It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. The sun shone brightly overhead. Birds sang somewhere in the distance. Around the corner, an incautious passer-by was discovering that he'd been relieved of his wallet, his car keys and his toupee in the time it had taken him to bump into one street urchin. In other words, it was business as usual in the Starless District of Honnō Town.
Old Shun, the largely toothless proprietor of Shun's Deluxe Cafe, had a strict pay-eat-go policy, and did his best to discourage customers from hanging around to talk after their meals through the use of uniquely and uncomfortably small tables. Given this, as well as the fact that, for unfathomable reasons, Shun's Deluxe Cafe was nearly always empty, it was very odd for Shun to see not one, not two, but four customers clustered uncomfortably around a single table - two boys, one girl, and one enormous towering giant who took up about two thirds of the available space on his own. Shun had the strangest feeling he'd seen them before, despite the fact that his cafe was not known for repeat customers.
"I say, young man," he addressed the blue-haired, glasses-wearing teenager who had arrived first. "Don't I know you from somewhere?"
"Absolutely not," the boy snapped. "You've never seen any of us before in your life, you can't hear a word of our conversation, and if you have even two brain cells to rub together, once we leave you'll be wise enough to forget we were even here.
"In fact," he added, "it appears you already have. Where's the Deluxe Mystery Burger I ordered half an hour ago?"
Old Shun frowned and, after a little rummaging, pulled out a plate of food from behind the counter. "Ah, yes. Here's your Deluxe Mystery Burger with Extra Gristly Bits."
"I specifically ordered it plain!" The teenager's voice suggested decades, if not centuries of weariness at the idiocy of all those around him, compressed into the span of a single childhood.
"Oh, did you? That'll be fifty yen extra, then. And here's your Dubious Brown Sludge."
"I ordered coffee."
"That's what I said. You have yourself a nice meal now."
"I hate being Starless," Inumuta Hōka muttered into his drink, which bubbled in a way depressingly evocative of a primeval tar pit (and would doubtless taste the same).
"Cheer up, Inumuta." Sanageyama Uzu clapped him on the shoulder, causing him to spill a little of the unidentified substance onto the table, where it dissolved a neat hole through his napkin. "I'm sure Lady Satsuki will be back soon, and once she bumps us back up to Three-Star status, this will all seem like one bad dream."
"If only we could all be so happy-go-lucky," Inumuta replied. "I wouldn't dream of criticising Director Kiryūin Ragyō, at least not without my uniform's anti-surveillance technology active, but her timing for summoning Lady Satsuki couldn't have been worse. If she'd done so before Matoi Ryūko and Harime Nui defeated us all in the King of the Hill battle, we'd still have our uniforms and Three-Star status. If she'd waited just a little longer, we could have had new uniforms, or failing that, Lady Satsuki could at least have re-registered us as temporary Starless students. But this way, we're not even formally enrolled. Without access to the Academy Wi-Fi, I'm stuck in the Starless District having to use dial-up all day! 28K dial-up! Why couldn't Matoi just have killed me and been done with it?"
"I hope you didn't call us here just so you could whine, Four-Eyes," said Jakuzure Nonon.
Gamagōri Ira nodded. "Now that I'm Starless, my driving license has been revoked pending investigation of the Automotive Airsoft incident. I should be in my new accommodation right now, revising to retake the driving test."
"Let me ask you this," Inumuta answered. "How do you know that Lady Satsuki's going to reinstate us at all? After all, it's true that we failed her. In her eyes, perhaps we are no longer worthy of belonging to the Student Council."
"That might be true for the likes of you," Jakuzure shrugged as if to say it was none of her concern, "but Satsuki and I have been besties since forever. She'd never turn her back on me!"
"What makes you so sure?" Sanageyama asked. "Lady Satsuki is nothing if not a meritocrat. You know what I had to do to prove my resolve before she gave me a second chance."
Nonon shuddered at the creepy image of Sanageyama having his eyes sewn shut by the Sewing Club President. For Satsuki, she'd happily fight against impossible hordes of the strongest warriors Japan to offer (again), but there were limits, and having her fantastically charming looks marred was one of them.
"Never fear," Inumuta announced. "I called you here today because I have a plan. A cunning plan. Perhaps my most brilliant plan yet." He paused to take in the looks of awe and rapt attention, found none, sighed to himself and continued. "A plan which will not only see us restored to our rightful places, but convince Lady Satsuki once and for all that we, the Elite Four, are indispensable to her rule over Honnōji Academy. And all we need is the help of one more person."
"Who is that?" Gamagōri asked.
"The last person anyone would expect us to ask," Inumuta announced dramatically, taking a swig of the mysterious liquid in his cup to fortify him for the task ahead.
Later that day, after an emergency trip to the nearest back-alley clinic for a stomach-pumping session...
Ryūko's trip to the supermarket had been exhausting enough, thanks to the epic battle royale over the discount bentō boxes, and the last thing she needed when she came home was seeing the Elite Four on her doorstep, kneeling on the ground in postures of abject humility.
"We are here to request your help for the good of Honnōji Academy and all of its students," Gamagōri stated in a booming voice that somehow did not at all fit with his submissive body language. "We absolutely need your strength for this. You're the only one who can help us. I know we've had our differences in the past, but I beg you to overlook them now in the name of the greater good."
Ryūko didn't even have to think about this one. She opened her mouth to deliver a scathing rejection.
Ryūko's mouth remained open as Mankanshoku Mako slipped on her shoes, hopped down the steps, and followed the Elite Four outside, none of them sparing Ryūko so much as a glance.
"Uh... I don't think I get it. Can you explain it one more time, but simpler?"
With a shudder, Inumuta tagged Sanageyama in, and went to sit in a corner to try and restore his nerves with breathing exercises. He was a swift and logical thinker on the one hand, and a man who hated repeating himself on the other. Talking to Mankanshoku Mako for any length of time was like a taste of his own personal hell.
"All right," Sanageyama said. "Here's how it goes. The Academy's electronic systems, including both the administrative ones and the automated defences, are controlled by a single master key, the Student Council President's Seal. Thanks to a certain short-sighted programmer, if Lady Satsuki leaves the Academy in a hurry and doesn't have time to go through a proper handover procedure, the seal ends up behind the defences and everything runs on auto-pilot until she gets back."
Mako stared at him blankly. He gathered his resolve and pressed on.
"Right now, with the entire Student Council missing, the Academy is in chaos. We need to get to the Student Council Chambers, retrieve the seal, and use it to restore order. Then we will run the Academy ourselves until Lady Satsuki returns and sets things right. Do you get it now?"
Mako thought for a while. "So... Lady Satsuki has a seal?"
Sanageyama nodded, gaining a new degree of respect for Inumuta (who had gone through this at least three times before giving up).
"And this seal knows how to use the Academy computers?"
Sanageyama tentatively nodded again.
"And you want to rescue the seal so it can use the computers for you."
"Sure, why not."
"So does that mean this seal is better at computers than Inumuta?"
"Oh, yes," Nonon chipped in. "It doesn't act like it's the only one who knows how to use a computer, it doesn't create important systems without emergency backdoors, and it's a much better pet all round. Inumuta is so noisy, always either boasting or whining, and he hates baths."
"Huh," Mako raised her eyebrows. "I never knew."
Deep in concentration, Mako pondered what she'd just been told. Behind her, unnoticed, and ignored by the rest of the Elite Four, two vast auras of doom slammed repeatedly against each other, a blue feral dog trying to rip out the throat of a pink cobra while the latter wrapped it in crushing coils.
"But why do you need me?" Mako finally asked. "Wouldn't someone like Ryūko be better?"
"Uh..." Sanageyama paused at the uncannily reasonable question. He picked up Inumuta subvocalising "new president" behind him as the aura clash dissipated into a draw. "Well, uh, we need a student council president to be able to use the seal, and we all already have positions on the council, so it needs to be someone new. We thought you were the person we could... um... trust most with that kind of power. Yeah."
Mako turned the image of a student council president trying to use a seal around in her head. What was she supposed to do, feed it fish until it obeyed her orders?
"I don't think I get it."
"In that case... you're the element of surprise which no-one will see coming, and that's how we'll win."
"Oh. Yeah, I am one of those, aren't I?"
Sanageyama inwardly sighed with relief. His ability to lie was apparently just slightly less awful than Mankanshoku's ability to read people.
"Now that everyone is on board," Gamagōri announced, "let's get ready to head out. Every minute we waste is another minute Honnōji Academy remains in a state of anarchy!"
"Um, I have a question."
"Since the five of us are going to save the day, and run the Student Council together and everything until Lady Kiryūin gets back, can we call ourselves the Elite Five?"
Gamagōri just stared.
"Pretty please? With a cherry on top?"
The former Disciplinary Committee Chair looked around for support from his comrades, but none seemed to be forthcoming. Inumuta was deep in thought about something else, Jakuzure was trying to be above the absurdity of it all, and Sanageyama was hiding an amused grin.
"Fine," Gamagōri finally said in a resigned tone.
"Yay! In that case, can I be the Pink Ranger?"
Jakuzure finally ran out of patience. "For the love of Satsuki, underachiever, does it look like we're in a TV action series to you?"
"Um, Jakuzure, you do realise that-"
"Shut up, Inumuta. Anyway, even if we were some kind of superhero crew, which we're not, obviously I would be the Pink Ranger. I don't see how this even needs explaining."
"Why, I had no idea you were into this kind of thing," Inumuta drawled. "In that case, I have some great DVDs I can lend you."
Nonon glowered. "Of course not. What do you take me for, a creepy otaku like you?"
"Well, then," Hōka concluded smoothly, "I'm sure you couldn't care less who gets what role. Mankanshoku, the position's all yours."
"Everything is going according to plan," Inumuta told the rest of the Elite Five. "This late in the day, most of the ordinary students will have gone home, leaving just the ones attending club practice. At the same time, because there are students on-site, the more interesting defences will still be in standby mode, including the homing missiles, the machine-gun turrets, and hopefully the circular saw traps."
"You installed circular saw traps to stop anyone climbing the walls of our high school," Nonon clarified in a flat tone of voice.
"And homing missiles," Uzu added with disapproval.
"I was also going to get the Director's approval to modify the REVOCS comms satellite above the school into an orbital railgun, but Lady Satsuki vetoed it."
"Inumuta," Gamagōri turned to him, "I say this purely in the spirit of friendship, and as one of your oldest and most loyal allies, but... you really need to get a girlfriend."
There was a moment of silence as everyone considered this.
"No," Inumuta snapped. "Absolutely not. Wipe that smirk off your face, Jakuzure, you are not setting me up with another of your airheaded juniors 'for the good of the team'. Do I need to remind you about my favourite desktop and the Cup Holder Incident?"
"Now look here, it's not my fault-"
Nonon's response was interrupted by an ominous computerised voice. "This is a restricted area. Trespassers will be perforated. Please present valid Honnōji Academy student passes. You have ten seconds to comply. Nine..."
"Ah," Hōka winced. "Perhaps the machine-gun turrets weren't in standby mode after all."
"What do we do?"
"Well, the turrets can't rotate to fire inwards, so if we can climb this wall in..."
"Six," the machine continued to count.
"... seconds, then we're in the clear."
"It's a vertical surface with no hand-holds! Even Monkey Boy here can't do that! What the hell were you thinking?!" Jakuzure shrieked.
Inumuta thought fast. There were some tricks he'd wanted to save up, because they probably wouldn't work more than once, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
"Sanageyama! That machine is your opponent! Introduce yourself!"
"Just do it!"
FORMER HONNŌJI ACADEMY
ATHLETIC COMMITTEE CHAIR
FORMER MEMBER OF THE HONNŌJI ACADEMY
STUDENT COUNCIL'S ELITE FOUR
"Three," the machine's relentless countdown continued.
"Now!" Inumuta yelled. "Quick, climb the huge red letters! And somebody grab Mankanshoku!"
Though taken by surprise, they weren't the (former) Elite Four for nothing. Drilled to follow orders instantly and to perfection, and with reflexes honed over years of battle, they turned into four streaks of colour ascending Sanageyama's introduction like some sort of reverse lightning strike. The concentrated machine-gun fire obliterated the red letters in mere seconds, but by then its targets were long gone.
"Phew... that was a close one," Sanageyama said as he caught his breath atop Honnōji Academy's outer wall. "I've got to admit, I'm still not sure how you just did that."
"I wouldn't worry about it," Inumuta told him. "I doubt your brain can think in enough dimensions to make sense of my more advanced techniques."
He felt someone tap him on the shoulder as he readjusted the strap on his laptop case. "What is it, Mankanshoku?"
"Um, I just wanted to say, don't feel too down about the girlfriend thing. I'm sure lots of girls would like you if you only started taking baths and stopped hiding half your face behind that collar thing you do."
Inumuta's eyes narrowed, but he didn't get the chance to reply, as a new threat appeared in front of the group.
"Ha! I could see you coming from a mile off! Tremble in fear, intruders, as you are about to meet your end at the hands of..."
PEEPING TOM CLUB CAPTAIN NOZOKI TŌSAKU
The speaker was a tall, lanky, acne-beset teenager in a dark, Life Fibre-enhanced trenchcoat, its insides lined with Polaroid photos of the school's various girls. His other distinguishing feature was a camera-like device set over his right eye, which kept turning to stare at each of them in turn, and zooming in and out with a whirr.
"You would dare raise a hand against your own student council?" growled Gamagōri.
Nozoki shrugged. "The way I hear it, you guys lost your titles when you got beaten. And I figure when Lady Kiryūin comes back, and finds out I, a mere first-year, single-handedly stopped the former Elite Four from trying to sneak onto the grounds, I'll be promoted to Three-Star status there and then!"
"This guy isn't worth our time," commented Sanageyama. "I'll take him down, and then let's move on to the real challenges."
He drew his bamboo sword. "Men!"
But Nozoki smoothly stepped out of the way before the blow could connect. And a second time. And a third.
"Ha! My Peeping-Spec Two-Star Goku Uniform lets me see everything you want to keep hidden! If your moves were any more telegraphed, you'd have to shout STOP at the end of each attack!"
As Sanageyama unsuccessfully tried to hit his opponent, Jakuzure gave an approving nod. "Serves you right, you pervert. What were you thinking, authorising a Peeping Tom Club in the first place?"
"It... wasn't... me!" Uzu just barely blocked a counter. "How is peeping... on girls... an athletic activity?!"
"Well, I sure as hell wouldn't authorise something like that. And Gamagōri wouldn't, he's completely Satsuki-sexual."
"Jakuzure! How dare you speak so profanely of my purely platonic feelings towards our glorious leader?!"
Nonon ignored him. "So that leaves..."
Everyone slowly turned to Inumuta (except Sanageyama, who had no need, and Nozoki, who let his camera-scope turn to Inumuta for him).
Inumuta looked closely at Nozoki. "Wait a second... I know you! You applied to start the Short-Range Astronomy Club!"
"Yep. I only had my telescope to peep with back then, and I was mostly peeping on One-Star girls, so it's not like I was lying to you or anything! Not my fault if you were playing dating sims when you should've been paying attention."
Inumuta whipped out his laptop. "That does it. Sanageyama, stand aside. I'll handle this."
"No... way! Just a few more exchanges... and I'll kick his ass!"
Inumuta's fingers danced over the keyboard. "You poor fool, Nozoki. Don't you realise that when you were first being measured for your Goku Uniform, all your physical details were entered into the Honnōji Academy database? In mere seconds, I'll have every last one of your weaknesses!"
Unexpectedly, Jakuzure reacted to this statement. "Wait, did you do that for everyone?"
"That's right," Hōka muttered absently as he typed in a series of passwords. "And I have to say, your three sizes were nothing like what I'd-"
"Die, Four-Eyed Pervert!"
Inumuta dove desperately out of the way as Nonon's baton nearly clove his laptop in two.
"What? But I only-"
"You dared to look at my measurements?! I'm going to jam those glasses so far up your nose, your brain will have 20/20 hindsight!"
"Aagh! Get her away from me!"
The two former student council members abandoned any interest in the ongoing battle in favour of fleeing and attempted homicide respectively. A second later, Mako, apparently deciding that some sort of game of tag was in progress, proceeded to join in, likely inadvertently saving Inumuta's life by getting in Jakuzure's way.
The remaining three exchanged glances.
"So... like, are you going to break your friends up or what?" Nozoki asked.
Sanageyama smiled. "Nah, I think they enjoy it really. Besides, Gamagōri powers up when those two nitpickers aren't around to question everything he says. You'll see."
He gestured to Gamagōri. "Your turn, mate."
Gamagōri nodded. "Nozoki Tōsaku, this is your last chance to surrender peacefully and face your rightful punishment."
"Or what? Forget Disciplinary Committee Chair, I heard you're not even a student here right now. You can't touch me without breaking your own precious rules."
Ira gave an evil grin. "Underestimate Lady Satsuki at your peril."
He fished a copy of the school rulebook out of his pocket.
"Ahem. In the event that a suitable authority cannot be found, responsibility for enforcing Honnōji Academy regulations falls to the nearest responsible adult." He advanced on the suddenly nervous club captain. "And I happen to have turned twenty a few months ago."
"N-Now hang on. It's not like I've broken any rules here," Nozoki insisted while backing away (and being painfully aware that there was only so much wall left). "I'm just defending the Academy from a bunch of intruders."
Suddenly, the colours in the area grew subdued. Gamagōri loomed over his opponent as stark patterns of light and shadow gave his form additional depth and detail. The background faded into a single monochromatic glow, and the animation speed seemed to slow to a crawl as he spoke the fateful words.
"Fighting is forbidden at Honnōji Academy."
Gamagōri surveyed the scene. Jakuzure, Imunuta and even Mankanshoku were frozen in place, having stopped their peculiar game to goggle at him. Sanageyama was still turned away, but the tension in his every muscle suggested a state of shock. And a large crack had appeared across the lens of Nozoki's camera-scope device.
"We are a school," Gamagōri elaborated. "Schools live and die by their discipline. And there is no greater disruption to discipline than having students fight."
Nozoki, having been least immersed in Honnōji Academy's unique culture, was the first to recover. "B-But... Right in Episode 1..."
"Authorised athletic competition within the bounds of club activity is only encouraged."
"A-And Lateless Day..."
"Lady Satsuki approves of all students who choose to engage in healthy exercise in the process of their morning commute."
"Even so, the Naturals Election can't possibly-"
"As you will recall, students were specifically on holiday during those seven days. As long as its name is not being brought into disrepute, Honnōji Academy has no say in the activities its students pursue in their own time."
Nozoki crumpled to the ground as his brain struggled to process what he was being told.
Meanwhile, Sanageyama's extraordinary senses detected both Jakuzure and Inumuta about to open their mouths. As the man entrusted with watching Gamagōri's back, there was only one thing he could do. He'd make it up to Inumuta afterwards.
"Hey, Inumuta!" he called out. "Did you ever finish those X-ray specs you were working on?"
"What are you talking about, Sanage-"
Inumuta didn't even get to finish the sentence before the wrath of Nonon descended on him like a small pink meteor.
"You've been making X-ray glasses, you lecherous dog?!"
"Aagh, help, somebody get this crazy wench off me!"
It only took Mako a split second to assess the situation. "Ooh, cuddle pile!"
Satisfied that no-one was going to interrupt Gamagōri's momentum, Sanageyama relaxed and let himself focus on the action.
Gamagōri strode forwards, the flames of righteousness burning in his eyes.
"In the name of Lady Kiryūin Satsuki..."
The wall trembled beneath his weight as he seemed to grow more massive with each step.
"... and in accordance with the rules and regulations of Honnōji Academy..."
His tremendous shadow feel upon the cringing, traumatised Nozoki.
"... I hereby disqualify you from club captaincy and its attendant Two-Star rank!"
Nozoki drew upon every last shred of power within his uniform to perceive the pattern of Gamagōri's attack and find a way to dodge. His camera-scope whirred like crazy, looking in every direction, trying every angle and every level of zoom. Then his entire line of sight was occupied by a single, moving wall, an object so big that the very concept of evasion could not be applied to it. It was Gamagōri's fist.
There was a scream, rapidly receding into the distance, and then all that was left were the tattered remains of a Goku Uniform, and Polaroid snaps of schoolgirls drifting in the air like snowflakes.
Gamagōri and Sanageyama contemplated the scene before them. Down below, complete chaos reigned. Student was fighting student for supremacy, seeking to fill the power vacuum left by the disappearance of the Student Council. Unconscious bodies littered the ground. Booms and flashes of light marked the use of club captains' powers, while opportunistic Starless students tried to steal the Goku Uniforms of the vanquished. All in all, it made them wonder why Lady Satsuki had bothered having a Naturals Election if it was going to be followed up by something like this anyway.
Meanwhile, the Elite Five's objective seemed infinitely out of reach, up high in the Student Council Tower. Unlike the outer walls of the Academy, the tower's sides were not merely vertical, but actually inverted and reinforced against climbing gear, and of course the retractable stairs lived up to their name.
After a few seconds, Inumuta managed to poke his head out of the whirling mass of alternating violence and hugs he was trapped in.
"Time-out! Time-out, Jakuzure! We've got to move fast, or we'll lose our window of opportunity!"
"What are you talking about, Four-Eyes?" Nonon reluctantly disengaged, then lifted Mako off Inumuta by the collar as if the girl were a mischievous kitten.
Hōka lowered his voice. "We can't risk Gamagōri calming down and entering his post-disciplining refractory period. This next part of the plan rides entirely on his enthusiasm."
Jakuzure gave him a look that was equal parts confused and disturbed. "You're not saying..."
"I am." He raised his voice again. "Gamagōri!"
"Look down there. Those poor misguided students have no-one to show them how to behave. They've forgotten all of Lady Satsuki's rules. Only you can save them! Only you can go down there and set them all straight!"
Ira nodded. "You're right, Inumuta. I'm glad you have such a clear sense of priorities."
With a mighty leap, he came down off the wall into the middle of the courtyard, triggering a minor earthquake as his righteous-wrath-enhanced mass shook the ground.
"You there! Fighting is forbidden within Honnōji Academy."
"That skirt is two inches shorter than regulation."
"Club equipment must be signed out before use outside dedicated practice spaces. Put that battleaxe down!"
Gamagōri strode the battlefield like a titan, dispensing divine justice from above unto the unworthy.
"Wow," Uzu turned to Inumuta. "He's really getting into it. Now what?"
"Now we climb onto his back before he grows too big, and wait for him to match the Student Council Tower in height. Come on, quick, before he runs out of students!"
"You're not serious, Four-Eyes."
"Anyone with a better idea for getting up there, please raise your hand now."
After a couple of seconds, the group reluctantly followed Inumuta's lead. Gamagōri, steadily casting an ever wider and more ominous shadow over the courtyard, didn't seem to notice.
"But what about the man himself?" Sanageyama asked, offering Mako a hand up from his perch atop Gamagōri's right shoulder. "Don't tell me he's supposed to climb the tower directly. He's not King Kong, you know."
"Already taken care of." Inumuta let his glasses glint in satisfaction as he demonstrated the rope attached to Gamagōri's belt. "As soon as he runs out of students to discipline and reverts to his normal size, we can pull him up using this. Now wait for my signal, and then jump!"
"Is it me," Uzu observed gloomily, "or is he showing no signs of running out of steam?"
The rest of the Elite Five watched from outside the Student Council Chambers as an ever more humongous Gamagōri stomped around what remained of the courtyard. Attempts to get his attention had proved uniformly unsuccessful as the former Disciplinary Committee Chair seemed to be sinking ever deeper into the Lawful equivalent of a berserker trance.
"Nice going, Four-Eyes. I'm sure Satsuki's going to be over the moon when she comes back to find out that your brilliant plan's wrecked the whole school."
"This is all within acceptable parameters," Inumuta lied while desperately scouring his laptop's databases for anything that might help.
"Sure it is," Nonon rolled her eyes to the heavens. "You know Satsuki's the only one who can stop him when he gets like this."
Sanageyama perked up at this. "Lady Satsuki, huh? I think I may have the beginnings of an idea."
Gamagōri turned around to see a radiant, blinding light shining from the top of the Student Council Tower. At its heart was a familiar silhouette, with long black hair streaming in the wind and hands resting on a sword that pierced the ground before her. The sight never ceased to take his breath away.
"Lady Satsuki! You have returned!"
Gamagōri relaxed. Now that she was here, everything would be all right. The Elite Four would be reinstated, Honnōji Academy would return to a state of perfect order, and Inumuta's plans would once again be benevolently but firmly guided in the general direction of common sense.
"You have done well, Gamagōri, and I..."
A loud electronic beep rang out across the courtyard.
"Virus database has been updated!" Satsuki announced in a pleasant but quite definitely unfamiliar voice. A bewildered Gamagōri could hear Inumuta swearing in the background.
"Now my hacking tools decide they can break into the Academy Wi-Fi?! Quick, pull on the rope while he's confused!"
Before Gamagōri could assess the situation, he felt a powerful tug at his waist, and found himself inexplicably swept off his (now normally-sized) feet. He hit the ground hard, was dragged horizontally for a few paces, then was finally yanked sharply upwards. As the dizziness and disorientation took their toll, he tried to make sense of what was happening. Being a diligent student with a couple of extra years of education, he was vaguely aware that some Western religions believed that the end of the world involved bodily assumption into Heaven, and yes, on reflection it did seem natural that a heavenly afterlife would involve eternity at Lady Satsuki's feet.
However, it occurred to him after a rough landing, it seemed improbable that any religion would consider said Heaven to be the roof of the Student Council Tower. This was true even within Honnōji Academy, as Lady Satsuki, a firm atheist, strongly discouraged religious worship of herself (settling instead for well-deserved fanatical loyalty). And for that matter, while the rest of the Elite Five had apparently received their just reward alongside him, his lady herself was suddenly nowhere to be seen.
"What just happened?" Ira asked dazedly. "Where is Lady Satsuki?"
"There is no Lady Satsuki," Sanageyama explained. "That was Mankanshoku in an improvised wig - you owe me, Jakuzure, I liked that jacket - with my bamboo sword, standing on Inumuta's laptop case for height."
"But the voice..."
"Inumuta remixed some recordings he had on his laptop."
"And the light..."
"You know as well as I do that Lady Satsuki has a spotlight on top of the tower for making dramatic speeches on overcast days."
"Oh." Ira's shoulders slumped in disappointment.
"Don't worry. We're almost there. Inumuta says he can hack that maintenance access door, and then we can just waltz into the Student Council Chambers and carry out the last part of the plan."
"Now, we just run this last script... and... yeah! That's right!" Inumuta's spirits, battered by the constant surprises getting in the way of his otherwise perfect plans, finally rose again as the heavy armoured door swung open. "All your base are belong to us!"
"Given how we're the Student Council, and these are the Student Council Chambers, shouldn't that be 'all our base are belong to us'?" Jakuzure asked distractedly. Then her eyes widened as she realised what she'd just said. "Oh, hell, I think I'm catching otaku off Inumuta. My life is over."
"If it can be ruined by a single meme, then it can't have been much of a life to begin with," Inumuta replied. "Oh, wait, we already knew that."
Their familiar bickering was the only sound as the group travelled deeper inwards, along with regular noises of surprise and curiosity from Mako as she experienced the heights of opulence and refinement that Three-Star students took for granted.
"Oh, wow, this place has everything. There's a golden chandelier, and a bunch of tapestries, and Ryūko, and a fancy-looking vase, and some marble statues, and... wait, Ryūko, what are you doing here?"
Inumuta went pale. "What? No. It can't be..."
But the form approaching them from the other end of the corridor was unmistakeable, from the oversized shoulder pads, to the mostly bare torso, to the Scissor Blade in her right hand.
"Fall back! Everyone fall back!"
Sanageyama nodded. "I hate to say it, but you're right. Even with all four of us, without our Goku Uniforms we can't go up against Matoi Ryūko in a Kamui."
"No, you don't understand. It's worse than that!"
As the figure came closer, one more distinguishing feature became apparent - instead of Ryūko's fierce blue eyes, it had bright red scanners, their glow casting the entire corridor in a sinister light.
Inumuta clutched his laptop so tightly his hands turned white.
"We decided it was too dangerous to unleash. It should have been sealed in the deepest vaults and never spoken of again. It shouldn't be here in front of us. It shouldn't even exist. That thing is..."
Jakuzure turned to Inumuta. "Four-Eyes, if you're about to tell me you built a robotic Matoi Ryūko sex doll, I swear to Satsuki I will end you right here."
"What?! Of course not! What do you take me for?! It's just an advanced combat android!"
The Auto-Matoi closed the distance to the five intruders in one lightning-fast motion.
"Welcome home, Master!" it announced in Ryūko's voice as it attempted to hamstring Gamagōri with a low sweep.
"Would you like a bath?"
Sanageyama blocked an arcing blow with his sword, the force of the impact slamming him against a wall.
"Or a meal?"
Nonon ducked under a decapitating slash.
"Or perhaps... you'd like me?"
A deadly thrust barely failed to impale Inumuta through the heart.
"Four-Eyes..." Nonon growled in a death-promising voice.
"This is no time for the morality police! Just run! And somebody grab Mankanshoku!"
"Why exactly does a supply closet have a vault door thicker than most banks I've seen?" Sanageyama asked curiously.
"Well," Inumuta explained, "I always figured it was only a matter of time until Lady Satsuki inadvertently misunderstood something I was doing and became consumed with rage, so I secretly outfitted this place as a panic room to give me time to think of a way to placate her."
"That door is concrete reinforced with a variety of special alloys. Even the Auto-Matoi shouldn't be able to breach it for a while."
"So," Jakuzure said coldly. "The Auto-Matoi. Explain."
Hōka tried to ignore the killing intent radiating towards him. "Well, there was this one night, after Lady Satsuki rejected my brilliant design for a hunter-seeker drone that homed in on the thermal signatures of students cheating during tests. I was feeling... a little out of sorts, so I invited Iori over and we got completely hammer-" he caught sight of Gamagōri's expression, "er, played a lot of video games together. And then we came up with the idea of taking one of my abandoned android prototypes and modifying it to use Matoi's data. We were going to use it to secure the school grounds while Lady Satsuki and the Elite Four were away on special missions. But we couldn't get its friend-or-foe identification to work properly with the Matoi personality module," he traced the thin line of a mostly-healed cut across his cheek, "so we finally abandoned the idea and sealed it away.
"I don't know why it's online and trying to kill us," he concluded. "All I know is that that thing can probably hold its own against Lady Satsuki, at least for a couple of minutes."
"All right," Nonon seemed to accept this, or at least she was now only projecting maiming intent instead. "So what about that dating sim dialogue?"
"Um... her speech is randomly drawn from a large bank of standard phrases?"
Ira, unable to stand any more of this, rose to his feet.
"As the second-in-command of Lady Kiryūin Satsuki, and thus the ranking officer in her absence, I hereby authorise you to use the full resources of the Student Council, and utilise any and all tactics and strategies at your disposal, to make sure that Inumuta. Hōka. Gets. A. Girlfriend. As soon as humanly possible."
Nonon gave a solemn nod. "For the sake of Honnōji Academy and for the good of all of us."
"Say," Uzu interrupted the conversation before Hōka could reply, "is it me, or has the Auto-Matoi stopped trying to break in?"
The five listened. All was quiet outside.
"Oh," Inumuta finally said. "That's bad. Very bad."
"Why?" several people asked at once.
"Because it's just occurred to me that, in theory, you could also access this room through the ventilation ducts."
"Open the freaking door, Four-Eyes!"
"I'm trying, I'm trying! This thing weighs several tons, it's not designed to open or close fast!"
"I think I can hear something rattling in the ceiling!"
"Sanageyama, Inumuta, Jakuzure, Mankanshoku, it has been an honour to study and work alongside you all."
"Don't say that! We're going to get through this!"
"Why's everyone looking so worried? Is it because we still haven't had dinner?"
"Not now, Mankanshoku!"
With agonising, glacial slowness, the door finally swung open...
... revealing the Auto-Matoi, which had never moved from its original position.
"Note to self," Inumuta muttered, "in my next life, never make a robot more intelligent than I am."
Gamagōri was slumped in a corner, the spare disciplining whip he'd found in the supply closet no use against a mechanical foe. Inumuta lay among the shattered remains of a mahogany table. Jakuzure hung off a chandelier, semi-conscious, while Mankanshoku was hiding behind a trophy case. Only Sanageyama was still fighting, but even his reinforced bamboo sword was never designed to withstand this much punishment, and could likely take only a few more blows before it finally snapped.
"It's not like I'm wearing this skimpy uniform because I want you to look at my body!" the android declared as it attempted to kick a chair into Sanageyama's face.
"It's not like... I can see you... dumbass!" he retaliated, following up an elaborate combo with a precision strike at her forehead, only for it to bounce off the metal plating.
"I'm going to defeat Kiryūin Satsuki and find out the truth about my father!" the Auto-Matoi told him a few exchanges later, as it flash-stepped out of the way of a devastating whirlwind attack.
"Huh?! What... did you just... say?"
"I made this special lunch just for you, Master!"
Up above, Jakuzure's possibly-concussed brain made an unexpected connection.
"Hey, Four-Eyes, this Auto-Matoi of yours is programmed using some creepy mix of Matoi's personality and your perverted dating sims, right?"
Inumuta merely groaned, but it sounded vaguely affirmative.
"Monkey Boy, can you keep it busy just a little longer?"
"Keep it... busy?! I'm hanging on... by a thread here!"
"Let's do this together, Senketsu!" the Auto-Matoi added as it obliterated an armchair with a single swipe of its fake Scissor Blade.
As the former Athletic Committee Chair performed miracles of endurance and acrobatics, Nonon slipped off the chandelier, landed heavily, then crawled towards Mako and the trophy case.
Sanageyama staggered back against the wall, finally out of breath. With his most focused efforts and all his best fighting moves, the best he'd been able to do was cosmetic clothing damage, leaving the Auto-Matoi mostly naked but no less dangerous. He didn't even have the strength to tense up as the lethal machine moved in for the killing blow. All his training, all his resolve, and in the end, it would still be Matoi Ryūko that brought him down. He could taste the bitter irony. His consciousness fading, he was already beginning to feel the warm light at the end of the tunnel, and hear the celestial choir...
The Auto-Matoi turned around at the unexpected noise.
Mankanshoku Mako stood in the middle of the room, her arms crossed over her head. Looking right into the robot's scanners, she began gesticulating wildly as she made her speech.
"This isn't RIGHT, Ryūko!" She raised her hand in the air, inexplicably holding a traffic sign which vanished the next instant.
"I know YOU," Mako briefly took on the appearance of a sheep, "and I know you aren't the kind of person who'd BEAT someone up," her hands moved across the controls of a DJ's deck, "without a good reason!"
Before the Auto-Matoi could react, Mako had somehow instantly covered the distance between them, and was holding the combat machine in a tight hug.
"You may just be a mechanical BATTLE robot," Mako momentarily broke the hug to wave a Warring States period banner, "built by Inumuta to fulfil his weird FANTASIES," a thought bubble containing a giant many-layered ice-cream blinked in and out of existence over her head, "but I know that, deep down, the REAL Ryūko is still in there somewhere!" An old-fashioned film projector cycled through black and white images of Mako and Ryūko going to school, eating croquettes and laughing together.
"I'm always going to BE your friend, no matter what! Fight, Ryūko, fight for love and PEACE!" Mako wore a beekeeper's outfit for a second, then held up a bowl of peas, eliciting simultaneous groans from the still-conscious members of the (former) Elite Four. "I believe in you!"
Everyone held their breath... and instead of one-shotting Mako, the Auto-Matoi stood still in her embrace, not even attempting to fight back. After perhaps a minute during which everyone was afraid to move, Inumuta crawled over to it and pressed the off switch.
"I can't believe it," Inumuta told Jakuzure as the team patched up their wounds.
"It was obvious once I thought about it," she told him proudly. "I just had to gamble that you'd programmed in enough of Matoi's personality for it to react to one of those saccharine friendship speeches the same way the original would."
"No, that makes sense. What I can't believe is that you thought of it."
"Hey, is that any way to talk to your saviour? Maybe instead you'd like to explain to me why your so-called combat android seems to be fully anatomically correct?"
"No, no, I'm good."
The Elite Five slowly staggered (or in Mako's case, cheerfully skipped) to the final chamber, the place which held Kiryūin Satsuki's throne and their individual administrative terminals. It also held more items of a personal nature, such as a portion of Satsuki's butler's endless tea supply, Sanageyama's old kendo outfit, and Jakuzure's plushie collection (which none save Inumuta had ever mocked and lived to tell the tale). It was the Student Council's inner sanctum, and their home away from home.
But all that was irrelevant next to the grand prize - the pedestal rising from Kiryūin's dais, protected by no more deadly defences or insane surprises, with the Student Council President's Seal imbedded at its heart. To the eyes of the Elite Five, it glowed with the golden light of a slain dragon's treasure hoard. They'd made it. They were finally here.
"All right!" Sanageyama grinned. "Mankanshoku, take the seal - that's the black cylinder over there - put it into the socket in that computer panel, and twist. Then we're done!"
"What, you mean it wasn't a real seal all along? And I was so looking forward to playing with it!" Mako pouted.
"Underachiever," Jakuzure gave her a weary look. "Just do this one thing for us, and I promise I'll bump up the Zoology Club's budget and make them take you on a field trip to Kamogawa Sea World."
"Aww, really?" A reassured Mankanshoku grabbed the Student Council President's Seal with stunning speed, as if snatching the last croquette off a shared plate.
It wouldn't budge.
"What's the deal, Inumuta? We've done everything just like you said," Uzu complained.
"Hmm. Give me a minute."
"Ah, I see. I'd forgotten about that. As an anti-theft measure, it has to be either someone with Lady Satsuki's DNA, or someone wearing a Three-Star Goku Uniform. It's never come up before."
Nonon sighed. "So that's that, then. Inumuta, I want the last six hours of my life back. And my health. And my sanity. And to forget everything I've learned about your sexual preferences."
"No, no, hold on," Inumuta waved his hands in objection. "It's too soon to give up. Now we're inside, I can use the Student Council elevator to go down to the Sewing Club HQ and see if Iori's in. Maybe he can fix us up with something. Or even if he's gone home already, maybe he's got some spare uniforms lying around.
"Oh, and Gamagōri, put the Auto-Matoi on that couch over there. Once we have control over the Academy systems, we can decide whether to dismantle it or keep trying to fix its IFF, but either way we shouldn't let it out of our sight."
"Inumuta! Finally! I was so busy working that I didn't notice the Academy was going into lockdown until it was too late. I feel like I've been stuck inside this tower forever. But how did you make it down here?"
"You did what?!"
"With a makeshift Lady Satsuki wig?!"
Inumuta returned some time later. "Another mystery solved," he announced. "When Iori realised he was trapped down here and the Academy was in chaos, he restored the Auto-Matoi and activated it in order to prevent rioting students from getting in and trying to do exactly what we're trying to do."
"I didn't know Iori knew how to operate robots," Gamagōri said.
"Oh, we made the Auto-Matoi Plug and Play compatible. Uh, Jakuzure, why are you glaring at me like that?"
"What about the uniform?" Sanageyama asked, heading off the conflict.
"Here. He was already working on replacements for ours, so he had the raw materials, and he's got Mankanshoku's Goku Uniform data from when she was Fight Club President. Mankanshoku, put this on."
"The girls' toilets are over that way," Nonon added.
A changed Mako gave a twirl. "How do I look?"
"Your appearance is acceptable," Gamagōri told her. "Ow! What was that for, Jakuzure?!"
"For not knowing how to talk to girls. Now try again."
"Well, it... uhm... suits you, Mankanshoku," Gamagōri reluctantly stated, turning a little red as he did so.
"Aww, look, little Gamagōri's finally discovered Satsuki's not the only girl in the world."
"Shut up, Jakuzure."
"Enough with the tomfoolery," Inumuta snapped. "Can we focus on our objective for one second here? Mankanshoku, take the seal."
"What, this thing? Sure. Yoink!"
"Well, that's that, then," Sanageyama observed. "Sorry, Mankanshoku, but I'm afraid your role ends here."
"What?" Mako asked as she pottered around the inner sanctum at unnatural speeds, poking various interesting-looking objects and occasionally walking on the ceiling as she explored the Three-Star Goku Uniform's powers. "Did you say something?"
"With the Elite Four prevented from defending Honnōji Academy, even the school's weakest and most pathetic student was able to infiltrate the Student Council Chambers and usurp the Presidency!" Inumuta proclaimed. "However, though Starless and effectively expelled, the Elite Four's incredible loyalty gave them the strength to overcome terrible obstacles and defeat the usurper in her stolen Three-Star uniform!"
"Let's see Lady Satsuki not reinstate us after that," Sanageyama added.
"I have to admit, I was sceptical at first," Jakuzure said, "what with it being Four-Eyes' plan and all... but he's really come through. Now be a good girl and stand still while we defeat you. I'll try to make it painless."
"I'm sorry about this, Mankanshoku," Gamagōri told Mako as he hefted his whip, "but restoring order and discipline to Honnōji Academy takes precedence over everything else. As a student, it is your duty to sacrifice yourself for Lady Satsuki and the greater good."
"Huh? Sorry, I wasn't really paying attention," she replied. "Anyway, wasn't there something special you could do with a Three-Star uniform? Now... how did it go? Oh, yeah!"
THREE-STAR GOKU UNIFORM: CHARADE REGALIA
"Dammit, Iori!" Inumuta facepalmed as Mako completed the transformation sequence.
A transformed Mako stood at the centre of the room, still absent-mindedly holding the seal. Her new form somewhat resembled her old Fight Club uniform, with a billowing banchō jacket and oversized cap. But in addition, a number of tentacle-like Life Fibre appendages, all ending in white gloved hands, emerged from her back and shoulders, constantly making random gestures. Up above her head, several of them seemed to be in constant movement around some sort of red energy field.
"Don't just stand there!" Inumuta shouted. "Get her before she can work out what her abilities are!"
A dozen tentacle hands crossed over in the middle of the energy field. Mako, apparently oblivious to the simultaneous assault by the entire Elite Four, continued to chatter mindlessly to herself as she zoomed back and forth across the room.
"I NEED to decide what kind of reforms I'm going to make," she announced as a pair of hands dipped into the field, then came out with a huge mass of bread dough, kneading it while simultaneously using it as a shield against Sanageyama's attack. He leapt back, unarmed, as his sword turned out to be stuck in the viscous material.
"Mum and Dad always said this school was SHACKLING my imagination."
Uzu failed to get back in time as a pair of shackles zoomed out of the energy field and locked his wrists to the far wall.
At the same instant, Gamagōri lashed out with his whip, timing the blow to get through the gap between the waving hands - but it hit nothing but empty air. Somehow or other, Mankanshoku was already on the other side of the room.
"You can do it, Mako," the girl told herself. "STRIP away your limitations and think outside the BOX!" A blast of space-distorting energy flung Nonon against the ceiling and knocked over Inumuta. Gamagōri kept his footing, only to be bowled over by an enormous wooden crate flying out of nowhere.
More surprisingly, as the energy wave receded, it took the outer layer of their clothing with it, leaving them in their underwear. This was not going to be the Elite Four's finest hour.
Gamagōri stoically withstood a rain of giant rubber ducks. "Hurry up, Inumuta. I can't keep drawing fire forever!"
"It's not my fault I don't have access to all my uniform's special functions! Just let me finish hooking this portable webcam up to my laptop, and I should be able to analyse her movements and figure out why none of our blows are connecting!"
"Get on with it, Four-Eyes! She nearly got me with that homing Penrose Triangle!" Nonon shouted as she used her baton to deflect a lasso.
Then Inumuta's programme finished booting up, and his jaw dropped.
"What?! This is impossible!"
He stared in horror at the FPS counter in the top right corner of the screen. Mankanshoku wasn't just moving too fast for any attack to land on her. No, she was actually violating the Special Theory of Relativity, which explicitly stated that the speed of animation was equal for all objects in a given frame of reference, irrespective of those objects' own movement. In other words... Mankanshoku's hyperactive monologue mode allowed her to completely skip animation frames.
No wonder she kept flashing between different parts of the room almost faster than they could track her, her posture different every second. No wonder the Elite Four were unable to lay a finger on a random underachiever who didn't even seem to be trying to fight. Lady Satsuki herself would be powerless against an opponent that transcended animation speed altogether.
As Jakuzure was knocked away by a grinning inflatable giraffe, Inumuta came to a realisation. There was no fair way to win this fight. It would be like trying to play tennis with tachyons. This battle literally could not be won. It was unscientific of him to think so, but frankly, he felt like the universe was cheating. They'd come so far... they did not deserve to lose like this.
Still, there was one more option left to him. It had very low odds of success, and carried indescribably vast attendant risks, but nevertheless it was there. He could cheat back.
Inumuta Hōka watched his comrades being wrecked by the devastating randomness of Mankanshoku's attacks, and thought of everything that was at stake. He felt his resolve come together.
"This had better work," he muttered, "I really don't want to destroy the universe before I've had a chance to play the new Shin Megami Tensei game."
Inumuta took a deep breath, and concentrated on his powers of visualisation as he'd never done before.
The details of Iori's laboratory fell into place one by one. Walls. Benches. Sewing machines. Advanced equipment. Fabrics. Iori himself with his labcoat and breathing filter. Inumuta, still battered from the Auto-Matoi fight.
The colours shifted. Brown. Everything was brown. Walls. Benches. Sewing machines. Advanced equipment. Fabrics. Iori. Inumuta.
Almost there. Almost there. Just a few more details. Everything has to be - is - was leeched of colour, an almost perfect black and white, with just the right shade of brown left.
A little more contrast... a little less brightness...
"Just one more thing, Iori," Inumuta added after explaining the situation. "I need you to build a point of vulnerability into this Goku Uniform."
"What kind of vulnerability are you talking about here, Inumuta?"
"A self-destruct function. Make sure that it disintegrates when someone in the vicinity says... hmm, let's go with..."
"Giga... Drill... BREAKER!" Inumuta shouted apparently a propos of nothing. Gamagōri and Jakuzure exchanged glances, both thinking that their comrade's mounting mental stress had finally caused him to be completely consumed by the Otaku Side.
Then Mankanshoku's Goku Uniform vanished into nothingness. Shocked, the girl finally shut up, restoring her movements to the normal range of human activity. And, with no hesitation whatsoever, Nonon pounced.
Inumuta had never been prouder of himself than at that moment. There was probably not a single other person on this planet with a profound enough knowledge of physics to exploit the fact that all flashbacks were canon by default, nor one with the daring to change physical reality so boldly. He felt like a god. And with such power, who was to say that he wasn't one?
Then a shiver went down his spine. He had just pushed the universe hard, and on a deep intuitive level, he suddenly sensed the universe pushing back. He felt a ripple of reverse causality pass through the room, travelling from the present into the past, bringing subtle yet devastating changes with it, and knew that his hubris was about to meet its nemesis.
There was the click of a high heel.
Kiryūin Satsuki's gaze travelled across the room, step by step. Gamagōri, wearing only a pair of boxers and brandishing a whip in the vague direction of Sanageyama, who was clad in Y-fronts and shackled to a wall. Matoi, wearing nothing but a few tattered shreds of cloth, passed out on the couch. Jakuzure and Mankanshoku rolling around the floor on top of each other, one in her underwear with a long white rod in one hand, the other stark naked with a shorter, slimmer black one. And as the icing on the cake, a near-naked Inumuta sitting in a corner, recording (or worse, streaming) the whole thing via webcam.
"I leave you alone for a week. One single week. And I come back to find you having some sort of perverted orgy - with innocent juniors - in the middle of the Student Council Chambers. It seems I have misjudged you all along."
Satsuki's voice was relatively even, but even Mankanshoku could feel the crushing pressure of her rage as if it were a physical force. Not one of the Elite Five could move a muscle.
"No, don't say anything. There are no excuses that could possibly suffice for such disgusting debauchery. There can be only... execution."
With ritual slowness, Kiryūin Satsuki began to slide her sword, Bakuzan, from its sheath.
Jakuzure Nonon had been Satsuki's friend since kindergarten, and had built up more of a resistance to her aura of wrath than anyone else. And so it was she that, in one final desperate movement, lunged across the room...
... and flicked the switch on the Auto-Matoi.
Satsuki urgently brought up her half-drawn sword to block as the hitherto unconscious Matoi Ryūko flung herself at her, waving a Scissor Blade and shouting "I want to have your babies!"
The instant that Gamagōri, with a flawless grasp of the situation, ripped out the entire section of the wall to which Sanageyama was shackled and hefted it onto his back, Inumuta gave the only possible order.
"Run! And somebody grab Mankanshoku!"
Honnōji Academy Elite Four's Midnight Streaking Competitions: Fact or Fiction? (it's Fact) - Nagita Shinjirō, reporting for the Newspaper Club.