's bleached head.

"Relax!" Sekai snapped as she handed him a pair of coupons. "I hope you enjoy yourselves."

He read the coupons with puzzlement. "Radish Cinema?" He looked up at her face. "There's a Radish Cinema?"

"The company owns restaurants, hotels, a few movie theatres, some spas, a casino ... I think we bought Tomobiki Marchenland a couple years ago, and just haven't gotten around to rebranding it yet ..." She trailed off, shrugging her shoulders. "Have fun."

"Well, I'll have to ask her if she wants to see a movie, but I can do that at lunch. You're coming this time, right?"

"Yeah, no."

"Oh come on, she's gonna get worried if you never show up!"

"... I'll think about it."

"Thought about it," said Sekai a few hours later as the lunch bell rang, and she slumped forward on her desk top beside his. "Not going."

Makoto clenched his fists, and prepared to give her a ferocious argument.

"Noooottt gooooinnnnggg," Sekai repeated in a sing-song tone.

Instead, he let out a sigh. "Well, all right then," he said. "I guess that's probably right. I mean, if I want to be dating Katsura, I have to be spending most of my time with her and her alone."

"Defiantly," Sekai said, nodding agreement even as she still hunched over the desk.

He briefly considered correcting her mispronunciation of 'definitely', which gave the word a completely different meaning, but he had bigger fish to fry. "It's bound to be a little ... awkward, though. I mean, she'll be wondering what happened to you, and I'll just have to tell her that you don't want to eat lunch with us anymore ... I won't lie to her, so I'll just tell her that you don't want to come, and she'll probably just think that we've had a fight or something."

Now Sekai turned her slumped head so that she could focus one of her eyes in his general direction, but he pressed on as though he hadn't noticed that. "That will make her start to wonder, what sort of man is this, who gets into arguments with his close friends where they break off relations like that. So she'll break it off with me, too, and spread rumors about me so that I can never find love again. Broken by these unhappy high school experiences, I'll drift through life, alone and friendless, and when I die, undoubtedly a suicide, the world won't even notice -"

"Okay, okay, okay, I'll go to the roof, just quit ripping off the bad ends of Tokimemo already!" Sekai said grouchily as she got up.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Makoto said piously.

And so, in a reversal of the previous day's activity, Makoto dragged Sekai up to the roof behind him, to meet up with Kotonoha. Sitting there, with Makoto seated between the two girls, they both watched him dig into his lunch with enthusiasm but without something else. "No offering of thanks, tsk tsk," Sekai observed wryly.

"Oh, who cares," Makoto said dismissively and without finishing the mouthful of sandwich he'd just taken.

"I care! And Katsura-san cares, don't you?"

"Um, well," Katsura-san observed hesitantly.

Before her observations could continue, Makoto spoke up again. "Fine, fine. Itadakimasu and all that rot. Anyway, you've got a really tasty looking lunch there," he added, staring with unhidden hunger at Sekai's lunch.

"Um," Sekai said, looking at it herself. "Yes, my ... my mom made it. She kinda overdid things a little, since ..." She trailed off.

"Well, in that case, you won't mind sharing that omelet with me," Makoto said cheerfully, completely misreading the tone as his chopsticks sneaked their way into Sekai's box.

"Ah! Hey, no!" Sekai protested.

"Oh, your mom is an incredible cook," Makoto informed her after a moment of chewing.

"Yes, I'm well-aware of that! Which is why I would really, really like to enjoy her work myself! Sheesh, this is what you're getting, Katsura-san!"

"Mm, yes," Katsura-san agreed, happily. "Very ... very healthy appetite. Um, Itou-kun, would you like to try some of my lunch, too?"

Makoto promptly whirled away from Sekai to gaze hungrily at the other girl. (Get used to this.) "Really?" he asked.

"Yes, I mean, it's store-bought, not home-made, but I think you'll find it tasty all the same," Katsura-san said, over Makoto promptly snatching several bites out of her box as well.

"Oh, I do!" he assured her once he'd swallowed. "I do indeed!"

Katsura-san beamed.

Sekai ... didn't. "Hah," she said. "You two, you're sure getting along really well," she said, not sounding terribly happy about the fact.

Makoto blinked as he looked back at her. He wasn't sure what made him say what he did next. "No we're not," he said flatly.

"... we're not?" Katsura-san asked, blinking.

"Ah," Makoto said, turning back to Katsura-san again. (See what I mean?) "Well, I mean, we've only been on the one date so far, so it's, I mean, it's a little early to say that we're getting along really well," he explained as convincingly as possible.

"... it is?" Katsura-san asked, blinking.

Oy, thought Sekai. "So, hey! Just how was your date? You went down to Shinjuku, didn't you? I've only ever read about that place."

"... really?" Katsura-san asked, blinking. And this time followed it up with, "I go there all the time, myself."

With effort, Sekai restrained herself from saying something cruel and honest. "Oh, cool. What's it like?"

"Well," Makoto said, turning back to her. "There were ... really tall buildings."

"Uh-huh," Sekai said, nodding. "Filled with hotels and pools and stuff like that. I know this part. What all did you do?"

"Well, there was this really cool game center that we found," Makoto mused.

"Oh, cool!" Sekai enthused.

"You like that sort of thing?" Makoto asked, surprised.

"I love to play games," Sekai admitted cheerfully.

"That's not really all that surprising," said Rika, who was sitting to Sekai's left. "What sort of games do you like?"

"Well, I like those ones, what do you call them, where you pick up a huge gun and go WAAAAHHHHH where the heck did you come from?" Sekai asked, rather loudly as she snapped to a standing posture in shock. Makoto and Katsura were no less surprised, though they didn't react quite as dramatically.

"Tokyo, originally," Rika replied. "But Rika's journeys since then have been rather complicated, far too complicated to be discussed at this point."

Sekai stared at her, breathing rather heavily, for a few moments before she sat down. "I see," she said politely. "That's, well, never mind. I'm a bit surprised that you didn't answer the question I started to ask instead."

"Oh, you mean about shoot-em-ups?"

"Yes. That."

"Wouldn't a normal girl go for sticker photos or UFO catchers?" Makoto asked, a bit bewildered by the turn things had taken.

"Hey!" Sekai and Rika chorused, glaring at him.

"That's so oldtype of you, sempai!" Rika added.

"'Oldtype?'" he asked, bewildered. "Um ... anyway, uh, what brings you up here, Shigu- erm, Rika?"

"Lunch," she said, holding up a box filled with ... things that Makoto found a bit difficult to recognize as food. "Would you like to share some of mine, too, sempai?"

Until this very moment, Makoto had not believed that there were any circumstances under which he would decline food freely offered to him by a girl. The fact that he was considering doing so horrified him on some level. Had he been French, he would have though that such was not comme il faut. But ... were those things beside the odd-colored rice, the ones that looked disturbingly like bugs, still moving? "N-no," he said at last. "I think I have enough on my plate, already."

"Ah, well, more for Rika," she said, sounding just a little unhappy as she caught some of the bug things between her chopsticks and unhesitatingly brought them up to her mouth, where - no, he must be imagining things, and surely any squealing noises would have been drowned out by the crunching sound. "So go on," Rika said after swallowing. "Did you have fun at the game centre, Katsura-sempai?"

"Um ... no, not ... well ... I don't like to play games, you see," she said, staring at the alleged lunch in much the same way as Makoto.

"Oh! Oh, that's so sad! I'm sure that you just haven't found the game that's right for you, though," Rika assured her. "Everyone likes some kind of play. Rika is very fond of -"

"Okaaaay, then!" Makoto interrupted. He had a pretty clear idea of what was coming next. Well, perhaps not the specifics, but then he wasn't sure that he wanted the specifics. He turned back to Katsura since that seemed the safest thing to do at the moment. "You really don't like games?" he asked.

She shook her head, looking sweetly embarassed. "No, not really. I mean, some of them look sort of interesting, but I've never ... uh, played those kind of things before. We don't have a game system or even a PC at our house."

"Wow, seriously?" Sekai asked, genuinely startled.

"Is your family a bunch of Luddites, sempai?" Rika asked.

"What? No!" Katsura exclaimed. "I don't think so ... what's a Luddite?"

"Well, to make a long story short, it's a person who's afraid of advanced technology."

"Then, no, not that, but ... well, I remember, when I was a little girl, mama and papa had an argument about getting a computer, and he said that they both spend enough time around computers at work, that they shouldn't have to have one at home, too." She paused, reflected, then asked, "Do you think maybe papa is one of those Luddite people?"

"Yes," the other three chorused.

"Oh," said Katsura, abashed. "Is that bad?"

"Yes," said Rika without even the slightest hesitation.

"It's, it's just a matter of opinion," Sekai said, almost as quickly, moving her head to block Katsura's view of Rika.

"Yeah," Makoto agreed. "Um ... so I guess you didn't really like the game center we went to, last time?" he asked, hesitantly.

"Well ... it was a little ..." She almost trailed off, then looked away and shook her head unhappily.

"Oh. Well, okay, I won't take you there again. Sekai, do you wanna go sometime?"

Dead silence fell on the rooftop.

"Like wow," said Rika in English, moments before the warning bell rang.

Makoto was not an idiot. He was ... not particularly intellectual or sensitive, but he had considerable talents in certain areas, and they did afford him the occasional perceptive moment. An idiot would only experience such moments by accident, and probably get them wrong, to boot. So when both Sekai and Rika were giving him amazed and shocked looks as they all got up to go back to class, and Katsura walked past him without a backward glance, he got the fact that he had messed up somehow.

But no one would tell him how he'd done so.

He wasn't an idiot, right? This was just too weird to figure out. All he'd done was invite one of his friends to do something that the girl he liked didn't enjoy. Why should anyone get upset about that?

And what was that rustling noise?

Makoto blinked. Sekai was, of course, sitting in front of him, but though her gaze was firmly fixed on the blackboard and the teacher, there was a piece of paper wedged in the gap between her left arm and her blazer, just inside his reach. He blinked again. Could she mean for him to -

The paper rustled again.

Clearly, that was exactly she meant. All right then. Moving as quickly as possible, he reached out to pluck it from her side, then drew it back to read it.

Apologize!, it read, in red, blocky kanji.

Well. There was really only one thing to do in that situation. He quietly tore a piece of paper loose from his notebook, and scribbled the phrase, I'm really sorry for upsetting you. I didn't want to do that. Then folded it, and just as quickly as he'd taken the first paper, slid it into the gap. It disappeared a moment later.

A moment after that, Sekai's left hand came up and rubbed her face for a few seconds, before she bent over and clearly began scribbling something. Eventually, another piece of paper appeared in the gap, and Makoto seized it again, hoping that it was something nice like the revelation that she approved of his actions, and would not trouble him further.

Not me, idiot! it (rather unfairly) read. Apologize to Katsura! How can anyone BE so thick?

Makoto sighed. On reflection, he supposed that he was a bit thick after all, expecting life to be nice like that.

After class, it actually turned out to be easy to find Katsura, as she headed up to go to another student council meeting. He called out to her, and she turned to look at him, startled.

"Itou-kun?" she asked. "I, I have a meeting to -"

"Uh-huh, I understand. But this'll be quick," he assured her - and, as if to give himself the lie, he found himself hesitating. What should he do, here? Explain why he'd done what he'd done? That might take a while. Maybe a simple apology would be best. Yes, definitely. She was in a hurry, after all.

"I'm sorry!" he blurted out, and bowed apologetically.

"Eh?" she replied, eyes wide.

"That's all! See you tomorrow!" he added, quickly, before dashing off again.

"... you're sorry?" she asked his retreating back. You're sorry for dating me?

As it happened, Kotonoha didn't have time to think about this latest strange development in her life. She had to get to the meeting, and sit and listen to the bureaucratic arguments about who was responsible for what, all the while feeling the strange pressure of Kiyoura's eyes on her. What she'd said about the second date was still haunting her, even though she now had cause to suspect that there wasn't going to be a second date.

Which meant she wasn't sure how she felt about that. Either of that.

Fortunately, Kiyoura restrained herself to just staring at her rather than becoming obviously inappropriate, and Kotonoha was able to make her way home to what she hoped would be a quiet evening where she could think about what had happened.

"Welcome back," her mother said, smiling warmly as she turned to face her when she arrived in the family room.

"Mama!" she cried, surprised but happy. "I wasn't expecting you home until later in the week."

"Ah, well, various things happened," Manami said in a way that didn't really explain anything. "And so, here I am. Your father still has to work late, tonght ... but you know, I really don't feel like cooking or ordering something in. Let's eat out!"

"Yay!" agreed the younger sister, Kokoro. "MacRonalds? Pizza Shack? Colonel-san?"

"I was thinking something a little more high class than that," their mother said, shaking her head. "As it happens, I know that an acquaintance of mine is running a restaurant in the area, so let's go there."

And so it was that they entered the front door of Radish and, far sooner than she expected, Kotonoha came face to face with Saionji-san again, as the girl greeted them at the door with a rehearsed greeting. "Welcome to Radish, party of aahhhhh?" That last part represented her departure from the script.

"Eh?" said Kotonoha, blinking. "S-saionji-san? I thought you only worked here during the summer?"

"Ah-hah. Ah-hah-hah," Saionji-san made sounds vaguely resembling laughter. "Well, uh, things, you know, things change."

"But ... aren't there school rules against taking a job like this, when you're a student?" Kotonoha asked, blinking some more.

"Yeah, well, um," Saionji-san continued to stammer, smiling broadly all the while.

"Yes, I believe that there are," Manami said, frowning just as deeply as Saionji was smiling. "I think I'd like to speak to the manager, your -"

"Is there a problem?" asked an unfamiliar voice.

When one is a child, one believes that one's parents are the smartest, wisest, most fearless beings in all of creation. One generally grows up and becomes disillusioned with this notion. But until that moment, Kotonoha had never seen such an expression of mortal terror on her mother's face as she did right then. "Asagi," Manami said, quietly.

Kotonoha turned to look at the source of her mother's panic, and became more baffled. Who was this old woman, and why was she so frightening her mother.

"Ah, Manami-chan," the old woman said. "What a pleasant surprise. Is our Sekai-chan giving you some difficulty?"

"No," her mother said quickly. "No," she repeated more calmly. "I was just, ah, surprised that you had high school students working here, when there are rules -"

"We've made arrangements with the school board," the old woman interjected. "It's all settled. Are these your daughters? My, they look just like you did, as I recall." And now she 'smiled', to be very generous to the expression on her face.

"Good evening," Kotonoha said, into the silence that followed, since that was what one ought to do.

Kokoro, who was even better at picking up on things than her older sister, just stared until the old woman turned her 'smile' right on her, at which point she ducked behind her mother.

"Well?" Asagi said, turning to Saionji-san and speaking rather sharply. "Take them to their seat and get their order. You do remember how to do that, right?"

"Yes, ma'am," the girl said. "This way," she added to the Katsura party, without meeting any of their eyes.

"Mama?" Kokoro asked a little while later, once their orders had been taken. "Who is that aunty?"

"... your mama has made some mistakes in her life," Manami replied. "I hope this isn't going to be another one. If you think anything you eat or drink tastes funny, let me know right away, all right?"

Kotonoha was not quite sufficiently disturbed by the implications of that not to notice that her mother had, once again, not really answered the question posed to her.

A few hours later, Sekai was in what she laughingly thought of as her room, crouched on her bed, hands over her face.

The room itself ... wasn't too bad, really. It was smaller than her room back at the apartment, and so was the bed, and the furnishings consisted of an old metal locker (minus the lock), and a table and chair that she suspected were both older than she herself. There was a window, and a light fixture. What more could you ask for, on her budget? (Other than more of a budget.) That wasn't really the problem, though. Nor was she really embarrassed to have been seen doing an honest day's work by Katsura-san and people she presumed to be her little sister and her mother, even if having a job that let her do an honest day's work was technically contrary to school rules. (And she wasn't at all sure how Asagi-obasan had dealt with that issue, or even if she had.) The problem was, doing an honest days work wasn't the only thing they'd seen her doing.

Sekai had no real illusions about the place that she worked, or the sort of customers who were supposed to be drawn in by the uniforms that the waitresses wore. A certain amount of ogling was inevitable, and though photography was prohibited on site, she suspected that quite a few of the customers had gotten around that through various methods she didn't know about, or want to know about. This subject, too, didn't trouble her too much. It was, in a way, sort of flattering to be the subject of such attention. But sometimes the customers went further.

Until now, she'd avoided that sort of customer. Even if her mother hadn't given her any preferential treatment, there had been other waitresses who'd been careful to intervene if they'd thought she was at risk. They'd volunteer to deal with that sort of customer so she didn't have to, in the worst case scenario arriving to distract them from her. That hadn't happened tonight. Maybe they were all busy. Certainly Setsuna had been. And so, as she'd leaned over the table to helpfully point out some nice menu choices and give them a nice, long look at her bust, Sekai had, for the first time ever, felt one of the customer's hands running up the inside of her thigh, to her shorts. And she'd frozen in panic. Fortunately, that had apparently scared the customer off, and she'd been able to back away after a moment. And then turn to see that Katsura-san was just few tables away, watching all this with an expression that Sekai couldn't read.

It'd been a long evening.

"It's been a long evening, hasn't it?" Setsuna asked as she walked in to the room in a nightgown.

"Oh yeah," Sekai agreed wearily. "Where've they got you sleeping?"

"Down the hallway, a bit," Setsuna answered, gesturing vaguely. "I like your locker better than the one in my room."

Sekai let out a snort of laughter in response to that.

"No, really, it has more gravitas," Setsuna assured her with a straight face. She looked about for a moment before speaking again. "Would you mind if I slept here tonight?"

"I would mind if you didn't," Sekai said, smiling for what felt like the first time in forever, as Setsuna came to sit down on the bed beside her. "It's gonna be a little cramped, but -"

"That's okay," Setsuna concluded. "Sekai. You know that I love you, right?"

"Well, duh, of course I do," Sekai said. "What brought that on -" And then she stopped talking, for it's difficult to do so when someone else's tongue is in your mouth.

It wasn't the first time her lips had touched Setsuna's, of course. They'd spent several hours - in total, not all at once - practicing kissing for when they each got a cool boyfriend, back in middle school. But this deep kiss was more of an ambush than those long-ago mutually agreed-upon encounters, and it shocked Sekai. The shock was, however, buried for the moment under the weight of the warmth and sweetness that she felt as Setsuna pressed up against her. Her small arms had come up to wrap around her sides and grab hold of her shoulders, holding Sekai tightly, as though she were afraid that she might run away if she let go. To be fair, that was a decided possibility, considering how panicked looking Sekai supposed she must look to her, once Setsuna pulled back momentarily, to gaze into her eyes. "Se-Setsuna?" Sekai asked. "What, I mean, why -"

"I love you," Setsuna repeated. "And I'm lonely," she offered by way of elaboration.

"Well, yeah, yeah, I-I-I get that you miss your mom, b-but, I mean, you didn't do this with -"

"Sometimes," Setsuna admitted.

Sekai's eyes resembled saucers for a moment. "Uh. Oh. Wow, I uh - I did not know that."

Setsuna nodded. Then, very quietly, she asked, "Do you hate me, now?"

Sekai felt herself on the verge of choking. "No!" she said quickly. "No, never. I couldn't ever hate you, Setsuna. You ... you're my girl. Always, forever, no matter what, you're my girl. But ... I mean ... I don't ..."

"Just lie back," Setsuna urged. "You don't have to do anything. Just let me love you. I'll do everything, like always."

Despite the way that Setsuna's tone didn't change, Sekai couldn't help but detect a certain aggravation in her friend's word choice. It made her just a bit more disturbed as she followed Setsuna's suggestion and lay back on the bed, with Setsuna crouching on top of her, and so she drew in a deep breath as the other girl pulled up her pyjama top and began kissing and suckling at her breasts. Of course, that sensation, completely unfamiliar, made her let it out again. "So beautiful," she heard Setsuna whisper. Well. That was nice of her.

Setsuna didn't linger too long at Sekai's breasts, which (Sekai supposed) wasn't all that surprising, really. The fact that they were bigger than those of Setsuna's mother might just possibly be a bit upsetting to her, and wow, she had honestly never expected to be thinking along these lines as Setsuna kissed her way down her ribcage. Setsuna and her mom. It was genuinely shocking. Okay, not so much. She'd even thought, not twenty-four hours ago, that the two of them were even closer than Sekai and her mom were, and she'd never ever ever - okay, not exactly, but she'd had a wild dream about the two of them and Shun-san, the hotel manager at Haramihama who was always flirting with the two of them, but it'd been a pretty vague wild dream, and oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck, Setsuna was licking her yoni. And, and rubbing it, rubbing it with her fingers, and pushing up and in -

"Don't," Sekai heard herself gasp.

"I won't," Setsuna's soft voice gently assured her, as she felt the fingers pull back and begin to gently caress the outside of her cleft, not the inside. "I won't take that away from you or Itou-kun." She sealed the promise with another kiss on her petals.

"I don't -" Sekai protested. "We're not -" She honestly wasn't sure what she was trying to say, here, except that now the vague memories of the wild dream were being edited inside her mind, replacing Shun-san's face with Makoto's and her mother's face with Setsuna's, and oh, wow, things were getting a lot less vague as she felt Setsuna's tongue on her clit.

Eventually, she felt herself shudder in release. It was far, far beyond anything she'd ever done to herself with her own hands. She could honestly see why some people called it 'the little death'. Did that make Setsuna her grim reaper, as her face came back up into sight in front of her, seeming to study her for a moment, before descending to kiss her lips again.

She was tasting herself, Sekai realized. It was, she decided, not that bad.

"I love you, Sekai. I love you more than anything. You understand that, right?" she heard Setsuna ask. She had to be imagining desperation there. Setsuna was never desperate.

"Uh-huh," Sekai agreed. "Love you too. But ... sleepy now," she offered as partial explanation for why she wasn't flinging herself at Setsuna to return the favor. Not that she didn't want to, or that this was all so confusing. Just that she was really really tired. Funny. She hadn't been so tired before ...

Setsuna calmly watched Sekai fall asleep, then watched her sleep for a moment before getting up from the bed, walking to the door and turning out the light before leaving the room.

Asagi, standing at the head of the hallway, applauded her silently. "Nicely done. That footage should be worth quite a bit in the shadows," she said. "Be sure and get the sedative lipstick washed off before it starts to affect you."

Setsuna stared at her aunt in silence.

"Don't give me that look, you little turd," Asagi sneered, abruptly abandoning any pose of concern. "You've got a customer waiting in your room, and if you pass out, he'll complain."

Setsuna simply inclined her head, before turning and walking toward the washroom.

When Sekai woke up, she was alone.

Since that was the norm, it being her current circumstances didn't surprise her all at once. That took a few moments in which she found herself momentarily confused at the strange sense of sorrow she was feeling, until the memories of the previous evening abruptly reasserted themselves. That was when she sat up in bed as a gasp of sheer panic forced its way up her throat.

It was also when she realized that she was wearing a pair of pyjamas.

Sekai blinked. Wait, pyjamas? She'd been - in her memories, at least, she'd been - Setsuna had - but these were her pyjamas, all right, and - she pulled at the neck of the pyjama top and looked down into the crevice that formed, until she realized that she had no idea what, if anything, she was supposed to be looking for that would clarify the situation.

Maybe I dreamed it, she thought as she got up out of bed. Wait, no, that's crazy! Why would I dream something like that? Only a crazy person would dream something like that, and I'm not crazy, no way, ha ha! She echoed that inward chuckle at the notion that she might be crazy by laughing maniacally for a few moments. It felt good, but she was also sort of glad when she finally stopped, too.

Bathroom, Sekai decided. I'll go to the bathroom and avoid thinking about all this stuff by doing my morning ablutions. (Well, okay, she didn't think of it in those terms, she rattled off a list instead, but it's convenient, don't you think?)

Of course, Setsuna was there, standing in front of the mirror and brushing her teeth. "Uhuhuh," she said absently once she saw Sekai's reflection in the mirror.

Sekai and her reflection both stared at her silence.

Setsuna paused momentarily. Then, because she was a well-brought up young lady, she finished brushing her teeth, picked up the cup of water she'd earlier set down beside the sink, spat the remains of what was in her mouth into it, and then poured the glass' contents into the sink's drain before she turned to look directly at Sekai and ask, "Is something wrong?" Tone exactly the same as it always was.

"Um," said Sekai. "Setsuna ... did ... anything happen last night?"

Setsuna blinked. "Yes. Things happening is the definition of existence. Since I don't think you wanted to ask the ultimate question, could you be more specific?"

"Anything ... unusual?" Sekai pressed.

Setsuna considered. "I don't think so," she answered, and technically truthfully, since there's good authority that proclaims 'it's not unusual to be loved by anyone'.

"Oh," Sekai said. And then, she sighed with great relief. "Oh. It must just have been a really strange dream, then."

"What sort of strange dream?" Setsuna asked, patiently and in a way that in no sense suggested any irritation at how easily fooled certain people could be.

"I think I'll just leave the description at 'really'," Sekai said quickly. "Yeah ... geez I feel tired, now ..."

A few hours later, Makoto was regarding her with more than a bit of alarm as she slumped forward, head on the desk.

"Good morning," she muttered blearily while looking up at him. "How's your love life?"

"Uh ... I'm not really sure," he said. "I apologized to Katsura like you told me to -"

"Good, good."

"- but -"

"Ah, no. No but. There shouldn't be any but. Well, I suppose technically there's gotta be two butts. Other than that, though ..." Sekai trailed off.

Makoto decided to just let that particularly strange comment slide. "- but," he continued, "I didn't see her on the train this morning."

"Maybe she slept in," Sekai suggested sleepily.

"Like you, you mean?" he asked.

"I didn't sleep in," she protested feebly. "I just ... don't remember actually going to sleep, that's all." And that was technically true, though she didn't greatly concern herself with technicalities or truth at all, generally.

"I guess that could be it," Makoto said dubiously. "I guess I'll find out for sure when I talk to her at lunch. Um ... you'll come for lunch, right?"

Sekai hesitated, but then let out a sigh. "Eh, all right. I guess it's a good idea. Right now you should probably get into your seat, though."

"... I would if you weren't sitting in it," Makoto said. "Why do you think I'm hovering here?"

"I don't think she's coming," Makoto fretted, a few minutes after the start of lunch, as he sat and Sekai slumped beside him on their usual seats on the rooftop. "Do you think she's coming? I don't think she's coming."

"Maybe she's just a little delayed," Sekai suggested lightly. "Anyway, do you mind if I use your lap as a pillow while we're waiting? I'm really tired." Even before she'd finished asking, she was suiting her words to her actions, leaning against his shoulder and starting to slide down his chest.

Makoto stared. "Uh, yeah? Yeah, I do mind - what's Katsura going to think if she comes up here and finds us like that?"

"She'll be cool with it," Sekai predicted as her head settled down in his lap, smiling gently.

"She'll be -"

"Why, she might even say something like 'Thy slumber art most wonderous to behold! Verily, I shall grant thee a bounty!'"

"... this is your revenge for that Tokimemo thing yesterday, isn't it?" he asked.

A faint snore was his only response.

Makoto sighed. Really, this level of nuttiness was only to be expected. Yesterday, she'd been furious at him for making a simple request of her, and now she was doing this. This girl was constantly doing things that contradicted herself, lying through her teeth and acting all superior.

And the worst of it was, he was starting not to mind it quite so much, despite everything. He chuckled faintly as he patted her head, causing her to make incomprehensible noises in her sleep.

"Wow, you really don't learn nice things when you spy on people like this," said Rika as she she peeked through the glass besides Kotonoha.

Kotonoha was too busy being outraged to say anything.

For once, Sekai was actually telling the truth when she pleaded ill-health as an excuse for not participating in phys ed. It was so strange, how she could take a nice nap like she had during lunch and yet still feel so very, very weary. Maybe she'd had that weird dream that was definitely just a weird dream because her actual sleep last night had been so uncomfortable that it didn't really count as sleep. That was plausible.


Well, plausible or not, the situation was good because it afforded her the opportunity to have a few quiet words with Katsura-san. Starting with, "So hey," as she sat down beside her.

"Good afternoon," Katsura-san replied. Very quietly. Very politely. And with not quite enough chill for Sekai to pick up on it.

"We missed you at lunch," Sekai said after a moment. "Something happen?"

"No, I just didn't want to intrude," the other girl said without meeting Sekai's gaze.

Sekai blinked. "Intrude on what?" she asked.

Katsura-san didn't answer. She simply sat and watched as the girls of their two classes ran around the track. Suzumiya-san and Deviluke-san between them easily outran everyone else, the latter without really trying. On some level, she supposed that she was happy to see Otome-san shown up like that, but she also knew that was a bad, wrong thought which she shouldn't have. It was a nice distraction, though.

Sekai was looking at her somewhat apprehensively. "Did something happen with you and Makoto?" she asked - then added, kind of quickly, "Please don't say that something happening is the definition of life or something like that."

"Eh?" Katsura-san asked.

"I mean, he said that he apologized to you and that everything was going to be fine, so I don't -"

Finally, the other girl turned to look at her. "'fine'?" she repeated. "How could it possibly be fine? I mean, I understand that he's not having fun with me, and maybe I'm a bit scared about what people are telling me about what we're supposed to do on the next date, and I guess that's kind of obvious to him, but, but -" The words, which had been flowing like a torrent, seemed to dry up for a moment, before she pushed on, voice becoming a whine more than anything else. "- but does he have to just break up with me because of that?"

"... what the heck are you talking about?" Sekai asked, eyes wider than she could remember them being.

When, after a few moments of Sekai gaping and Katsura-san pouting, both in silence, Sekai elaborated on her question. "Are you saying that Makoto broke up with you? He didn't say a word about that to me!" Of course, the problem with being a liar was that you tended to get told lies, and now, of course, she wasn't sure -

"Well, of course he wouldn't tell the girl he actually likes that he broke up with some other girl!" Katsura-san whined some more.

"... okay, first off, that makes no sense, because the girl in that situation, who isn't me, of course, because he and I aren't like that, would actually be really really happy to hear that, because it'd mean - well, never mind what it'd mean, but anyway, returning to my other point, Makoto and I aren't like that! Where did you get a silly idea like that?"

"I saw you sleeping together."

Sometimes, it was difficult to avoid the impulse to collapse and start pounding the earth with one's fists - particularly under the present circumstances, where she actually didn't have too far to go down, seated as they were on the grass. "Yeabuhwhat?" Sekai asked, shocked.

"At lunch," Katsura-san elaborated, then huffily added, "But you probably do it all the time anyway, so that might not -"

"Oh-kay then!" Sekai interjected. "First off, that expression, 'sleeping together', doesn't mean what you think it does, I mean, it does mean what you think it does, but it has ... never mind that now, all that I was doing was using him as a pillow, actually he even told me that I shouldn't do it because you'd misunderstand, and oh boy is he never going to let me live it down if he ever hears about this, but I talked him into it anyway by making a reference to a video game you've probably never even heard about, so it's all just a huge misunderstanding!" She was gasping heavily when she concluded that very long sentence.

"... really?" Katsura-san asked suspiciously.

"Yes! And I'm sure that whatever he said to make you think he broke up with you was just a slightly smaller misunderstanding!" she added. "What was it, anyway?"

Katsura swallowed. "Well ... he came up to me yesterday, while I was going to a student council meeting, and he just said ... 'I'm sorry'. And then he ran away."

Sekai stared. "That ... that's it? That's all -" - that it took to make you think he was dumping you, dear bountiful gods, how messed up are you? With still more difficulty, Sekai restrained herself from saying that. "- he just ... apologized ... ah ... ooohhh." And then another unsettling realization settled on her.

"Well, I mean, what else could he possibly have meant? Saionji-san? Why are you curled up like that? Are you literally sick of listening to me?"

"Ah-hah, no, no, it's just - you ever have one of those days when you start to suspect you might be trying to subconsciously wreck people's lives?"


"Never mind," Sekai sighed. "Katsura-san. That 'I'm sorry' is my fault, again. I was upset about him asking me to go play video games without you, so I told him to apologize ... and I guess he did that in a way that left you confused."

"... why would you get upset about being asked to go play video games?" Katsura asked, completely bewildered. "I thought you said you liked them."

Sekai gave up and flopped onto her back, staring up at the sky. "I had a tough childhood, all right?" she asked feebly.

"So basically, there's been a huge misunderstanding," Katsura said a little while later, in the hallway between their two classrooms. "And now I'm very sorry."

"No, no," Makoto assured her. "I should have explained things better, and I was the one who was supposed to apologize in the first place. Even if I'm not terribly sure why I was supposed to do that," he added, looking aside.

"Don't worry, I still don't understand it, either," she assured him. "But I think it must have something to do with Saionji-san's terrible childhood."

"... well, that could explain it, but I'm not sure whether I'd really believe what she says about that subject."

"I would," Katsura assured him. "Considering some things that I've seen, I'd be more than ready to believe that she's had a very hard life to this point." She nodded soberly.

"Eh?" he asked, surprised. "What -"

She shook her head. "Until Saionji-san is ready to talk about them, I won't either."

Her tone was much firmer than Makoto would have imagined she could sound. The afternoon was full of surprises, he decided, but this didn't seem like a bad one. Rather the contrary, actually. Her eyes, when she spoke like that, were startlingly beautiful. "Okay," he said, simply.

And then she smiled. "Thank you for understanding."

"No, no problem. Um ... listen, do you have a student council meeting today, too?" he asked.

"No, not until day after tomorrow," Katsura replied.

"Well, then -"

Second date, she thought. Ohhhhhh dearrrrr. "Ah, but, m-my father has said that he expects me home right after school," she quickly lied. "So -"

"Ah, rats," Makoto said with a frown. He shouldn't be so disappointed, after all - things had been going a little too smoothly there. "Well, can I at least walk you to the train station?"

She blushed brightly as she nodded.

After school, Sekai found herself dragged to Pure Burger by Setsuna and the girls, ensconced in one of their booths and listening to their gossip with a half-smile as she desperately tried to stay awake. Glancing out the window at one point, she chanced to see Makoto and Katsura, walking to the train station at a pace which suggested that their arrival at their destination was an entirely secondary consideration. And of course, they were chatting.

They looked very happy.

They looked so very happy.

Why wasn't she happy about that?

She didn't want to subconsciously wreck people's lives! Or consciously, for that matter. Well, maybe consciously, but -

"Hey, Sekai?" asked Hikari frowning. "Are you okay?"

"Sorry, sorry, just nodded off for a second there. I didn't get much sleep last night, for some reason," she explained.

Setsuna was watching her. And she'd been watching what Sekai was watching, too.

This would not do. For a number of reasons.

"Well, this is your stop, Katsura, so I guess that I'll see you tomorrow," Makoto said, watching the platform approaching through the train car window with a certain melancholy.

"Mmm," she hummed.

Then, just as the car came to a halt, she took a deep breath. "Itou-kun," she said. "There's actually something I think I need to say to you."

"Eh?" he asked. She had that determined look in her eye again, and while it was still definitely alluring, the fact that it seemed to have come out of nowhere was a little startling.

Another deep breath. "Itou-kun ... I was jealous of Saionji-san."

"... okay?" he replied.

"And I still am," she added in a rush. "I know, I know that she says that you two are just classmates, and that you sit together, but seeing her using you as a pillow that way -"

"Oh, man, you saw that?" Makoto asked, regaining a bit of animation as his faced scrunched up in embarrassed annoyance. "I am never going to let her live this down!"

She promised herself that she would make amends to Saionji-san somehow, then promptly forgot that and pushed on with her theme. "- it really only accentuated something that I'd been feeling for a while. I don't ... I don't like that she's so familiar with you, when I'm not as familiar with you. So ..." Deepest breath yet. "... I want to call you by your personal name like she does!"

He blinked. Repeatedly. "You want to call me Makoto?"

She nodded vigorously.

"... okay then," he said. "And I guess I can call you by your ... um ..."

"Kotonoha," she said, like a little prayer. "I want you to call me Kotonoha."

"Kotonoha, then," he said, smiling.

"Makoto-kun," she said, smiling even more back at him.

Well, that ... wasn't as informal as Sekai could be, but on the whole that was probably a good thing. Still, he should probably tell her something. "Kotonoha -"

"Makoto-kun," she said again, positively beaming.

"Um, Kotonoha -"

"Makoto-kun!" she cheered.

"- you realize we left your stop behind a while ago, right?" Makoto continued, smiling awkwardly.

And so, after another long evening filled with blatant sexual harassment that she was starting to suspect wasn't so much patiently overlooked by the new management as subtly encouraged by them, Sekai found herself in her room, alone. The customers were getting more imaginative in their groping, and she'd had to restrain herself from lashing out a couple of times. Adding that stress to what she'd gone through today at school was doing nothing for her mood.

So just like two nights ago, she ignored the ringtone which told her that she was getting a call. And again, the buzz which told her that she'd just gotten a text message proved harder to resist.

It was of course from Katsura-san. Thank you so much for all your help today, it read. It seems I have a tendency to act thoughtlessly -

"Or think in a way that is completely out of touch with reality and then act accordingly," Sekai snarked, then resumed reading.

- and leave a bad impression on people. It's soooo embarrassing. But when I apologized to Makoto-kun -

"So it's Makoto-kun, now, huh?" she sneered. "What a charming development."

- he forgave me right away. Oh, that's right, when he called me just a little while ago -

"It's amazing how you can brag about something without sounding like you're bragging," Sekai growled.

- he said that he hoped you'd join us for lunch everyday, and I have to agree that your presence there could help us avoid such misunderstandings, so I hope you will too. See you on Monday!

With difficulty, Sekai restrained herself from throwing the phone across the room, since she didn't know how she'd go about paying for a new one if she broke this one.

Well, actually, she did know. With Setsuna off somewhere else this evening, she'd had more time to herself and so had been able to listen through the walls to what was going on in the room next door, which she knew was also occupied by one of the girls on her shift. She could faintly hear the creaking of the bedsprings and the moans. She hadn't misunderstood Aunt Asagi's implications after all.

It was all piling up on her.

No. It had all piled up on her.

But it didn't have to turn out that way. There had to be another ending to this story, one where naive sheltered rich girls got a few harsh life lessons and hard-working waitresses got the happiness they bloody well deserved.

"Okay, world," she said. "You're a bitch. So am I. No more Miss Nice Girl."

But let us now step back in time a few moments, and back towards campus, where Makoto was studying some newspaper listings with a frown on his face. He didn't really know anything about any of these movies, and hence wasn't sure which would be a good pick for the date he wanted to make with Kotonoha - he broke off, smiling faintly as he realized that he'd already gotten used to thinking of her in that way, after only a few hours.

"Your romance would appear to be progressing well, then," said his roommate, ears ensconced within a pair of headphones and eyes mostly lidded as he sat on the other side of the room.

Makoto gulped and looked up from the newspaper. "Sheesh, I told you to stop doing that," he said. "It's creepy."

"It's a commonplace trick," replied Koizumi Itsuki as he turned down the volume on his violin recital. "There is, in fact, an art to find the mind's construction in the face."

Makoto shook his head as he looked down at his paper. "I never have any idea what you're talking about." Nor did he truly know what a second year student was doing rooming with a freshman, like him. If he had to guess, now that he'd gotten to know Shiguma Rika, he suspected that Koizumi was probably jumped ahead, a sixteen year old sophomore. But it wasn't like they'd gotten to know each other all that well in their time together as roommates.

"Literary reference. I can't help making them, I'm afraid."

"Literary, huh?" Makoto said as he looked up again. "Does that literary bent of yours extend to the cinema, too?"

"I wouldn't say that I'm a movie buff, but I have seen quite a few of the recent releases. Would I be correct in concluding you're not certain which of the new crop would provide the proper aperitif for your next liaison?"

"Pretty much," admitted Makoto, then held the paper out towards Itsuki. "Help a brother out?"

With a smile which suggested something terribly ironic had just been said, Itsuki took the paper and examined it. "Radish Cinema, eh? Well, I believe that you mentioned that your young lady is somewhat literary herself?" At Makoto's quick nod, he continued. "Then she might possibly take some enjoyment in watching The Silmaril Saga, the latest film to be derived from the works of Tolkien. Then again, given the increasing number of divergences from the text which its makers have added, she might view it as a blasphemy."

"Well, forget that, then," Makoto grumped.

Itsuki considered advising him not to jump to conclusions so easily, but decided that the situation didn't seem important enough to use it as a teachable moment. "I suspect the romantic comedy, Triangle Love, might be amusing, though I found it bewildering. The way that the younger sister of two of the protagonists turns out to be a wizard of surpassing power who resolves all issues by blowing up their adversaries was a poorly considered plot twist, I think."

"That'd be kind of cool, actu- wait, the younger sister of two of the protagonists? In a movie about a love triangle?" Itou asked, a bit startled.

"A young man, his not blood-related sister, and a childhood friend of theirs."

"Oh. Never mind."

"Hm. While you might enjoy Fighting Nemo, you'd probably just view it as an amusing comedy rather than its sobering, subtext tale of marine life and the challenges it faces in the twenty-first century. And then there's this zombie movie -"

"Geh," said Makoto. "She'd hate that."

"Yes, she'd be terrified," Itsuki said dryly. "I suppose you wouldn't at all enjoy the prospect of her clinging to you in the hopes that you'd protect her from the horrific imagery."

Makoto opened his mouth to reply to that. When nothing more had been said for a few moments, Itsuki resumed reading from the paper. "There's also a few foreign language films which I can't in good conscience recommend without knowing more about the girl's knowledge of foreign cultures, and of course the Radish Cinema's other specialty." He handed the paper back to Makoto.

He took it, with a frown. "What other specialty?"

With great dignity, Koizumi held up one hand, making a circle with his index finger and thumb. With the index finger of his other hand, he began poking into it rapidly.

Makoto gaped. "They ... they show that kind of thing? On the same screens as everything else?"

"Separate cinema, well sound-proofed. But yes. So I discovered when inveigled into an attempt to discover whether that cinema might actually be hiding a group of covert defenders of the town, last year." He smiled wistfully. "She was remarkably calm about being proven wrong, that time. It was wonderful."

"Uh ... right." Makoto stared at him, wondering what in the world he was talking about. But maybe it was for the best he didn't know. "But I mean I couldn't possibly take her to something like that."

"Of course."

"They wouldn't even let us in, being students and all."

"Of course not."

"And she'd be disgusted."


"... yeah, so I guess I'll just ask her to meet me at the theatre, mention that Sekai gave me the tickets so she'll feel obligated, and we'll work out what we're going to see then," Makoto concluded, nodding vigorously. "Thanks for the advice, man."

"Not at all," said Itsuki, and courteously turned up the volume on the recital to give his roommate some auditory privacy, wondering as he did whether the lazy box office worker who'd let him and Haruhi into the adults-only cinema had been replaced yet.

The next day, Kotonoha eagerly ran from the train station to the Radish Cinema, following the directions Makoto had given her with a smile on her face and a song in her heart. After all, she told herself, if we're going to the movies, then what Kiyoura-san said about the second date must be wrong! There's no way that sort of thing could happen in a cinema, where the other patrons would surely notice what was going on and object to it!

(And now you're laughing at her, too. You're a real class act.)

"Makoto-kuuuun!" she called out as soon as she saw him standing near the entrance.

"Ah, Kotonoha!" he replied, turning to see her just as she ran up to him and bowed politely, inwardly exulting at the sound of her name on his lips.

"Did I keep you waiting very long?" asked Kotonoha.

"No, not at all, I just got here myself," he told her, and even though she believed that he was probably lying, she thrilled at this exchange, so much like those in the books she'd read while dreaming of a romance that would never come. And yet here it was!

"Oh, good," she said. "So, then, which movie will we be watching today?"

"Well, I thought we should probably pick one out together," he said. "Um, there's a few of them. There's this Silmaril Saga thing, but I've heard it's not very good."

"Really?" she asked. Kotonoha had heard all about the additions that these film-makers had made to one of her favorite books, but she'd viewed that as entirely appropriate. Just as the Professor himself had made changes from the ancient stories which had inspired him when writing down the stories that became the book, it was entirely appropriate for a new generation of story-tellers to make changes to the stories which inspired them while creating their own tale. So she'd actually been looking forward to seeing the results of those changes.

Makoto nodded soberly. "And Triangle Love is apparently pretty weird."

She nodded in understanding. Love triangles were always a complicated and disturbing subject, especially to those beginning a new relationship, as they were. Kotonoha found her thoughts drawn towards Saionji-san. The girl had assured her, over and over again, that she and Makoto didn't have any sort of romantic feelings for each other, but that still didn't make any sense to Kotonoha. How could someone as clever as Saionji-san possibly overlook Makoto's many, many qualities? Were they in a love triangle? Did that mean that one or more of them was going to end up dead?

Utterly oblivious to this dark turn in Kotonoha's thoughts, Makoto pressed on. "And there's a lot of other movies, a lot of them. I mean, you should see some of the titles." He gestured over towards the theatre.

Kotonoha followed his gesture, and blinked in surprise. She'd thought she'd be looking at some of the movie posters on display, but instead she'd been directed towards a marquee with various characters spelling out titles. Perhaps these were older films whose posters had been taken down to make room for newer ones, she mused, and started reading the titles.

Taboo Charming Stepdaughter, she read. Young Beautiful Victims, she read. No! A Radish Isn't Supposed To Go There! she read. Give Me Your Hot White Stuff, Cries The Mediocre Singer-Songwriter, she read. Young Female Lawyer, File Your Briefs, she read.

She stared, not really thinking about what she had just read, for there was only purest void in her mind at the moment.

"Um, K-Kotonoha?" Makoto asked after what felt like a long time.

"Yes, Makoto-kun?" she replied, her voice calm and even. She was quite proud of that accomplishment.

"So, about the movie," said he, somewhat hesitantly.

"Yes. Is this the sort of movie you want to see, Makoto-kun?" she asked, voice still calm and even.

"Well," he replied, gulping audibly. "It might be ... well ... it's something I don't think either of us have done before. So, novelty, and, and, well."

Slowly, Kotonoha nodded. "I see. Very well, then." And with that, she began walking steadily towards the box office.

"Really?" Makoto asked once he'd caught up with her.

She nodded once more. All right, she thought, keeping her thoughts calm, even if she wasn't really sure that she could keep her voice that way any more. Clearly, Kiyoura-san wasn't really lying about what boys want to do on dates. This is problematic. However, she was certainly wrong about me wanting to do the same sort of thing, because I am not even a little bit excited by any of this. Doubtless Makoto-kun will realize the problem in time, and this wonderful experience will become wonderful once more.

"Okay, then," Makoto said, as they arrived at the window. The tiny compartment beyond it seemed to be empty, however. "Hello?" he said, raising his voice.

Quite slowly, with a whirring noise, a golden-haired figure in a black jacket, with a rose in her hair, a cigarette holder in one hand and a bored expression on her face, rose up into sight. "Welcome to Radish Cinema," she said, a complete lack of enthusiasm betrayed by her tone. "What movie will you be enjoying this afternoon?"

"Um, well, I've got two coupons, and I guess I was wondering, are these good for the, um, the, the --" Swallow. "-- pink movies?"

The question got the box office worker's attention, at least, and she turned to regard the pair of them. She didn't say anything, only raised one high golden eyebrow.

"Ex-excuse me," Kotonoha interjected. "Haven't I seen you on campus at Mahora?"

"You may very well have seen me," she said. "I couldn't possibly comment. However, I am fairly certain that I have seen you there ... which would suggest that you're under eighteen."

"No," Makoto said quickly. "We're, we're both eighteen years of age or older. Aren't we?" he said, looking a bit panicked as he glanced at Kotonoha, who just nodded rather than say anything.

"Mm-hm," the worker said, lifting the cigarette to her lips and taking a short drag on it. After blowing out the smoke in a way that made the box office look surprisingly dark and gloomy, she spoke again. "I suppose there might be people who'd believe that. I am not one of them. And we at Radish Cinema have a pretty firm policy about our special screening room." One long-nailed finger reached out to tap the box office's glass window, where a sign had been taped up beside the schedule.

No students or gays! it read. Hook up elsewhere!

"And while I personally deplore the attitude that policy betrays," the worker continued, "I need this job, just like I need the other sixteen part-time jobs I'm working these days. So no. Your coupons are not good for the pink cinema. But you amuse me, and so I will inform you that they are good for a certain French movie which I suspect you might enjoy, si vous parlez un peu de Français."

"Oui, bien sur," replied Kotonoha. Her accent wasn't quite as good as the golden haired woman, but she was getting by. "Je prends souvent mes vacances à Cannes."

Now the worker smiled broadly, with a touch of mischief in her eyes. "Wonnnnnnderful!"

"Huh?" said Makoto.

"Coupons?" she added, beckoning.

"Oh. Right." He handed them over and accepted the tickets for Baghdad Mon Amour with a somewhat confused expression on his face.

"Enjoy the show," concluded Kageyama Yamiko -- for indeed it was she -- and then descended once more out of sight.

"Ahhh!" shrieked the woman on screen, as her bald-headed partner pistoned into her with her legs spread up and wrapped over the man's shoulders. "C'est si bonnn!"

Oh, this feels incredible! proclaimed the subtitles.

That's not right, thought Kotonoha, vaguely. I think those words actually mean 'it's so good'. Of course, being a well brought-up young lady, she knew it was wrong to talk in the theatre, even to explain things to someone else. So she kept her mouth shut and watched the action on the screen.

Beside her, Makoto was trying to figure out exactly where it had all gone so terribly wrong as he too watched the action on screen, all blood having drained out of his face to somewhere else when he realized what the movie was about. (Well, that wasn't really fair. The movie was actually about two badly damaged souls coming together in the hopes that they might be able to fix each other, and in between the sex, their discussions involved some rather interesting points on the transience of love and the fragility of the human soul. Again, Makoto wasn't really the right audience for this sort of thing.)

Okay, thought Makoto. The problem was the joke. I shouldn't have made that joke. It was in poor taste. But on the other hand, how was I supposed to know that she'd react by going along with it? Wouldn't a typical girl, or even Sekai, have reacted by yelling at me when I made that joke? Definitely! And then I'd have been able to say 'oh I'm just kidding' and then we'd have picked out some other movie to watch and holy shit that woman's tits are huge and no no focus! Right! So! This is really more her fault than mine, if I think about it, but that means that I have to act like it's my fault so that she won't be upset at me for realizing it's hers! Right! So!

He took a deep breath. "Kotonoha," he said, quietly, but hopefully loud enough for her to hear him.

Clearly it was. "Yes, Makoto-kun?" she asked, without taking her eyes off of the screen.

"I'm sorry," he replied.

To her credit, Kotonoha's thoughts did not immediately go to the same place they had the last time he had apologized to her, and she did not immediately suspect that he wanted to stop dating her. She was, however, bewildered. Why is he apologizing for this when it's obviously my fault for not objecting to watching this kind of a movie? she wondered. What could he possibly mean? Does he want to stop ... no, no, don't go there again. But what could he be trying to say to ... me ... Her eyes went wide. Oh NO.

Slowly, so slowly, she turned away from the movie screen, helped by the fact that the couple depicted there were presently just lying in bed discussing their respective unhappinesses, and looked at Makoto's face. He looked embarrassed and uncomfortable. And then, seeing that and taking it for confirmation of her suspicions, her eyes slid down his torso to his waist, where a distinctive bulge could clearly be seen.

Oh no no no, Kotonoha thought. That is what he means.

She ought to refuse. She ought to answer his look with a horrified expression and then turn away, maybe even get up out of the theatre and head home as fast as her legs would carry her. That was the right thing to do, beyond any doubt. And yet ... this situation was her fault, after all. And Makoto had been so understanding of her, and so nice up until this point. And this was the second date. So perhaps she should be a little more accommodating to his needs. And that did look pretty painful.

Kotonoha nodded as she looked at Makoto. "Okay," she said in a tiny voice.

He smiled widely. She forgives me! Thank gaahhhhhhhhhh! The latter psychic exclamation came out of his realization that Kotonoha had, without warning, stuck her hand down between his legs, specifically down there.

Taking the shift of his expression for an indication that she must be doing something right, Kotonoha proceeded to start rubbing the bulge with her fingers, while keeping her eyes focused on Makoto's face so that she didn't have to look down at the work of her hands.

"K-kotonoha," he gasped. She could see that his left arm was moving, and wondered if perhaps he was going to reach out to stop her, or possibly guide her motions in ways that were more pleasurable for him. The silence after his utterance of her name was broken the rasp of a zipper being undone.

Ah, she thought, in as much as she could still think. Of course. And with that, she reached out to take hold of what had been exposed. She blinked rapidly as she discovered just how big and how warm it actually was. The shock nearly made her jerk back. But she kept a grip on herself -- well, actually, she kept a grip on Makoto -- and began rubbing it directly. His breathing was coming faster and faster as she rubbed. Clearly, she was having some sort of an effect. And the strangest thought occurred to her, then. He was surprisingly vulnerable right at the moment. If she wanted to, she could really hurt him when they were like this. All it would take was just a twist of her wrist, and he would probably be in agony.

That ... was a surprisingly empowering realization.

Of course, she'd never do that. He trusted her, after all, and that was important. Very, very important. Just like her father trusted her mother, no matter how often she was away from home and how she smelled so oddly sometimes when she came back on days when father wasn't there and the odd smiles and pauses when she talked about what she'd seen and done and why was she thinking about that sort of thing now?

"K-kotonoha," Makoto gasped. "Going to ... going to ..."

Going to what? she wondered. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man in the movie, in the midst of the second or third 'c'est si bon', stiffen up after just such declaration, then collapse. The image combined with vague recollections from health class, and she realized what was about to happen. Oh dear. He's going to make a mess of himself. What should I do? Where can I put it to make sure that it doesn't make a mess? I don't have a handkerchief, and ... oh. Inspiration hit.

Another deep breath ... and then she proceeded to lower her head towards Makoto's lap.

"Nuuurgh!" said Makoto, eyes crossed, as he felt something other than a hand closing around himself. The shock knocked down what few barriers to climax he still possessed.

A few moments later, after Kotonoha had pulled back and resumed staring at the screen, without meeting Makoto's eyes once -- which wasn't that hard to do, since he was almost entirely focused on the task of getting himself back in order, everything tucked away and so forth -- he turned to her and, in the most sincere tone he could manage, said, "Thank you."

Kotonoha nodded wordlessly.

"Are, are you okay?" he asked.

Kotonoha nodded wordlessly.


Kotonoha nodded wordlessly ... and then, realizing that just possibly might not cut it, she quietly murmured. "Fine, fine." Then she started quivering. "Ahum. But, uh, I do have to go and, uh, t-take care of a problem I have."

"Do you need my help" Makoto asked nervously.

"No! No no no. No," she repeated as she got up and started crab-walking down the row of seats away from him. "I'll, I'll be ..." Kotonoha trailed off as she reached the aisle, and then started walking very quickly walking towards the exit to the lobby. Makoto could only watch her go in utter silence.

"Way to go, stud!" said an elderly male voice from behind him and a little to the right. With difficulty, Makoto didn't turn to look in that direction.

Kotonoha barely managed to make it to the girl's room toilet before she began puking heavily. After a brief eternity of that, she managed to rise from the washroom floor and then stumbled over to the sink and mirror. She flinched at the sight of herself, since she'd managed to get some of what was coming up from her stomach on her hair as well as her lips and mouth. Shaking her head, Kotonoha wet one of the paper towels and did her level best to get the mess out of her hair, hoping that this harsh treatment didn't damage it. (She didn't really have the self-awareness needed to understand the irony of her thoughts just then. I do, though.)

Then she got her mouth cleaned up, and took a deep breath. "Okay," she said to herself. "Clearly, Kiyoura-san was telling the truth about what boys want from their dates. And, now that I have a moment to think about it without, ah, rejecting it out of hand, like I've been doing until now, that does actually seem consistent with things that I've overheard before now. Right. So. Now what? Do I run away from him, now that I know this?"

Her reflection in the mirror glared at her. "Of course not! If you do that, you'll be like one of those girls in your class, who talk about getting bored with their boyfriends and dumping them to find a new one! Besides, remember how Makoto-kun looked when he thanked you? Don't you want him to look at you like that all the time?" The reflection's voice lowered. "And remember how weak and helpless he was when you had him like that? Remember how powerful that made you feel?"

Kotonoha closed her eyes. "I don't really care about that," she told her reflection. When she opened her eyes, she could tell just from the look on the reflection's face that it didn't sound any more convincing to her than it had to Kotonoha herself. "But no, I don't want Makoto-kun to dislike me, either. So ... if this is what he wants from me, then that's what I'll give him. Sometimes. Not too often."

Her reflection nodded, decisively. "Yes. That's a good plan. If you can stick to it," the reflection added, right before Kotonoha turned away and headed, as confidently as she could fake it, towards the washroom door.

To her abject surprise, Makoto was waiting for her in the cinema lobby. "Makoto-kun?" she asked. "Did you come out here because you were worried about me?"

He nodded sharply. "Yeah."

She started to smile.

Then he smiled a bit awkwardly, and put his hand behind his head. "And, well, the movie was over."

Her smile froze. "Eh? Already? What, what happened?"

"... well, they did 'cess see bone' two more times, talked about a bunch of stuff I didn't really get, and then she went back to Poland while he stayed in Baghdad," Makoto explained. "It wasn't a really good movie, was it? I'm sorry. At least it didn't cost either of us any money."

"I was in the washroom that long?" Kotonoha asked dazedly. The brief eternity had clearly been less brief than she'd realized.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Yes, of course, I just needed to take care of business," she said quickly.

"... for three-quarters of an hour?"

"It's not gentlemanly to ask a lady about such matters, Makoto-kun!"

Eventually, they got on their way to the train station. Makoto would have probably invited Kotonoha out for a meal or at least some soft drinks, but given whatever odd intestinal difficulties she was having, he doubted that was a good idea. So instead, he offered to walk her back to her house.

"Again, I'm really sorry that this wasn't a better date," he said to her. "I really should have done more research and found a better movie for us to watch, one that wasn't so confusing."

"I'm sure that you'll do better next time," she told him.

Makoto blinked. "Next time?" he repeated in almost a whisper. He continued, in a much more normal tone of voice. "Then ... you still want to go out with me, even after that?"

"Of course," Kotonoha replied. Why is he acting like this is a surprise?

"Kotonoha!" he cried, smile on his face. "You're amazing, Kotonoha!" And he lunged forward, to wrap her in his arms and give her a big, wet kiss right on her beautiful lips.

"Ah!" she shrieked, ducked back, and slapped him right across his own beautiful lips.

"Uh?" he said, as he stumbled back, almost tumbling against the doors of the train car.

"Ah," she repeated. "I'm sorry, but you, um, you startled me."

"O-okay," he said, bewildered, as the train came to a halt.

"I think this is my stop," Kotonoha said quickly as she darted out through the doors as they opened.

"Wait, no, you get off at --"

"See you in school tomorrow!" she cried from the stairs leading up and out of the train station.

Makoto stood and stared at the place where she'd disappeared, maintaining that gaze even after the train car's doors slid shut and it pulled out of the station.

"I think I understand, now," he said after a moment, to no one in particular. "No wonder she and Sekai made friends so quickly ... they're both crazy!"

Chapter Text

After the first night spent in the dorm, when Ku-san had entered her room at a rush to see what was making such a noise in the morning and found her smashing the alarm clock with a stick and shrieking at the top of her lungs, Mikuru had started to find it a bit easier to get up in the mornings. Partly because Ku-san, though not even beginning to understand why her new roomy was so terrified of an alarm clock ringing, was sweet enough to volunteer to start getting up earlier and coming in to wake Mikuru up the old fashioned way, by slapping her sleeping face a few times. That was so nice of her, considering that Mikuru couldn't explain the classified information involved to someone who wasn't even supposed to know about the concept of classified information.

But it was a mixed blessing. Because Ku-san had, after volunteering that way, admitted that there might be mornings where she wasn't able to do that, for whatever reason, and so on those occasions Mikuru was going to have to find some other solution. And while she was willing to go in halves for one new alarm clock, she wasn't terribly happy about the notion of paying for more than one. So on those mornings when she couldn't wake Mikuru up, the other girl was just going to have to deal with it.

Mikuru knew that this was the case, even though she wished (as always) that her training had prepared her for this sort of thing, and so she'd agreed. (After all, Ku-san really knew how to slap her like she needed to be slapped. It was so nice ...) So she'd forced herself to get used to it.

And so, on the morning of the day when everything changed, after a night where Ku-san was out all night again, the alarm went off and she did not try to smash it reflexively. Rather she awakened, tumbled out of bed with the futon still wrapped around her and crouched in the corner of her bedroom as far as possible from the shrieking alarm clock. She held her head and thought, Is this it? Is this it?, over and over and over, until at last the alarm shut off by itself and she could breathe again, because it was clearly not it, and she should probably get up and start making preparations for another day in the trenches of the war for all time.

So she did, stepping out into the dorm room's common area. She flinched a bit at the sight of the sun shining so brightly in through the windows, before she reminded herself about the atmosphere and how it shielded against most of the really bad radiation. Despite that, Mikuru still preferred to have as much mass between her and it as possible. That was one of the good points about being planetside, she thought. That and the gravity well facilitating showers, like the one she was about to take.

Before she could head for the shower, though, the door opened and Fei walked in, yawning heavily and looking the tiniest bit discontent. "Oh. Good morning, Mikuru-san," she said. "Have trouble getting up this time?"

"No, no, not at all," she assured her. "How was your training this evening?"

Fei made a face. "Starting to think these guys aren't ever going to show me how to do what they do," she complained, rolling her shoulder. "They keep putting it off, over and over. Eh. Think I might miss morning bell," she said, ambling towards her bedroom door with the confidence of one easily able to leap over a school gate.

Mikuru briefly found herself wondering whether it would be appropriate for her to have a word with Koizumi-kun about how his people seemed to be using Ku-san like this, without ever giving her the training she wanted or even admitting that they couldn't give it to her. She concluded that it was probably not appropriate, sadly.

What a shame. She really did want to repay Fei for her many kindnesses, but the girl didn't seem interested in the only way she really knew how to do that. Then again, she supposed that she ought to save that for her cruel, beautiful mistress. Of course, that presented its own problems.

And on top of those problems, there were other ones. These notably did not include the boring morning lectures to which she didn't bother paying attention. Her assistant could record them, edit them and then introduce them into her consciousness, in ways that would allow her to absorb and integrate their salient points (assuming they had any) much more directly than listening to a lecture would. It couldn't do directly help her if she was called on to recite from the text, but she had the book open in front of her and could perform adequately if it prompted her.

No, it was what happened after the boring morning lectures that eventuated a problem. It was honestly a little eerie how it happened. There she was, just like before, carefully washing her hands in the washroom sink after she'd emptied her bowels, and then she lifted her face to look in the wall-mounted reflecting device and there was someone standing behind her, just like her mistress had been.

Only, unfortunately, it wasn't her. She still let out a squeak of startlement.

"Hey," said Saotome Haruna. "Didn't mean to scare you. Much. How you doing, Mikuru?" she asked cheerfully.

"Um, I, I'm fine," Mikuru replied. "Everything is fine. How are you?" She wasn't sure why she added that last bit.

It didn't really matter, because Haruna didn't bother to answer it. "Everything's fine, huh?" she asked, still cheerful. "Well, then. I guess that I'll see you at the calligraphy club today after school, then?"

Now, the smart thing to do, right then, would have been to meet that cheerfulness with some of her own, and agree that what Haruna described was going to happen - even thought it wasn't, and Mikuru knew that it wasn't, just as she knew that this was the smart thing to do. But ... well, Haruna had always been so nice! It would be the smart thing, but any girl who wanted to be moe had to know that the smart thing was not always the right thing to do. "No," Mikuru admitted sadly. "No, I don't think you will. I'm, I'm going to be quitting that club."

Haruna nodded, still smiling, in a way that was just a bit disturbingly reminiscent of Mikuru's mistress. "I thought so," she said. "You're quitting to join that Suzumiya lunatic's club, right?"

"It's, it's not really her club," Mikuru corrected.

"Details," Haruna said, dismissively, the smile finally fading, much to Mikuru's relief. "What is going on here? Why are you joining this club, just because this girl wants you to? I thought you were scared of her, so what gives?"

Mikuru opened her mouth to try and give Haruna an honest answer that she'd accept ... and heard herself saying, "Classified information." Eh? she thought. What part of that was classified information? And all of it? Eh?

Haruna blinked. Then frowned. "Does the name Homura Nagi mean anything to you?" she asked.

"Eh?" Mikuru asked, voicing the befuddlement that she couldn't before.

"... 'get used to hearing that', he said," Haruna muttered, looking to one side. "Hm."

"W-well, I'm sorry if you're unhappy about this, but, uh, I really do have to -" Mikuru started to say as she attempted to discreetly get away from Haruna.

"No, not at all!" Haruna said, abruptly, looking up and slapping her hands down on Mikuru's shoulders. "In fact, I have just now had a revelation!"

"I've always had problems making friends," Haruna explained, her voice sounding genuinely mournful. "well, not so much making friends as keeping them. I just ... I don't know why, but I do things that push them away, so that I end up alone, sad and friendless. But I hope that with the help of this club, I can learn how to be a better person, so that I can always keep my friends close. And you know, other people close, too." She delivered that last sentence while looking right at Haruhi, who was seated at the table, watching her with half-lidded eyes that looked very unimpressed. Haruhi's eyes shifted slightly, enough to glance at Mikuru, who was standing just a bit behind Haruna, and enough to make the other girl visibly flinch.

"Well," Yozora started to say.

"What happened to your library club buddies?" Haruhi interjected.

"Quit towards the end of my last year of middle school, don't see them too often, anymore," Haruna exaggerated without qualm. Well, it wasn't really an exaggeration. Since there'd been a time when she spent every waking moment that she wasn't in class or doing manga with the three of them, to say that she only saw them on certain weekends was certainly a case of not seeing them too often.

"You are a completely full of it," Haruhi replied.

"Gee, thanks!" Haruna replied cheerfully.

"That's not a compliment, you -"

"But how can someone saying that someone is full of 'it', 'it' being defined as sexiness, possibly not be a compliment? You're not so bad yourself, Suzumiya-kun," she assured her, faintly maniacal grin very present on her face.

"I vote no," Haruhi ground out.

"In that case, I vote yes," Yozora snapped, annoyed because she'd wanted to vote no.

"I, I guess I vote yes, too," Mikuru stammered. She didn't particularly want to vote that way, but if she didn't, then Haruna-san would just get even more suspicious than she already was. Why, why, why had she raised her suspicions like that? What classified information provoked it?

And from the annoyed look that Koizumi-kun had just given her, he didn't approve of this either. "I have to say that I think that this room is perhaps a bit crowded, as things now stand," he said, just a bit coolly. "Perhaps Saotome-san might withdraw her application until such time as we acquire a more expansive club room?"

"Not happening," Haruna replied, smiling cheerfully.

"Then I must regretfully also vote 'no', without any particular personal animus, of course."

"Okay, then, how about you, Yuki?" Yozora asked, turning to look at where the third founding member was sitting in the corner, immersed as ever in her computer.

Yuki didn't even look up.

"That's a no," Haruhi offered.

"That's an abstention," Yozora snapped, turning to glare at Haruhi. "So, how 'bout it, Yukimura?"

The boy in a maid's costume was, of course, standing immediately behind Kodaka, who was in his turn seated at Yozora's left hand with an even more unpleasant expression on his face than usual. "I will of course cast my vote as my lord wills," he said.

"Gee, thanks," Kodaka bit out. Why am I always, always the one left holding the bag?

"You are welcome, aniki - er, master."

Kodaka sighed. He could tell just by looking at them that neither Yozora nor Haruhi wanted this girl in 'their' club, but he was perfectly aware that if he voted Haruhi's way, Yozora would get mad at him and make his life unpleasant. But if he voted Yozora's way, Haruhi would get mad at him and the destruction of all life on Earth would be closer at hand. Neither of those prospects was all that cheerful to contemplate.

Why me? he thought angrily. ... ah, hell with it.

"I vote no," he said, looking away.

"... how spiffy," Yozora growled.

"Isn't it, though," Haruhi cooed. "Well, there you have it," she continued, turning a smug grin in Haruna's direction. "By a simple majority of the club's membership, in accordance with school rules, your petition for membership has been --" And then Haruhi faltered as she realized that Haruna was giving her a look that was almost as smug as the one on her own face.

"I believe the rule is that the officers of a club can't reject a petition for membership without there being a majority vote of the club's membership. I wasn't aware that you were an officer of this club, kohai," Haruna said sweetly.

"... I'm vice-president!" Haruhi declared after a moment of paralysis.

"Really?" Haruna asked, turning to look at Yozora.

"Um," said Yozora in a decisive tone.

"I came in second in that election, so I should be vice-president!" reiterated Haruhi with a glare in Yozora's direction.

"Was that established?" asked Haruna, bringing a finger up to her chin and tilting her head to one side, for all the world acting like her inquiries were utterly disinterested.

"It should have been!"

"But was it?"

"Um," repeated Yozora.

"Wow, this group doesn't seem terribly well organized," Haruna mused aloud.

That shook Yozora out of her odd and uncharacteristic paralysis. "Oh, really," she hissed, eyes narrowed. "I'm sooo sorry that you don't approve of our level of organization, senpai. Under the circumstances, I wouldn't blame you at all if you withdrew your application to join the membership of such a disorganized group!" Daggers were being glared at Haruna now. Pointy, toxin-dripping daggers.

"Oh no, not at all," Haruna replied. "But I do think that your faculty adviser should probably be informed of how matters in this club which he's advising have developed." She was grinning now. Kodaka started to get an inkling of what it must be like when people saw him smiling.

"Well, then, why don't you go do that?" said Yozora. "In fact, I promise that I'll reconsider your application for membership if you'll go and do that."

"Okey-dokey!" the artist said, and headed out the clubroom door, closing it gently behind her.

"That may not have been terribly wise," Koizumi said after a moment, touching his forehead. "I believe that Saotome-san was once a member of Negi-sensei's homeroom."

"Was is the operative word, here," Yozora replied dismissively. "And anyway, what're the odds that she'll just happen to meet up with him --"

The door to the clubroom was abruptly flung open and Haruna entered briskly, carrying a startled looking Negi-sensei under her shoulder. "Guess who I just happened to meet up with in the hallway?" she asked.

Yozora stopped talking. From the look on her face, it seemed likely that she might never talk again.

"What --" Negi started to say, then coughed politely. "Haruna-san, would you please put me down?"

"Okay, you're short," she told him quickly.

"Ah, how I've missed this," the child teacher mused aloud in a tone which suggested that the answer to the question was 'not very much at all, honestly'. "Set me on my feet, please."

Haruna, who thought that she'd been incredibly kind by not using the 'sexually overactive' comment, did so with a miffed look on her face.

"All right," said Negi, as he rearranged his clothing slightly. "Now, what seems to be the matter here?"

"Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb!" went the room. Matters continued in that fashion for quite some time.

Negi nodded slowly, as the sounds of disputation gradually died down. "I see," he said at last. "So, Haruna-san has applied to join the Neighbor's Club, and while Suzumiya-san has expressed her disapproval, the final decision seems to rest with the club president, Mikazuki-san. Oddly, however, Mikazuki-san is reluctant to make that final decision. Also, Koizumi-san and Suzumiya-san have recently ended their romantic relationship and he feels somewhat uncomfortable around her, and Asahina-san is frightened of Nagato-san."

"Meep," said Asahina-san. She hadn't thought he'd be able to overhear that confession in all the noise surrounding it. The legends seemed to be more accurate than she'd realized.

Nagato looked up from her computer, glancing at Negi. Perceptive, she thought. Unfortunate. Then she looked down again.

"Oh get over it," Haruhi said sidelong to Itsuki, keeping her eyes firmly on Negi as she spoke.

"Of course."

"Well, let me address the most immediate of those concerns," Negi continued, gazing at Yozora at the head of the table. He smiled gently at the girl, who hadn't moved or spoken a word since he arrived. "The floor is yours, Mikazuki-san."

Yozora clenched the edge of the table as she slowly stood up, then took a deep breath. "Sensei," she began. "I think maybe Saotome-san has misunderstood the purpose of our group. This club is for people who don't have friends ... and from the way that even you address her, sensei, I think it's pretty clear that she has quite a few friends. This violates the spirit of our club's charter, which is to provide a space for those who have no friends to develop the skills necessary to gain friends. It's unfortunate, Negi-sensei, but I don't think Saotome-san really belongs in here. I think she's acting from unwholesome motives."

"Unwholesome motives?" Haruna asked, eyes wide and a hand up on her chest. "Me?"

A long silence ensued.

"Um, sensei, I think that's when you're supposed to chime in with an agreement and chastisement of Mikazuki for being so cynical about someone she just met," Haruna added.

"I'm trying to muster up the enthusiasm to do so," Negi replied wryly. "It's not easy."

"He's been spending way too much time around you!" Haruna growled over her shoulder.

"... who are you talking to?" asked Kodaka, who was just watching all this in abject confusion.

"Ahem," coughed Negi. "Notwithstanding how it's wrong to be so cynical about Haruna-san ... very wrong ... totally wrong. Mm-hm. But notwithstanding that, if you really followed that policy, you'd also have to expel Asahina-san for having friends, among whom Haruna-san must be numbered. And you don't want to do that, of course."

"... well, now that you mention it --" Yozora started to say.

"And after all, I have to wonder if that policy really makes sense," Negi continued. "Can people who don't have friends really learn to make friends without the example of people who do have friends? Wouldn't it really be helpful to have people who have friends around who can give you advice on the subject? Couldn't the friendship between Haruna-san and Asahina-san serve as an ideal for you to strive towards?" he concluded, eyes shining.

"Nrg," said Mikuru, who felt simply awful about having to let down the other wonderful person who'd consumed her dreams for so long.

For a few moments, it looked like Yozora was going to say something to soundly contradict Negi's expressed opinion. It was obvious to everyone who wasn't Negi that she really wanted to do so. Instead, when the moment passed, she let out a sigh and sat down. "Welcome to the Neighbor's Club, Saotome-san," she said at last, sounding utterly defeated.

"Gee, thanks!" Saotome said, sounding somewhat less than triumphant.

"Now, before I go, there's something else I should probably do, someone I've wanted to introduce to you ever since I began monitoring this club, Hasegawa-san," Negi added, turning to look at him and smiling broadly.

"Eh?" Kodaka asked, startled to be put on the spot like this. "Really?"

"Yes, I think you two will have a lot to talk about!"

"... oh, man, don't tell me that you've got an air friend, too," said Kodaka.

"A what? No, I'm talking about --" Negi replied, then looked over his own shoulder at what Kodaka suspected must be an outline of someone who clearly wasn't there. "Ahem!" he said loudly.

There was a sigh from the doorway. And then a girl with reddish-brown hair and a pair of suspicious eyes hidden behind glasses, wearing the high school uniform of one of the academy's all-girl schools, stepped into view. "Good afternoon," she said, in a tone more often used to say 'Hurry up and die.'

Seeming utterly oblivious to the tone, Negi beamed at Kodaka. "Hasegawa Kodaka, it is my privilege and pleasure to introduce Hasegawa Chisame.

"Pleased to meet you," she said, in a tone more often used to say 'Why haven't you died yet?', without really looking in Kodaka's direction.

Meanwhile, he found it impossible to look in any direction other than hers. She's a half, Kodaka thought dazedly. He honestly wasn't sure how he knew this. It wasn't as though her hair color was that unusual, these days, and it could just as easily have been mistaken for henna in the same way that his own hair was so frequently mistaken for bleach. But somehow, he knew that she had a parent from the West, just as he and Kobato did. And more than that, he realized, there was something hauntingly familiar about the shape of her features. Could it be --?

"Are we related?" he asked abruptly.

Now she looked at him, as if considering for a moment, before she looked away with a shrug. "Maybe. I'd have to ask my mom. She doesn't talk about her family, very much."

Her family? But wouldn't she -- oh, he realized. "Ah, sorry, I guess that was kind of rude of me," he

"Almost as rude as lurking in the hallway behind everyone else," Haruna interjected cheerfully.

"Yes, why did you do that?" Negi said quickly, to cut off the biting retort Chisame was about to deliver.

"Why is your zipper undone?" she asked, biting out each word.

Negi coughed. "Oh. Um."

How does she know that? Kodaka thought. And what does it have to do with --

"Well, I'm sure that you'll have a lot to talk about," Negi said, starting to back towards the door. "So I'll just be on my way and --"

"Negi-sensei," Chisame growled. "I'm not joining this club. I'm already in a club, you know."

"But that's not really a --"

"The 'go home after school and help mom with my little brother' club is a very important part of my life, as you should know, sensei."


"Let's get going and leave Saotome to her new friends-in-training," she added as she followed him out through the doorway. But she paused on the edge of it, glanced back at Kodaka, and, in a tone which seemed better suited to the utterance of 'It's not like I like you or anything, it's just -- oh shut up,' she said, "I'll see you around, maybe."

And then they were both gone.

"... well, that was confusing," announced Haruhi, glancing at Yozora, who resembled a statue for some reason.

"Wasn't it though," Koizumi murmured, glancing at Kodaka in an overtly disapproving manner. "I suppose someone should probably get another chair from storage."

"Yukimura, why don't you go get a chair?" Kodaka said, not meeting Koizumi's glare. The one good side of all of this was that he had someone onto whom he could let some of the shit roll downhill.

Yukimura bowed politely, even though he was standing out of Kodaka's line of sight. "Of course, master," he said, feeling a certain manly pride in having avoided calling him aniki this time ... except that he'd just done it in his thoughts. It would have made him sigh, except that sighs were not manly.

"I think I'll come and help you with that," Haruna said. Ever since this person in a maid costume had spoken up for the first time, she'd been looking right at Yukimura with an odd expression.

"That is hardly necessary -" Yukimura began to demur.

"Nonsense! I'm your kohai, aren't I?"

Yukimura frowned. "But aren't you in your second year of -"

"In the Neighbor's Club, I mean. And anyway, you should listen to your senpai!" she added, pointing a swirly tipped finger in Yukimura's direction.

Now utterly bewildered as he contemplated how someone could claim to be both his senpai and his kohai in the space of a few breaths, Yukimura made a brief false start on a reply, before at last shaking his head almost imperceptibly, and quietly saying, "Walk this way, please," and heading for the door.

"I don't think I can walk that way, but I'll put myself in your care regardless," Haruna said, following him. "... you are a boy, right?"

"Is this not obvious?" asked the person in a frilly maid's dress, sounding faintly affronted.

Whatever response Haruna made was lost when the door closed behind them.

"Maybe we'll get lucky," Haruhi mused after a moment. "Maybe they'll get lost on the way, never to be seen nor heard from again." Before anyone could reply to that, she turned to glare at Mikuru as the other girl started to settle down beside her. "I would appreciate some tea," she growled.

"You could make it your-" Yozora started to interject.

"Yes, Suzumiya-san!" Mikuru quickly replied, both to prevent another argument from breaking out and to stop herself from squeeing at the fact that her mistress had made a demand of her. At last! A chance to demonstrate her worthlessness at a task set for her, so much so that a punishment would surely be in the offing! She quickly headed over to the stove in the corner to start boiling the water for the tea, glad that this had been part of her training so that she didn't regard the stove with any apprehension.

Just as the kettle was beginning to steam, however, she was distracted by a distant shriek. "Ah! No, what are you -" were the only words that could be faintly made out, before silence descended once more.

"... what was that?" Kodaka asked the obvious question.

Mikuru was so startled by the incident that she was able to bring over the tea kettle and the teabags, and set them down in front of Haruhi, without tripping or spilling anything. Not until Haruhi was sipping the tea and pronouncing it, "Adequate," did Mikuru realize that she'd blown her chance! Curses!

Moments later, the door opened and Haruna entered, easily carrying a chair without any help from Yukimura, who trailed along behind her with a terrible blush. For her part, Haruna was smiling the smug smile of one who knows something that those around her probably do not know.

"Hey, did you hear anyone in the hallway -" Kodaka started to ask.

"No," Yukimura answered firmly.

"Nope," Haruna agreed somewhat more cheerfully. "Didn't hear anyone screaming in a horribly unmanly way. Not at all. Ah, some tea would go very nice, don't you think, Yukun?"

"... Yukun?" Kodaka repeated.

"Yes, Haruna-sama," Yukimura said, looking first at the tea tray on the table, then slowly turning to look at Mikuru with an expression of utter loathing. The maid's hands clenched briefly, before he walked over to pick up a cup and the kettle and bring it over to the end of the table where Haruna was seated.

"... Yukun?" Kodaka repeated.

"So, what exactly do we do in this club?" Haruna asked once she'd had a sip of her tea, putting a subtle emphasis on the suffix that turned the word 'I' into 'we'. "Other than drinking some pretty good tea. My compliments, BTW."

"Well, we're really just getting started," Yozora said, uncomfortably. "Recruiting new members has taken up most of our time."

"And presumably searching for a new club room, since the one you've got is getting to be too small?" Haruna asked without a glance in Koizumi's direction.

"Um, yes," Yozora bit out, receiving a covert grateful nod from Koizumi.

"Ah," Haruna said, leaning back a bit in her chair. "Sooo ... what all have you done to recruit new members? Other than kidnapping them, I mean."

Before Haruhi could respond to that - which she wouldn't have done, since she'd descended into a rather terrifying sulk once the vote had concluded - Kodaka moved to explain. "Well, we put up posters advertising the club's existence ... and, um, well, there was a secret message hidden in the text, to, well, appeal to people who ... like ... secret messages ... I guess."

Yozora was glaring at him. "The enthusiasm you display for my ideas is truly your finest quality," she growled.

"Wow," said Haruna. "How very ... retro of you. Posters. Yeah. Very mid-twentieth century. It's cool, in a non-even-a-little-bit-cool sort of way. Have you considered having your cute maid handing out flyers while in a bunny suit?"

Haruhi's snarl and Yukimura's grunt of manly restrained panic were almost covered up by Yozora's quick, loud reply. "We couldn't do that! It would be ... um, demeaning! Yes, that's the ticket! Demeaning, and not in the spirit of the Neighbor's Club!"

"... we've got a spirit, already?" Haruna asked, enjoying this considerably. It was like old times, almost.


"Okay, then," she said reasonably. "Have you considered using this new thing, you've maybe heard rumors about it ... it's called, the Internet?"

"We don't have a computer!" Yozora snapped.

In total silence, Haruna looked towards the corner where Nagato was still using the device which was unmistakably a personal computer - admittedly, of a somewhat obsolete model. Yozora managed to avoid turning to look in that same direction for a few minutes, before she couldn't help but do so.

"That," she started to say. "That is not ..." She took a breath, then continued, in a calmer tone. "If you want to try and take that away from Yuki, go ahead and try."

"Hrm," Haruna said, momentarily stymied. "I suppose there's no money to buy a second computer."

"Nope," Yozora agreed. "If there was, I'd have already bought it," she lied, since the truth ("I don't want to have a computer and thus gain access to the Internet to advertise the existence of the club since I think it's gotten too big and had done so from the moment someone other than Kodaka and I joined.") wouldn't have gone over all that well.

Abruptly, Haruhi thumped a hand against the table. "We need a second computer," she said, forcefully. "And as it happens, I know just how to get one!"

And so it came to pass that Kodaka found himself standing in the computer club's room, holding a camera and somewhat reflexively pressing down on the button when Haruhi snapped out an order to do so, mere moments after she'd grabbed the Computer Club president's hand and slapped it down on Mikuru's bust, then stepped out of the frame.

"And with that, I have photographic proof of you guys sexually harassing poor Mikuru-chan," she explained, raising her voice to be heard over Mikuru's ongoing scream.

"What?! I never did any such thing!" the president shrieked - notably without actually removing his hand from the girl's chest. "Everyone here, everyone here is a witness to that!"

"Uh ... kaichou, perhaps you ought to -" said one of his colleagues.

The president apparently realized where his hand was, and jerked it away.

"Mm-hm, if you don't want that photo getting out -" Haruhi continued.

"The photo proves nothing! Nothing, do you hear me!"

Haruhi paused a moment, then shook her head, sadly. "Okay, then, I guess I'll have no choice but to let the public know about how you gang-raped poor Mikuru-chan."

"What?" Kodaka said, vague amusement with this situation vanishing immediately.

"What?" the computer club members chorused in utter horror.

"... really?" Mikuru asked, eyes wide.

"No!" the President snapped. "No, it'd be your word against all of ours, and you don't have any photographic proof that we did what we didn't do and -"

"Kodaka, hand me the camera," Haruhi said calmly, extending her hand in his direction. "I'm going to need you to set the scene for the next shot."

"... are you out of your -" Kodaka started to ask.

"Oh, relax, you won't have to rape her or anything - just jerk off over her artistically splayed body as it lies on the floor, to put semen stains on it."

"WELL, GOSH, THANKS!" Kodaka yelled, now completely appalled.

"Okay!" the President interjected. "Okay, let's all just calm down, here. I have a counter-offer for your consideration."

"Not interested," Haruhi said dismissively.

He pressed on regardless. "How would you like to have five computers instead of the one you're trying to blackmail out of us?"

"... slightly interested," Haruhi revised after a moment.

"Wait," said Haruna, somewhat later, when they got to this point in their after-action report. "Did you just - did you just casually admit to doing what you just casually admitted to doing?"

"If you're not going to bother paying attention to the after-action report, I'm certainly not going to bother repeating myself," Haruhi replied in a typically haughty manner. "Anyway, moving forward. To briefly summarize the negotiations that followed, the computer club will lend us five of their newest computers in exchange for doing some bacta-testing -"

"Beta-testing," Kodaka interjected, from behind the hand that had gone over his face as soon as Haruna started talking.

Haruhi paused, turned to glare on him. "One, never interrupt me again. Two, never interrupt me again. And three, don't be ridiculous, there's no such thing as 'beta fluid'. Everyone knows that it's 'bacta fluid' that fixes all wounds, so fixing any problems with a game would obviously be 'bacta-testing'." She returned her gaze to the rest of the club. "Which is what they want us to do."

She held up a small computer disc carrying case with a drawing of an exploding spaceship on it. "This is what they're going to be selling at the cultural festival next month, and they really need to get all the bugs worked out. So we're going to do that using the computers that they lend us, and then - this is the good part - if we can beat them in a network battle, they'll let us keep the computers and put a commercial for the Brig-" She broke off, covering what she was about to say in a cough. "I mean, a commercial for the Neighbor's Club in the game's credits. So not only do we get the computers so that we can sign ourselves up with all kinds of social media and what-not, we get free advertising! Do my plans rock or do they rock?"

"And what if we lose?" Yozora asked.

Haruhi blinked. "I don't understand the question."

Yozora began drumming her fingers on the table. "That's what happens if we win this tournament, playing a game with the people who designed it, and are presumably pretty darn good at it," she ground out between clenched teeth. "What happens if we lose this tournament, playing a game, et cetera, et cetera?"

"I don't know why you're dwelling on remote possibilities like that," Haruhi said, looking away in disdain.

"What do they get if we lose?" Yozora pressed. "They wouldn't be giving us free advertising unless you ante'd up something in return."

Haruhi turned back to her. "... that's the same expression Kodaka used when he was objecting," she said, faintly wondering. "Why do you know poker terminology?"

"Just answer the damn question so I can start screaming at you for being an idiot, wench," Yozora sneered.

Haruhi sighed, shaking her head. "What a sad excuse for a president, who dodges such significant questions. In any event, they insisted that in the unlikely event of our defeat, one of our number should quit the club and join their club. Of course, I suggested that the President should be the one -"

"I bet you did you -" Yozora started screaming.

"- but they reacted with horror and disgust at that notion!"

Yozora broke off in the middle of the scream, looking a bit like the painting of that name in the process.

"They'd rather die than accept the President of this club into their ranks!" Haruhi assured her, conveniently neglecting to mention that she might possibly have given the members of the computer club the mistaken impression that she was said President. "They're getting Mikuru, instead."

Yozora still looked like The Scream.

"Well, obviously we're not going to play this silly game," Haruna said. "Right?"

"That decision belongs to the President," Haruhi said piously. "I'm simply reporting the results of our negotiations. If the President should decide that we don't want to accept this challenge, then obviously the deal is off, and they go off and laugh themselves sick at our cowardice. So -"

"- I feel so fucking insulted!" Yozora said, no longer looking like a masterpiece of the Expressionist movement, but rather an angry young woman. (Which, you know, she was.) "Who do these people think they are! We are definitely going to play their little game! We are going to play the hell out of it, and then we're going to kick their asses in this tournament!" She shook a fist in mid-air.

"... wait, they get Mikuru?" Haruna asked, then looked around. "Why am the only one getting bothered by this? Oh, come on, I can't be the conscience of the group, not again!"

As covertly as possible, Kodaka gestured in Haruna's direction while meeting Koizumi's eyes. The esper nodded, making a placatory gesture in return.

"And here we are again," Koizumi said as he watched Kodaka pacing back and forth on the other side of the table from the three of them. Mikuru nodded agreement, while Nagato read her book without looking up.

"I'm just taking a moment to organize my thoughts," Kodaka said, pausing in his pace. "Okay. This Saotome girl - what is her deal?"

"It's ... complicated," Koizumi said, reluctantly.

"She is an example of an individual with capabilities outside the human norm who are otherwise of standard human origin," Nagato explained, still without looking up.

"An esper, in other words," Kodaka said, glaring at Koizumi.

"No, not ... exactly. Ah, well, to somewhat simplify matters, where I and my colleagues in the Organization possess extraordinary powers of the mind and body which are believed to have its origin in the unconscious manipulation of reality by Suzumiya-san, Saotome-san and others like her possess extraordinary powers of the mind and body which are ... not believed to have their origins in the unconscious manipulation of the reality by Suzumiya-san. It has been hypothesized that there have been other individuals who have manipulated reality in the way that she can, essentially creating the conditions that permitted -"

Now Nagato lifted her head, and shook it firmly in contradiction of this statement.

"- but this hypothesis is perhaps in advance of the data," Koizumi concluded smoothly.

"And these, these other super-people, they don't work with you."

"That's ... complicated," Koizumi repeated.

"Oh for -" Kodaka growled.

"It is!" he insisted. "They aren't united in a single faction as we are, so even though the largest grouping of them in the area is not directly allied with the Organization, individual associates of their group are, occasionally, of some assistance in our activities. As the situation has deteriorated, there has been discussion in the Organization concerning the notion of using these people as a way to -" He paused, searching for a word. "- break it to Suzumiya-san, as gently as possible, that the world is in fact the marvelous place that she alternately wants or fears it to be. But until now, none of them have ever approached her of their own volition."

"Well, great. So are we going to let Saotome in on -"

"No," chorused the three of them.

"Why not?" Kodaka asked, after a short interval of being startled by both their vehemence and their unanimity on the subject. As he saw Koizumi struggling towards a reply, and guessing what it was, he bit out, "If the next words out of your mouth are, 'It's ... complicated', then so help me, I'm walking out of here and going after her right now."

"That isn't what I was going to say," Koizumi lied with grave hauteur. "What I was going to say, had I been given the opportunity to express myself, is that involving her - and by extension her associates - will cause the situation, which is already rather perilous, to deteriorate further."

"Why?" Kodaka asked, eyes narrowing.

"As you have mentioned, on occasion, your father's collection of videocassettes includes recordings of a number of old movies and television programs, from America. Are any of them of the police story variety?"

Humoring him, Kodaka nodded.

"Are you then familiar with a plotline which occurs with some frequency in such stories, involving agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation assuming command of an investigation of a crime, freezing out the local police who began the investigation, and thus making a mess of matters?"

Kodaka frowned. "So what you're saying is -"

"They will not believe that the situation can possibly be as bad as we are aware that it actually is, and they will act as though they know best - which they don't. These individuals have far more ties to the administration of this school and the region in which it exists than we do. They have more, to use a slang term, 'clout'. I am not saying that they are bad people. Quite the contrary. They are good people. Therein lies the difficulty."

"I'm just not supposed to even reveal the existence of classified information to people who don't have any need to know about classified information," Asahina said, sounding embarassed. "And Saotome-san fits into that category." For the most part, she equivocated.

"The Data Overmind projects that the immediate result of informing Saotome Haruna of this situation would be, within twenty-four hours, an attack launched by her colleagues against myself and/or Asakura Ryoko, potentially causing casualities in the dozens and property damage in the millions," Nagato reported quietly.

"Goodness," said Koizumi, seeming only slightly startled. "I would have thought you'd be under orders to surrender to the local authorities rather than cause such a disturbance."

"We are not," Nagato said. And that was all that she said.

"So, basically, it's a bad idea all around," Kodaka concluded, sounding resigned to the notion. "Okay. Forget it, then. What about this tournament?"

"It should be relatively trivial to ensure our victory, if all of us practice -"

"Ummm, I don't own a computer," said Asahina, still sounding embarrassed. Not nearly as much as she expected that she would be if she actually had to use one of the horrific things and wet herself from sheer terror.

"Well, you can just practice during club hours once they deliver the computers here," Koizumi said easily.

"... wah."

"What I mean is, is winning this going to slow the apocalypse down or not?" Kodaka asked. "It's her idea, so -"

"It should have that effect, provided that we win and do so in a way that suits Suzumiya-san's notions of how we ought to win," Koizumi hedged.

"Okay," Kodaka said, picking up the disc case and staring at it. "I guess we should get started on practicing, then."

He was still - well, technically, again - gazing at it a little while later as he stood in front of his locker. Kodaka had never had much interest in computer games, and just reading the copy on the back of the disc box made him a bit nervous. Real time simulation? Something about that phrase had him a bit twitchy.

He shook his head. He'd just have to boot it up on the MacEwan his father had bought and never actually used and see what happened. With that, he opened his locker, slipped off his slippers and put on his shoes, before closing the locker again and turning to go.

"Hello, there," said Asakura Ryoko, who was standing square in his pathway and, of course, smiling warmly.

A few interesting moments later, she looked up at the top of the lockers, and said, "Now, really, that was a horrible way to respond to a friendly greeting."

"Sorry," Kodaka said, lowering himself to the floor with unsteady hands and legs. "Um ... what, what do you want?"

"That's even worse," Asakura protested, but didn't ... yeah, that's enough of that. Incidents where she did stop smiling will be noted, instead. "Really, I just wanted to say hello, and ask you how you're doing. Clearly, you have a very nervous disposition."

"Yeah, well, got a lot on my mind. Ha ha," he 'laughed'. "Um ... so I suppose you already know about the computer thing," Kodaka added after a moment.

"Mm-hm," Asakura nodded.

"It's going to delay the destruction of the world, apparently," he said, driven to false bravado.

"Maybe it will. But, well, delays are just delays, you know. The apple that doesn't want to get eaten will still fall off the tree." She nodded to emphasize this little bit of sage wisdom.

"Yeah, I guess so," Kodaka agreed.

"Well, then, until tomorrow, then," Asakura said, turning to go.

"What if it didn't get delayed?" he asked.

She paused, and turned to regard him with a surprised look that didn't really go well with her smile. "What do you mean?"

"What if ... y'know, all the attempts to delay ... it ... didn't work out?" he asked. "Hypothetically, I mean."

"... well, hypothetically, that would make the Radical Faction very happy," she mused.

"Would it ..." Kodaka's voice failed him for a moment, before he pressed on. "Would it make your faction happy enough to take one person from Earth off the planet with you, when you make your escape?"

Asakura blinked, genuinely startled. "Are you suggesting that you might betray your species just to ensure your own survival?" she asked. "I didn't -"

"Not mine!" Kodaka interrupted. "My sister. My little sister. She's ... she's not any part of this, she doesn't -"

"Ah!" Asakura said, nodding. "Yes, now I understand. That's very admirable, actually. And I was actually thinking about the prospect of ensuring one or two of the most deserving members of your species do survive this, recently. There's this one girl in one of the other first year classes who genuinely embodies everything that defines your species, really."

"So then -" Kodaka asked, hating himself for the feeling of hope that he was experiencing.

"No," Asakura said. "I won't rescue your sister. She means nothing to me." Her smile faltered, for a moment, then seemed to curve upwards rather broadly. "And you're really mistaken about some things. I don't have any plans to escape what's going to happen. I'm going to be making observations right up until the moment that my body dissolves. If I was going to rescue anybody, I'd be destructively uploading their brains to our network for study. So you'd actually be having me murder your little sister before the event, if I went along with what you were suggesting. I just thought you should have that very clear in your mind, before you go begging and pleading."

The disc case almost slipped out of Kodaka's suddenly nerveless fingers.

"Good night," she said, with heavy irony, before she turned to go.

"So, did you practice a lot?" Haruhi asked cheerfully at the first opportunity the next day.

Kodaka glowered at her. As usual, she was impervious to intimidation. "Yeah," he lied. "I practiced so much, I broke the damn disc. Think we can get another one?"

How the hell had he been supposed to know that his dad's computer wouldn't work with that damn disc? It wasn't like there was some sort of sign on it that said, "By the way, if you try to use programs apparently designed for some other kind of computer on this computer, it won't work! And if you get mad and try to force it to work by slamming the disc drive closed over and over again, the disc might break!" There should be warning signs, damn it! These things weren't obvious!

"You -" Haruhi stopped herself from concluding that sentence, rubbed her temple momentarily, then silently rooted around in the bag at the side of her desk for a moment. Producing another copy of the disc, she shoved it in Kodaka's general direction. "I think I've probably practiced enough to master it, so you can have mine. Don't break this one."

"Uh ... thanks," he said, taking it, feeling terribly awkward. (In the distance, he vaguely heard the sound of a pencil being broken.) He'd been expecting her to yell at him and then tell him to go beg the Computer club for another copy. Of course, neither that nor this got him him any closer to actually practicing with this thing. Well, maybe, if he was careful, he could 'borrow' one of the computers that the club was being lent, and take it home with him with no one the wiser. He nodded to himself as he looked across the room, noting that Yozora was holding a broken pencil in her hands but not actually making any logical deductions from that fact.

He was far too busy thinking that this was probably going to work. Haruhi was surprisingly good at everything - or possibly unconsciously warped reality to make herself good at everything, who could say - and Koizumi was pretty smart, too. He wasn't sure about his own abilities, and suspected that Mikuru was probably not going to be terribly useful, but whatever liabilities the two of them might present would be more than balanced by Nagato's sheer genius for computer games!

"Not interested," Nagato said once club started.

"... sorry, what?" Kodaka asked.

"I don't do RTS. It's a genre with which I have philosophical disagreements. Not interested."

"But ... but ..." he stammered, glancing at Haruhi, who was setting up the computers with Yukimura's asisstance, oblivious as ever to anything going on outside of her immediate vicinity.

Nagato shrugged.

"Why didn't you say that you don't like these kinds of games yesterday, when -"

"Nobody asked me yesterday."

Guessing, correctly, that he wouldn't get anything more out of Nagato than that, Kodaka headed over to explain the problem to Yozora, seated in her presidential chair and watching Haruhi at work with an unhappy expression.

"No problem," Yozora said shortly once he'd done that.

Kodaka blinked. "No, I kinda think it is a problem. We're short a player -"

"Like I said, no problem. I'll take her place."

He blinked some more. "You play these kind of games?"

"Nope." Yozora, who hadn't stopped looking at Haruhi this whole time, followed this blunt response by turning a hostile look in his direction. "But you do it, right?"

"Um," he answered, not really wanting to admit that his efforts in this area had not actually been so terribly fruitful.

"And the wench does it. So how hard can it possibly be?"

"Um ... Yozora ... I feel awful asking this, but ..."

"What?" she asked, eyes narrowing even further.

"... you wouldn't be planning on throwing the tournament to get rid of Asahina, would you?"

Her eyes opened wide, in shock. "You - how can you - do you really not know me at all?"

Kodaka stepped back, startled not so much by the anger in Yozora's voice as by the pain there. "I just -"

"Those computer club bastards insulted me! I'm gonna make them eat dirt, then their words, then some more dirt! With dirt as a side!"

"Right, of course, I'm sorry, I -"

"Damn right you're sorry."

Eventually, the computers were set up, and Kodaka finally got to see what the game was all about. It was surprisingly complicated, although the graphics were nothing to write home about. He found the mechanics of maneuvering a fleet of ships in space to be quite challenging. From the sounds of things, so did Yozora, judging by the sounds of explosions that he could hear from her terminal.

"Okay," said Haruhi, after a while. "I think we've all got a grasp of the mechanics. Now, for the tournament, we're going to be playing on a networked system and playing as a team, so we ought to practice that a bit. Yuki, I understand you don't approve of these games -"

Kodaka was startled. How did she know that without asking?

"- but could you help set up the networking? You will? Good, good." Haruhi grinned. "And as the person with the most experience, I believe that I'll be taking command of our combined fleets!"

"You psychopath!" Haruhi shrieked a few moments later. "You attacked your own fleet commander! What -"

"Guess I hit the wrong button by mistake," Yozora said casually. "Oops."

The rest of the quote-unquote team practice went that way for the rest of the hours until the janitor came along to tell them to scoot. Between Charuhi's Counterattack, Yozora's retaliation for the counterattack, Haruhi's retaliation for the retaliation, Haruna finally declaring that she'd had all she could stand once the retaliation for the retaliation accidentally damaged some of Asahina's ships, then shoving Mikuru out of the way so that she could take command of her terminal and attack both Haruhi and Yozora ... well. Very little practice in the area of combined fleet strategy was achieved.

By the time it was over, what tentative confidence Kodaka had still possessed after learning that Nagato wasn't going to involve herself in this situation resembled less a security blanket than a tiny frayed bit of cloth to which he was still clinging despite everything. They were doomed. Well, at least in terms of the game. The end of the world that was fast approaching as a result of the loss of the game might theoretically still be averted, so they were really only sorta doomed.


"Are, are you okay?" he heard a tremulous voice ask.

He lifted his head from the table to see that he was alone in the room except for Asahina, who was regarding him nervously.

"Uh ... well, not really, no," he admitted.

"Things aren't going too well, are they," she asked, making it a statement, rather than a question.

"No, no they aren't. Um ... are you sticking around here for just my sake?"

Asahina nodded.

"That's, that's really nice of you," he said, smiling.

She stepped back a pace.

"... sorry. Uh, um. I ... well, for my part, I was hanging around so that I could borrow one of these things, to get more practice at home," he explained, patting the terminal right beside where he'd been slumped over.

"You were going to borrow it without telling anybody?" Asahina asked.

"Well, yes."

"Isn't that what they call stealing?"

"... only if you don't return it," he lied.

"Oh. Well, I'll help you to pack it up," she offered, and proceeded to take the first step in doing so before he could even thank her, reaching down to unplug the computer with a deep sigh of relief. "Muuuch better," she said as she set the plug down beside the case.

"You're really scared of these things, aren't you?" Kodaka asked.

"Yes," Asahina agreed. "Aren't you? Really? How can you not be? You're never sure what they're thinking!"

"I, I don't really think they are thinking," he answered, genuinely startled by her obvious anxiety.

"Are you sure about that?" she asked, staring.

He decided not to deal with this rather ontological question at the moment. "They really didn't have personal computers where - um, I mean, I guess, when - when you're from?"

"Not ones like these, no sir," Asahina answered definitively, shaking her head firmly. "The brains were always accessible and -" She broke off, frowning. "Hm."

"When is this, anyway? How far in the future are you -"

"Classified information," she said, almost absent-mindedly.

"Figures," he said heavily, and started to pack the computer back up into the box it had come in.

"Um, but -" Asahina said. "Something seems to have happened, and a lot of things that were classified information just a little while ago seem to have become a different category, when it comes to you. There's actually a lot of things that I'm supposed to tell you as soon as possible."

Kodaka blinked. "Oh. Well, I'm listening."

She looked at the door. "Does the way you go home take you by the river? Because having that nearby might make for a helpful demonstration -"

"Nope," he answered.

"Mou," she said. "Okay, I can do it here."

She sat down across the table from him, settling her hands down on top of it. "The first thing that you have to understand is that it's impossible to go backwards in time," she said.

The statement hung in the air for a few moments, before Kodaka finally mustered up a bewildered, "Huh?"

She answered this confused noise with a nod.

"So ... then you're actually a time traveller from the past or something? Like, Lemuria or -"

"No, no, no," Asahina said, shaking her head. "What I mean is, well, you need to get rid of words like 'past' or 'future'. They're not helpful when talking about what I do. You can't go backwards in time, only forwards - but to someone who is moving through time in a traditional manner, it might seem like you're going backwards in time. But really, you're moving forward, just in a different direction from them."

She paused, looked at Kodaka searchingly, then resumed. "Imagine a tree. A tree with an infinite number of branches, some of which twist and turn and cross one another. A branch that bends back towards the trunk isn't growing in reverse, it's just growing in a different direction. And that's me. I am moving forward in time, never backwards, even though this ficton - this when, as you put it - would appear to be earlier than the one in which I was born and grew up.

"The best way that I can describe a ficton is that it's like a continental plate, which brushes against other fictons in the same way that continental plates do, creating fault lines in time much like those in the earth. But though they touch each other, they aren't connected. So no matter what happens in this ficton - if the world ends, like you're afraid that it will - the ficton that I came from won't be affected. We think."

"Okay," Kodaka said, after a moment to consider this, an idea having come to him that he didn't really want to rush into just yet. "So, I guess the obvious question is, if you didn't come back to stop that from happening, then why are you here?"

"Most of that is classified information," she said, with a sigh. "But I can explain it in part. From your perspective, three years ago, Suzumiya Haruhi did something that - well, to be honest, we don't really understand what she did, only what it did. Basically, it prevents time travelers from exploring the parts of this ficton that are 'earlier' in its history than that point. In fact, it's possible that from the perspective of a time traveler, those parts of its history don't actually exist, that this ficton has been cut adrift from its past as well as its future."

"But that's crazy," Kodaka interrupted.

Asahina nodded sober agreement.

"I mean, that can't be. I'm, I'm older than three years -"

"How can you prove it?" she asked. "Suppose that all of your memories, any physical objects that support them as evidence, are an illusion that Suzumiya-san created?"

"... that's crazy," Kodaka repeated, helplessly.

"Probably," she agreed again. "And there's no point in assuming that's right, since it doesn't help us in any way. Anyway, that's why I'm here, at least partially - to study the phenomenon that is Suzumiya-san." She smiled then. "She's just so fascinating, isn't she?"

"That's, that's one word for it," Kodaka muttered, rubbing his head. "Doesn't it bother you that she's willing to put you up as stakes in a wager?"

Asahina shook her head. "Not really. She intends to win, after all. That means that she places value on me. She could have wagered Nagato-san, or Koizumi-san, or even you, but she picked me as the most valuable thing she could wager when they wouldn't let her wager herself. She values me almost as much as she values herself." There was a clear note of satisfaction in her voice as she said that last.

Kodaka raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything in response. "You're kind of -" crazy, was what he wanted to say, but it would be too mean. "- unique," Kodaka finally concluded.

"Aww," Asahina murmured, blushing brightly. "Thanks!"

Further evidence of her uniqueness, he decided, and finished packing up the computer rather than admit that it hadn't really been intended as a compliment. As he slid the box into his school bag, grunting faintly at the weight, another thought occurred to him. "Hey, Asahina-san ... do you think of Saotome-san as a friend?"

She screwed up her face in consideration. "Ummm ... well, I think she thinks that we're friends, but she makes friends a lot more easily than, well, than some people do," she said, just a bit diplomatically.

"No names mentioned," he muttered.

Asahina affected not to have heard him. "But, for my part ... I'm not really supposed to make friends in this ficton. I mean, I like her, and I like Ku-san my roommate, and Tsuruya-san who's in my class, and I'd help them if I could, but ... no, I don't really think that you can be friends with someone you're only ever telling lies." She shook her head sadly.

"I guess not," Kodaka said, a bit troubled. "That means you can't ever really be friends with Haruhi, either."

"I don't want to be friends with Suzumiya-san, I want her to love me."

The words hung in the air for several moments as Asahina's face gradually went redder and redder, until it was much the same hue as her hair.

"Um, um, wow, the removal of those classifications sure has done a number on my internal censor, hasn't it?" Asahina said after a moment, talking just a bit faster than was her wont. "Why don't I go make sure that the way out is clear for you, yeah, that's a great idea, glad you thought of it!" And with that, she dashed out of the room before Kodaka could say anything.

Which was just as well, because he had not the first clue what he was supposed to say to something like that.

The next day was awful. Years ago, after he'd been transferred to a new school and introduced to the class on a day when he was on cold medicine that had him not thinking terribly clearly, Kodaka had really embarrassed himself on his first day. He felt a bit like he had then, except that he couldn't blame it on drugs. He was just plain tired.

The game had proved surprisingly addictive, once he'd gotten used to the way that it worked. He supposed that was how games were supposed to work. But the result had been that he'd kept playing long after he should have been in bed and asleep, not even really giving a moment's thought to the possibility that Kobato might be kept up by his game play. (Of course, she'd slept like a log - or the dead. She always did.)

That would have been bad enough, but on top of that, he'd actually had to get up and go to school earlier than usual, so that he could sneak back into the club room and return the computer he'd 'borrowed' with no one the wiser. He'd pulled it off, despite a harrowing near miss when it seemed like Negi-sensei was coming to check on the room, only to be pulled away when Saotome-san came over to let him know that she had joined the club. (He wondered how they knew each other, and how come she was at school so early. Well, it was none of his business.)

All of this left him dazed in class, and he'd hoped to be able to just nap through lessons since the teachers almost never called on him. And for once, his hopes seemed to be coming through! Haruhi didn't even bother him, and he was actually enjoying his nap.


Of course, that was before he was awakened by the sounds of Kuroda taking issue with something Sawanaga apparently said to Itou. Good luck getting back to sleep after that. Ah well.

He decided not to push his luck by trying to smuggle the computer out of the club room again, mostly because he thought Haruhi might be a bit suspicious of the fact that they'd had to get the networking thing set up again on the terminal he'd borrowed. He'd glimpsed her looking at him and Mikuru speculatively a few times during that session, and knew that she couldn't possibly have missed the fact that the two of them had been in the club room together when she'd left yesterday. But she didn't say anything to him.

Honestly, he found that far more intimidating than he would have if she'd started yelling.

Be that as it may, another factor in his decision to not repeat yesterday's escapade was the fact that he didn't think it was truly necessary anymore. He couldn't claim to have mastered the program, but it seeme likely that he'd learned everything that he was likely to be able to learn about it on his own, and that he should focus on the issue of teamwork. Of course, that would require the Club to start acting like a team.

But lo and behold, they were.

Before the end of that afternoon's session was over, Yozora and Haruhi seemed to have gotten tired of blowing each other's fleets up. It would have been a stretch to say that they were working well together, but they weren't going out of their way to try and kill each other virtually, at least. Koizumi was blandly following instructions without much in the way of creativity or imagination, but with a great deal of efficiency. Asahina was still intimidated by the computer, but Haruna had more or less turned their fleet command into a nominal partnership which she firmly controlled. Meanwhile, Kodaka himself struggled along, with Yukimura always at his side offering sage wisdom drawn from Japan's samurai past - most of which, no, pretty much all of which was utterly irrelevant to the situation at hand, but so it went.

The only one uninvolved was, of course, Nagato, who quietly sat away from them, fully immersed in her own games. Actually, from the looks he occasionally got of her monitor reflected in the lenses of her glasses, Kodaka thought she might actually be programming one rather than playing it. Or maybe not - he really didn't know much about the subject.

Things were going well enough that they managed to beat the computer by the next afternoon, and his hope for a successful tournament began to rebound.

Naturally, that meant that seventy-two hours later, he found himself thinking, How the hell do we suck at this so badly?! (Yes, he used excessive punctuation in his thoughts. Deal with it.)

In the small part of his brain which could think rationally, which wasn't screaming its metaphorical lungs out every time that the screen told him that the tiny graphics which indicated their ships had taken a hit or failed utterly to hit anything in return, he supposed that it really wasn't all that surprising. After all, the program's AI couldn't have been very good, certainly not anywhere nearly as good as they were, even with the difficulty turned way up. And it only followed from that, that the people who had designed the game would be even better at it than the club members had become.

But even so, he couldn't believe that their fleet was being wiped out so badly.

"Never fear, my lord!" Yukimura whispered fiercely into his ear. "They shall not take us alive! I shall serve as your second after you achieve a moment of peace, and then follow you shortly after!"

"I don't think being taken alive is really an option in this sort of thing," Kodaka told him without looking away from the screen.

He was right, it wasn't, and just a few minutes later, it was all over. Haruhi had fought to the last, refusing several offers of surrender that had been sent their way, and so the enemy's victory score was less than it might have been. But it was nonetheless a victory all the same. Kodaka faintly imagined he could hear cheering coming from the computer club, which was on a different floor of the building from them. (On the other hand, maybe they had their window open too.)

Their own room was silent.

"Okay," said Haruhi, after a moment. "That was ... pretty awful. You guys should really have practiced harder on your own. I know that Mikuru-chan doesn't have a computer at home, but if she'd just borrowed one without asking, I'm sure there wouldn't have been a problem. I don't know what excuse the rest of you have for sucking so badly - well, I can guess, in some cases -"

"Stick it, wench," Yozora snapped.

Haruhi ignored that. "- but you know, none of that matters. We've got a five minute break until the next round starts, and it's still anybody's ball game. It's a good thing I got them to agree to best three out of five, don't you think? So just take a few moments, catch your breath, and then we gotta win this thing!" Her last words were delivered with a powerful shout, then followed by a deep breath. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to the washroom." With grave dignity, she rose from her chair and went out through the door.

"We are so -" Yozora started to say, then jumped as they all heard the sound of a wall being punched not far away. After that, she didn't seem inclined to say anything.

"We're just going to have to try harder, figure out how they're playing this thing better than we are," Kodaka said.

"They are not," Nagato informed him quietly. "They are cheating."

Now he jumped, as he realized that the girl had gotten up and was standing on the other side of him from Yukimura. "Wait, what?" he asked. "What do you mean, cheating?"

"They are using commands not present on your computers, giving them an advantage over this virtual galactic battlefield," Nagato "explained".

"What commands?"

Nagato fell silent for a while, as if trying to reorganize her thoughts and blinked, before answering, "Their search mode is turned off. When search mode is turned on, the players are required to scout the area ahead on their own. When it is off, they would not need to do any searching. The whole map would be shown."

Koizumi blinked. "You mean ... from the beginning, they could see the whole map of the galaxy, including the location of all of our fleets?"

Nagato nodded sharply. "Further, they are able to instantly move their ships around on the map."

"So, basically, there's no way that we can win this thing?" Haruna asked, getting up from where she was sitting beside Asahina.

"Not under the rules of the game as it is presently being played," Nagato confirmed.

"How did you figure this out?" Yozora asked, frowning.

Was it Kodaka's imagination, or did Nagato look a little evasive? "While I have philosophical objections to this genre, I was not oblivious to the fact that you were apparently enjoying yourselves, and found myself somewhat curious as to the function of the programs involved. By studying them, certain things became apparent almost immediately. However, there has not been the opportunity to address these matters until now."

"So can you set things up to give our systems the same options that they have?" Yozora asked, starting to smile evilly.

"Wait, waitwaitwaitwait," Haruna interjected before Nagato could say anything. "Two wrongs don't make a right -"

"Wow, for someone who says she doesn't want to be the conscience of the group, you're sure acting like the conscience of the group," Yozora sneered at her.

"Stick it yourself," Haruna growled.

It was at that moment that Haruhi walked back in. "Okay, so let's -"

"Haruhi," Kodaka said. "Nagato has something to tell you."

Nagato blinked.

"I see," Haruhi said, very quietly, once Nagato had repeated her explanation to her - more briefly, because Haruhi had been much quicker to grasp the implications of what was being said to her than any of them. "They never intended to play this thing fairly, then."

Kodaka hadn't been sure what he thought was going to happen when Haruhi found out the truth. He'd sort of expected her to fly into a fury, cursing and screaming and running down to the computer lab to kick ass and chew bubblegum, despite not having any to hand. Once again, this terribly quiet response was far more terrifying than that would have been. Nor was he the only one who thought so, judging by the way Mikuru was trembling and the moderately panicky glances that Koizumi was shooting his direction.

Maybe it would have been better if he'd handled this himself, privately, without letting her know that anything out of the ordinary was going on. But the whole point of this exercise, from his point of view, had been to make up for the way that they'd blown the chance to put Haruhi in charge. In that case, if they were temporarily allowing her to make important decisions like this, they should give her the information she needed to make them. That just stood to reason.

And she seemed to be taking it ... um, not well, exactly, but not too poorly.

"Yuki," Haruhi said after a moment. "You can implement the same features on our computers?"

Nagato nodded shortly.

"No, hold it, Suzumiya, cheating like this -" Haruna started to say.

"- is what they are doing, and since we are so much better people than they are, we shouldn't do it?" Haruhi responded, slowly turning to give Haruna a glare. "If someone starts moving their chess pieces around contrary to the rules, am I just supposed to play by them?"

"I didn't say that! If that happens, what you do is stop playing - we can go down to the computer lab, let them know that their little scheme failed, call the whole thing off."

"But then I don't get to win," Haruhi pointed out.

"Winning isn't -"

"Oh, do shut up," Haruhi interrupted, sounding completely disgusted. "You can only say that if you don't care about the outcome. You can only worry about playing fair if you don't care about the pawns."

Silence reigned in the club room.

"So ... then ..." Yozora started to ask.

"No, not really. But they are my pawns." Haruhi took a deep breath. "But ..." And now she paused, as if a new thought had just come to her, and, slowly, something that might charitably be called a smile grew on her face. "But, you know, saotome-sempai," she almost cooed. "That's actually not a bad idea. It just needs a little modification." Haruhi nodded. "Yesss. That's it. All hands, report to battle stations. There's winning, and there's losing ... and then there's losing with style."

Initially, the plan had been to defeat the Neighbors Club the old fashioned way, trusting to their inexperience to trip them up. But then, after seeing one of them - the one who'd been using the camera when their damned President showed up to try and blackmail them - carting one of the computers home with him, one of the club members had sneaked in after class the next day and done some checking. He'd been a little shocked by what he'd found. Their experiential edge wasn't nearly as sharp as they'd thought it was.

The greatest swordsman in the world doesn't fear the second greatest - he fears the complete newbie whom he has never seen fight before.

So the decision to cheat had been made; not without a certain reluctance, for admitting that simple intelligence wasn't going to be enough didn't come easily to some of them. But they were committed, now, and they really didn't want to lose the practically brand new computers that they'd spent most of their year's budget on.

The second game started, and played out just like the first - perhaps a bit quicker, if anything. The enemy couldn't see their fleets, the enemy couldn't react to them fast enough to do anything about them. They went down in flames within an incredibly brief time, and the victory rating that the computer club received was higher this time, since the Neighbors Club hadn't been able to inflict the damage that they'd managed to achieve in the previous round.

Noting this, the computer club president felt tempted to send them an offer to just let it stand at two out of three, rather than going for the humilation of three out of five. Then he remembered the feel of that Mikuru girl's breast under his hand, and smiled angrily. "Battlestations," he said, once the break was over, and he watched the third game begin with amusement.

Then all hell broke loose.

The enemy ships were teleporting. The enemy ships knew exactly where all of their ships were. And the minds behind those enemy ships were pissed. In even less time than the second round had taken, the computer club had suffered nearly eighty per cent casualties, and the Neighbors Club were poised to inflict the other twenty per cent. The president found himself reaching for the keyboard to send a surrender offer that he knew probably wouldn't be accepted, to buy a little time for him and his team to figure out what had gone wrong.

Before he could do so, the very message that he'd been about to send appeared on his own screen - an offer to surrender.

"What?" he said out loud. "But ... that makes no sense. They're winning, so why -" But his fingers outpaced his thoughts, and they hit the keys that sent an acceptance of the terms.

Only when it was over did he consider the possibility that there might just possibly be worse things waiting for him and his team than a simple defeat at a computer game.

At least they didn't have too long to wait to see what was going to happen. Less than ten minutes after the screen displayed their abysmally pathetic quote-unquote victory report, the door slid open and the Suzumiya person walked in, smiling brightly in the manner of someone about to declare victory rather than concede defeat. "Well, that was actually rather fun," she said. "Most of it was kind of a pain, but that last round? Quite a bit of fun, I think."

"Okay," said the president, getting to his feet - not terribly steadily, he had to admit to himself, but he was facing her, and that should count for something. Particularly since he was down to four other club members, since the three who'd been against the idea of cheating had high-tailed it out of there as soon as they'd realized what must have happened. "Okay, so ... things got a little out of hand, and we may have done some things that we regret -"

"Whatever do you mean?" Suzumiya asked, blinking innocently.

"Don't, don't taunt us, all right?" he asked. "We know that you know that we ... well, altered the progam's parameters in a way that favored our side over yours." Seeing her blinking in response, he gritted his teeth. "We know that you know it! You, I, somehow or other, someone on your side altered them to make it a level playing field again in that last round!"

"Oh, you're talking about the cheat mode," Suzumiya said, with the air of one at last grasping something that had heretofore greatly confused her. "Yeah, one of my girls figured out how to activate that. Sprung it on us without really explaining things, so when I figured out what was happening, I sent that surrender notice your way at once. Didn't you wonder why we surrendered when we were winning?"

Now he was blinking. "But ... I mean, why did you surrender if you knew we were cheating? I don't understand -"

"Oh, well," Suzumiya said, shrugging. "It's your computer program, right? I'm sure that if I made something like that, I'd do everything to make sure I won at it. And you know, in a real war, deception and treachery are perfectly legitimate tactics. Most of the thirty-six strategems are all about ways of telling lies. So ... anyways, we'll get those computers you loaned us back to you as soon as possible, and -"

"So you're not mad?" he heard one of his kouhai ask.

Suzumiya turned a warm, benevolent smile their way. "I'm not the least bit angry," she said warmly. "We'll get the computers back to you, we'll be sure and plug your game to everybody, and Mikuru, here, will -" She broke off, then looked behind her in the manner of one expecting to see someone there. Once she determined that, indeed, there wasn't anyone there, she sighed. "Mikuruuuu," she called out.

Slowly, the embarrassed-looking face of another girl - the one who'd been with Suzumiya before, the one who was supposed to have been the 'victim' of their 'sexual harassment' - peeked over the edge of the doorway. "Do I really have to do this?" she whined.

"Mikuru," Suzumiya said firmly. "What did you say when I asked you what you were willing to do for me?"

"... I said ... that I'd do anything ... but -"

"Ah ah ah, no but. Well, technically, quite a few butts. However, you didn't qualify that statement. So would you kindly get in here, and close the door behind you."

The girl audibly gulped, but obeyed these instructions promptly. Once more than her face came into view, so did an oddity - she was wearing a large cloth, about the size of a bed sheet, draped around her, covering everything but her head and neck - and one of her hands, which sneaked out through the cloth's folds to shut the door. Then, with one last look in Suzumiya's direction, Mikuru let the cloth fall.

Beneath, of course, she was completely naked.

"Whawhawhawha-" the president said.

"Well, the deal was, if we lost, you'd get Mikuru as a member," Suzumiya answered the question he hadn't quite managed to ask as she strolled over to where the terribly embarrassed looking girl was standing. She moved behind her, hands coming up around Mikuru's sides to grasp the remarkably large breasts, squeeze them hard enough to make the other girl gasp. "And this, of course, is what Mikuru has done for our club since she joined." This was punctuated by a tiny cry from the girl's lips as Suzumiya licked and then bit at one of her ears.

"But - but -"

"What is the deal with people and butts, anyway?" Suzumiya asked, bewilderedly. "I'd think you'd be way more interested in this end of a sexy girl like this one." With that, her hand went down between Mikuru's legs, and vigorously rubbed what was just a few centimeters beneath the tiny bit of neatly trimmed reddish-brown pubic hair for a few moments, before quickly coming back up and darting into Suzumiya's mouth.

"Mmm, so delicious!" she said. "Now, I wouldn't mind showing you all the stuff that Mikuru and I do together -"

Ohyesohyesohyesohyesohyes, thought more than one person in the room.

"- but, well, that wasn't in the arrangement, and she's not in my club anymore," Suzumiya added, regretfully. "She's in yours. Enjoy, me buckos!" And with that, she shoved Mikuru from behind. The girl wobbled forward a few steps before collapsing to her knees, right in front of the president, looking up at him with a frightened expression.

"... pwease be gentle," Mikuru whimpered.

It wasn't the first time she'd had sex with a cis-male, of course. It wasn't even the first time she'd had sex with several cis-males. That had happened on the dizzy night right after everyone in her peer group was declared a sexual adult, and their heretofore furtive sexual exploration of each other exploded into a huge orgy that spread across the whole garden, with every possible combination and grouping being tried at least once by someone.

It had more or less convinced her that her interests lay with her own gender, not because she'd hated what the 'boys' had done with her or anything like that, but mostly because 'girls' just plain felt better. Admittedly, some of the 'boys' had been sweet, particularly that one with the light brown hair and the cocky smile that reminded her a bit of ... well, that wasn't important. She couldn't even remember his name, really. Then again, she couldn't remember any of their names; those were in the sections of her memory that had been erased before she went on this mission.

They probably weren't terribly important.

Anyway, even though she'd thought it would never happen, here she was again, using her mouth and hands to satisfy three of the computer club 'boys' - no, boys, rather, 'boys' didn't yet exist - while behind her, another of them was about to penetrate her vaginally. He was hesitating in a way that suggested that this was his first experience, which made her feel a bit sorry for him. First experiences should be private, and emotionally significant. Well, it couldn't be helped, any more than it could be helped that she couldn't give any advice about how to go about doing it, since her mouth and her tongue were otherwise occupied.

"Oh god, oh god, oh god!" the president said as he occupied them, fingers twitching as he tried to hold on to the sides of her head. From the way that he was reacting, it clearly wasn't his first experience, though that reaction also suggested that this one was better. That was sort of flattering, in a way, but it was also to be expected. She had been trained, after all.

(Mikuru failed to consider the possibility that so had the person with whom the president had had that first experience.)

Ahl There it was, rather quickly. The boy in her vagina fell back, his member still hard but dripping the semen he'd just spilled into her. She heard the boy she was holding in her right hand pull yelp, felt him pull back, and then a moment later felt herself penetrated a second time. The yelp told her that the boy in question probably had the fairly common reluctance to engage in even second-order same-sex contact, and wanted to get in before anyone else did. She turned the reflexive shake of her head at that sort of silliness into a head motion to get her mouth off the president's unit and onto the other boy's, shifting his into her now free hand.

In the back of her mind, she wondered why the fifth boy was hesitating so much. Then, if she hadn't already reached down to rub her clitoris, she'd have used her left hand to tap herself on the head for wondering something so obvious. Well, she couldn't do anything about thaaaat! And there was the second ejaculation, and that boy also fell back.

She stopped wanking the third boy - It might have been a good idea to get their names before I started this, Mikuru thought ruefully - just long enough to tap a certain pressure point on the president's hip, which made him collapse backwards onto a chair that someone, probably Suzumiya-san, had put in the right place for it. That accomplished, she crawled up and onto him, sliding onto his erection. Surprisingly, he didn't ejaculate right away, and even managed to caress her and comfort her a bit - what a sweet thing to do! - before she was distracted by the third boy shoving himself up her rectum.

Clearly, boy three had seen his fair share of porn. Well, this was still nothing new to her, though she honestly thought it was probably more enjoyable for a male or cis-male than it was for her. And she expected that he was about to find out that for himself, judging from the way that the last boy was now approaching her with his penis finally out and erect, moving to her rear, and -

Wait. He wasn't doing what she'd been expecting him to do.

"Hey, what are you doing!" the president called out.

"Shut up!" he replied as he shoved the tip of his penis into her vagina alongside the president.

Oh. That ... that was something she actually had not done before. And ... no, this was not very pleasant, at all, and she doubted that anyone involved should be enjoying it if they were, even though she couldn't find the words to express this thought, and all that emerged from her mouth was a series of high-pitched squeaks, as one by one they spent inside her, then dropped back, before she herself collapsed to the ground, unable to move.

The president, breathing heavily, looked down on her with a shocked expression. "I can't, I can't believe we -" He broke off, motivated by an intuition whose source he couldn't explain, and looked in the direction of Suzumiya.

Who was sitting not far away, one hand calmly masturbating as the other held up a tiny video camera. Her finger came off the record button as soon as he looked up.

"So," said Haruhi. "About that whole 'no photographic proof' thing."

After a brief interval - the early parts of which involved several boring cries of 'blackmail' and 'entrapment' and a delicate reminder of what had just a little bit earlier been said about strategy, followed by a citation of the phrase 'scheme with beauties' - Haruhi was walking along one of the streets of Mahora and looking rather pleased with herself. "Yes, that worked out rather well indeed," she said again. (There'd been a fair amount of self-congratulation in there as well. Aren't you glad we skipped over it?)

"Yes, Suzumiya-san," Mikuru repeated quietly as she followed along behind her, moving unsteadily but nowhere nearly as unsteadily as she'd been even a few minutes ago, when Suzumiya had helped her of the room and led her down the hall to the art club's studio, where they'd stashed her clothes and picked up the tarp she used to cover herself.

Haruhi nodded. "Okay. Are you good to get home by yourself?" she asked, turning to look back at Mikuru.

It was the first bit of concern that she'd shown for Mikuru's welfare since it began. When she'd been half-carrying her down the hallway, she'd seemed annoyed at the inconvenience more than anything else. Even now, Mikuru had the sinking feeling that she was only asking because she didn't want to have to accompany her back to the dorms. Except - "Don't you live in the same dorms as I do?"

"Of course not," Haruhi answered promptly. "I live in my parents' house, over that way." She gestured vaguely towards what Mikuru recognized as the teachers' district.

"Then -"

"I don't want to talk about it," Haruhi said flatly.

"... okay. Um. I, I think I'll be okay ... on my own," Mikuru said, hesitating both because that was what a moe girl would have done, and, well, because.

"Good, good." Was it her imagination or did Suzumiya seem a little hesitant all of a sudden? "If, um, if you're worried, I have some contacts who can hook you up with the morning-after pill." And sound that way, too?

Mikuru blinked. "What's a morning-after pill?" she asked, sounding out the obvious English loan words.

Haruhi actually flushed. "Well, obviously, it's a pill that you take the morning after you've had sex with a guy, so that you won't ... you know."

"... find it hard to walk?" Mikuru asked, bewildered.


A moment of clarity ensued. "Oh!" Mikuru said, blushing. "Um, that's, that's, that's not necessary, Suzumiya-san, it's a safe day." This was technically true, since all days were safe for her. The joys of being cis-female.

"Oh," Haruhi said, frowning. "Well, that's good. Convenient, too." She nodded, slowly. "I'll see you tomorrow, then." And with that, she turned and started to walk away.

"Um! Suzumiya-san?" Mikuru asked, raising her voice.

"Yes?" Haruhi asked, pausing but not looking back.

"... are you happy with this?"

Haruhi still didn't look back. "Why wouldn't I be? I won, right? Just like I always do. I won." And then she resumed her steady pace away from Mikuru.

It occurred to Mikuru that that wasn't really an answer to the question she'd just asked. But it wouldn't be until the next day, when her roommate came in with a story about finally being given some training in how to open her third eye ("Metaphor! Metaphor!" Ku-san quickly said when Mikuru started staring at her forehead) to help fight a bunch of very powerful giants that she realized what the answer actually was.

And how badly she'd failed, without ever knowing why.

Not far from where Mikuru was standing and watching Haruhi walk away, an older woman who looked much like her was sitting on a park bench watching her. She shook her head, sadly.

"Just one more step to becoming me," the older Asahina Mikuru murmured. And sighed.

Chapter Text

For a precious few seconds, as Rito woke up that morning, he found himself believing that it had all been a dream, just a horrible, horrible dream. (Okay, some parts of it weren't that horrible, but nonetheless.) And then, as he slowly came to full consciousness, he realized that one of his hands was pressing against something which was soft, but lacked the feeling of a pillow. It was ... warmer, somehow.

He opened his eyes to see what it was.

Just a few inches away from his face, eyes still closed in sleep and a faint line of drool running down one cheek to the pillow, Lala was lying beneath the same blanket as him, one elbow just a little higher than the other to show that she was quite naked beneath it.

Rito panicked, albeit in a quiet and restrained manner. [i]Ahhhhhhhhh![/i] he shrieked inwardly. Naaaaaakeedddd! Wait, then am I touching -- At what seemed like agonizingly slow speeds, he turned to look down at where his hand was. With a sigh of relief, he realized that it was resting against Peke's head as the tiny droid sat in standby mode between the two of them, a bit like a knight's sword resting between a knight and a lady.

And then, just as he was thinking that, Rito realized that his other hand was pressed against Lala's breasts.

The inward shriek became an outward one as he rapidly threw himself away from her, out of the bed and up to his bedroom wall, against which he managed to press as though he'd been thrown there by an explosion. Which he sort of had.

As he did so, Lala awoke. "Good morning, Rito," she said dazedly as she sat up in bed, giving him a nice long look at her breasts as she stretched her arms to one side. "Nice of you to provide me with an alarm. It was very soothing."

"What are you doing in my bed?" Rito hissed.

"Up until a few moments ago, I was slee--"

"No! Don't say it!"

Lala sighed. "Ritoooo," she groaned. "I think you are a very generous, brave, and kind person. But in addition to having very little talent for telling believable lies, your flaws include a tendency to make contradictory requests. I would urge you to correct this tendency. It will anger those around you, and cause them to grow distant. This is not something I would wish for you." She shook her head sadly.

"Why are you naked and in my bed?" Rito snapped, at last seizing the opportunity to get a word in edgewise.

"I prefer to sleep in this manner," Lala stated the obvious. "Further, while I could have Peke replicate a pair of -- what are they called again?"

"Pyjamas, Lala-sama," said Peke, who had by this time come out of standby and either flown or perhaps crawled up to a position on her shoulder.

"Thank you, Peke. While I could have Peke replicate a pair of pyjamas, it's more convenient if she is dormant at the same time that I am." She nodded, then continued, as if having realized that she was behaving in far too logical a manner, "And besides, we're married. This is how husbands and wives live together, isn't it?"

"We're not married," Rito observed. He was fairly sure that this wasn't going to do any good, but he also felt fairly sure that it was important to make his position quite clear.

"No, not yet," agreed Lala. "As yet, our relationship would only be considered a common law arrangement. I'm sure that we can work out the details of its legitimization and sanctification before the children come along."

"Okay, now you're just --" And then Rito broke off, as his voice failed him. "Children?" he squeaked.

"Immature examples of the species," Lala explained. "One is about to open the bedroom door."

Sure enough, the door opened and Mikan looked in. "Rito, you really need to get up or you're going to be late for --" And then Rito's sister broke off, as her voice failed her.

"Good morning, Mikan!" Lala said, waving politely as she sat naked in the bed.

"Good morning, Lala-san," Mikan replied, in the same calm, level tone that she always used when giving Rito variations on 'the speech'. She seemed to search for something else to say for a few moments, then, after a deep breath and quick shake of her head, asked, "Did you sleep well?" In the tone of one who suspects the answer.

"Eventually, yes," Lala replied, sunnily.

"Uh huh, I bet you did. Sorry to disturb you both." And with that not terribly sincere-sounding statement, Mikan closed the door again.

"... I think she may have read more into my statement than I actually intended," Lala mused after a moment. "It's a peril that all who are more perceptive than average must guard against, as I know to my own misfortune. Still, that's no reason to disregard her advice. Peke! Do your thing!"

Before Rito could express anything of the welter of confused thoughts which had occupied his mind in the moments before Mikan had opened the door, and those which had resumed after she had closed it -- there had only been void between his ears in the interval when his little sister was present, empty, silent void -- Lala was once again being wrapped in tentacles that, after some tightening motions, looked like something out of a really perverted magical girl anime. Once the process ceased, however, she was garbed in a duplicate of his school's girl uniform.

"Where -- how --"

"Is the dull creature casting aspersions on my ability to duplicate the simple fabrics and basic patterns employed by his academic institution as a uniform?" asked Peke's voice. After a moment of confusion, Rito saw Peke's face on a hair dec set fetchingly over one of Lala's ears, and realized that was the source of the voice.

"I'm sure he was just surprised, Peke," Lala assured the droid, then turned her attention back to Rito. "You should get dressed, too." She made no steps towards getting out of the room so that he could do so without disrobing in front of her.

"In a minute!" Rito at last said. "First off, I want to know what you mean by 'when the children come'?"

Lala blinked. "I think it was obvious. Oh! Is there some sort of idiom concerning that? Idioms can cause a bit of a problem with the translation --"

"No, I mean, are children coming right now?" he asked. "Can you -- I mean --" Visions of her somehow becoming pregnant just by sleeping beside him, rather than due to any action on his part, swam in his mind, in a desperate search for a way to express themselves without mortal embarrassment on his part.

"Oh, goodness, no," Lala said, appalled. "None of my suitors appealed to me, so I didn't ovulate during any of my encounters with them. I'm certainly not pregnant by any of those louts. What I meant," she continued, incorrectly reading Rito's horrified expression, "was that when we decide, mutually, to bring children into this world, I'm sure that we will also be able to work out --"

"You had sex with those guys?!" Rito shrieked.

Lala blinked. "Didn't I mention that the sex being so unpleasant was a factor in my decision to run away?" she asked.

"Yes, but, you, I, no, what, how --" he babbled for a while.

After a moment, Lala slowly nodded to herself, sat down on Rito's bed and patted a space beside her. "Rito. Come sit down here beside me."

"Is that how it's going to happen?" he asked, trying and failing to back through the wall.

"Rito. Sit down." She was no longer trying to phrase it as a polite request.

Very hesitantly, Rito pulled away from the wall and staggered over to the bed, where he sat down beside Lala, avoiding contact with her person.

She promptly ruined that by resting a hand on his knee as she half-turned to look at him. "We are going to discuss biology, now."

"Um, I've, I've already had the talk," Rito protested, blushing brightly.

"... I don't know what that means, so I'm going to ignore it for now," Lala said after a moment. "Rito, despite the short span of our acquaintance, I suspect that you've largely come to view me as a member of your own species with some odd surface abnormalities. That is certainly the attitude taken by that sad young woman who interrogated me the other day, and I suspect that many others in our class take the same attitude."

"I, I know that you're not human," Rito interrupted.

"Yes, you know this, intellectually, but that has nothing to do with your reflexive perception of me," Lala said, calmly. "This does not bother me, Rito, but it is an impediment to our growing understanding of one another, and so I'm going to have to explain some things to you."

"Am I going to survive the explanation?" he asked, weakly.

"Probably. Let me begin by asking you a question. Why, among the members of your species, is virginity considered an asset for a female?"

"Uh?" Rito asked in response.

"This is not Socratic inquiry, Rito, please give me a statement as an answer."

"Ooookay ... ah. Because, well, because ... I don't really want to say this, but it's all that I can come up with."

"You won't offend me."

"Nobody wants to receive used goods," he concluded, and flinched away.

Lala considered for a moment, then nodded. "That's not the answer I was hoping for, but it's actually an accurate summary. When a male of your species enters into what is typically a permanent partnership with a female, it is natural for him to want to assure that the offspring of that female are all also his own offspring. While the endorsement of familial arrangements based on monogamy, or more often some form of polygyny, are the most obvious part of attempts to assure this, a more subtle way is to insist that a female's first sexual partner should be her only one -- in other words, the sanctification of virginity."

Rito stared. "Uh ... okay, I'm not really sure that I got all of that, but I think I get what you're saying ... sort of ..."

"In any event, that's your species. Mine is different. Where your species does not have much control over its own fertility -- in theory, any sexual encounter between two sexually compatible beings could result in pregnancy, barring a few technological methods of preventing it, certain sex acts which can also prevent it, and part of the cycle of menstruation -- mine has total control over it. If a male of my species does not wish to become a father, he will not release sperm. If a female of my species does not wish to become a mother, she will not ovulate. Do you understand what I'm saying now?"

"Uh ... yeah," Rito agreed, blushing brightly.

"All right. As a consequence, my species does not put a great deal of importance in sexual fidelity. Well, that's an over-generalization," she admitted. "Chastity is actually much more important among my people than it is among other mazoku, though still not as much as it is among humans. But it is normal for marriage meetings -- what you would call omiai in your language -- to involve a sexual encounter so that both parties can learn whether they would enjoy sex with each other, since a failure in this area can lead to failures elsewhere in the relationship."

Now Rito found himself nodding, fascinated in spite of himself. "And you -- you didn't like --"

"No," Lala said firmly. "I did not. I would greatly prefer to not discuss my meeting with what amounts to a sentient slime mold, Rito, but if you insist --"

"Nope, nope, I'm good," Rito agreed.

"So are we good, then?" Lala asked, smiling warmly at him.

"Well," Rito said, hesitantly. "I mean ... actually, now that you've said all this ... Lala, I'm not exactly the smartest guy out there --"

"This is an understatement."

"Shush, Peke."

He did his best to ignore that byplay. It wasn't hard. His extreme discomfort with the question he was trying to ask helped quite a bit. "-- but, I mean, if we're of different species, then ... how can we ..." He trailed off, waving his hands vaguely. "... y'know?" he concluded, somewhat weakly.

"Mate and produce offspring?" Lala supplied.

He just about collapsed to the floor. "Among your qualities, Lala, a certain delicacy is not to be found," he said weakly.

"Really?" she asked, startled by the idea. "I had no idea! I may have to work on improving that. Peke, do you think I lack delicacy?"

"Not even remotely, Lala-sama!" the droid assured her. "Shall we kill the lout for his offensive suggestion?"

Lala considered.

"Ah ..." gasped a pale, sweaty Rito.

"Oh," she said after a moment. "I think I see what you mean by a lack of delicacy, Rito. Yes, I will definitely have to work on improving this." She nodded soberly.

"That's good," he said, nodding back at her as the mortal terror which had gripped his soul eased slightly. "Um, so about what I was asking --"

"Persistent!" Lala said, admiringly. "As it happens, Rito, it is possible for our species to interbreed, using some slight technological assistance. A number of my suitors were more or less human, and there have been other instances of my species wedding members of yours. The Crown Princess of the Urusei wed a human from this very nation, a generation or so ago, but ... well, that's a sad, long tale that I won't have time to go into before we go to school."

"Oh, right, school," Rito said, agreeably, then glanced at his clock. "Oh, right, school!" he shrieked a moment later. "We're never gonna make it in time!"

"Yes we will," she assured him.

Moments later, Rito was screaming like a little girl as Lala carried him bridal-style while running down the streets at what felt like just a bit less than the speed of sound. (Had she known this was his impression, she'd have corrected him, since it wasn't even more than about 10% of the speed of sound.)

They did get to class on time, but whether it was worth it or not was another question. Specifically, it was the question, "is it worth it to get to class on time if in doing so you are rendered incapable of paying attention to the lessons being taught?" (Only a cynical person would say no.) While Lala was of course unaffected by the dash, Rito spent most of the first few periods trying to calm himself down from that experience, without much in the way of success.

By the start of lunch, though, he felt sufficiently relaxed to be able to look forward to some food, and sure that he'd be able to follow the lessons in the afternoon. After all, he thought, it's not like anything else is going to happOH GOD WHAT AM I THINKING NO NO NO! He cringed down on his desk top, awaiting the worst.

"Um, Yuuki-kun?" asked Sairenji, seated nearby and looking at him. "Is something the matter?"

After a moment, Rito straightened up. "Ah, no, no, of course not. I just ... felt like cringing for no good reason?"

"Oh," she said, dubiously. "Well --"

And that, of course, was when the door to the classroom slammed open and a girl walked in with a furious look on her face. "I didn't believe it," the green-haired girl, rather cute if not for the fury that shone from her odd pink eyes. "No, I just didn't want to believe it," she continued as she slowly walked into the classroom, eyes fixed on one particular student. "I finally thought that here, in this of all places, I would be free of you and the grief and shame you have brought to my life. But no!" she cried as she started to walk down the row towards where Lala was sitting. "You have followed me here, too! To wreck the new life that I've found, here in this remote region! You are a demon in truth, not merely in form! Why are you tormenting me? Why? Why? Why can't you simply let me be, Lala Satalin Deviluke?" she almost shrieked as she stood in front of Lala's desk.

Lala tilted her head a bit to one side. "Um ... who are you?" she asked, puzzled.

As the girl collapsed to the ground, weeping and pounding the floor with a clenched fist, the rest of the class, who had nearly all been watching this, stood up to get a better view.

"Hang on," said Kuroda Hikari. "I think I recognize her. Aren't you Jewelria, from Class 1-E?" she asked, stumbling a bit over the pronunciation of the odd name. "How do you know --"

"Oh, come on, it's obvious," interjected Momioka, grinning broadly. "They're obviously long-time friends and rivals in love!"

"Geh, seriously?" asked Kuroda, making a face. "Lala-san came all this way to meet up with a romantic rival, just by chance. That's so contrived!"

"Rivals in love?" asked the girl, standing up. "If only that were so! You, you -" she directed at Lala. "I've even heard that you've entangled some poor resident of this town in your coils!"

"Jewelria?" Lala was asking, eyes gone distant. "Why does that name sound so familiar?"

"Nyerrrrgh!" Once the girl's teeth were unclenched, she continued. "And of course you'll have arranged to be in that poor fool's class." She looked around, whipping her head from one side to the other. "That's right -- you are the poor fool, Yuuki Rito!" she cried, pointing at Sawanaga.

"Um ... oy, have you got the wrong guy," he said in response, pointing in the actual direction of Rito.

"Oh, yes, of course. You're obviously not attractive enough to draw this doom upon you," the girl said in what she probably meant to be an apologetic tone.

"... oh, hey now!" Sawanaga protested.

"So you --" she said, breaking off as she looked right at Rito.

"Um, hi?" he said.

The girl stared at him. "You?" she said at length. "You are the poor fool entangled in her schemes?"

"Um ... well, yeah," Rito said. It was hard to argue with that, even the parts of it that were blows to his self-esteem.

She continued to stare at him, breaking her gaze only once to glance bewilderedly at Lala - who for her part was looking back at her with the expression of one trying to place a face. Seeing that expression apparently helped the girl to make up her mind as to her next course of action, for she frowned angrily. "Okay, then! If that's how it's going to be -" She grabbed hold of Rito's wrist, yanked him up out of his seat and began running away towards the classroom door.

"No running in the hallways, please," said Asakura Ryoko, who'd been seated at her own desk watching all of this with her usual pleasant smile.

The girl, of course, didn't bother to slow down as she dragged Rito out the door.

"Oh, dear," Asakura said, shaking her head sadly while still smiling.

Just as she vanished from sight, Lala blinked. "Oh, her! That's - hey, where do you think you're taking Rito!" she cried, then dashed out into the hallway in pursuit. In her own mind, she was actually obeying the individual she'd been told was a 'class representative' (some sort of authority) by not running. If she'd been running, she'd probably have torn up the floor.

"Iincho!" protested Sawada, sitting right behind Asakura. "Are you just going to let it go at that?"

"What's there to be done?" Asakura asked, smiling in a sad sort of way. "It would be going beyond the boundaries of my duties to intrude on a private matter concerning Deviluke-san and Yuuki-san. Of course, if a pair of my classmates were to follow them and determine whether this is a matter for the entire class, then report back to me, that would be another matter."

"You rock, iincho!" Momioka cheered, and she and Sawada quickly headed out after them.

"Such good girls," Asakura mused aloud. More privately, she might have added, Such good, useful girls.

The next thing Rito knew, he was being dragged through the roof access doorway onto the rooftop. For reasons that defied his later understanding, the first question that sprang to his mind as the girl finally came to a stop was, "Wait a minute, isn't the door to the roof supposed to be locked?"

"Locked?" she asked, turning to look at him with an amazed expression. "It's a simple mechanical latch - how in the world is that supposed to keep anyone out?"

Ah. Much was suddenly made clear. "I'm just guessing here, but would you happen not to be from this planet?" Rito asked.

"Well, obviously - um, I mean, since I am actually trying to keep it a secret, I suppose it isn't so obvious, but after what I said to Lala, it should certainly be -"

"Right," he said, nodding. "But not the same one as Lala, because, well, I don't think you're hiding a tail." He glanced downward then immediately returned his eyes to her face when he realized what he'd just done.

Apparently, she hadn't notice. "Certainly not," she said, just a bit haughtily. "My people are from the nation of Memorze on the world of Mundus Magica - what you Terrestrials insist on calling Mars."

Looking at her face was convenient, actually, because it allowed him to glance up at the top of her head. "Mm-hm," he said absently. "Do the antennae retract?"

"... antennae?" she asked, blinking.

"Because, well, I mean ... never mind. Who are you, anyway?"

She smiled broadly. "This exalted person," she began to say, "is -"

"Run Elise Jewelria!" Lala exclaimed as she bolted through the doorway.

"Curse you!" snapped Run - for indeed that was her name - as she whirled to face her. "Must you ruin even this?"

Heedless of this, Lala came over to her, smiling warmly. "It's so nice to see you again! It's been such a long time, and I'm really surprised to meet you under these circumstances! How are you? Have you and Ren --"

"Hssssst!" Run hissed. (You may have guessed that was what that onamatopoeia was supposed to represent. Good job if you did.) "Not a word about him! Not. One. Word!"

"Oh," said Lala, looking oddly abashed. "Yes, I suppose you would prefer not to have that cultural taboo exposed. But, nevertheless, how are you --"

"Did you not pay any attention when I greeted you the first time?" Run ranted. "This is not a friendly, happy encounter between old friends who are happy to see each other!"

"But we are old friends and I am happy to see you," Lala protested, now looking oddly bewildered. "I don't understand why you wouldn't be happy to see me."

The girl drew herself up and seemed about to start delivering some sort of blistering response ... when she abruptly sagged down again. "Well, that pretty much says it all right there, doesn't it?" she sneered.


"None of that matters, now!" Run declared, stepping back to where Rito had been standing and watching all this with the same dazed expression he'd had while watching Lala confronting the pursuers. The girl grabbed hold of his arm and pressed up against him, sending him into a mild panic. "I will be erasing that terrible past and beginning a new future, by stealing the heart of this handsome young man --" She paused, coughing briefly. "-- who is entangled in your designs!"

"Ehhhh? You're going to steal Rito's heart?" Lala asked, now quite startled. "I presume you mean figuratively and not literally!"

"Yes, figuratively," Run snapped, then muttered, in a voice that Rito thought she didn't realize he could hear, "Damned scientist!"

"Oh, that's something of a relief, but ... how are you going to do that?" Lala asked.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Run exclaimed.

"Yes, I would!" Lala agreed.

They stood awhile, in silence.

"Um, Lala," Rito said, after a moment. "I think there's maybe a translation problem. 'Wouldn't you like to know' isn't a question, it's an implication that whoever's saying it isn't going to reveal anything."

"Oh," said Lala, patting her knuckles against her forehead lightly. "How gauche of me."

"Anyway," Rito continued, trying to pull away from Run. "Look, I really don't want to get in the middle of all this, so if you could - ohhh, hell," he broke off as he heard the faint sounds of sinister laughter coming from the doorway.

Momioka and Sawada seemed to burst out through the door a moment later, both still cackling madly. "Oh no," Momioka said, "oh no no no. This won't do at all! You can't just walk away from such ardent young ladies, Yuuki-kuuuun!"

"It's a competition for a young man's heart! How thrilling! How exciting! And yet how possibly chaotic!" Sawada cheered beside her.

"But we'll take care of that!" Momioka said, smiling broadly, as she brought one hand up to her shoulder, fingers pointing oddly. "For we are! Very bored!"

"And!" responded Sawada, posing in a similar manner. "Easily amused!"

The three other people gathered on the rooftop stared at this display for a few moments.

"... pardon my simplicity, Rito, but is this an example of the sort of complicated wordplay that Japanese people are rumored to enjoy?" Lala asked eventually.

"I think so, yeah, but the kanji involved are really obscure, so it'd take way too long to explain what the heck they're trying to say," Rito said wearily.

"Ah," Lala said with a quiet nod of understanding.

"What exactly are you girls saying?" Run asked suspciously.

"You can't just steal someone's heart like that!" Sawada explained.

"Well, you can ... but that doesn't make it right," Momioka elaborated. "Unless the girl is a total skank and the guy is way too good for her, then it's absolutely the right thing to do!"

"I would submit that at least one of those conditions applies!" Run replied.

"Well, maybe, but still. It's better to resolve this sort of thing through a contest of the maidenly arts!" Sawada insisted.

"Or not so maidenly as the case may be," Momioka said with a naughty grin and a little hip bump with Sawada.

"What exactly are you proposing?" Lala asked, fascinated.

"Karaoke!" they squealed as one. "Karaoke for Rito's heart!"

"So of course they agreed," Momioka reported, somewhat later.

"Just like that?" Asakura asked with a surprised smile.

"Well, no," she admitted readily. "There was some boring protest from Yuuki, about how he didn't think it was right to settle important matters of the heart with simple competitions, and all that rot, but I figure you don't really want to listen to boring stuff. The point is, Lala-chi and her old girlfriend both agreed to resolve matters through a karaoke duel."

"Wellll," Sawada interjected, making a face behind her glasses. "I don't know whether you could really call it an agreement when it came to Lala-chi. I mean, she's all for the karaoke, but I'm not honestly sure if she really understands what's going on here. I think she thinks this is just a friendly sing-along."

"Details," Momioka replied airily. "Anyway, we'll be meeting up with the three of them after school."

"I see," Asakura said. "Well done, girls. I don't think this is really the sort of thing that a class representative should involve herself in, but you seem to be handling it very well. However, I do have some minor suggestions for amendments to the plan thus far."

"Really?" Momioka asked. "Cool! What?"

"Well," she said, drawing out the word as she made adjustments to her eyelashes while looking in the washroom mirror. "It occurs to me that there might be some other interested parties."

"You mean like Sairenji-san?" Sawada asked.

Asakura blinked. "I wasn't actually thinking of her. But now that you mention it, I seem to recall that Yuuki-kun has something of an interest in her, as well." It wasn't something that had ever concerned her, so she hadn't devoted more than a few microscopic units of memory to the subject - but she remembered everything.

"Hey, yeah!" Sawada said, turning towards Momioka. "We should bring her along, too! That'll make things really interesting, won't it?"

Momioka nodded, but Asakura wasn't quite done yet. "However, I was actually thinking of someone else in our class, who has often had difficulties fitting in with the others. Someone who would probably enjoy this sort of excursion, even if she wouldn't be willing to admit it."

"You mean ... Suzumiya-san?" Momioka asked. "But I thought --"

"No no no," Asakura said quickly, never losing her smile. "I said we'd let Hasegawa take care of her, and we will." Very definitely not Suzumiya, this situation was bound to expose her to more of the strangeness, and her defenses might falter ... which was not at all to the Radical Faction's interest. "I was thinking of someone else entirely ..."

"As someone once said, 'For what I am now about to endure, I will one day take vengeance on God himself,'" said Yuuki Nao as she glared up at, yes, that karaoke establishment, once again. "And I'm going to start with you two if any costumes come out!" she added, turning that ferocious glare on the two girls who'd dragged her and Sairenji here.

Sairenji Haruna, meanwhile, had long since passed beyond being pleasantly confused by the prospect of being dragged into a karaoke expedition by Risa and Mio (as she, at least, thought of them, since she was friendly with them if not exactly friends with them, as such.) That genial bewilderment had taken its first hit when she'd learned that Nao-san (again, as she thought of her, since she didn't want to confuse her with Yuuki-kun by calling her Yuuki-san or even just Yuuki) was also being dragooned into the expedition, and had continued to suffer as the red-haired girl griped all the way here.

Haruna tried to think well of everyone. It was a difficult thing to do at the best of times, which these certainly weren't. And while she'd never actually had dealings with Nao-san before this, she was friendly (again, not friends as such) with Kotegawa Yui, their class' slightly over-zealous member of the Student Council Executive, who'd taken the opportunity to complain about the semi-notorious delinquent to her. From what Yui had told her, it was a mirac- a surprise that the girl hadn't been expelled in her last year of junior high. At the time, of course, Haruna had wanted to believe that the fact that she hadn't been must have meant that she was trying to improve her bad behavior.

"I mean it, you damn nuisance, if I see even a hint of a costume, my foot will be so far up your ass you'll think you were born that way!"

It was becoming quite clear that this wasn't the case, and Risa's snickered response ("Ooh, kinky!") didn't make Haruna any more comfortable with this situation. She now really wished that she'd put up more of than the pro forma argument she'd made when she'd been invited along.

Well, once they got settled down for some singing, things should get better.

"Ah, there you are!" said a voice that was becoming unpleasantly familiar to Haruna. She sighed. So much for things getting better, she thought sadly as she turned to look at Lala - who was, of course, accompanied by Yuuki-kun and that Jewelria person who'd intruded on their class earlier that day. "Accompanied" was not the best word, but "trying to think well of everyone" prevented her from thinking of their arrangement as "two hoydens dragging a poor innocent boy along with them".

And then things got even worse, as Yuuki-kun noticed her presence and visibly panicked, making her flinch. From everything that had happened recently, she'd gotten the pretty clear impression that he disliked her for some reason, which was unfortunate, because she'd always thought he was rather sweet. If not for the incident -- well. It was pointless to try and imagine her life without the incident. But it still hurt her a bit to see the fear in the boy's face, and hear it in his voice.

"Ah," he said. "Um," he said. "I didn't expect you to be here, too, Sai-sai-sairenji-san," he stammered at last.

"Didn't I mention that we were going to be bringing all concerned parties?" Risa said, smiling broadly, before Haruna could say anything.

She wondered what that expression was supposed to mean, and why it made Yuuki-kun go even paler and stammer wordlessly. Well, it was probably not too important. "I don't know how long I can stay," she said. "I might have to go home quickly, if my sister calls and tells me that she needs me."

"Needs you for what?" Mio asked, blinking.

"... you know," Haruna replied. "Family business."

"Ah," Mio said, nodding as though she understood, which she didn't, but that was what you were supposed to do in this situation.

"I might have to duck out early, too," Nao announced. "My mom is just starting her physical therapy, so she might need some help getting home."

"Oh," said Yuuki-kun, noticing the red-head's presence for the first time. "Uh, didn't know you were going to be here either, ah - should I call you Nao-san?"

"Just Nao," the girl said with a lack of concern. She looked around, then leaned close to him and whispered something that Haruna couldn't make out. (It was "You're boned, you know.") Again, here was a girl who seemed to be on far more intimate terms with Yuuki-kun than any reasonable person - such as Haruna considered herself to be - would have expected. What was up with him?

Why wasn't she herself that close to him?

Eventually, after some more alleged witticisms from Sawada and Momioka at the service counter and on the way to the booth to which Rito didn't actually pay any attention, they got in to the room and settled down to start singing. Fortunately, it wasn't going to be 'singing', which was what it would have been if they'd expected him to take part. Unfortunately, they didn't expect him to sing (or rather 'sing') because he was going to be judging the competition.

Nao was right. He was boned.

How had it come to this? One of these girls, he'd only met today. He'd only known Lala for less than a week, even if it felt much much longer than that. Obviously, he should pick Sairenji, but ... he had a feeling that terrible things would happen if he did that. Lala was here on Earth because she was running away from home, and from the sounds of things, her father was a rather scary person. For all that he knew about Run, her father could be even scarier! What if he chose Sairenji and both of them went crying home to their father? Could he live with the destruction that might result?

Wait, no. On further consideration, whether he could live with it would be a secondary consideration when compared to the possibility that he was not going to be permitted to live with it. On that cheery thought, he settled in to watch girls singing.

However, as it turned out, it started out with some 'singing' instead. Sawada and Momioka insisted on taking the first song for themselves, as a duet. They were laughably bad vocalists, but he supposed that they might be making up for it a bit with their performance, which involved a lot of gazing soulfully into each others eyes, and 'singing' right into each others face, at such a close distance that there always seemed to be the possibility that their lips might touch, just a bit.

Rito found it romantic but a bit embarrassing to watch, while Lala and Run seemed to be paying at best technical attention. From the look on her face, Nao was really unimpressed.

"Okay, then!" Momioka said, as she held out the mike when she was done. "Who's up next?"

"Let me get this out of the way," Nao said, holding up her hand.

"Great!" said Momioka, as she handed off the mike to her.

Nao took her position in front of the machine, paused momentarily, then murmured, "This one's for you, Mai." And then proceeded to do a pitch-note perfect rendition of Roses Fall in Beauty.

"Oh," said Momioka, once it was done.

"Wow," said Sawada. Shaking her head, as if to clear it, "Uh, what did you think, Yuuki-kun?"

"That was really great! Just great!" he said, a possible strategy starting to occur to him. No one could possibly hold it against him if he declared a cousin the winner, could they?

"But, I mean, you weren't really playing it up, were you?" Momioka asked, frowning a bit. "I mean, that's not a love song, and -"

"And I'm not in love with anybody," Nao interjected. "At least, definitely not anyone present."

"Oh, right," Sawada said, looking somber. "You and Yuuki-kun are a love that cannot be."

"... yeah, we are a love that cannot be, because he's a guy and I'm gay, dumbass."

Dead silence fell on the room.

"Y-you ... you're -" Risa stammered out after a moment.

"A lesbian. A dyke. A carpet muncher," Nao supplied.

"Ooh, I hadn't heard that particular idiom before this," said Lala as she watched this confrontation with academic fascination. "I wonder whence it comes?"

With an annoyed glance in her direction, Run spoke a few quick words in a language that almost no one present recognized.

"Ah," Lala said, nodding in understanding.

"In other words," Nao said, blissfully ignoring that byplay, "I'm what you two jerks pretend to be. Imagine how thrilling it must be to watch you as you do."

Risa and Mio blinked, exchanged glances, and took on matching startled expressions, before jumping slightly apart from where they'd been sitting close together. "We're not like that!" they protested in stereo.

"Imagine my utter amazement," Nao said in a tone completely bereft of moisture. She shook her head. "Who's up next?" she asked, holding out the microphone in a way that suggested she wanted someone to take it from her as soon as humanly possible.

"I'll go!" Run said quickly, getting up and heading over to pick up the mike.

"Yay you," said Nao as she handed it off and went over to sit down, making a kissy face as she passed by Risa before dropping down beside Lala.

"So, you're homosexual," Lala asked while Run picked out a song.

"Yeah," Nao replied flatly. "Got a problem with -"

"Not at all," Lala interjected. "I'm fairly sure one of my little sisters is that way inclined, though I think she doesn't really realize it yet."

"Oh," Nao replied, a bit taken aback.

"And in any event, it's considered unwise to criticize another's sexual activities among my people. It's the sort of thing that leads to duels to the death," she explained cheerfully.

"... where did you say you were from, again?" Nao asked.

Before Lala could respond, the music for Run's choice started up, and Rito felt himself collapsing into black despair. Nao had been a good singer, and her choice of music was more interesting than this 'you are the sun and I am the moon' nonsense that was presently playing. But Run was an excellent singer, and there was no way that he could possibly claim that he'd liked Nao's piece better. He was doomed.

"That was really good!" Lala said when Run was done, applauding politely.

"... you've completely forgotten the point of this exercise, haven't you?" Run asked, glowering.

"... point of this ..." Lala mused. "Oh, right. Um. This could be a little tricky," she admitted. "I don't know any of these songs that well. You've been here longer than I have, after all."

Run nodded, smiling in a superior way that ruined her actually quite attractive features.

"Still, we have to give it our best," the princess of Deviluke said, and went over to pick out a song. "Let's see ... hm hm hm ... ah, this looks like fun!" She tapped in the code.

And moments later, she began to sing.

"We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us." Except that George Orwell never said that. What he wrote, in his essay Notes on Nationalism, was that it was "grossly obvious if one's emotions do not happen to be involved", even to the most ardent pacifist, that "[t]hose who abjure violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf." The other phrase seems to have been invented in 1993, more than forty years after Orwell's early death. However, it is -- again -- grossly obvious, whether one's emotions happen to be involved or not, that that other phrase, and the mentality behind it, have become ubiquitous in the present age, for good or ill. Or for good and ill, if we're being obvious.

Zastin had read George Orwell (though admittedly not Notes on Nationalism). He had also heard, in passing, the phrase often attributed to him. And if he had been calmer, he might have considered with amusement that he was himself such a rough man presently being confronted by another such -- perhaps the ultimate among the rough men of the planet Earth. But his emotions, as it happened, were involved.

That tends to be the case when one has been stripped of one's battle armor and put in a set of greenish-grey pajamas, imprisoned behind a transparent aluminum barrier with the thickness of battleship armor, and constrained by a pair of energy dampening hand- and foot-restraints. Zastin was not happy, and found very little amusing as he stood and glared at the bald, bearded man with an eyepatch over one scarred eye who was standing on the opposite side of the barrier and glaring at him.

Still, he remained calm, as befit a warrior of the Deviluke Empire. After all, he was relatively sure that he could escape from this situation, if he had to do so. These restraints were probably not accurately calibrated for his power level. And once he was out of them, demolishing the barrier would be the work of a few moments. The question of what defenses lay beyond the visible ones was a bit troubling, admittedly, but he'd spent his life training for moments like this. They were far less upsetting than the social aspects. Like feeling obligated to repeat, "My master will regard this as an act of war."

Or hearing, again, the reply from the human called Fury. "Nuh-uh. We've been over this. Your master gave you up, not an hour ago. The Deviluke Empire, in an official communique to the World Security Council, stated that you had not been sent to Earth on any mission, and that we should regard you and your ship's crew as renegades. They want the ship back, but we can keep you."

"My master's moods are changeable," Zastin said, privately cursing the day that he'd ever been promoted to his position, no, the day that he'd become a soldier. He should have listened to his mother and killed his older half-brother to inherit their family's mustard mine. Nobody ever went through these sorts of things when they ran a mustard mine.

"Don't I know it," said Fury with what a fool might have taken for sympathy in his voice. "In any event, until those moods do shift in a direction that favors you, you could make your life a lot easier if you'd offer a few words of explanation for why you were trying to invade a global security site like Mahora."

"I was obeying my master's commands." Ones that had been countermanded and then not, as yet, reiterated. And then there was his master's wife. But none of that was any of the human's business.

"Okay, then," Fury said, now obviously annoyed - a front, no doubt. "Enjoy your cell." He stalked towards the door, punched in an egress code, and went out.

"He's telling the truth, as far as he knows it," said the graying but still spit-curled demigod in a long red cape who was hovering in the corridor outside the cell, arms folded across his massive chest.

"Listening to his heart rate?" Fury asked.

The man of tomorrow shook his head. "Doesn't work on mazoku. Their heart-rates stay more or less constant regardless of their emotional state. Neurochemistry is a better tell."

"Hhh. So he's telling the truth. That and five bucks will get him a coffee. We still don't know a goddamn thing -"


"- a goshdarn thing about what the heck ol' Gid and his daughter are playing at here. And that troubles the gently caress out of me."

"Gently - ah. Well, just send word when that one tries to make a break for it, and I'll do what I can to keep him here," said the last son of Krypton. "And my compliments to your Technical department, Director, it took me close to a minute to identify and remove the trackers they slipped on me when I arrived."

With that, he was gone, faster than a - well, you know.

"Only a minute, guys?" Fury said, to the listeners. "You can do better than that! Come on, now!"

A few minutes later, Lala finished her song.

Having done so, she closed her eyes for a moment, and exhaled deeply, before opening them again to look ruefully in the direction of her audience, who were, one and all, staring at her with eyes the size of dinner plates and dropped jaws.

"Oh dear," she said, sadly. "That must not have been very good, then."

"Not --" said Risa.

"-- very --" said Mio.

"-- good?" said Nao, disturbed as all get out to be in synch with those two, but unable to restrain herself regardless. She took some small comfort in the fact that they looked a bit miffed that they hadn't been able to stereo-speak the last word like they'd apparently wanted.

"That was amazing," Haruna murmured, hand over her mouth. "I mean ... I didn't know ... how did you manage to ... it was like an angel and --"

"NYAAAARGH!" Run at last found her voice, which had apparently been hiding in the form of a wordless shriek. "Don't call her an angel, she's a cursed demon from the demon world!"

"... so it was good then?" Lala asked, genuinely bewildered by all of this.

"Yes!" Run snapped, standing up to get in Lala's face. "Just like everything else in our lives, when you did something that I thought that I might just possibly be a little good at doing, you have shown me up completely yet again!"

Lala was starting to look a little upset. "Run, please - I didn't mean to -"

"And that's without going into all the other stuff that you did to us over the years!" Run shrieked. "The experiments, over and over again!"

"I didn't think you'd still be upset over those," Lala protested, shrinking in on herself.

"Um," Rito interjected. "Lala ... what, what exactly did you do to her?"

"Nothing permanent!" she insisted. "And, well, for science to progress, some callous acts cannot be avoided, so --"

"Science!" Run gasped. "Nothing you did to us advanced science! It was all just you being a sadistic bitch to us and taking advantage of how he felt about you!"

"'[H]ow he felt about you'?" Lala repeated, bewildered.

"Who's this he that you're talking about?" Nao asked, no less confused by the direction of this conversation.

"And you don't even have the simple common decency to be honest about it!" Run shouted, stomping her foot and clenching her fists. "Damn this competition! Damn all of this! I'm taking your boyfriend and there's not a damn thing you can do about it!" And with that, she whirled, and threw herself face first at Rito, who recoiled but not nearly enough to stop her from pressing her lips to his. "Ha!" she proclaimed a moment later. "I take your boyfriend's first kiss!"

"... I've actually kissed him a few times already," Lala said, vaguely. She was a little too caught up in the realization that Run actually disliked her to voice any objections.

"What?" Run said.

"What?" Rito said.

"You know, when I wake up in the middle of the night and you're still asleep, and you're so cute lying there beside me like that, I just can't resist," Lala explained, regaining a bit of poise.

"Holy shit," said Nao. "How far have you --"

"Noooo!" Run screamed. "This, this -- ahhhhh!"

Karaoke boxes are often not the most hygienic of places. Often the staff will be hard pressed to get the booths adequately cleaned before a new group of customers come in. It should be noted that this particular booth had been cleaned rather well, but there was still a fair bit of dust and dirt that had been missed. And Run, in her loudness, had been inhaling and exhaling quite a bit, so it was quite understandable that some of it got into her nose and impacted against her mucous membranes, irritating them ... and so producing the inevitable outcome.

Run sneezed.

Rito blinked.

Standing where Run had been, a few moments earlier, was a young man -- Rito's wild guess was that he was about the same age as himself, since, well, why not? -- with blueish-white hair that darkened to blue-black at the back, and the same pinkish eyes as Run. He was wearing, of course, a boy's school uniform and a somewhat mortified expression.

"Ahem," the boy said, after a moment of silence. "Pray excuse my poor deluded other, Lala-sama, and rest assured that her absurd and childish grudge against you is not shared by my humble self."

"Hello, Ren," Lala said, sounding a great deal calmer than she had a few moments ago, but maybe just a bit weary as well.

"Ah, so good of you, you jewel of the stars themselves, to remember my very name!" enthused the person whose name was apparently Ren. He dropped to one knee and extended a hand toward her. "Would you do me the honor of allowing me to kiss your hand?"

"Considering how much Run has changed, it's nice to see that you're still pretty much the same," Lala said.

"What --" said Risa.

"-- the --" said Mio.

"-- fuck?" said Nao.

"Hey!" chorused Risa and Mio, glaring at her.

"There's, but, he, no, she, they, huh?" Haruna babbled.

"Ah," said Lala, as though she had forgotten that she had an audience. (It is entirely possible that she actually had.) "Well, you see -- um, Ren, do you mind if, given the fact that they've seen it happen and have some understandable questions, I tell these people about your family's most taboo secret?"

"I am certain that any decision you make in such matters will invariably be the correct one, oh light of the firmament," replied Ren, who had not budged from his kneeling position.

"Well, to make a long story short, this is Ren Elise Jewelria, Run's male identity," Lala said, somewhat reluctantly extending her hand towards his face, so that he could press his lips to the back of her hand, as well as each knuckle and her wrist, as well. "Owing to what has unfortunately been dubbed a curse --"

"We prefer the term burden," Ren said, rising up after one last kiss.

"Well, that's not really any more scientific, but nonetheless -- the members of their family switch between male and female forms, as well as undergoing a personality shift, when under certain environmental stresses."

"... I guess that explains it, then," Mio said after a moment.

"It does?" Nao said incredulously.

"Ah," Haruna said, nodding. "Um ... oh, dear, I think it's well past time for me to be on my way," she added, faintly, as she began edging towards the door.

"Wait, you didn't --" Rito started to protest.

She was out the door by then.

"-- get to sing," he concluded.

"While your summary is of course correct in all but the most trivial of details," Ren said to Lala, "I must reluctantly take issue with your statement that I have not changed, Lala-sama. I have, as I promised I would, become a truly manly man, for your sake, so that you would marry me as you promised long ago."

"... wait, what?" said Lala. "I promised to marry you if -- I'm sorry, Ren, I'm not doubting your honesty," she added quickly. "But this doesn't really seem like the sort of thing I'd --" Abrupt realization. "Ohhhhh."

"What?" Ren asked, a bit defensively.

"Ren," Lala asked, with a sympathetic but very firm expression on her face. "By any chance did I make this promise while I was busy doing something technical?"

"Um," Ren said.

"To be more specific," she pressed, "did you say something along the lines of, 'If I become a manly man, then will you marry me, Lala?' while I was busy doing something technical, to which I then replied something along the lines of, 'Yes, fine, please stop disturbing me while I work'?"

Another long moment of silence ensued.

"It ... may have been like that," Ren replied reluctantly, when the moment had passed.


"Okay, that's exactly how it was, but still I think we make a pretty good match!" Ren insisted. Then, following a furious glare in Rito's direction and a finger pointed that same way, he continued. "Certainly better that your exalted self and this unworthy wretch!"

"Ren --" Lala began to say.

"This purveyor of false promises! This nothing, this nobody, this person from nowhere! This seducer of not only your exquisite person, but my poor deluded other, as well!"

"Excuse me," Rito said, frowning.

But before he could give Ren a piece of his mind, Lala raised her voice. The same incredible vocal control she'd demonstrated during her song was abruptly turned into a weapon. "Ren," she said, frowning.

Ren froze. "Yes, Lala-sama?" he asked, more quickly and at a higher pitch than he'd been using so far.

More quietly, but still staring at him angrily, Lala pressed on. "Do you think that insulting people I like is a good way to endear yourself to me?"

Ren's skin went almost as white as the top of his hair. "Ah, well, I mean -"

"It's a straight-forward question, Ren, and I'd like an answer," said Lala. "Do you think that insulting people I like is a good way to endear yourself to me?"

Ren's mouth quivered for a moment ... and then he began sobbing as tears poured from his eyes.

"Oh, dear," Lala muttered, rubbing her head. "You really haven't changed very much at all."

At that moment, the door to the room burst open. Rito quickly turned, hoping that Sairenji had come back, but experienced familiar disappointment when he saw that there was a man in a suit standing there and scanning the room with a somewhat frenetic expression on his face.

"Excuse me," said the newcomer. "Who was that singing just now?"

One by one, silently, Risa, Mio, and Nao pointed in the general direction of Lala. Ren lifted a hand in what might have been intended to be a similar gesture, but it was somewhat ruined by the sobs that made his hand very unsteady.

"Ah, yes, that was me," Lala admitted.

In the blink of an eye, the man in the suit had moved in and delicately shifted Ren out of his position in front of Lala to take it up himself. He was also extending a business card in her direction. "My name is Yamazaki Takenori, and I work as a producer for 765 Productions. I think we would be very interested in having you work for us."

"Just from hearing me sing?" asked Lala, blinking. "How can you possibly estimate my skill as a technician that way?"

"Sorry?" Yamazaki said, blinking. "Uh, we produce idols. Actors, models, singers."

"Oh," Lala said after a short moment of confusion. "I'm sorry, I don't think that would be --"

"Please just take as much time as you need to think it over!" the producer insisted, pushing the card into Lala's hand.

"... very well, but I don't think --"

"I'm sure you do think, and thinking is a wonderful thing!" By that point, Yamazaki was back at the door and half-way out of it. "Bye now!" And then he was gone.

"That was random," Nao declared into the semi-silence (broken by Ren's sobs) that followed.

"So, when he's a boy, he wants you, and when he's a girl, he just wants you dead?" Nao asked a little bit later. "That sounds really familiar for some reason."

"I don't think Run wants me dead," Lala protested as the two of them walked down the street with Rito following a bit behind them. "She should know better than that. And it's she, when she's Run. It's a total transformation, mind and body, and it's disrespectful to -"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Nao interjected, since even though she was still enjoying her experiment in 'being kind', 'being respectful' was nonetheless not part of her concerns. "And you both really are from other planets."

"Yes, she's from a region of Mars - or to be technical, the consensual shared hallucination which co-exists with Mars."

"Oy," Nao said, shaking her head. "I thought I was done with the weird cosmic shit when I helped blow up an invisible planet last year."

"... excuse me?" Lala asked, blinking.

"Too long to recap, sorry. Ah, better take this," she said as her phone rang. "Yeah? Oh. Thank you for calling, Sawagoe-sensei. Yeah, I'll be right over. Yes, thanks." She hung up. "That's my mom's doctor calling, she's worn out after her therapy and needs help getting home, so I gotta skate. Um ... this was actually sort of fun, unexpectedly, even if I'm probably going to start getting hate mail in my shoebox after this."

"Huh? Why?" Rito asked, speaking up for the first time since they'd left the karaoke box.

"Uh, maybe because I just outed myself in front of the two biggest gossips in our class?" she said, looking sideways at him.

"Oh, right. Um ... if you want, you know, help with dealing with that, I can -"

Now she was looking right at him, incredulously, so he trailed off and rubbed the back of his head while looking away somewhat awkwardly.

"Right," Nao said. "It was, um, well, nice getting to know you two better. Lots of luck ... you're gonna need it."

"Ah, Nao?" Lala asked, quickly. "Are you involved in a reasonably steady relationship with anyone at the moment?"

"Ah ... well, sort of," Nao admitted.

"Oh. Rats. I was hoping to set you up with my little sister if she comes to visit."

"... and on that note, I am so out of here," Nao concluded, and waved before running off as fast as her little legs would take her.

"She's a nice girl, Rito, you should invite her over for dinner some time," Lala suggested. "I'm sure Mikan would like her, too, and she'd be a lively guest."

"Uh-huh," Rito said, absently.

"Oh, what's the matter? Are you upset because of the way your friend Haruna departed like that?"

"Yes, kind of," Rito bit out. "And there's also, well, the part where you're kissing me when I'm asleep. That's ... that's not -"

"It's just kissing, Rito," she said, baffled. "I haven't even considered giving you oral pleasure, yet."

"That yet is kind of worrying," is what Rito would have probably wanted to say, but all that came out was, "Gyaaa, gyaa, gyaaaaaaa!"

Lala watched Rito's antics with patient amusement, sure that he would eventually find the ability to use his words. She was honestly not sure what he would use those words for, and hoped that it would be an explanation for his lack of happiness. Surely it couldn't be an indication that he disliked being kissed by her. On the other hand, she thought abruptly, as a disturbing notion occurred to her, he didn't show any signs of enjoyment of being kissed by Run. Perhaps this should be examined in closer detail, after all.

Before she could do that, however, Peke spoke up. "Lala-sama! We are being watched!"

Thoughts of Rito were momentarily sidelined even as the subject of those thoughts appeared to calm down. Lala turned sharply to follow Peke's line of sight, and saw that there was indeed a humanoid figure standing in the shadows not far away. "Show yourself!" she demanded, reaching into her purse for a method to compel the figure's obedience if it wasn't given promptly.

As it happened, it was. Smiling calmly, the man who'd called himself Yamazaki Takenori stepped into the light. "We meet again. How fortuitous is fate," he said, sounding quite a bit more leisurely than he'd been earlier that afternoon.

"I don't believe this," Rito groaned. "You actually followed us all the way from the karaoke box? Okay, Lala sings like an angel, but seriously, this isn't going to --"

"The card," Lala abruptly interjected. "It's coated with surveillance dust, isn't it?"

"As wonderful a mixture of wisdom and naivete as you are likely to find anywhere in the cosmos ... such is Lala Satalin Deviluke," the man replied in a total non sequitur.

Despite that, the way that he was talking and what he'd just said was enough to put Rito on the alert. Forbearing from the obvious questions like 'how'd you know her name', Rito chose instead to glance in Lala's direction as he asked, "This is another space weirdo, isn't it?"

"Yes," she replied grimly. "And I've a notion of which one, as well."

The man smiled -- no, his lips pulled back far too wide to be called a smile, before steam burst forth from his head while his facial features melted like candle wax. Things more like fins than ears bent forward from the sides of the reptilian head now revealed, and a fang-filled mouth continued to smile at the pair of them. "For the benefit of the human Yuuki Rito, I offer my introduction. I am Great Lord Ghi Bree, and I would like to politely request that you end your courtship of the daughter of Deviluke. Was that not generous of me, giving him the opportunity to settle affairs without bloodshed, Lala Satalin?" he asked in a somewhat different tone of voice to Lala.

"I thought so," Lala continued her earlier thought. "Ghi Bree --"

"Great Lord Ghi Bree, if you please. One must present oneself to the humans in an appropriate manner, don't you agree, Lala Satalin?"

"Stuff your presentation," she told him patiently. "Regardless of that, I thought I had made it clear when last we spoke -- or rather, when last you spoke and I laughed at you -- that any ambitions you might have of becoming my husband were dreams beyond your reach."

The monster's smile seemed to grow even wider. "Ah, but one's reach should exceed one's grasp, or what is else is Hell for? Regardless of your wishes in the matter, Lala Satalin, I address my inquiries now to your leman ..." He trailed off as he turned to study Rito, adding sourly, "... to give him far more credit than he deserves. In the event that you have forgotten, it is my request that you --"

"I heard you the first time," Rito snarled. "Look, from what I'm hearing, it doesn't matter whether I give her up or not, she's still not going to be into you, dude. So, frankly, I don't see why you're even talking to me."

"You did hear the insulting way the human just referred to me, did you not, Lala Satalin?" Ghi Bree asked, with an air of great patience. "Would I not be justified in avenging this insult in ways terrible to conceive?"

"Do not imagine for one second that I would permit that, 'Great Lord Ghi Bree'," replied Lala.

"Oh, have I not shown that I am being merciful and generous this day? And I would never dream of causing harm to your exquisite person."

And then, out of the shadows where he'd been standing up until a moment ago, there crawled a bulge of flesh from which protruded a quartet of what could only be called tentacles, which wrapped around the limbs of Sairenji Haruna and supported her in the air above it.

"This ... less exquisite person ... would be another story altogether," Ghi Bree concluded.

"Yuuki-kun?" Sairenji wimpered, eyes gazing in his direction.

Rito found himself paralyzed at the mere sight of this, so it was left to Lala to react. "Release the girl at once, Ghi Bree!" she snapped.

"Now, had you given me the proper address, I might actually have considered doing just that," the other mazoku replied with a patient tone. "Briefly considered, at least, before rejecting the notion. But the politeness would have cost you nothing." He turned to look at Rito. "Now, boy, let me repeat my request of you one more time before I start to torture this young lady. Please end your --"

"You ... scum," Rito interjected as he recovered from the shock.

"Torture it is, then."

"You utter bastard, do you think that doing this is going to make Lala like you?" the boy yelled, balling his fists.

Ghi Bree stared at him for a second. "Oh my," he said at last. "He means it. He actually thinks that the emotions are involved in this matter, Lala Satalin!"

"The emotions are involved. You disgust me, and disgust is an emotion," Lala told him coldly.

"True, but they're not involved in the case of the superior person, and that's what really matters," the reptillian creature replied agreeably. "Boy, this is a matter of power. Power beyond your petty human imagination. Who marries the girl beside you will rule a world entire, and be well on their way to the rule of two more besides. I will have that for myself. Now, I promised you some torture, and I am an entity of my word --"

"Oh, you copycat," Lala groaned.

He ignored her. "-- and so ..."

Rito drew a deep breath. "Lala, get Sairenji out of that thing!" he cried, and then ran right at Ghi Bree. I'm gonna die gonna die gonna die gonna die, shrieked his thoughts, but he was moving faster than they did, and he prepared to throw a punch squarely into the monster's chest.

"Ahhh!" shrieked Ghi Bree, jerking back.

Rito paused. "'Ahhh!'?" he repeated.

"I mean -- raaahhhh!" With that roar, Ghi Bree swelled up into a much larger, more monstrous form, right before Rito's eyes. "Do not test me, boy, I have a thousand forms each more terrifying than the last, and you will --"

Rito shifted stance and proceeded to kick the shapechanger at the midpoint of the legs.

"Ghyaaaah!" shrieked Ghi Bree, stumbling back, four arms reaching down to cover what had just been violently assaulted. "Stop it! What's wrong with you?!"

"What's wrong with me?" Rito repeated, incredulously.

"Why aren't you scared silly by my terrifying --" the creature began to rant, before Rito grabbed him by one of the horns on his head and yanked him closer to his face.

"Let Sairenji go!" the boy shouted.

"Okay, okay!" Ghi Bree gibbered. "Shat, no need to get violent or anything!"

"'No need to get --'" Rito quoted, even more incredulously.

Before he could finish doing so, the tentacles suspending Haruna retracted into the blob of flesh, onto which the girl promptly collapsed for a moment, before she recovered enough sense to crab walk off of it.

Rito promptly let go of the horn and drove a quick jab up into Ghi Bree's chest area.

"Ugh!" groaned the mazoku as he stumbled backwards. "I did what you wanted, why are you hitting me?"

"'Why am I --'" Rito repeated yet a third time, then turned to look unbelievingly at Lala. "What is this guy's deal?" he cried out.

"That's my line," Ghi Bree said faintly, only to get backhanded.

"Well, he's a shapeshifter," Lala explained, gazing at Rito in some confusion. "He can take other forms, but he doesn't get any stronger or tougher by doing so. I believe that his natural form is actually very small and fragile, so ... you've basically been beating up on someone much weaker than you, Rito. Have you calmed down yet?"

"No!" Rito responded angrily, and quickly headed over to where Sairenji was crumpled on the sidewalk, staring in stupefaction at the creature that had been holding her up. "Sairenji! Are you all right?" he asked as he crouched down beside her.

"Ahhh," she answered-except-not-really, meeting his gaze. Then, after shaking her head, she became a touch more coherent. "Yuuki-kun? Did, did you just save my life?"

"Uh, well, I guess you could maybe say that," Rito admitted. "Are you okay now?"

"I'm ... yes, I think I'm -- Yuuki-kun, watch out!" she suddenly cried.

"Ah ha, an opening!" shouted the voice of Ghee Bri from behind him.

Rito's heart skipped a beat.

There then ensued an awkward sound, a bit like a strangled cough. Turning quickly to look behind him, he saw Ghee Bri in yet another transformation being held rather firmly by Lala, who'd grabbed hold of the tip of one of the creature's ears.

"'Ah ha, an opening'?" Lala repeated.

"Well, ow, it seemed the owppropriate thing to sayow under the circumstownces. Ow. Ow. Please stop pulling my ear. Owwww."

Rito swallowed a bit, then turned back to Sairenji with an attempt at a broad grin. "Problem solved," he told her.

"That ... that was incredibly brave," Sairenji told him, eyes shining brightly.

"What? Noooo," Rito replied once he realized exactly what she'd just said to him. "The guy's a pushover, you heard Lala, it's no big --"

"But you didn't know that," she interjected, shaking her head. "For all you knew, you were attacking a terrible monster, and all for --"

"I think that's more an example of foolishness than bravery, though I'll agree that Rito is very brave," Lala interjected upon Haruna's interjection.

"What?" Haruna asked, frowning now. "How can you say that?"

"Oh, pretty much the same way you do, inhale, exhale, exhalation passes through voicebox, further shaped by tongue and lips," she answered.

"That's not what I meant!"

"Oh," Lala replied in a tone of mild confusion.

"I believe that I understand whence Lala Satalin speaks. Ferocity is not bravery, though the two are often confuyaaaaaaaaaaa," Ghi Bree offered up before his ear began to twist in what looked like a rather painful manner.

"Assume your true form so that we can put an end to this idiocy," Lala told the other Mazoku. After a moment, there was a sound like a bubble being popped and a creature about the size of a puppet hung in the air briefly before Lala grabbed him again with a firm grip around his negligible throat. "Now, what should I do?"

"I believe the appropriate response is to show clemency upon the defeated foe, thus demonstrating your munificence," squeaked the tiny alien.

"I wasn't really asking you, Ghi Bree," she snapped. "I was asking your victim."

Incredibly, Ghi Bree's tiny head managed to turn in Lala's grip, enough to glance backward at Haruna. "Seriously?" he asked. "Since when do mazoku care what humans think? They exist only to play roles in our games, Lala Satalin. Have you forgotten the lesson of the Urusei, of the shame of Lum Redet?"

"Do not speak ill of Lum Redet in my hearing," Lala said ... in a tone that made hairs stand up on the back of Rito's neck. He'd thought he'd seen every capricious mood that this girl could show him, but this was something new.

"Do not speak ill -- are you mad?"

"Yes, Great Lord Ghi Bree, perhaps that is it," Lala answered, her grip around the other mazoku's throat tightening as she spoke. "Perhaps the stress of seeing that what I came to this world to avoid has in fact followed me here disturbs my fragile, girlish psyche beyond its breaking point. Perhaps you have pushed me just that one step toooooo far. Perhaps I have become a mushroom-cloud laying motherfucker, you pustulent sore on the ass of the cosmos. Remind me, what was your question again? I have forgotten due to the angels crying for your death sounding in my ears."

".... waaaaaah," whimpered Ghi Bree.

"Now, Sairenji Haruna, what am I to do with this turd?" she snarled in Haruna's general direction.

"Just, just make him go away," Haruna replied, looking appalled.

"... would I be correct that you do not mean that in an euphemistic sense?" Lala inquired with remarkable patience.

"No! I mean yes! I mean ... just send him back to wherever it is you people come from!" the girl replied.

Lala let out a long breath as she stared down at the other mazoku. "Your victim has shown you clemency, thus demonstrating her munificence. Thank her."

"Thank you thank you thank you thank you," Ghi Bree said over his shoulder.

"Now, go, and do not return," the princess of Deviluke declared, then dropped her prisoner to the ground and watched as he scurried off as fast as he could go.

"What, what about --" Rito asked, gesturing vaguely towards the thing with the tentacles that still rested on the sidewalk, showing no inclination to go scuttling off after its owner.

"Hm! Well, I can't see any use for the thing, but ..." After trailing off, Lala walked over to the critter in question and picked it up from the ground. "Now I wish I'd paid more attention in zoology class," she murmured. "Well, even if it isn't a particularly rare specimen, I'm sure Nana will appreciate the thought." With that, she produced something that looked disturbingly like a magic wand and tapped it to the side of the tentacle beast and caused it to disappear with a flourish of magical-looking sparkles.

"That was some sort of science thing, wasn't it?" Rito asked warily. "You put it some sort sciency pocket dimension."

"Well, what else would it be?" Lala asked, and looked further bewildered when Rito let out a long sigh. Shaking her head, she focused her attention elsewhere. "Are you recovered, Sairenji Haruna?" she asked, leaning closer and smiling gently.

Haruna backed away, staring up at Lala with apprehension bordering on terror. "You were going to kill that ... person," she said at last.

The smile turned bewildered again. "Well, only if you'd asked me to, and I was fairly sure that you weren't going to do that. But if you had, he'd certainly been enough of an annoyance to --"

"An annoyance," Haruna repeated, hands over her mouth. "You -- you are just like him."

"Well, no, I can actually back up my threats. But you're right that I was giving him a taste of what it's like to have someone trying to terrify you into submission. I don't really think he'll learn his lesson, but he'll remember it, at least. Are you having second thoughts about letting him live, then?" Lala asked.

Haruna just stared for a few moments, then let her hands fall from her face, dropped to her sides, and pushed herself up. "I ... I have to go home. I have to go home quickly." She turned to look at Rito, and gazed at him tenderly. "Thank you again for saving me, Yuuki-kun. I'm going to try to --" She broke off, glanced in Lala's direction, and then just swallowed. "Good bye." With that, she ran off.

"What a strange young woman," Lala said after a moment.

"... yeah," said Rito, rubbing his forehead.

Haruna finally arrived at the door to her family's apartment, and rushed in, barely getting the word, "Tadaima" out before her shoes were off. "Neesan?" she asked, hoping that her sister might still be out herself, or perhaps sleeping.

Some hopes existed only to be crushed. "In here," replied a voice, much like Haruna's own.

Haruna swallowed and slowly walked into the living room that lay just off the entry way hallway. There, on the living room couch, her sister Akiho -- long purple hair and matching violet eyes -- was seated, with a can resting on a coaster on the table in front of her. It was not open. That was lamentable, in Haruna's view; her sister was generally a cheerful drunk.

"Neesan --" she started to say.

"I had a really awful day at the office, today," Akiho began speaking, sounding very, very calm. "The editor blamed me for tons of things that weren't even remotely fault. One of our stupider authors is in the middle of some truly inspid domestic drama, and I had to deal with that pretty much from the first hour of business onward. Not a nice day, at all." Now she started to raise her voice. "So you can imagine how I felt when, after this awful day, I got home to find my little sister -- or rather, not to find her -- not anywhere in our building."

Haruna took advantage of her sister's momentary pause to press onward. "I called you! I, I called you, and I left a message -- I was out, out with friends, but I said that if you wanted me home that you should call me --"

"No you didn't," Akiho replied.

"Yes, I did!" Haruna insisted, before it occurred to her that contradicting her older sister might not be the wisest course of action.

"I didn't get any messages, Haruna-chan, so if you called and left a message, why didn't I get it?" Akiho asked, starting to stand up.

"I don't, I don't know, neesan, but I didn't - I mean, I did, and I was just out with friends, you can call them --"

"-- and listen to them tell me whatever tale you set up amongst yourselves," Akiho interjected, coming over to stand in front of her little sister, who started to cringe away from her before the hands came down to firmly hold her in place, so that Akiho could bring her forehead down to press against Haruna's own. "I remember how things worked when I was your age."

Haruna couldn't answer that, couldn't say what she was thinking, that her friends weren't like the friends her big sister had had when she was Haruna's age. Both because it would be an insult that Akiho wouldn't take lightly, and because, after tonight, she'd been confronted by the fact that they were a lot weirder than her sister's friends had been.

"And I remember how mom and dad would punish me for being out without permission," Akiho continued. "You are really very lucky, Haruna-chan. You'll never have to go through what I did. Aren't you grateful?"

"Yes," Haruna said.

"I can't hear you."

"Yes," she repeated a bit louder.

"All right. Now, I'm not going to punish you, like they would have punished me. I'm just going to give you some time to think about what you did, and why it was wrong, and how you should be very grateful that you won't ever have to go through what I went through." Now Akiho pulled back. "Let's go into the kitchen," she said, almost sing-songing.

"Neesan --"

"Kitchen, Haruna-chan."

They went into the kitchen. There, under Akiho's direction, Haruna pushed the kitchen table to one side, then rolled up the rug it rested on, and, eyes firmly fixed on the far wall, opened the trap door in the floor. Then, eyes still raised, Haruna stepped into the hole beneath it.

"I will let you out," Akiho said, "when I think you deserve to be let out."

Before Haruna could ask when that would be, or even voice a single word of plea or protest, the door was closed over her head, and she was in the dark. That wasn't so bad.

And then the light fixture that her sister had put in the space came on, and she saw what occupied the space with her, and she started screaming.

Ignoring the muffled screams beyond a brief thought about getting some better sound-proofing, Akiho walked back into the living room. She wasn't sure what made her pull out her phone, made her check her messages.

"Hm," she said. Then deleted the message she'd somehow missed, before sitting down to open her beer and put on some headphones so that she could listen to some pleasant noises instead of the alternative.

And so, thought Ren Elise Jewelria, as he crouched on a park bench, face on his forearms as they crossed over his upraised knees, somewhat later and quite a ways away from where he'd last appeared, not only have I exposed my secret to several people who have no reason not to expose it to others, not only have I probably completely alienated myself from Lala, not only do I have to live with the memory of losing my first kiss to a guy, but on top of all that --

"AH! Yes, sempai, yes! Like that, right there, yes, yes, yesssss!"

-- I am finishing my night by picking a make-out park in which to contemplate the ashes of my life. He sighed heavily.

At least he couldn't see the couples -- and, for all he knew, pluralities -- engaged in amorous pursuits, as he sat on the bench right beside the park's lamp, which illuminated his immediate environs but threw everything outside of a small circle into shadow. He had no doubt that the perverts probably wanted to be seen -- or, possibly, were so aroused that they didn't care if they were seen or not. But he could hear them, quite clearly, and it wasn't an easy task to tune them out.

"Dammit, Midori, if we're going to do this while I'm not drunk, you could at least try to be a little enthusiastic!" said a female voice out of the darkness.

Ren abruptly decided that he'd had just about all the mortification he could take for one evening. It was time to get up and head back to his apartment.

"Oh? Isn't it Jewelria-kun?" asked a voice, much closer than any of the others he was overhearing.

He looked up sharply, then relaxed a bit. "Ah, Asakura-san," he said, trying to maintain politeness to this person who lived in the same building where he and his other did. "What brings you out here?"

"I was just taking a walk in the evening," said Asakura Ryoko. "And my steps led me here. It's a pleasant coincidence, really. I was hoping to talk to you about your sister."

"Right," he said, flinching. His cover story for the way that he and his other lived together was that they were brother and sister - a reasonably truthful summary that avoided the actual truth - and of course the class representative of the class which Run had invaded would want to address her activities. The day got better and better. "Please, um, have a seat."

"Thank you," she said, and sat gracefully beside him, smiling warmly at him. "I should probably mention that I've had a rather confused report on your sister's karaoke expedition."

Ren froze. Wait, what?

"The person who reported wasn't sure what exactly she'd seen, and so I'm not sure either, but ... well, she was better with the emotional content, and I suppose that's what matters in the end." Asakura nodded decisively. "You're really in love with Lala-san, aren't you?"

"I -- yes," he said, definitively, because manly men were always decisive, and because it was the truth, of course. "We, we share a bond that can never be broken!"

"Ah," she said, smile going just a bit sad. "How lucky you are, if that's so. In my life, I've encountered a very large number of bonds that could never be broken that were." She nodded. "Perhaps I might offer you my assistance in testing your bond with her, to make sure that it's truly impervious to harm?"

"How --" he began to ask her, but found it somewhat difficult to continue speaking with her tongue in his mouth.

"Wait, no," Ren managed to stammer once Asakura pulled away from his lips to press kisses on his cheeks and chin, twisting herself around so that she was kneeling and facing him, a knee on either side of his lap. "This isn't, I don't want -"

"Whatever your mouth might say," she interrupted, reaching down to grab him between the legs, "this is telling the truth."

He shuddered as he felt her touch on what was, in fact, a hardened organ. But her words, doubtless meant to confuse and unsettle him further, ironically had the opposite effect, giving him focus and clarity.

The fact was, he'd heard words just like them before, from a number of the men he'd sought out as potential mentors in the way of the manly man -- spoken not to him, of course, but to women. In every case, Ren had concluded that he could not accept the lessons these mentors sought to teach him. Such men wanted to be conquerors, not protectors. He'd found other teachers, and done what he could to avenge the harm such men had done in his presence.

Hearing those words, and knowing the mentality behind them to be the same, though they came from a girl's mouth, was a startling thing ... but after the lightning's start, came the thunder of clarity, and Ren knew what he must do. He reached deep inside himself, activating the physical enhancement magic that every royal child of Memorze was taught, and brought his hand up to push the girl off of him, away from him. He hoped he would not hurt her too badly in the process, since he had no wish to answer the questions that would result ... but his own safety had to come first.

And so, as gently as he could, he pushed against her lower abdomen while she was reaching down to undo his zipper.

It felt like trying to knock over a wall of iron with a feather.

What? Ren thought, now completely bewildered. Where was the magic? It was as though it was being suppressed, like, like he was facing something out of the stories of the Cosmo Entelechia, no, no, NO!

"Ah," murmured Asakura, right arm coming up to wrap around his neck, loosely, but with the potential to tighten if it became necessary. "Naughty, naughty. Mustn't shove girls."

No ... it didn't make sense, nothing was making sense, even if he wasn't able to draw on the magic for some reason, he should still be bigger and stronger than this girl, so how was she able to --

As these confused thoughts ran through Ren's brain, Asakura reached into his opened pants, tugged out his manhood, and, without any further ado, pulled it up inside of her, as she apparently hadn't bothered to put on any panties under her short skirt. With that part of his brain which could still process information, Ren was startled by how ... un-moist it was, in contrast to all the ways it had been described in the books he'd read on the subject. It was warm, like they'd said it would be, but not wet.

And now there were odd snap-hiss sounds being made, as well. On some level, Ren realized that it was odd to be latching on to such a minor thing when he was being subjected to a sexual violation like this, but that latter fact was almost too vast for him to grasp, in contrast to the sounds (what could they be?) which seemed more manageable.

Nothing about this situation, from the locale, to his lack of control, to the actual sensations of it, was happening the way he'd ever thought it would. And even worse than the confusion and horror he felt was the realization that later, when his other resumed control of their shared existence, she would remember all this. He could take it. He was strong. But she ... no, it was unthinkable. He couldn't even protect the one person he was supposed to protect the most!

At last, he climaxed, and that same self-critical function which had wondered at his own confusion about the sounds he was hearing now shook its head in disbelief at his momentary worry that Asakura might not be using birth control.

"All done," she said, still smiling - she'd been smiling the whole time it was happening, he realized, and brought down the arm that hadn't been wrapped around his neck. In that arm's hand, Ren realized, there was a cell phone ... and it occurred to him, at last, that the sound he'd heard might be the sound of a phone's camera. "This should do it, then," she mused aloud.

"W-w-what?" he stammered as she pulled back from him, standing before him as his actual manhood withered even as the one in his mind had.

"Well, when I show Lala-san these photos I just took of us, if she gets jealous, then you'll know that your bond is really -" she began to say.

"No!" he shouted, stunned. "No, that, that's not -- she doesn't have a jealous bone in her body! I'm not, I'm not idealizing her, it's not in her people's nature to be jealous, and --"

"Ohhh," Asakura interjected, still smiling. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize. In that case, then, if I show her these photos, she'll likely decide that you've moved on, and be happy for you that you've found someone else. Is that it?"

"Yes, so --" And then he realized that he was pleading with his rapist not to show photos of his rape.

There was a decidedly cruel aspect to Asakura's present smile. "And you don't want her to be happy for you, not that way. So it's really in your interest to do whatever I tell you to do, if doing so means that I won't show here these photos. Is that it?" she asked again, voice still sweet and kind.

What little equanimity Ren had left utterly deserted him. He collapsed there and wept, as his new master stood and smiled at him.